“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 NIV)
In the Bible, sin and sickness are often indistinguishable. If you are sick there must be a cause, and since God is the ultimate cause of everything, it makes sense to think that sickness is God’s punishment for sin. After all, how else can you explain all the terrible suffering and calamity in the world?
Here in Niger the attitude towards sickness is similar. Someone told me just the other day that lepers are bad people.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean they are bad people,” he told me. “They are mean and selfish, and always unhappy.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you saying that all lepers are bad people?”
“Well,” he said, “God knew what he was doing when he made them that way didn’t he?”
But Jesus had a very different attitude towards those suffering from sickness and disease. He states very clearly in v. 3, “Neither this man, nor his parents sinned,” and he offers healing to the man born blind. This is wonderful, and this man’s story is great, but it still does not answer the fundamental question: why is there so much sickness in the world? If it is not because of sin, then why does God allow it, especially since God (by definition) is all-powerful? Jesus does not provide any simple answer to these questions, and that, I think, is because they are not simple questions. But he does give an answer.
Jesus says that the man was born blind, “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:3-5 NIV).
Why is there darkness? So that the light can shine.
The poet John Milton had a very different experience than this young man who was born blind. He was born with good eyesight, and only went blind much later in life. At the time when his eyesight began to fail him, Milton was not yet the uncontested master poet of the English language that he is today. He had published some poems, but was more known for his rhetorical flourishes in Latin, as he wrote countless political pamphlets in support of the English Commonwealth, and against the Monarchy. To be sure, he had accomplished much, but he had not yet written his epic masterpiece, Paradise Lost, the one he had spent years, decades even, planning. As his eyesight began to fail, he was no longer sure that he ever would.
It was at this point in his life that he wrote a poem entitled Sonnet 16 (Commonly called On His Blindness). This poem is very interesting, for it is asking the same question that anyone would ask when faced with Milton’s situation: “God, why is this happening to me?” But Milton is also very cautious, and approaches the question in a rather roundabout way. Milton was very influenced by another biblical passage, in Matthew 25, the Parable of the Talents, and there are many allusions to the parable in this poem, and he seems to be bemoaning the fact that he has invested (or spent) his talents (or light) poorly. “How can God give me all this lyrical tenacity,” he seems to be asking, “and then take away my sight before I write anything really sick?” Then, in typical Miltonian fashion, he answers his own question, through the voice of Patience. Basically, he says that unlike the master in the parable, God is a King, and his yoke is mild. God doesn’t need us or our talents (however awesome they may be), and he doesn’t punish us if we make bad investment choices. There are other ways to serve the King, for “They also serve him who only stand and wait.”
This last line reminds me of the blind people here in Niger. They don’t use seeing-eye dogs, or walking sticks, they use a child who leads them around and helps them beg for money. They are usually standing and waiting at the intersections here in Niamey. Someone also told me the other day that blind people do not have names here, or at least no one knows their names. They are just called “the blind guy.” Their disability has taken over their entire identity. It is understandable, therefore, that Milton thought he was pretty much done with contributing in any meaningful way to society when he went blind. But he was wrong. He went on to write one of the most influential, most groundbreaking, and most ambitious poems in the English language. He changed literature forever. Some critics have even credited his blindness for some of his best passages, for example, when he peels back the layers of darkness in his description of Hell.
When the man who was born blind was healed, some of the Pharisees couldn’t understand what had happened. They were suspicious of the man, and suspicious of Jesus. When they questioned him about it (more than once) he sassed them, and their conclusion was that Jesus was evil, and the man had been blinded because of his sin.
The question is not why is there so much darkness, but what will we do with our light?
Here is a poem I wrote in response to John 9:1-41 and Milton’s Sonnet 16:
Work during the day, for soon comes the night,
Could it be his sin that cost him his sight?
“Yes we know our son, and yes we know his lot,
His eyes are dark, but he sees things we cannot.
But why darken his lamp? He’s got talent and skill,
And his only desire is to bend to your will?”
“Why God, why?” the young raspy voice cried,
“What do you expect from those who live light-denied?”
Silence, and then a low voice came, Patience spoke,
She said “Murmur not my child, come bear this mild yoke.
Give praise, for you don’t use your eyes to sing,
Give thanks, for you don’t serve a master but a King.
Rise up to meet him, stand and do not sit,
Feel his gentle hands, feel the mud and the spit.
Go to the pool and wash, all power and might,
Go with you, you are sent, and you will have your sight.”
Work during the day, for the night is coming,
Those who see like to walk, but they prefer running.
“Slow down young man, why do you make haste?
How were you healed? What evil have you embraced?
Who is this man? Does he follow the Law?
He has opened your eyes, tell us what you saw.”
“I don’t know him,” said the youth, “and he doesn’t know me,
But I was blind at birth, and now I can see.”
“We know he is evil,” they said with a bark,
“Did my light go out, or is the world growing dark?”
“Foolishness” cried the youth, “come, open your mind,
Just because you can see doesn’t mean you’re not blind.
This is from God, for how can sin bring sight?
One question remains: How shall I spend my light?”