The theme of spiritual abuse will be considered from the vantage point of the story of the man born blind who was healed by Jesus. This narrative holds intriguing insights on the topic of spiritual abuse for the Gospel reader. In posing the question: Can the blind lead the spiritually abused-what kind of answer might we find? Most people’s understanding is that if they follow a blind man then they will fall into a ditch. Therefore, how can a blind man truly lead anyone?
Who is Blind and Who Can See?
This impressive story found in the Gospel of John is a classic. John chapter nine makes for a wonderful case study. In this section John gives further insight into how the religious leaders esteemed and treated those under their care. It begins by the side of the road with a man born blind.
One reason this account could have been recorded was to expose the ridiculousness of the hard heartedness of those who claimed that they knew the Torah. In this tense situation, the reader begins to see a significant point of amusement and delight as it unfolds. When a beggar waxes eloquent, when the underdog has a voice, the audience is caused to contrast the seriousness of those trying to be in charge with the humor of the now-seeing man speaking out. It is a comparison in seeing who ‘really’ was in charge with those who thought they were. Since this man had nothing really to lose, he could speak his mind before this austere and humorless crowd-something that he would never have attempted in his formerly blind state.
We begin with Jesus in transit, walking along a dusty road to his next ministry opportunity. The attention is momentarily drawn towards a man who was born blind from birth. Glancing at this individual prompted a question by Christ’s disciples. Their burning enquiry was: Who sinned-this man or his parents? The implication was that such a condition must be directly linked to sin-someone’s sin-either the man’s or his parents. When you really think about it-how could a fetus sin-since the man was ‘born’ blind? This seemed to be a far-fetched question, but maybe in their context, such thinking, such a concept, was in the air. Was it a common belief, something to be tossed around; a belief that was pondered or maybe totally believed by some? Whatever the reason, the question was raised.
Jesus put a quick end to this flawed thinking. In fact, there was a greater purpose that would be revealed out of this debilitating, physical condition that this man endured since his birth. As I watched the Jesus character in a movie do just what John had recorded-spit and make mud, this story took on fresh meaning. At that time, spit may have been deemed as having healing qualities. In our modern culture, that action has a disgusting and uncomfortable feel to it. From the Gospel accounts, so many of the healings that Jesus performed seemed to depend on his specific spoken words. Usually, the instant that he spoke the words the broken or the diseased were made whole. This healing would be much more involved than that.
As this story continues, we are informed that this miracle of healing takes place on the Sabbath. Again, the reader is faced with the hardness of heart of the Jewish leaders. Since they were the religious overseers, it was their job to track down reports and verify if they were accurate or only idle speculation. If something spurious was going on, their religious community might be in danger of offending Yahweh or the Roman authorities. They seemed to be diligent in getting to the bottom of this unusual report. This would need quick and immediate scrutiny in order to clear up the growing rumor that a man born blind–could now see. Since this was just not possible, these escalating rumors needed to be squelched before they became run away.
The first people who seem to be aware of this change in destiny for this known blind man were his neighbors. There was an apparent division among those who knew him. Yes, he was the man, some had said–while others said, no, he only looks like him. The man, himself, cleared up the indecision by emphatically stating that he was the man! He was then asked how it happened and who did it. He explained that it was done by the man called Jesus.
Somehow, ‘they’ in this group of people become the ‘they’ who bring the man before the Pharisees. The Pharisees continued to ask for an explanation as to how this sight thing happened. The first response from the Pharisees was not a favorable one. They did not celebrate this man’s sight by saying: “Hey, looks like you can get a real job now that you can see. What line of work are you thinking about getting into?” No, on the contrary, this sentiment was nowhere near their response. Instead, their first grinding thought about this healer was: “This man is not from God”-and their reason was that: “he does not keep the Sabbath!”
Not to get away with that declaration quite so fast, other Pharisees put forward the thought: “How can a sinner perform such signs?” That turned out to be the point of division about this happening. In an attempt to grasp the scope of the situation, those interrogating “turned again to the man and asked what he had to say about the man.” The now-sighted man suggested that–his healer must be a prophet!
Exasperated because of complete unbelief in such a questionable occurrence, these religious rulers called for the parents to testify that this man was: 1. Their son and 2. That he was born blind. To the third question: “How can he now see?” the parents deferred to their son–out of fear of the leaders, since they might be in danger of being excommunicated from the Jewish religious community there. They had to be careful what and how they commented. This was risky business. They quickly turned the attention back to their son by saying-ask him, he’s old enough!
Since their son was not there with them while they were being questioned, he needed to be summoned to come there a second time. The Pharisees began with these statements: “Give glory to God” and “We know this man is a sinner.” This was probably geared to influence the shape and content of this ‘uneducated’ man’s response. Somehow, as he grasped the magnitude of his full-seeing ability, he found himself empowered to speak with confidence. His memorable response was declared. He personally could not determine if his healer was a sinner of not, but one thing he did know, without a doubt, was that: “I was blind but now I see!”
The Pharisees were frustrated and were quickly losing their patience. This man could ‘see’ their dilemma. He saw a crack in the proceedings and took delightful advantage of this development.
The student of this account soon comprehends that there was no care or concern for the man; for his release from this life-long impediment, or his ability now to be a worthy contributor to their society, rather than being a disabled one. None of these positives seemed to factor into their thinking. They were typically distracted by their own agenda. Someone had healed on the Sabbath. This teacher was growing in popularity, he posed a huge threat to their institution, and this caused their instincts to run wild. What really drove them was being continually exposed for all to see.
The fearlessness of the man in the ‘hot seat’ seemed to grow. Some might call this type of encounter with religious authorities a ‘star chamber’ event. His asking them if they were now his disciples too–was the last straw. How impudent! Observe how they handled being challenged by this know-nothing peasant: 1. They hurled insults at him. 2. They said: You are his disciple. 3. We, on the other hand, and unlike you or him, are Moses’ disciples. Therefore, we have got it right and you do not! 4. We know that God spoke to Moses but for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from! Therefore, our assessment is that he is a complete nobody and is not worth paying attention to!
This apparently impertinent man fired back at them: 1. You don’t know where he comes from, he questioned-which equaled the fact that he had no credentials -but look, he opened my eyes. 2. We know God does not listen to sinners–but look, he listens to the godly man who does his will. 3. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. And lastly: 4. If this man was not from God–he could do nothing!
The implication was that since this man could ‘do something’-that is something totally unheard of and entirely miraculous–then there was a slight chance that this fella might be “from God.” With that type of logic, this examining board had had enough! With sharpened tongues, they told the healed man that: 1. He was steeped in sin at birth! and 2. How dare he even think to lecture them!
The final action was theirs-they threw him out! He was now socially and religiously disfellowshiped. He was dislocated from community. He was disenfranchised. Though now seeing, he could only ‘look in’ from the outside. Socially, he was to be ignored and avoided by everyone in the community. People who associated with him would also be in danger of shunning or excommunication. Though he had courage to take a stand for the man who had healed him, his moment in the hot seat found him being publicly shamed, cast out, and so very alone. He had fully experienced spiritual abuse in his community. This was the painful yet predictable behavior that he was forced to endure at the hands of his spiritual overseers.
Thankfully, this story in John does not end here. As it happened, Jesus heard about all the kafuffle that had gone on regarding the man’s expulsion from the religious community. Jesus wasted no time to seek and find the man in this ostracized condition. When he found him, Jesus posed this question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus then explained that he was the one standing before him and speaking to him. The healed man expressed his devotion to Christ in an instant: “Lord, I believe!”and he worshiped him.
Christ’s final words were of judgment: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this, so they demanded: “What? Are we blind too?” To which he replied: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
To further understand the components in this case study, it doesn’t take much to observe how controlling the religious leaders were. They struck fear into anyone who differed from their views. The common people were controlled by the fact that they could be shunned or expelled by them. The people were kept in line and avoided stirring up their anger since the consequences would be far too great. To cope as an oppressed people by the Romans and to avoid trouble with the religious leaders kept the Jewish masses from tipping the balance or drawing attention to themselves.
Christ Jesus came into the midst of this cultural/religious situation. His words of truth and his evident lifestyle were too much of a threat to their practice of the religious and social system of Judaism. The fact that he could do signs and wonders to release people from their physical, mental, and spiritual weights increased his threat to the very existence of what these leaders thought that they were there to protect and to carry forward as their esteemed tradition. Their Mosaic tradition, along with their interpretations, additions, and deletions were what was important to them. Jesus’ dynamic life, lived in harmony with the Father and empowered by the Spirit had no appeal for them. He was, instead, a problem that needed to be removed.
Reflections on Spiritual Abuse
There is so much that could be said from reading the Gospel of John. It is an endless source of theological reflection. I am keenly interested in the lessons found in the story of the healing of the blind man. Our initial enquiry was: Can the blind lead the spiritually abused? Though we know that this man no longer remained blind, it was through his experience from blindness to sight that he found himself being in the hot seat with the religious authorities. Through the tension in the story, one could wonder: Would this man survive their barrage of questions and retain his composure? Would he wilt under their fierce interrogation? Would he be a role model for the underdog or would he crash and burn under their pressure? Our question, after careful study of the text, can be answered in the affirmative. Yes, this formerly blind man can ‘lead’ and be a worthy role model for those who have been spiritually abused.
The reader is delighted to find that the man was able to stand up to the pressure of the religious rulers. In fact, the formerly blind man found his voice-he was able to challenge the religious authorities in this highly developed religious system. This man’s boldness makes him a valid role model for those who find themselves experiencing spiritual abuse.
Individuals who are being faced with impossible sanctions which are invariably harsh and foolish can take courage from this man’s example. So even though he was harmfully treated and then excommunicated, he no longer considered himself to be a victim, but saw himself as an overcomer. After all, he had his sight-both physical and spiritual–what could be more significant than that! He quickly became part of a new community of faith–through the One who had given him sight! Like the blind man, people who have faced spiritual abuse in their church have gained fresh insight through the process of re-examining what they had always believed. Through this distressing experience they are forced to consider all that they have been taught. Since so many things now don’t weigh up, everything is now questioned.
With fresh sight, people who have been spiritually abused take a serious look at biblical leadership and their view of the church. Their entire belief system is up for examination and is most likely to experience a complete overhaul. What is forged out of their disheartening church experience is a far deeper and richer understanding of the entity of the church, the Body of Christ, and their part in it. Their renewed understanding of church leadership, in the local church setting, is based on a correct view of the Good Shepherd’s love and care. This is now their ideal for spiritual leaders.
There is no going back to their former way of practicing their faith. Their untimely experience of spiritual abuse in their home church has created a reason to examine, sort, jettison, and then restock a biblical faith on the solid principles of Scripture. This can be empowering. Instead of despair over being disenfranchised, those formerly spiritually abused can now see that this trial has brought forth faith–which has gone through fire and has come out as pure gold. This passage from 1 Peter 1:6, 7 has renewed meaning:
“In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
In the story of the miraculous healing of the man born blind we are intrigued by the humor found in this situation. Laughter comes from two ideas that are different; that makes people gasp, be surprised, and laugh. Though humor can be dangerous, sanctity can also be dangerous. Humor can be used to teach and to expose. Humor needs to be balanced. It can be something that heals, upholds, and gives hope.
By paying close attention to this story in the Gospel one can see the humor in it. Though the religious leaders were convinced that they were in charge, we see the formerly blind man increasing in his ability to withstand them. The heart of the reader is warmed as they watch the former blind man rise in prominence through this trying circumstance. He is able to make specific points, he is able to hold his ground, and he is able to be himself. In that intense setting, he was doing the impossible! This evokes joyous mirth.
Was the God that the Jewish religious leaders had created, the real God of the Old Testament? Jewish religious practice flowed out of who they understood Yahweh was. That is, religious teaching and interpretation of the Torah flowed out of their interpretation of who they thought Yahweh was. These religious leaders were simply not ready for the God that Jesus was!
Today, some people still cling to a God shaped by Judaism’s view of the God of the Old Testament and not by the God-man who came to reveal who the Father really was and how they could come to know him through his Son. The Pharisees rejected any likeness to a God who looked or acted like the man Christ Jesus. The Gospel of John teaches who God is by how Jesus taught and lived.
Spiritual abuse can also be seen in John’s Gospel so that the reader is forewarned and forearmed to understand the nature of spiritual abuse and how to recognize it in religious communities who claim that they know and work for God. Fruit testing is still a Kingdom principle and must be part of discerning that which is good from that which is not. The stories in the Gospel of John help people to discern when a belief system strays from the truth and it encourages them to continually sift the good from the un-good.
“Faith without laughter leads to dogma and laughter without faith to despair.”
~ Conrad Hyers
“From our sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”
~ Teresa of Avila
“We cannot really love anybody with whom we never laugh.”
~ Agnes Repplier
“In hell there is no hope and no laughter.
In purgatory there is no laughter, but there is hope.
In heaven, hope is no longer necessary because laughter reigns.” ~ Dante
“Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
~ Karl Barth
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