In John 9:1-41, Jesus heals the sight of a man who was born blind. This one fact is about all we know about the young man—that he was born this way. The other thing we know is that people looked upon him with pity and asked the question “why.” Jesus’ disciples concluded that it was the judgment of God. They weren’t sure why God would let this young man be born blind, but they figured that such misfortune must certainly be punishment for some unknown sin. “’Rabbi,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins (v.2[i])?’” Jesus’ answer proves that there are actually three problems with their question.
First, the question assumes that the man’s suffering might be the result of his parents’ sin. This was an old assumption that ancient people had, that children suffer because of their parents’ sins. Jeremiah 31:29 quotes the common saying, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste.” But God’s desire, says the prophet, is that people realize that people are responsible for their own sins, and God doesn’t punish the next generation for the sins of their parents. You might challenge this, quoting Numbers 14:18, which says that God “lays the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations.” Yet the point that Moses makes here is not that God judges or punishes children for the sins of their parents, but that often children bear the consequences of their parents’ mistakes—like when parents are financially irresponsible and can’t take care of their kids properly. In the John passage, the disciples assume that the man was born blind as punishment for his parents’ sins—and Jesus is saying this is not the case.
Second, the question assumes that it’s even possible for a person to be born blind as punishment for his own sins. How could this be? Either they are assuming that God has judged him for sins not yet committed (a preposterous idea), or that God has judged him for sins committed in a previous lifetime. If this is so, then the disciples have heard the unbiblical doctrine of reincarnation from world travelers, and adopted it into their own belief system. Hinduism believes that good and bad karma build up over lifetimes, and that it’s possible to suffer today based on misdeeds in previous incarnations. Jesus says that this is also not so.
Third, the question assumes that if there’s something less than perfect in a person’s life, it must be—you know—less than perfect. We are programmed from our earliest days to believe that there’s a standard for physical perfection and that anything which falls short of that perfection must be faulty. So if someone is born without a limb, for example, we call that a birth defect. What makes it a defect? What makes them less than perfect? The defect is in our understanding, rather than any measurable reality. If God makes it that way, then it is most certainly not a defect. We might not understand why God chooses to make a person the way God does—but the pot needs not ask the potter, “Why did you make me like this (Isaiah 45:9; Romans 9:20?” Instead, we must understand that everything God creates is as God created it to be—and there is no defect. Jesus says, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him (John 9:3).”
I used to have trouble with this passage, because I thought Jesus was saying, “God made this man live in blindness all these years, just so I could glorify God by restoring his sight now.” Now that I’ve seen enough brokenness in my life to understand better, I know that Jesus was saying something else. Jesus was saying, “I’m going to heal him—but I want you to understand that his brokenness is not a defect; Rather, it’s a way that God has been demonstrating God’s power in his life from his birth up to this present moment.” You see, the power of God can be shown in so much more than simply physical healing.
We forget the immeasurable impact that many disabled people can have on others, and on society as a whole. Just think of the contributions of people like Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Beethoven, and Stevie Wonder. Just because something’s a struggle, that doesn’t make it bad. Quadriplegic artist, author, and speaker Joni Eareckson Tada says, “Suffering provides the gym equipment on which faith can be exercised.” God hates suffering, but Tada says, “Sometimes God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.” And that accomplishment might be using disabilities for God’s glory. We’d be mistaken if we said the power of God could only be seen in his healing, and not also in his disability.
Throughout the Bible, God uses broken people in beautiful ways—and not every time (not even most of the time) does God provide healing the way we think He should. Yet, God is still demonstrating God’s glory in their lives. Paul says he had a condition that he prayed three times for God to heal. “Each time [God] said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’” Paul continues, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me (2 Corinthians 12:9).” Jesus wants people to know that sometimes God physically heals, but there’s beauty and godliness in all kinds of physical conditions.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, the Pharisees question the young man and his parents. “Who healed you? What happened? How did he do it? Was this man even blind, or is it a hoax? Was this healing a sin because it happened on the Sabbath? In the end, we see that what matters—the thing that has eternal consequence—is not physical healing, but spiritual. Not physical blindness, but spiritual. Because there are those whose eyes cannot see, yet who have a vibrant relationship with God, and there are others with perfectly good eyes, yet to whom the truth is clear as mud. The reality is that suffering happens in the world—it’s a part of this world’s system. What matters, more than the condition of your body, is the condition of your spirit. Your body’s just a shell that houses your soul, anyway. So the question isn’t how good your eyesight is, but how good your insight is. When moved by the Spirit, even people with bad eyes can sing, “Was blind, but now I see!”