Does God cause illness? How Jesus handled a tough question

One of the most moving and powerful miracle stories in John's gospel is introduced almost casually – 'As Jesus passed by' – he saw a man born blind (John 9:1).

The man's healing was to perplex and infuriate the super-spiritual people but lead to one of the great declarations of religious experience: 'One thing I know, I was blind, but now I see' (verse 25). 

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Any kind of affliction is hard to bear; it's even harder when people say it's your own fault. Jesus' disciples assumed that someone must have done something wrong, either the man or his parents – somehow he must have deserved it.

That's a view that is very tenacious. It used to be said of people with HIV/Aids – and sometimes still is. Every time there's an earthquake or another natural disaster, someone will walk into a Twitter storm by claiming God is punishing people for their sins. At an everyday level it can lead to stigmatising people with disabilities, so that they're seen somehow as less than adequate.

Ideas like this reflect a deep-seated human instinct for justice. The idea that tragedy is random is abhorrent to us. Whether we have faith or not, it doesn't fit with the way we believe the world ought to be.

And there are different ways of dealing with this. Some people look into the abyss, and come to terms with meaninglessness. The post-apocalyptic film The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's book, does just that – we just have to cling to each other as long as we can because, it seems to say, there's nothing else. Others look for someone to blame. But what Jesus tells his disciples challenges all those ways of thinking. 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.'

He shifts the emphasis away from explanation to action: given that this has happened, how is it to be made to manifest God's glory?

He's absolutely not saying that God deliberately made this man blind to bring glory to himself by the miracle, as if he's a plumber knocking a hole in a pipe and expecting the client to be grateful for him fixing it. Instead, Jesus sidesteps the question: the disciples want to talk about theology, addressing the man's need on a purely theoretical level. Jesus is practical: this is what I'm going to do.

In this, ironically, he foreshadows Karl Marx, who said: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.'

It's through the response of Christian people and their long-term love, care and commitment that this happens.

And for all of us in affliction, it's an acknowledgement that we are where we are, and a call to trust patiently in God. We can't explain him; but we know what we know – 'I was blind, but now I see.'

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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