Friday, April 18, 2008

April 18, 2008 - Cancer and Sin

“Cancer” and “sin” are two words that truly don’t belong together – yet, how easy it is to pair them up anyway!

There’s a part of us that wants to assign blame for cancer. What’s the first question many of us ask, when we hear of someone diagnosed with lung cancer? “Did she smoke?” As if that makes a difference. Somehow, a non-smoker with lung cancer belongs to a different order, in our minds, than a smoker struggling with the same disease. Aren’t both worthy of our compassionate concern, as they sit side by side in the oncologist’s waiting room?

It’s more comforting, somehow, to hear of a smoker who gets lung cancer, than a non-smoker who does. It feeds our craving to see the universe as a fundamentally fair place.

Relatively few cancers have a clear lifestyle- or behavior-related cause. Sure, there are all sorts of theories out there about environmental causes of various cancers, but only a few (smoking for lung cancer, asbestos exposure for mesothelioma, sun exposure for melanoma, sexual promiscuity for some cervical cancers) are established beyond doubt. To say “So-and-so got cancer because _____” is appealing, for it allows us to scratch another cancer off the lengthy list of those that simply are – scourges that descend upon a human life without warning and without apparent cause.

Those cancers – like the non-Hodgkin lymphoma I have – are truly scary. They seem so random.

Some people, having exhausted the possible environmental or lifestyle causes, move on to theology. They want to view cancer as God’s punishment for sin.

I’ve been reading Dancing in Limbo: Making Sense of Life After Cancer, by Glenna Halvorson-Boyd and Lisa K. Hunter (Jossey-Bass, 1995). I’m not exactly living a life after cancer, myself, but there are some aspects of my extended, asymptomatic watch-and-wait existence that are similar to life after cancer. I’m struggling, these days, with survivorship issues, which is why I picked up this book. Anyway, here’s a perceptive passage from it, about how common it is to view cancer as God’s punishment:

“Although the notion that cancer is a punishment for our sins may remain unconscious or unspoken, it appears to be present in a surprising number of cancer patients and their family members. A recent study of Canadian children with cancer and their parents by David Bearison and his colleagues revealed that half of the adults blamed themselves for their child's cancer. (Only 20 percent of the children practiced self-blame.) What the parents blamed themselves for directly was a sin. They actually believed that their use of illicit drugs or their adultery had caused the child's cancer. The parents' reasoning defied medical science but reflected their belief that sin will be punished.

For many of us, the idea of cancer as a direct punishment for our sins is too antiscientific to believe. However, if we examine the causal theories we create, we may find sin lurking just below the surface of our reasoning. For example, women who are sexually active at an early age and have many sexual partners are, in fact, at higher risk for cervical cancer. Disentangling the “sin” (of “promiscuity”) from the science (of statistical risk) in cervical cancer is difficult at best. Even if the form of cancer that we have does not appear directly linked to behavior that we feel guilty or ashamed about, we may, like the Canadian parents, nevertheless imagine it to be a retribution for our sins.”
(Dancing in Limbo, p. 43.)

Why do so many of us practice such faulty logic, wanting to assign blame where none is deserved? It’s because there’s something that scares us even more than sin and retribution: the thought that, as Jesus teaches, God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Which is a scarier universe to live in: one ruled by a petty, vindictive God who’s quick to smite sinners for their transgressions, or one in which God allows two-year-olds to die of brain tumors for no apparent reason?

Halvorson-Boyd and Hunter boil it down to a twisted little syllogism: “Our primitive sense of justice is ruled by a cruel logic: if we want to believe that we will get what we deserve, then we must deserve what we get” (p. 44).

And so, many of us cancer survivors wallow in self-blame. I’ve had a few moments in the past few years when I’ve wondered what I might have done to so anger God, but – I’m happy to say – that hasn’t been a major theme for me. After nearly 25 years in ministry, I’ve heard the “Why me?” question so often, from saints and sinners alike, that I really don’t believe illness is God’s punishment. In those awful months just before and after my diagnosis, I did feel considerable anger over my plight, but I wasn’t much inclined to direct my anger at God. I was more inclined to say, “Life is unfair” than “God is unfair.”

Bottom line? None of us deserves to have cancer.


CentFla said...

What a brilliant post.

My wife Joan is a stunt woman at Universal Studios in FL and has been in amazing shape her entire life. She runs five days a week and eats healthier than anyone I have ever known. She never has had any nicotine of any kind and never any illegal drugs in her life.

I wish I could say that any of things were true of me but it was only recently that I became a much healthier person.

But guess who ends up with the Follicular Lymphoma in our house...

Survivor's Husband said...

I believe you are correct in stating that none of us deserve cancer. We all deserve much worse. The moment we committed our first sin we deserved to be turned into a pillar of salt and left to suffer for eternity in the lake of fire. But by the Grace of God we have a way to eternal life and that way is by the Son of God being made a curse for us. To say that cancer is a punishment for our sins denies the grandness of God's Grace. Cancer is an attack by the Devil to confuse us and separate us from God. Trust in God because he defeated the Devil through the sacrifice of his Son.