It feels good to be able to explain why things happen. I think that this must be a universal human impulse. We find meaning in the alignment of the celestial bodies, in the particular look of a sacrificed animal’s entrails, in the latest ‘scientific’ studies. We like to believe that we can forestall various disasters by not smoking, meditating, relaxing, going vegan, doing yoga, wearing seatbelts, buying Volvos. We like to believe that we can mold and shape our young with prenatal vitamins and classical music, flash cards, educational toys, enriching extracurricular activities. We like to set goals and to believe that our determination, effort, and hard work will allow us to meet them.
In short, we like certainty. We like control. We like to be able to say: “that’s why this happened,” and we like to accumulate data suggesting that the thing we fear most won’t happen.
An ancient rabbi, living before the time of Jesus, wrote: “there is no suffering without iniquity.” That pretty much sums up the response of many people, then and now, to tragedies. Some religious people will overtly blame tragedy on “sin,” full stop, and they usually mean either a supposed “cultural” sin that actually has nothing to do with the tragedy at hand (wink wink, James Dobson) OR they mean sin narrowly defined as an evil impulse within one individual person (I’m lookin’ at you, Al Mohler!) that has no connection to, say, the general acceptance of violence and devaluation of human life in a culture.
But the impulse to find a cause, preferably one concise cause, is common to many of us. We want to say it is because guns are too readily available, or we want to say it is because mental illness goes untreated in our dysfunctional healthcare non-system. We want to say it is because as a culture we are blasé about violence and the loss of human life. We want to find some reason for it, so that we can eradicate those reasons and make sure it never ever happens again, ever.
This impulse can be beautiful and life-giving, leading to people’s movements for change and for peace and for healing and hope.
This impulse can also be deeply destructive, if we presume that it’s actually possible for us to trace out all the ‘whys,’ or, worse, to find the One True Explanation.
When his disciples asked, “who sinned—this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus didn’t say, “obviously, since he was blind from birth, his blindness results from the fact that he was conceived during pre-marital sex.” What he did say is much more difficult and hard to explain: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” And then he heals the man.
I feel uncomfortable when I read this passage, because, looked at one way, it seems like Jesus is saying that the man is a pawn in God’s game, a showpiece. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think Jesus is acknowledging pain and suffering as untraceable to some specific ‘sin’ but acknowledging that in all brokenness, God desires wholeness. Healing the man is a foretaste of what Jesus will do completely: to heal and bind up this sick and broken world. To make it as God wishes it to be. To put all the wrongs right. To make it on earth at it is in heaven.
Our ‘why’ questions are still not answered. If anything, it seems like Jesus is saying that those ‘why’ questions are unanswerable.
But he gives the man his sight. He heals him. He fixes what was broken. He wipes away the tears.
When we are the hands and feet of Jesus, this is our task, too. We will have to ask ‘why’ to be the agents of healing; we will have to think long and hard about what goals and words and tasks will do no harm and help the most. But we will also have to accept the uncertainty: we will have to resist the easy explanations and clichés and well-trodden, smooth pathways that lead us places where Jesus adamantly refused to go, and instead walk the the winding and bumpy paths of understanding, anger, frustration, and, maybe, someday, peace.
It feels so good to explain why things happen. It feels less good to admit uncertainty and complexity. But it also feels good, in a strange sort of way, to know that even though God never seems to answer our cries of ‘why?’ God wants healing and reconciliation and wholeness even more than we do.