In antiquity, people generally believed that God operated by quid pro quo. If you were a good person who obeyed the rules, you would be happy, wealthy, and wise, with a good family and a long life. Anything bad that happened was God’s punishment for your sins. Anyone who suffered terribly must be a terrible sinner, or God would not have “done that” to the person.
We now know, both from other biblical writers and from Jesus, that God does not operate that way. The rain falls and the sun shines on the just and the unjust. Sometimes terrible things happen to wonderful people, and wonderful things happen to terrible people. God is not the ultimate punisher waiting with bated breath to send calamities upon us for our every misstep. And yet that belief continues. I so often hear people ask, “Why did God do this to me? I’m a good person! I don’t deserve this!”
I have been facing those reactions this week. My 54-year-old brother Jim has stage 4 glioblastoma, the most deadly form of cancer that exists. Treatment buys time — perhaps only months and maybe, if we’re lucky, a few good years. When others find out what is happening, I have been asked what Jim did to bring this on himself, and I’ve been told repeatedly that God did this to him for some reason.
Jim is a truly exceptional person. He is highly intelligent and successful, extremely competitive, and never does anything halfway. Yet he is a softie, with a generous heart that knows no bounds, a deep genuine love for his family and friends, and integrity that can’t be topped. Everyone trusts Jim, respects him, and loves him. So how can it be that this young, strong, healthy, incomparable man is facing a death sentence?
There really aren’t any answers, other than the fact that this is the way life is. Most assuredly, he is not being punished for his sins. Nor do I believe God planted a cancer in his brain. Rather, life is not fair and death is inevitable. God created us as finite people with an unpredictably limited lifespan on this earth. There is no logic or rationale to who dies young and who lives to old age. There are some things we can do to increase the chances one way or the other, but we are not in control. We truly never know when an illness, an accident, or a malevolent action by someone else will end a life.
So instead of asking “Why?” my approach is twofold. First, I pray for healing. I believe with every fiber of my being that God will answer that prayer, yet just as surely I know that God’s healing is not always the physical kind of healing we most want. It will be whatever kind of healing Jim most needs. It could be spiritual healing, or a healing of relationships, or a resolution of doubt, or the grace to cope, or even healing into a peaceful death. So I ask, and then with quivering heart and as much trust as I can muster, I place Jim into the hands of the One who loves him beyond anything I can comprehend.
My second approach is to change the question of “Why?” into “What now?” What can I do to best support Jim and family as he endures treatment and an uncertain prognosis? How can I spend more time in prayer and rely on those who love me to gain the sustenance I need? To whom can I provide a listening ear, an absorbent shoulder, or a companion through the darkness? How can I enter fully into my grief, walking into the tomb with Christ, while clinging (sometimes by my fingernails) to my fervent belief in the never-ending cycle of the Paschal Mystery – that out of death, somehow resurrection and life will follow?
As we continue into Lent — this season of spiritual growth, repentance, and the passion of Christ — I find myself echoing the psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” And this is my prayer: Gracious and gentle God, heal Jim in the ways he most needs healing. Look into the empty spaces within him, his wife, and his family, and fill them with your grace, love, and peace. At the same time, guide my steps. Grant me wisdom, and help me be your instrument. Continue to blow your sustaining Spirit into our hearts as we follow wherever this leads. Sustain us in your love, and bring us to the other side.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. Amen.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.