On Disease & Suffering Pt. VI - Some Emerging Theology on Disease
Updated: Nov 15, 2018
Reflections on the age old question of how a good God can allow disease and suffering in this world. This will be part VI in however many posts it takes for me to write about how God has responded to my questions over the last few years.
I found my therapist around September 2017. It was shortly after school began and I had experienced the kindness from my son's teachers, as well as around the time I was reflecting on those Biblical insights. Intellectually, there were many new insights over which to ruminate. From a heart perspective though, in some ways, it made me more confused. I was still feeling traumatized from having to see my son go through so much, and more than anything else, felt a sense of betrayal from God for allowing all this to happen to us.
I recall the moment I realized I felt that way. It didn't come out immediately, not until a few sessions in. But with the miscarriage, the death of our cousin's daughter, and then health issue after health issue for my son - it felt like my God, whom I loved, trusted, and had served so faithfully - just completely abandoned us. I felt like God broke our trust. And even with the recent developments where it felt like He was taking care of us, it almost felt like someone just trying to make up for all the mistakes; it didn't change the fact that those had happened and affected my heart.
Having been through couples counseling with my husband, I remember expressing to my therapist that it was almost like I needed to go through some sort of counseling with God in the room - that God and I needed to talk, since our relationship had been damaged.
Therapy is a weird thing. It's often just you sorting things out for yourself. In fact, I've found that a good therapist will never really tell you the answer or suggest a solution, and will only help facilitate your own processing and be your support through it. I imagine it's as much a trust journey for them in the process, as there were definitely sessions where things didn't end on a good note and it seemed like my heart issues would never be able to be resolved.
But that space was critical. Though it wasn't quite like the back and forth of couples counseling, it gave me an opportunity to figure out what was going on in my heart and articulate it, which in turn enabled me to express that to God.
I discovered that one of my biggest questions was around illness and disease. Why God allows it. Why it even exists. So many other big questions related to suffering, including that which fellow humans inflict on each other, seemed a little more understandable. Or, at least I could wrap my mind around the concept that our own free choices as a human race - for there to truly be such a thing as free will - in some way necessitates the real impact of those choices on one another. But how did that apply to something like illness and disease, which didn't seem like they had anything to do with "sin"?
The beginning of a breakthrough came when my therapist took a slight deviation from her usual role as just a pure facilitator, and offered me a nugget. She remarked at the end of a session, that she was thinking about my question, and thought it was interesting that in the Old Testament, God declares sickness as "unclean," and how in the old Mosaic law, it was required for what was unclean to be separated from God. That somehow, there was some sort of connection between disease and our fallen nature.
It was an interesting nugget - no answers necessarily, but it got me contemplating.
As I dug in more the subsequent weeks, it became more apparent to me that disease was in fact not a part of God's intended design. This was apparent in those long, dense passages in Leviticus that everyone (myself included) usually skip over, which gave in painstaking detail the lengths a person would have to go through to become "clean" enough to be back in the presence of God. There were health implications too, to prevent the spreading of disease. But as I read through the passage, the list almost seems ridiculous, as if by our very nature, our human condition was so incredibly and almost inevitably unclean. Reading it made it seem like being in the presence of God was near impossible. Which, after a while, I began to realize was perhaps the point.
And it's important to note that, in line with the revelations I was having on a more personal level - specifically, on Jesus' purpose of bringing us back into God's presence - the same insight started coming across independently as I dug into this topic as well. In direct connection with those passages on disease and "uncleanness", Jesus' actions all those hundreds of years later painted a huge contrast that would reveal more about who He was:
Matthew 8:2-3 : "2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy."
Anything unclean was not allowed to be near God, and the priests and other individuals were not to touch anything unclean. But Jesus touched the man - making a physical connection - and also made him clean; in doing so, He restored not only the man's wholeness but also his opportunity to go and connect with God, in this case through the practical means of worshipping in the temple.
It started becoming more clear to me that God didn't will disease on us. Rather, it seemed that disease was part of the natural, which we fell into when Man sinned at the beginning of time. When God first created Man, He warned Man not to sin, or "you will surely die". Death and disease wasn't part of our condition when we were created. We succumbed to it when we lost God's divine covering over us.
On top of that, I began to discover that disease oftentimes in fact was indeed connected to sin and the sinful choices of people, even if not our own. How many illnesses and ailments are caused by the greed and evil of others? Of governments? Of corporations? The Flint water crisis. Cancers from instances of improper use or disposal of chemical substances and toxins in our environment. Or even the foods we eat, that are loaded less with real nutrition these days but cheaper unnatural substitutes that impact our health in ways we have yet to fully uncover. Disease on a group of innocent people - in the same way that suffering can be inflicted on another by an individual's own free choice - can also be the result of the sinful choices of numerous other individuals over time.
And what about God in all this? His heart was for healing. In the record of his life, it seems that Jesus did not withhold healing from anyone who asked. And it wasn't just transactional, as the Bible says that Jesus was moved to "compassion" for the people. He clearly loved to restore and make people whole again, and his entire life on Earth was a testimony to that.
So why doesn't God just heal my son? Why didn't God save our cousin's daughter? Why doesn't God respond to the prayers of so many mothers and fathers in this world to have mercy on their suffering children?
I wish I could say that I discovered the answer. Unfortunately, for this question, I have not. But through all the digging, all the learning, and all the dialoguing with the Lord, what I have learned beyond a doubt is that His heart is indeed ultimately for healing and wholeness. His heart is for the good of my family. That His love for each of us runs deeper than we can imagine. The knowledge of all these things is what I can rest on. And internalizing those truths make it a little easier to accept the notion that just because I may not understand, it doesn't mean there isn't a valid reason.
To be honest, it's a hard thing. To have to let go of getting an explanation for everything. But as blunt and uncomfortable as it may be, I'm realizing more that God doesn't owe me an explanation. I can't say I really like that concept, though it is referred to in countless passages including the conclusion of the Book of Job, where God never reveals to Job the reason for his suffering. But in light of beginning to know at a deeper level that God is good, perfect, and loving, and that He is at work - it made it easier to stomach.
And it doesn't mean that there isn't purpose in it. I confess that I can't stand the saying that "God has a reason for everything," so much so that I never say that phrase to anyone (PS - I think it's generally good advice not to say that phrase to people when they are suffering). At the same time, I do believe that God has his reasons, which may or may not include that, given our fallen state, perhaps we were never meant to live a painless life.
That's something I'm starting to realize. Perhaps our baseline was never blessing to begin with; our baseline, since the moment man first sinned, was death. Any expectation we have of wholeness, healing, or even justice, is all in spite of the natural - it's above and beyond, extra, grace, a gift. For some reason, we've been conditioned from a young age to think that the good guys always win, to the point that it's something we have come to expect. But the harsh reality is - as history has often proven - that in this world, that's not always the case.
Thankfully for us, however, God has overcome the world. Hence why many people in Jesus' day referred to his life and message as "good news." That there actually was hope.
And there I was - somehow, beginning to hope again.
To be continued:
Part VII: Some Conclusions (Though Always An Ongoing Work-In-Progress)
Part II: Life In Constant Threat
Part IV: The Start of a New Narrative
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