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Finding a Purpose in Suffering, by Steve Manock

While it’s a privilege to offer care to hurting people, it’s hard to see this degree of suffering day in and day out. Before long you start to ask “Why?” Sure, I know that we live in a fallen world, but what possible purpose could all this suffering have?

It's a profound question - one that theologians have struggled with for centuries. I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to the problem of suffering. Still, I’ve found some hope and encouragement in the biblical account of Jesus’ healing of the blind man in the ninth chapter of John.

Verses 1-7 read as follows in the NIV:

As he went along, he saw a man blind birth. asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, "but this happened 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 "Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the mans eyes. “Go," he told him, "wash in the Pool of Siloam" (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

I’m fascinated by this story.

First we find Jesus walking with his disciples. They had already followed him for some time, and had seen him preach the gospel and heal the sick. On this day, they passed a blind man — a man who had been blind since his birth. One can imagine that he was sitting by the side of the road - dusty, dirty and begging. He must have been a miserable sight.

Upon seeing this man and his condition, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why? Why was the man born this way?” It’s the same question I ask when I see people suffering here in Ecuador. Perhaps you’ve wondered why the people you serve, or a friend or family member, are suffering as they do. “Why?”

Well, in the case of this blind man, the disciples had a theory. They figured that maybe it was because of sin that the man was born the way he was. They reasoned that he was being punished. What they wanted to know was, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” Whose fault was it, anyway?

But how does Jesus respond? He says “No, this man didn’t sin -  and neither did his parents.” So why was the man blind? Jesus says, “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Wow! This man’s condition had nothing to do with sin. Instead, he was born blind in order to demonstrate the power of God in his life!

So what happened? Jesus spit on the ground, put the mud on the man’s eyes, and after he washed as Jesus instructed, the blind man could see. What a miracle! A man blind from birth, now, through the power of God, could see for the first time! And how did he respond? Verse 38 of the same chapter says that the man believed and worshipped the Lord.

I believe that God is still in the business of using illness to bring people to faith in him. Seeing great suffering here in Ecuador has been difficult. But I’ve also been blessed to see God work mightily in the lives of the sick...

A young Quichua woman came to our hospital with her infant daughter. Both were in bad shape. They were weak, feverish and losing weight, and were diagnosed with tuberculosis. The young mother was very scared, and was convinced that she and her daughter were going to die. She believed that she had been cursed by a witch doctor, and that that was the cause of their illness. One of our missionary doctors explained to the woman that God was stronger than any witch doctor. She prayed in faith to receive Christ as her Lord and Savior. You could see her hope being restored as she and her daughter were prayed with and given day-by-day treatment for tuberculosis. Now this woman and her daughter are well. Why had they been sick? I believe it was so that the work of God might be displayed in their lives.

I remember a Woman who came to our hospital from a nearby city. She had been having a lot of trouble breathing. We diagnosed a pulmonary embolism. The woman spent eight days in the hospital, and nearly died. Each day, the chaplains and other staff visited and prayed with her. A month after she left the hospital I saw her for a follow-up visit in the clinic. She felt fine, and told me that as a result of her illness she had realized the need to put her faith in Christ — not just when she is sick, but always. She told me she was looking for a church where she could grow in her faith. Why had this woman been sick? So that the work of God might be displayed in her life.

A young Quichua man named Lorenzo came in from the jungle after having been bitten by a snake. He had given his life to the Lord just a few weeks earlier. Lorenzo was walking down a jungle path when a 7-foot fer-de-lance snake struck him in the thigh, knocking him off his feet. He arrived at the hospital with an enormously swollen leg, almost no blood pressure, and bleeding from his mouth. Although he was close to death, this new believer in Christ kept smiling, singing hymns and praying with our staff. He had tremendous faith. He went through several surgeries to save his leg during the month he spent in the hospital, and withstood terrible pain. Throughout the entire time, I never saw evidence of discouragement in this young man. From a strictly medical standpoint, let me tell you: there is no rational explanation for the fact that he survived. But survive he did. Lorenzo is walking once again, and actively preaching the gospel in his jungle community. What a testimony he has! Why did Lorenzo suffer? So that the work of God might be displayed in him.

So, why do we see so much suffering in this world?

I’m convinced that oftentimes God allows serious illness in order that his divine power might be displayed in the life of the sick person. This may or may not involve physical healing. The spiritual openness we often see among the very ill provides a unique opportunity for them to respond to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now I no longer ask myself the “why” of suffering, but rather the “how.” How can God’s work be made manifest in the life of the sick person? And how can I facilitate that work of God?

It’s still not easy for me to see people suffer. But I’ve learned that I can face each day expecting God to work in the lives of my patients. And I pray that they, like the man born blind, might go forth into a suffering world believing in Christ and praising him.

Steve Manock, MD, physician and medical director of Hospital Vozandes del Oriente in Shell, Ecuador. He can be reached at smanock [at] hcjb [dot] org

For the past nine years I’ve served as a family physician at a mission hospital in the Amazon basin of Ecuador. One of the difficult aspects of the work here is the amount of suffering I see on a daily basis. Gray, limp babies that are barely breathing arrive in the ER with advanced cases of meningitis, malaria and pneumonia. Adults are carried into the hospital, severely malnourished due to untreated tuberculosis. Then there are the pregnant mothers who have labored for days in some remote village, their baby having died long before the women arrive at our hospital.