On Suffering and The Opening of Our Eyes

Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on the the Sunday of the Blind Man, May 21, 2023

Acts 26:1, 12-20
John 9:1-38

As we come to our final Sunday of Pascha, today’s Gospel lesson offers us two very difficult verses to ponder. The first is the disciple’s question of “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And the second is the response to this question, in which Jesus tells us: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” The implication being that this man was born into a debilitated state that God might be glorified at the restoration of this man’s sight. At least, that’s how it appears at first glance.

And this brings us to the age-old question on the nature of suffering, and why God would allow someone to be born into a state like the blind man in this story. Did God create a man without sight for the express purpose of bringing about a miraculous healing, that God might show Himself to be all powerful and sovereign? This very question has lead some Christians to believe, “Yes.” And their reasoning goes like this: if God is truly sovereign, and if God truly IS the author and originator of all things — that is, if God truly IS in control of everything! — then not a single element of luck, or any one random occurrence can be allowed exist in the universe. Otherwise, God would not truly be in control of all things. Therefore (according to this reasoning) God, by necessity, must be the cause of all things, including the very blindness of the man we read about in today’s Gospel reading. What is probably more problematic is that this line of reasoning also leads one to the deduce that acts of evil must also have their origination in God the Father, as some Christians in history have gone on to believe.

I’d like to state from the outset that God is not the author of evil, and furthermore, this is not the image of the Father revealed to us through Christ the Son. Moreover, I think it is important that we as Orthodox Christians reject the idea that God needs the existence of sin or evil in order to accomplish His plans. And if I dare utter something perhaps more controversial, I’d like to outright reject the idea that “Everything happens for a reason.” And though we may be inclined to find some comfort in this purported biblical virtue, I can assure you … this phrase is no more found in Scripture than is the motto: “God helps those who help themselves.” [1] (the latter originates from Aesop’s fables, 6th Cent. BC).

To believe in the idea that everything must happen “for a reason,” would also necessitate we actually believe that every evil action ever committed in the history of the world, was also part of a larger divine plan. Theologian David Bentley Hart puts it this way (And I must paraphrase Hart because his vocabulary is a bit beyond my pay grade). Hart states:

“There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything…is governed [by a] transcendent providence...that makes every instance of pain and loss [a necessary] moment in a [larger] scheme [that will ultimately] justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized [only] by way of—every cruelty ... every catastrophe, every sin the world has ever known … a child dying an agonizing death, [or] a young mother ravaged by cancer, [or] of millions murdered in death camps and gulags... It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally [understandable] at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.” [2]

And I have to say I do agree with Hart here. A god who operates willfully to instigate pain in some, and cause the death of others, while bringing about evil to accomplish his purposes for some perceived good, isn’t really a trustworthy, consistent, or a loving god. And here again, this is not the God reveled through Jesus Christ. This is where I offer that it is better for us to lean into our Orthodox tradition on matters such as these, rather than finding comfort in the idea that God somehow preordains evil acts to accomplish His will. On this very topic St John of Damascus writes that “…although God has foreknowledge of all things, he does not predetermine all things… he does not will that evil [should come] about… For evil is nothing other than a privation of good, just as darkness is a privation of light. [3] The Apostle Paul writes more simply, stating that “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” [4]

Still, we are left with the question of what is meant by Jesus’ response and His actions undertaken to heal the blind man. In the first place, I think it’s important for us to recognize that Jesus heals the man in a most unique way. Nowhere in the Gospels do we see a healing in the specific manner described here. Jesus usually heals through a spoken word, or by pronouncement, but in this case He engages actively in a type of divine project - He spits in the dirt and rubs it in the man’s eyes. Now to give us a little more clarity on this situation here’s where we can, again, lean into our Orthodox tradition to help us understand this rather enigmatic moment. Sts Irenaeus, Basil, and John Chrysostom all wrote about this passage and understood the blind man to be not merely without sight, but to be without physical eyes. And with respect to our Gospel reading, Irenaeus specifically ties this man’s healing to the very moment of creation itself. As God first fashioned a human being from the dirt in the Genesis account, so also from the dirt did God form a man’s eyes in today’s reading. And with the formation of his eyes comes the gift of sight, in order that “…the work of God might be made manifest” as we heard Jesus state.

Now St Irenaeus, who was the spiritual grandson of John the Apostle, is particularly strong on the idea that this “work of God” we hear about today — that is, the very work God engages in — is the making of human beings. And God does not merely engage in making of human beings, but in the creation of them in His image! And I think this is the sheer beauty of this text. All of us, like the blind man, are continual, ongoing works of God! All of us, as Orthodox Christians, once had our eyes opened like the blind man today passage. We are human beings created out of the dirt — “works of God” — who are continually molded like clay, and with each passing day we are being shaped more and more into God’s image. St Irenaeus once stated that the human being is “earth that suffers,” And we should remember that the suffering we experience in this life — if we willing to cooperate with God — is very much like clay being molded and fashioned into the divine image. Father John Behn writes that

The image of being clay in the hands of God might seem to be rather gentle, welcome. But we must remember that such clay is continually being squashed, squeezed, pounded, twisted, all so that it can be reshaped. The only thing that stops it disintegrating into dust is the water that keeps it together. [5]

So let me ask, what’s the first thing Jesus tells the man do right after he rubs the clay in his eyes? "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam!” And what happens afterward? He regains his sight! And I do hope that in this mention of water that you see the significance of Baptism in this passage. Remember that all our Gospel readings between Pascha and Pentecost come from John’s Gospel because it was seen a text for those already baptized. [6] It should comes as no surprise to see that our readings in this Paschal season are filled with healings done in and through bodies of water. This is baptismal imagery! And we, the baptized, are like clay in the hands of God being squashed, squeezed and molded into the likeness of His image! All of us were once as blind as the man in today’s passage, but now we have been granted sight! The suffering we experience in this life, while not caused by God, can be utilized in a way that will ultimately bring us toward our own salvation, so long as we choose to cooperate with God in this process. And to that initial question regarding “who sinned that this man was born blind?” I think we all can agree that congenital maladies are not a direct consequence of ancestral or personal sins, but we have to admit that our sinful actions can still can lead to forms of suffering, both within us and to those around us. Suffering only begets more suffering, after all. Still, if we choose to cooperate with God in this process, we can be molded, shaped, and confirmed to the image of Christ — dying to ourselves within, that the light of Christ might shine outwardly unto others who long for healing from their own forms of suffering.

“Scrutinize your heart,” writes Macarius the Spiritbearer, “to see if your soul has taken the Lord as its guiding light… when you look to the sun, make sure it is the true sun you seek, for remember you are blind. So when you look into your soul, see if you can see there a good and true light… It was Jesus who came to give sight back to the inner self.” [7]



1 It appears that this phrase has it origins in one of Aesop’s Fables called “Hercules and the Wagoner,” written as “the gods help those who help themselves.” https://fablesofaesop.com/hercules-and-the-wagoner.html

2 David Bentley Hart, “Tsunami and Theodicy: Haiti,” First Things, January 15, 2010, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/01/tsunami-and-theodicy-haiti.

3 Norman Russell, trans., On the the Orthodox Faith: St John of Damascus. (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022), 159

4 Romans 8:28 (RSV).

5 John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, 87.

6 Ibid, 77.

7 John Antony McGuckin, trans. The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul’s Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications Inc., 2002), 149.