A Guide to Adequately Address Sin and Suffering

Becca Stevens

The theological notions of sin and redemption contain a heaviness that stems from the fact that they are mostly used to point out the faults in others, rather than to free us from the traps that prevent us from loving God. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus leaves the synagogue after arguing about right beliefs and old customs, he encounters a blind man who is begging. In this narrative Jesus preaches a radical way to approach sin and redemption in our life of faith. It’s an approach that offers a deeper way of understanding the terms. Instead of being heavy, it lifts our hearts and minds with the lightness of grace. When the disciples of Jesus see the blind man, they ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents…?” The implication in the question is that if the blind man is a sinner, we don’t have to respond, because the man’s blindness itself is a sign of divine punishment for sin. The only pertinent question for them is “Who is to blame?”

Characteristically, Jesus uses the question as an opportunity to teach them that culpability — establishing guilt or responsibility for sin — is the not the issue we need to address in the suffering we encounter in our world. Jesus through his action and words reminds us all that the issue of morality and culpability lies in our response to suffering and in our ability to love with compassion, not judgment. Then Jesus, with nothing but spit and dirt, makes a healing and soothing mud for the man. This beautiful, simple, earthy action reminds us that redemption is always possible, even when we feel incapable to adequately address the sin and suffering we meet along the way.

The whole story breathes life into the old theologies of blame and exclusion written in stone. It gives us a path to walk where sin and redemption become matters of freeing ourselves, not condemning others. For the blind man, like all of us, sin and redemption were terms others used that alienated and condemn him. For Jesus, sin and redemption become the absolution that frees us to live in gratitude for a loving and merciful God. 

A couple years ago, NPR aired four separate features on the women who live in the residential community of Magdalene and its social enterprise, Thistle Farms. The women of Magdalene, who have survived lives of addiction and prostitution, are offered sanctuary for two years to find the path of freedom for themselves. Maybe no other group in our culture has been more maligned and assigned the term “sinner”.

One of the women featured on the series was Penny Hall, a forty-eight year old woman who has been clean and off the streets for four years. Penny was raised in a beer hall in Nashville, Tennessee and spent six years under a bridge prostituting and using crack. Today, she runs the manufacturing department at Thistle Farms that produces healing oils and thistle paper. After harvesting thistles, turning them into beautiful paper, then folding that paper into boxes, Penny fills them with bottles that hold a mixture of oils, really balms. She sends these lovely boxes around the country for people to use in healing — for themselves and others. To see her today is to witness the very incarnation of redemption and hope. Penny describes her own transformation with, “I used to have black eyes, now I have cucumber eyes.”

It took me a long time to understand what she meant, until finally one day I understood that she meant it literally. She used to have black eyes — eyes that were bruised and beaten. Her prayer was that when she slept, she wouldn’t be raped or robbed. She lived in fear and isolation, with the reality that thrives in sick communities that feed on each other. She lived in communities that rationalize that it’s her fault, so it’s not our issue.  The truth is, though, that Penny didn’t get to the streets by herself; it took all kinds of people and a broken community to get her there. And so it takes a community to help her come home.

Penny describes her eyes now as ”cucumber.” She feels like she has felt the richness of the fruit placed on the eyes to heal and soothe them. Those are eyes that are comforted and consoled, that are seen as worthy. It is a powerful analogy for sin and redemption, signaling the healing nature that lies on the path between the two.

On our journey, the one we all take, when we are graced with feeling the movement from sin to redemption, we can feel our own eyes move from black to cucumber. When we see how we have crossed that path with all the grace and mud and cucumbers people have given us along the way, we can use the words sin and redemption for our own lives, feel the freedom they offer, and then live in gratitude, hoping for the chance to love others the way we have been loved, lavishly, without judgment, without guilt or blame. Jesus calls us to love the whole world, one person at a time. Love in the Gospel is always preached in action and along the spiritual path of sin and redemption. It is what we are given. It is what we give. We are called to offer our best, whether it is cucumbers or mud, for the sake of soothing and healing.

Becca Stevens

Becca Stevens

Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest and founder of Magdalene & Thistle Farms, a community and social enterprise that stands with women recovering from trafficking, prostitution, addiction and life on the streets. Pick up a copy of her latest book, Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling , on Thistle Farm's Website.