Times of disaster often bring out the theologian in people. We want to know why bad things happen. This is called “theodicy.” It comes from the Greek words for God and justify, and it cuts two ways. First, it serves to justify God’s right to send suffering, and this is what happens when we try to explain God’s reasoning for a bad thing that’s happened.
In 2010, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club attributed the earthquake in Haiti to making a pact with the devil to be freed from being a colony of France.1 In Hinduism, karma is the explanation given for why things happen to you, but in case the answer isn’t immediately apparent, you can pin the blame on what you did in a so-called “past life.”
Maybe it comes from a fear that secretly God has ulterior, evil motives for how He rules the universe. Or it could come from the idea that God will only do good to those who are good enough, and just maybe you don’t make the cut.
The other side of theodicy is when we demand that God answer us why He done something that causes pain. Why, God, are mothers robbed of their children? Why, God, do you allow a gunman to open fire in a shopping mall? Why, God, is calamity piled upon calamity in some people’s lives, while others go carefree? Why, God, would you let the shameful and unjust things happen which fuel our loved one’s addiction?
This kind of theodicy is what Job dabbled in when his life was overturned by a test from Satan.
2 I will say to God, Do not condemn me;
let me know why you contend against me.
3 Does it seem good to you to oppress,
to despise the work of your hands
and favor the designs of the wicked?
4 Have you eyes of flesh?
Do you see as man sees?
5 Are your days as the days of man,
or your years as a man’s years,
6 that you seek out my iniquity
and search for my sin,
7 although you know that I am not guilty,
and there is none to deliver out of your hand?
8 Your hands fashioned and made me,
and now you have destroyed me altogether. (Job 10:2-8)
Theodicy is what the disciples were delving into when they came upon this blind man:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Under the Pharisees, they had been taught a very simplistic view of sin and its consequences, based on the Lord’s Word: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5) They were simply using inductive reasoning—this man has a malady. Malady is a result of sin. God says he punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, so this man must be under some kind of family curse.
There’s something sadistically comforting about understanding why someone else is suffering. You might call it Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing another person’s pain. But I think it really comes down to a vulnerability in each of us. If this man was born blind because of sin, what might befall me? How can I steer clear of having that happen to me or those close to me?
Theodicy is ultimately a dead-end, because it stems from a desire to be master over our life. If anything is teaching us this, it’s the coronavirus pandemic. If not only the fact that it spreads so easily, the steps taken to slow its advance has turned all of our lives upside down. Pointing fingers won’t change it. Yelling about it won’t stop it. It’s here. It’s made an unprecedented impact on the world.
You can acknowledge it as God’s judgment, as all disasters are. But judgment for what, we don’t have a definite answer. It’s impacted people from nearly every country, regardless of religion, occupation, or economic status. If anything it’s a stark reminder that we are all under the power of death.
But the Lord’s response to His disciples’ question can teach us in this matter: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Firstly, it’s not for us to know the inner workings of why God allows or sends evil, why circumstances happen the way they do. That is hidden from us, as it was when Job questioned God’s justice and motives for his suffering (Job 38-41) What Jesus shows in this blind man is God using all things, even the evil of blindness, to arrive at a good purpose: His salvation.
Secondly, so long as we remain in judgments and blame, sin and just rewards, we will never behold Jesus Christ. The focus is not on this man or his parent’s particular sins; it’s on the works of God displayed in Him. What is that work of God? Jesus already answered that in John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.” For what has He sent Him? To be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Why do you, man, bother yourself to track down particular sins, when God has given His Son to take sin away from the world.
It would be easy to understand if, at the point the man was healed everything started going better for him. But it doesn’t. It gets worse. He loses his place in the synagogue. He loses His parents. Yet, notice what happens at each of these “turns for the worse”: After he is interrogated by the Pharisees, he says Jesus is a prophet. When he’s forsaken by his parents, and questioned again, he confesses that Jesus is from God and greater than all the prophets before. Finally, after he has gained his sight, but lost his community and his family, he worships Jesus.
This is the work of God, that he believes in Jesus in spite of trials. While we may not be able to ascertain whose sin or what caused this pandemic, this is a time where the work of God will be manifest. In Romans 5, Paul touches on this miracle of faith: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:2-5) Not only is God fully in control to provide during necessity and able to rebuild from the ashes, but He is also mighty to keep us in the one true faith and so display His mighty work.
Jesus says next, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” This is what Jesus and those who follow Him are about: the work of God which is displaying that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)
Our Lord says the night is coming, when no one can work. Times of pestilence and economic turmoil make it hard to ignore that these are the last days. St. Paul’s words to Timothy ring all too true:
“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
This is not a time for the Church to only preach the Law, as if people cleaning their act up would save them. We must be ready to preach the Gospel to people, to sinners, just like us who are under the same judgment, whose livelihoods crumble before their eyes, who are scared about the future.
The Lord Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He is still in the world because His people are in the world. There is still hope for those who feel their sin. Until the very last, Jesus is the light of the world, and He makes His faithful, forgiven people, to shine. That’s the kind of light of the world that He is talking about when He urges us not to put that lamp under a basket (Matt. 5:14-16). This is the Word which has saved us: that we deserve the judgements that have come on the world (and worse),
but God in His mercy came to us, opened our blind eyes to recognize Him in His Son, our Savior.
Jesus anointed this man’s eyes and sent him to the Pool of Siloam, which means Sent. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, as the Light of the World, so He sends us in the world, in the midst of sin, to point to Jesus and announce His grace. May He enable us so to do! Amen.