I am, at times, overwhelmed with all of the struggles that seem to be bombarding people these days. It seems like every time I turn around I'm talking to someone else with a difficult diagnosis or a struggling family member. Often these struggles come with a desire to blame - ourselves or someone else, and a sense that we can't be right until this struggle is gone. I've been thinking about two biblical stories that are an encouragement to me as I think about these things.
Some Guy Born Blind - John 9:1-7
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who had been blind since birth. 2 Jesus' disciples asked, “Teacher, why was this man born blind? Was it because he or his parents sinned?”
3 “No, it wasn’t!” Jesus answered. “But because of his blindness, you will see God work a miracle for him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do what the one who sent me wants me to do. When night comes, no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light for the world.”
6 After Jesus said this, he spit on the ground. He made some mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes. 7 Then he said, “Go and wash off the mud in Siloam Pool.” The man went and washed in Siloam, which means “One Who Is Sent.” When he had washed off the mud, he could see.
The normal assumption was that if someone was afflicted it must have been caused by something someone did wrong. Perhaps it was the sin of the person (see the accusations of Job's "friends") or perhaps it was the sin of a family member. Goodness caused blessing and health. Sin caused suffering and pain. Therefore if he's blind it must have been because of someone's sin, the disciples assumed. "No! It was not because of sin!" Jesus declares. He continues to use this blindness as an opportunity for God's glory to shine through, but he never actually tells us why the man was born blind.
Are we willing to accept that we could face troubles in the world and not know why - not need to blame someone or something? Are we willing to accept that sometimes, in a fallen world, we must deal with a mess that is not the result of our own doing, or the someone else's specific doing, or the doing of God? If we could do this, perhaps we might be more open to seeing what God could do in the midst of the mess. Lest we presume from this story that "what God is doing" must be a cure . . . consider another story.
Paul's Thorn In the Flesh - 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
One of Satan’s angels was sent to make me suffer terribly, so that I would not feel too proud.[b]
8 Three times I begged the Lord to make this suffering go away. 9 But he replied, “My kindness is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So if Christ keeps giving me his power, I will gladly brag about how weak I am. 10 Yes, I am glad to be weak or insulted or mistreated or to have troubles and sufferings, if it is for Christ. Because when I am weak, I am strong.
Paul, the man who wrote most of the Old Testament and who had a hand in articulating the developing theology of the early church, desperately prayed for his suffering to go away and it wasn't removed. There is no indication of what his suffering looked like. There is no indication as to the cause of the suffering. (He believes it is there to keep him from getting proud, but humility would be a result of his suffering. It doesn't say that pride is the cause.)
It seems completely unfair that, for no fault of his own, Paul would face this suffering. Our entire system of being is rooted in a belief that somehow and in some way, the world is fair and people get what they deserve - for good or for ill. But that isn't what happens for Paul. What is remarkable is that when Paul gave up on trying to escape his suffering - trying to find fairness, he actually found depth in his connection with Jesus that he had not known before. He discovered Christ's power in a way that he would not have known if Jesus had simply taken his suffering away.
I'll note that nowhere do these passages say that asking why is wrong. Asking God why we are suffering or struggling is not a sin. But neither is God wrong for not giving us answers to questions that aren't answered as simply as we might like. It also is not wrong for us to cry out to God for fairness and ask him to take away our suffering. In fact, there are many stories where God does indeed take away the suffering when someone asks! But neither is it wrong for God to not take away our suffering.
When I see and experience struggles; when I hear and ask "why" and "please, make it stop!"; when I then consider these stories - I find myself feeling like life in general, and life with Jesus specifically, is a lot more complicated than I often think. The relative simplicity of karma doesn't actually play itself out in the most complex realities of life. But then I find hope because God is infinitely more complicated than I imagine, too. He is able to meet me - and you - in all of the complexities and struggles and trials of this world.
I wonder how often I miss the significance of what he is doing - in the world and in my life - because I'm insisting on a simple answer to my question, "Who's fault is this?" How often do I miss out on the depth of his power because I just want him to, "Make things fair!" and take away the suffering?
I don't know. I don't have an answer to that because it is bigger and more complex than I can understand. It's bigger and more complicated than finding fault and making things fair. Often this is a really hard thing to accept and a really hard place to sit.
But if I sit there long enough I can still find peace without finding fault and in a world that is unfair because God is bigger and more complex than my questions and even the unfair struggles that I face. I find peace because God enters into the questions and unfairness as one who knows it and has experienced it. And as he enters into it, he wants meets me - and you - with his perfect, never failing love.
I pray that by leaning into his love in the face of your questions and struggles, you will come to know the ultimate power of Christ of which Paul spoke.