“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’”
— John 5:14
The reasons for suffering can be complex. It’s important for us to understand that we can suffer for a range of reasons, and the error for any of us is to either judge our own situation or the situations of others under false assumptions—to look at suffering not within the truth of what causes it, but under a lie.
In John 9:2 the disciples, looking upon a man who was born blind, asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their assumption was clearly that this suffering happened because of someone’s sin. And Jesus’ answer to them was, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” This man wasn’t to be blamed for his suffering.
But unless we assume too much of this statement, as man does with truths, taking them to extremes, Christ gives us John 5:14 to correct us from oversteering, saying to a different man who was healed, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Christ teaches us a contrast with these two statements, that one man’s suffering was not because of his sin and that another’s was. He teaches us to not go too far in whatever idea we are particular to: either blindly blaming people or blindly excusing people. Rather, He teaches us that we must discern what is true in all circumstances.
The Dangers of Misapplication
It’s of great importance that we understand how dangerous it is to take one principle and set it alone as a singular “north star” to be followed at all times. We are often heavily prone to doing this, and it gets us in much trouble and hurt. While there are certain truths in the Bible that are singular and to be obeyed in this way, such as believing in Christ, when we take other truths in the Bible and try to apply them as an absolute to varying circumstances, we will inevitably end up foolish, naive, and/or harsh. We have to respect what is true in all situations. This never means allowing circumstances to dictate what is true, but it does mean seeking out what is true in all situations. And ensuring that we operate only from what is true, and not from dictating absolutes, assumptions, judgements, or from mistaken mercies, misguided pity, or naive charity.
In the case of these two disabled men, they both had similar suffering. Though their suffering was different in nature, one being blind and another paralyzed, they were both “invalids” (John 5:3). But the reason for their suffering was very different. And while the cure was similar, it was not entirely the same. Both cures had mercy and compassion from Christ, but only one had a rebuke and a warning.
The reason for their suffering was very different. And while the cure was similar, it was not entirely the same.
The danger for us is that we are often too lazy and self-indulgent to be trained by Christ to have true discernment. In every circumstance that Christ went into, He knew what was true. He knew where sin was and where it wasn’t. He knew what was needed, He knew man’s heart, and He knew God’s will. This is what we are called to be trained in as Christians. We are called to have Christ formed in us to such a degree that we can discern the truth of God and the truth about man, the truth of God and the truth about the devil.
We of course want this discernment, but the mere wanting of these things does not mean that we have them. Our generation is drunk upon the notion of having “wisdom”, and is entirely blind to the fact that they are creating a construct of themselves in their own imagination of someone who has great wisdom without ever truly possessing it. This is the great, great danger of being wise in our own eyes (Rom 12:16).
I do not question at all if people imagine that they are wise and want to be wise. It is a matter of the substance and it being there or not. The depth of this depravity doesn’t stop, because one could say the true test for knowing if one truly possesses wisdom is this: they have humility, which is what Romans 12:16 proves. Yet any person who is wise in their own eyes is also a person who will imagine they are “humble” along with their “wisdom”. So again, we battle against man’s wicked deception of himself. It is a matter of if a person truly has wisdom or truly has humility. But man is a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and he will day-in and day-out pretend he has godliness while being completely empty of it (2 Tim 3:5).
And here is the problem within suffering, we are always applying what we imagine to be true, rather than what is true.
And here is the problem within suffering, we are always applying what we imagine to be true, rather than what is true. And from these two examples with John 9:2 and John 5:14 we have two ways in which we can do evil in this. The first is that we are cruel, harsh, and judgemental. We assume we know the reason for a person’s suffering and we blame them as being at fault for it. This was the case with Job’s friends. It is a great evil to do to people. Rather than being compassionate and helping these people, we condemn and shun them, insisting that they put energy in a direction that will never bear fruit, and then blame them for not being committed enough when no fruit appears.
Rather than being compassionate and helping these people, we condemn and shun them, insisting that they put energy in a direction that will never bear fruit, and then blame them for not being committed enough when no fruit appears.
Yet there is a second way that is just as evil and wrong, though today we are quite prone to think doing things in such a way is benign. This second error is to fail to hold people accountable for sin where they are responsible for it. And in the case of suffering, to apply the truth of this accountability to those who are responsible for it.
We are prone today to err on the side of compassion. But this is its own danger! There is no safe place for error, assumptions, and injustice—yet we imagine there is. We in the West are a culture today that tends to stand on one of two sides. We have people prone to blame others for their suffering, and then we have those who are prone to not hold people accountable for their sins when they do cause their suffering. Often we are so bitter at the first that we fail to see just how dangerous and devious the second is.
The Common Ditch We Fall Into
I was thinking about the musical Les Misérables in contrast with these verses. One of the implication from this musical is that the people who were in prostitution were purely there because of desperation, just like Fantine. This idea suggests as a general truth that any person who would be in prostitution would only do so from desperation. And while that might be true in some cases, it’s not true in all cases.
In attempts for compassion, very often our view shifts to seeing people merely as victims to their circumstances and not as responsible for sinful choices when they are responsible for them. And that is what is often the hard truth of John 5:14, the truth that contradicts us from thinking this oversimplified idea that the world thinks much of today—that all people are merely victims to their own sin, their circumstances, and not to be held accountable. That doesn’t mean we jump to the extreme of having no compassion—Jesus had compassion—but we are wrong to believe that being blind to the truth and hiding it is Gospel grace or love. Yet this is exactly what so many people believe and do today.
What John 5:14 and John 9:2 teaches us is that in one instance a person may be suffering not because of their own choices. In the example of prostitution, there have been a great many women who have been forced into such things even by such people as their own fathers. And if we were to take John 5:14 as a constant rule, believing that people are always responsible for their suffering, then we would become harsh and cruel just like Javert from Les Miserables. We would think nothing of circumstances, suffering, and desperation. And we would miss where a person is not to blame for their condition.
Today we tend to see all people and their conditions as a victimization. And the main problem in this is that we think it is good to think this way.
But the trouble today is far more the issue of us becoming biased towards the attitude of John 9:2—we tend to see all people and their conditions as a victimization. And the main problem in this is that we think it is good to think this way. We think that this is what mercy is, and we define it in such ways. We don’t realize just how contrary this view is to the Gospel: how it contradicts the truth of man being evil and in need of salvation. “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” (John 7:7) We fail to perceive how we are joining with the world when we act this way and are actively opposing Christ.
It is these very ideas about ourselves, whether being good or being victims, that are actually opposing the truth. And reality is that what is good to our natural eye is often actually great evil. This sheds further light on how fallen we are, that even the good that we imagine that we do, is actually evil. “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt 6:23)
When a person’s sin is causing their suffering, then we only condemn them to further suffering and darkness if we fail to truly call them to deal with such sins. Further, we fail those that they have sinned against, and stand in the way of justice in the name of a misguided “mercy”.
We fail to realize that when we shun the work of truly calling out sin, and when we think doing so is cruel and unloving rather than good, right, and obedient, we fail to understand just how necessary John 5:14 is for all of us. And that when a person’s sin is causing their suffering, then we only condemn them to further suffering and darkness if we fail to truly call them to deal with such sins. Further, we fail those that they have sinned against, and stand in the way of justice in the name of a misguided “mercy”.
We have learned how wrong it is to be self-righteous, but in the name of shunning this we have begun to shun righteousness itself. And this is a terrible evil. The truth is that so much of our “mercy” and “compassion” is based upon lawlessness rather than upon righteousness. And this is a terrible error.
We have learned how wrong it is to be self-righteous, but in the name of shunning this we have begun to shun righteousness itself.
We must understand that there are two ditches, and not just one. There is the ditch of becoming cynical and cruel, one in which we have no compassion upon others and live in denial of circumstances. But there is an equally dangerous ditch that we flirt with constantly in our culture, and that is the ditch of excusing a person’s sin and believing that “mercy” is not calling people to be responsible for their actions and choices when they are indeed accountable. An idea in which people are victims to their evil actions, rather than at fault for them.
Discerning by God Not by Principles
Christ teaches us to not take either view to extremes. When we take any singular principle as our guide we are bound to end up in trouble.
We have to learn how to discern what is true, and gain the freedom from the obligations this singular principle puts upon us, to approach different circumstances differently. We have to stop hiding behind singular ideas such as a blanketed idea of “mercy” or “hard work” whatever it is, and think that a singular principle rather than a singular devotion and obedience to a singular God is what will protect us.
The trouble for us is that we are sheep, and because of this, often in our devotion to a singular “guiding” principle, we think we are being devoted to God. And this is a sad deception, because it’s very confusing. It’s something that we feel responsible to and it’s something that will continue to obligate us under the guise of “God’s authority”. And when this over-simplified thinking fails us, we will think that God is naive, that His Word is not wise, and that He didn’t keep His promises. It will only be through a strict commitment to continue with God that we will see how it was our own naivety, lack of wisdom, and disobedience for our little ideas that failed us. But it is still very hard to see through these things because we have begun by serving these ideas in resistance to God, but we end in deception, truly imagining we were serving God by them. Somewhere along the way we believed our own lies in order to permit our will over God’s, and we reap what we sow.
When we do this we make idealisms rather than walk in true doctrine. These idealisms easily fool us because they are based upon something that appears good and based upon what we want to be true—and might even seem Biblically supported—but not based upon reality or obeying God’s Word.
We are substituting truly obeying God with what appears to be “good” or “more just” in our eyes, when it is Christ alone who teaches us reality, and we should not resent Him for it.
Today we are quite drunk as a culture, even as a church culture, on idealisms. We are replacing true obedience to God’s Word with idealisms. And this is blinding us greatly with self-deception. We don’t even realize this is rebellion, it just looks to us like we are “becoming more loving”. We are substituting truly obeying God with what appears to be “good” or “more just” in our eyes, when it is Christ alone who teaches us reality, and we should not resent Him for it.
If we are patient with Jesus’ words, then we will understand how He teaches us true wisdom. This is a wisdom that is based upon reality and not a “wisdom” that is based upon an imaginative high. One of the greatest hindrances to us becoming truly wise is that we are too enamored with ideas and the imagination of these ideas, rather than being sober-minded in the truth. And we foolishly think that this “high” of idealisms is something that Christ wants for us, when again and again He calls us to be sober-minded and watchful.
Relating to Suffering with Truth and Love
We must learn how to walk in the truth. We must learn how to apply the truth of God’s Word to reality. Otherwise we are just playing games with our imagination, and we don’t know God’s Word to be any real help at all. Many of us can think we value God’s Word, but often we only prize that which seems to support our idealisms. We must be careful to cherish the whole of God’s Word, or we fall into self deception.
We must learn how to walk in right discernment in this world, and realize that even within things such as compassion, if we are not steered purely by God’s Word, we can be deceived. We desperately need to realize that there is no place that is “safe” from deception, naivety, foolishness, or pride. And realize that pride can sprout in anything, even what we think is “love”, when we rebel against God and do not live in submission to His Word.
When we look at the sufferings of others, we must learn how to discern the truth while keeping love in our hearts, gentleness in our hands, and yet never trying to adjust the truth so it is more palatable. We never need to add to the truth, we don’t need to make it louder or harsher, but we must also never soften it by trying to get in the way of it. We must allow truth to take its course and remember that we are to be in submission to it, it is not in submission to us. Our place in all circumstances is to discern the truth and the will of God.
Our acceptance of these oversimplified ideas is a great stain upon the church. It is a harm in which people rest selfishly content while they harm others. In the face of suffering we must be truly wise in the Truth if we are to help others. And we must remember that, in the face of suffering, truth is not our enemy but our greatest ally.
A last thought: we must allow people to respond how they will choose to respond to the truth. To be clear, a person has every right to have a “negative” reaction to someone who is being an arrogant jerk, so I do not condone those people. Those who imagine they can say whatever they will and imagine that others are rejecting “truth” for rejecting them... Such arrogance! Rather, I am referring to truth spoken in love, and when people either receive that or reject it. The place for us, always, is with the truth. And that means that if a person receives the truth, they receive us, but if they reject the truth, they reject us: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” (Matt 10:40). We must not resist the principle that Christ has made clear to us. So often we are trying to control other people’s reactions to the truth, but we must remember to remain with the truth no matter what. And so if we speak the truth of a person’s sin in their suffering, and we know we do it in love and in obedience, then we must not try to control how a person takes this, but focus rather upon remaining with the truth. You cannot be in two places at once. You cannot be fretting over a person’s response and maintaining your focus on speaking the truth.
There are a great many reasons why people suffer in this world, and we are called to walk in the truth... We must get away from these evil deeds of oversimplifications.
There are a great many reasons why people suffer in this world, and we are called to walk in the truth. To become trained in the truth, to apply ourselves to it. We must get away from these evil deeds of oversimplifications that we do to others. These are arrogant, selfish, and lazy. Relying on oversimplifications is only a method of easing our own turmoil of questions while we condemn others to suffer with no real help or love from us.
There is so much suffering in this world and the Truth is the only real help in it. If we are unfaithful to learn, to be humbled, to be broken, to be made loving, honest, and caring, then we are only living in that selfish pride that is wise in its own eyes, and we should never, ever, imagine that we are loving our neighbor in any capacity that truly matters.
Again, some people, even most people may reject the life-raft that is Christ, but the Truth is the only life-raft. And it is far better to offer them this than to offer them an imaginary ship. Our part is to love, not to try and control if that love is received.
May God continue to carry us and help us. May He open our eyes to the deep-seated pride, ignorance, and pride in our own lives. And may we truly be made into the image of Christ.