Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. . . and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
– St. Paul, Letter to the Romans, beginning of Chapter 5, Epistle for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
In the Gospel appointed for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Jesus meets a man blind from birth. “His disciples ask him, ‘Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answers, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.’ It is very typical when preaching this passage to refer to ancient Jewish teachings about sin – today we could add to that Buddhist teachings about Karma since the two traditions largely agree – and explain how physical disability was the result of some wrongdoing against God, nature and self, a stain for all the world to see, or, as a Buddhist would say, a ripening. Of course we don’t believe that any more, the preacher will hastily add, overlooking the fact that we do in fact believe that, and thus missing the point of the story.
It seems that now would be a fitting time to explore some of the mysteries of suffering. Almost every spiritual conversation I have had over the past quarter century has touched upon the question of anguish. I live in a society that spends billions of dollars to medicate and alleviate pain. Suffering is scandal. The Greek word skandalon from which our word scandal derives, means “stumbling block.” A scandal, therefore, is something that causes my concept of order to fall apart, rather as lightening shatters the Tower on the Tarot card. When I suffer, my world ceases to feel dependable and I stumble.
God is supposed to be love. God is supposed to be just. When innocent people suffer, God is revealed as apparently neither. Why do we even go to the trouble of trying to be good if bad things will happen anyway? Why do we put our faith in God? Why not just cut my losses and try to have as good a time as possible? As I write this, I realize that little philosophical time is spent trying to define what constitutes a good time. It is supposed to be obvious. The prodigal son certainly thought so.
While he rarely speaks of pleasure, St. Paul suggests that suffering may be helpful, a foundation upon which endurance, character and hope may be built. Jesus, as always, just cuts to the chase. Jesus simply suggests that, in regard to the great questions of life, we may all be blinder than we think.
The great narratives of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, the Man Born Blind, the Raising of Lazarus are all, at some level, about blindness, intellectual, social, physical, spiritual. They are so vividly told that I, at least, want to read them as literal events. To a certain extent, they are literal events. But I must never forget that John used literal narrative as scandal, as a stumbling block that might help me to fall through the curtain of my own illusions. As I have mentioned elsewhere, John’s other great book, the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse, is one of the greatest dream texts in literature. It is not a blow by blow account of what we can look forward to at the end of the world, unless, of course, we work it as a dream, and then it becomes rather good as a guide. But I must work it as a non literal text to get there if I don’t want to end up a deluded captain in Satan’s army. In the same spirit, the man born blind is both a literal blind man and the human condition who believes we are so conscious and awake. Is it sin to think I’m so hot or is it ignorance, waiting the glory of God to enlighten me?
Does Jesus suggest in this story that the glory of God is to be revealed in suffering? I have certainly heard this taught, and I have certainly had the Bible interpreted to me in this way. “Jesus died for you,” says the preacher. “And you must die to your flesh to be reborn in his spirit.” To turn away from suffering may even, in some way, to deny God. In the famous passage in Matthew16, Peter recognizes that Jesus is Messiah and Jesus tells him that he could never have figured this out on his own, but that God was working in and through him. “You are Peter,” he says, “and on this rock I will build my church.” Much of the later history of Europe was built and shattered by this single passage. But the story does not stop here. Jesus goes on. He tells Peter and the others that he must suffer and die, and Peter says, “Lord, this must not happen to you!” And Jesus responds, “Get thee behind me, Satan, for you are thinking upon earthly things, not heavenly things.” In the space of a single conversation, Peter has gone from Pope to Satan.
A second question is raised. Since Jesus appears to equate his suffering and death with heavenly things, is it heavenly, therefore, to suffer and die? Again, many have thought so. I cannot help but think of the movie Jesus of Montreal where an actor, hanging naked from a cross night after night in a Passion Play, discovers the courage of compassion, or the Good Friday processions in the Philippines, where men have nails driven through their hands, or the traditions of mortification of the flesh that have defined at least part of the Christian monastic tradition. Self-denial is supposed to be improving. A rich, beautiful and deliciously self-indulgent friend informed me when both of us were teenagers that the reason my parents wouldn’t give me what I wanted was that they were “building my character.” And finally, in a ladies’ spirituality group of which I was briefly a part one woman said with great conviction that “if suffering is part of this game, I’m not sure I want to be in it. I can’t that is must be inevitable in this life that I will suffer.”
In all these examples is an almost hidden assumption that suffering is somehow extraordinary. Vide the early Christian martyrs, who threw down comfort and pardon in the name of a Christ who suffered. Look at the way illness draws a person away from the habits and patterns of daily life.
Which gets me back, first, to St. Paul and then to the Man Born Blind. Over and over again, St. Paul likens the spiritual path to a race. The disciplines of spiritual self-denial, Paul states, are like the training an athlete goes through to harden the muscles and build the endurance necessary for his event. Salvation becomes the prize at the finish line. This is not a bad metaphor, and for athletes, it may even be a very useful one, but most of the time, we are not running races. God’s sled dog knows that we can only run when there’s snow on the ground and the trail markers are set. Most of the time, we are doing far more daily things: at work, raising our children, feeding the dogs, fixing the plumbing, painting a wall, sitting in traffic. To liken the spiritual path to a race is again to set it apart from the normal course of life. His line, “suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us,” has the feel of something a coach or a personal trainer might say. Jesus’ disciples ask the reverse question. “Whose fault is it that this man was born blind?” Jesus answers, “No one’s.” Almost as if to say, it’s not the suffering itself that matters, but what you do with it.