Recently, I learned of a tragedy. Another woman was widowed and left with a handful of children to raise without their father. I wish I could say that my first response was compassion, sorrow, and empathy. After all, she is beginning the very same journey that I am on and I know first hand how difficult it will be.
I’m embarrassed to admit that my first response was actually to look for fault. My mind raced to understand why this tragedy had happened. “Surely there must be an explanation for this!”, I thought. In the face of a tragedy that cannot be explained, I wrote my own backstory. Perhaps there was some unconfessed sin or some character flaw that God was going to use this experience to expose or fix? Maybe there was a lesson someone in the family needed to learn and could only learn through this loss? My cold heart looked on their tragedy from a comfortable distance and declared them guilty and deserving.
I've been shocked by my response to others’ sufferings before, but to respond this way to another woman being widowed seems to be a new kind of low. My heart is so wicked; I am so quick to judge. I, a person who has felt so much hurt when others have added condemnation onto my suffering, am guilty of the very thing I hate.
I have listened as people searched for the reasons why God would allow particular seasons of suffering into my and Greg’s lives. I’ve heard their painfully accusatory conclusions: we deserved it; we had unconfessed sin; our faith was too weak or our prayers too pitiful; God was making us stronger. Or the slightly more complementary but still unhelpful: we were strong and God only entrusts awful things to people who are strong.
I wonder how much of this desire to find fault in sufferers is rooted in fear. We hear of suffering that we don’t think we could bear and try to convince ourselves that it would never happen to us. Whatever the tragedy, whatever the suffering, we desperately want it to only happen to "those people". We try to put sufferers into a category that doesn’t and couldn’t possibly include us. We want to believe that we are in the category of people whose prayers will be answered and dreams will come true. Surely our loved ones will be safe, our family will stay intact, and we will die in our old age. We want to think that God will spare us from particular hardships because we deserve good things, don't we? Or at least, we don’t deserve tragedy. We aren't perfect, but we are better than "those people".
When I read the Bible, I see that this desire to find fault in sufferers is nothing new. Perhaps Job puts it most succinctly when he declares that, "In the thought of one who is at ease there is contempt for misfortune" (Job 12:5). Job’s friends were quick to blame him for his suffering. They had no category for such extreme loss being allowed by God as anything other than punishment for sin. According to their view of fairness, Job would’ve never lost all his possessions, children and health if he was innocent of wrongdoing. With pride and a sense of superiority, they placed themselves in the category of “good and safe” and Job in the category of “bad and suffering.” Yet we learn in the first 2 chapters that Job was chosen by God to experience this because of his righteousness. Job’s faith was being tested, not because it was weak, but because it was strong. Job’s friends saw things wrongly.
They are not alone. In Luke 13, a group of people hear about a horrible event in which some people from Galilee were killed and their blood was mingled with their sacrifices. When they bring this to Jesus’ attention, he exposes the pride and judgment in their hearts. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”” (Luke 13:1-4)
With some simple questions, Jesus leveled the playing field. The people who were killed during their sacrifices and another group who died in a “freak” tower collapse, were no more deserving than those who did not die. Accidents and afflictions do not only happen to certain people; they can happen to all people in this world. No one is immune from suffering. Jesus goes even a step further and says that all people need to repent. The people standing before him had not been brutally murdered or crushed by a tower, but they too would eventually die. Being spared from suffering in this life is no indication that you are safe from eternal suffering.
In another encounter, Jesus passes by a man who was born blind. Jesus’ disciples ask him a question that reflects the way people thought of disability at the time. “And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3).
Again, Jesus exposes their prideful judgment. . This man’s disability was not a result of sin. They were looking at it completely wrong. They saw his suffering as a punishment but Jesus saw it as full of purpose. This man that others rejected and looked down upon was valued by God and was about to be used uniquely to bring God glory.
These encounters with Jesus so many years ago expose what’s happening in our hearts today. We are quick to judge sufferers, but he is moved to compassion. We are quick to disregard sufferers as weak or unworthy but he takes the suffering of those who follow him and redeems it. We think we are superior to sufferers but he glorifies himself through them.
My sinful heart needs to see suffering people through the eyes of Jesus. I pray that I will respond with the compassion of Jesus instead of separating myself and protecting myself from others’ pain. I pray that I will stop looking for fault and begin to see the beautiful and unique ways that God uses suffering people to bring him glory.