Friday, June 26, 2009

Why Is There Unexplainable Suffering?

Continuing his series "Unexplainable" with "Jesus' Power Over Suffering", Erwin McManus talks about unexplainable suffering which often leaves us with more questions than answers. Sometimes people draw the conclusion that there couldn't be a good God if there is so much suffering. Others describe suffering as false realities of life which only need to be seen from another heavenly dimension. Still others explain away suffering as something that happens because of a lack of faith or obedience to God. But these views don't help when we are personally suffering. Why do things happen to us?

Several years ago, Erwin was asked to take part in an experiment sponsored by the TED community. He was asked to spit into a cup which would be sent to a DNA lab. Once this was done, the lab processed it and then began tracing Erwin's ancestral background. Additionally, the lab could determine Erwin's genetic predisposition to conditions or diseases. Erwin received a set of grids which each summarized his personality. One particular icon had a "lock" over it which meant that he might not want to know what it was, but he clicked on it nonetheless and found that he had a natural proclivity to Parkinson's disease.

"When I saw that, I had this sort of rush of anxiety..." Erwin went out on the back porch and sat down alone thinking about what he just learned which might be a part of his future down the road. "I looked at the lock and I thought about it...I reflected on 'did I really want to know?' .....and I knew right away that I did." There was quite a bit of information that showed all the summaries and charts about Parkinson's. It showed summaries of Erwin's current status of Parkinson's which fell in the green zone telling him he had almost no chance of having the disease. Breathing a sigh of relief and thanking His heavenly Father, Erwin then had a second thought; someone in the world had clicked on the lock and found that they were in the red zone. Someone else had actually gone through this same exercise, had taken a deep breath, fearfully looked over the charts and found out that they did have Parkinson's disease. And if they believed in God, they had probably not thanked Him, but likely asked "Why Me, God?"

That's the problem with suffering. We live in this complexity of suffering, celebration, tragedy, triumph, sorrow and beauty. There is almost this arbitrary displacement of them all. Sometimes we are the beneficiaries and sometimes we are not. We can't explain why an innocent child would suffer and die from leukemia, but yet why a terrorist would live a long life doing violence and evil.

In John 9:1-12, Jesus is traveling with his disciples and this dilemma of suffering comes up in the conversation. In the end of John 8, Jesus lays out the gauntlet and says that He is God. Anger and resistance likely rose from His comments as the people were trying to decide if He was who He said He was. This is where the story then picks up:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

Right away we see something that should cause a sense of stress. The disciples have immediately moved into the theological argument of blame. Remember that they had seen Jesus perform many miracles, but it didn't seem to occur to them to ask Jesus to heal the man. Sometimes, this is what we do. We try to ascertain and judge why things have happened rather than choosing action.

Neither this man nor his parents sinned." Jesus, straightaway says that they are going in the wrong direction. He says that the parents did nothing and it has nothing to do with this anyway. We have a tendency to look at cause and effect rather than at what can we do. You hear people who supposedly represent Jesus talking about famines, diseases, tsunamis, droughts and plagues as if they are God's punishment on society. No wonder people are so confused about who God is!

Jesus continues with "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." He is saying that the complete opposite is happening! We are looking for an explanation of why this has happened to the man, but Jesus says God has chosen this man! This man is in this condition because God longs to do something in him and through him. "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work." Here, it is as if Jesus is pushing into the disciples and saying, "What are you doing?" There is coming a time when they will be able to do NOTHING. We have to do the work of the God while we can. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

Then Jesus does something very curious. "Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. 'Go,' he told him, 'wash in the Pool of Siloam' (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed." If you know the story of Jesus, you know this is kind of unorthodoxed with the way He did things. In fact, there was a conversation in the Bible between Jesus and a centurion who understood Jesus' power. His daughter was sick and, rather than asking Jesus to go to his home to heal, he asks Jesus to simply speak the words of life and it would be so. So, why does Jesus take mud and put it on the blind man's eyes? Was He just trying to add some panache?

"I don't think So...I think that Jesus understood how they saw this man. They had come to this horrific conclusion that he was disposable...that somehow God had branded him by his blindness...they felt this strange spiritual justification for arrogance and condemnation...they had been accepted by Jesus and this man clearly had been rejected by God...there's a subtlety there that people feel when we have this righteous arrogance. Jesus, I'm convinced, wanted to show them the kind of material He can work with to do the unexplainable. So He took two common...base ingredients: dirt and spit and made mud....maybe this was His way of saying, 'There is no one with whom I cannot do extraordinary things.'"

Two thousand years ago, if you spit on someone, it was considered the greatest insult. Jesus takes mud and then adds some spit. Well, this had to be a LOT of spit to make it muddy. The man was blind, but he wasn't deaf. Can you imagine him hearing about Jesus and standing before the man who he has been told can heal him? Can you then imagine hearing the words of the disciples asking why you are blind and why God has cursed him? Wouldn't words of care and concern have meant more rather than words of disdain? Then this blind man would have heard Jesus spitting profusely over the dirt. The man would have heard Jesus walking towards him and then he would have felt the warm spit-mud balls pressing up against his face.

The conversations during this time must have been interesting. Some people might have been thinking that Jesus was in the process of humiliating the man with His spit. But it was a moment of healing. After He heals the man, Jesus simply says, "Go and wash." That's all He gives the man! He presses the mud on the man's face and says "go" like He is just done with him. Jesus doesn't offer to take the man to the pool. He doesn't reassure the man or tell him that he will be able to see.

"If I'm the blind guy, I'm not going to the Pool of Siloam...I'm grabbing Jesus' leg...saying 'I'm not going anywhere until you heal's one thing to ignore me, but it's a different thing to humiliate me...and to leave me and to tell me to go...How's this blind guy with mud on his face supposed to get to the pool?...See, I'm convinced this is where most of us live in our life with God...we've had an encounter with Jesus and we've had this unexplainable sense that we've been touched by God, but we're sort of in this blind state with mud caked on our eyes...we're a little confused...and we've heard this voice that told us to do something with our lives...but we're not really sure how to get there and it's confusing. The natural thing to to NOT go...and to argue with God...this (blind man) would have been justified to just curl the fetal position and weep in despair that God would be to him like this...I think that that place in between the moment we have an encounter with God and we hear His voice and He calls us to another where we are trapped."

In verse 7, John writes a parenthetical thought. He says that Saloam means "Sent". There is a poetic narrative here. When Jesus says to go to the pool, He is telling the man to go to "Sent" as if He wants us all to go in obedience to "Sent" with the confidence that He is for us. He wants us to trust in His character and to trust His voice. But we want God to fix us, to heal us and to free us from our suffering and our fears first. Strange enough, God doesn't do this. While we want God to come and hold us in our fetal position, He wants us to go to the pool of Saloam. We might feel stupid going to "Sent" or trusting in a God who doesn't do what we think we want Him to do. But it is in those moments when we are blind that we must go, for this is where the unexplainable is waiting for us.

We can't know why God does some of the things He does. God created us with freedom and free will. But God meets us in our pain, not to console us, but to call us out. Jesus did more than just heal the blind man that day. He called out of the man his courage and his dignity; things the man probably felt he lost many years ago. But when the man got to the place of "Sent", he was brand new. He had come, he had obeyed and he experienced the extraordinary. Sometimes, we forget that God has moved us to certain places because He wants us to be a part of this work. Jesus has brought light and life to the world.

A few days ago, Erwin flew out to Orlando and New York to shoot a project. While he was on the set, he realized that he was going to miss the whole Laker series. But then he realized that he was going to be in Orlando when they were going to play the Magic. So, he called a friend to see if he could get tickets. He was able to go to the game and, when he went, he wore a bright yellow shirt in a sea of blue. At first, blue was winning, but then the yellow team started to come back. Erwin felt a sort of sense of isolation with the crowd. Sometimes, when we have mud caked on our eyes, it's like we are wearing yellow and the world is wearing blue and we feel like we are going out of our minds.

Erwin went across the street after the game and it was there that he remembered an incident a few years ago when he was in Orlando. He was going to be speaking at this big event and his family was going to all gather there. But a hurricane came through Orlando and the event was cancelled although his family was stuck in a hotel. "It was insanity" and chaotic with all the evacuations and the hubbub when he arrived in Orlando. So many people were in lobby who were displaced and when Erwin asked the front desk if there were any rooms for the people, he was told it was against the hotel's policy to give any rooms away! So, Erwin and Kim talked about this and decided to buy up all the empty rooms in the hotel for the families that were there. Up until now, Erwin had not told anyone, but it was a neat memory for Erwin. It was like God wanted Erwin and Kim to be there to be the light for these people. It seemed more important to help the people than to speak to them.

Unemployment in the U.S. is out of control. People are losing money and marriage. People are losing hope. But no matter how bad things are, this is not God's way of punishing us. Erwin challenges us to get in front of people and to bless them with something tangible and meaningful. It is still day and there is work to be done and we are the ones who are supposed to be doing the work. Trust God. Don't use energy to get help. Use energy to help. We can turn to Jesus and ask what He would have us do.

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