Did God Give Me Cancer?

IV(Credit: Allan Foster, Flickr Creative Commons)

You know, if I had known just how terrible chemotherapy would be, I never would have gotten cancer in in the first place.

(It’s ok to laugh. That was a joke.)

But the amount of love and support, encouragement and prayers from friends and loved ones, long lost acquaintances and complete strangers has made life more than bearable.

It’s made life worth living, worth fighting for.

I am grateful beyond words for the myriad of ways kindness has been poured into my family’s life over the past few weeks. It’s a debt I doubt I will ever be able to fully repay, but will most certainly try.

I’m also grateful for what hasn’t been said.

In moments like this when someone we know is diagnosed with a horrible disease or when someone we love is taken from us tragically, we often and understandably find ourselves at a loss for words. We know there’s nothing we can say that will offer the sort of deep peace and healing that is needed and yet we feel compelled to speak anyway because silence can be so terrifying and, unfortunately, as we fumble for what to say we sometimes end up compounding the pain instead of bringing the peace we hoped to give.

Whether it is through the inherent wisdom of my friends and family or some sort of prevenient grace, I was never told even once over the past few weeks that my cancer diagnosis happened for a reason or that it was somehow part of God’s plan, some sort of cruel plot device the divine decided to hurl my way for some mysterious purpose.

As I’ve said so many times already, I’m one of the lucky ones.

No one told me that God gave me cancer.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, I would sure hope not. That would be awful. Who would ever say or even think such a think?”

I wish the answer was no one and I’m convinced many of the someones who do respond with misguided words of comfort about God’s plan don’t completely think through what they’re saying or they would realize the horror they are inflicting on their loved ones and remain silent.

Sadly, there are many self-professed Christians who are convinced in their utmost being that God does indeed give people cancer (while also intentionally inflicting every other imaginable form of evil on creation). Which means there are countless other Christians who walk into their first session of chemotherapy treatment or sit beside a loved one with Alzheimers or survive a brutal sexual assault only to be told that such unspeakable evil is all part of God’s plan. That God willed their suffering for his own glory.

If it sounds insane, it should.

It that God sounds reprehensible and altogether evil, that’s because he is.

And yet, this is the very dogma folks like John Piper seem to relish in. In fact, he’s written an entire book entitled – and I’m sad to say I’m not making this up – Don’t Waste Your Cancer.

In it Piper “writes about cancer as an opportunity to glorify God. With pastoral sensitivity, compassion, and strength, Piper gently but firmly acknowledges that we can indeed waste our cancer when we don’t see how it is God’s good plan for us and a hope-filled path for making much of Jesus.” According to Piper, you will be “wasting your cancer” if, among other things, you don’t believe God designed your cancer just for you, believe your cancer is anything other than a gift from God, and seek comfort in the prospect of your survival.

As a cancer patient, there are no words to describe how utterly appalling I find Piper’s theology to be.

As a Christian, I can’t begin to tell you how repugnant and Christologically bankrupt I think his view of God is.

It’s a soulless dogmatism that allows, empowers, and even sanctifies someone to tell the suffering and the dying that their pain is not just a gift from God, but a gift given solely for the self-serving purpose of some perverse divine need for glory.

If you’ve heard this non-sense before, hear me when I say this as strongly as I can: this is not the gospel. This is blasphemy against the Spirit disguised as systematic theology. It’s blasphemy because there is no other word for describing the portrayal of God as a serial child rapist, unabashed murderer, unspeakable abuser, and creator of unimaginable evil. That’s not hyperbole or slander. It is exactly who God is if God is the God people like Piper and his theological forefather John Calvin claim God is: a God who micromanages, ordains, and even revels (for “his glory”) in every act of evil in the world.

Moreover, if God indeed did give me cancer, then it creates a rather awkward situation for Piper’s version of the gospel.

You see, while our faith family has been unbelievably supportive ever since we announced my diagnosis, we have also received an overwhelming amount of love and support from our non-religious friends as well. In particular, some of our closest friends up here in Connecticut are committed atheists and yet despite all the rumors you may have heard about atheists, they have been amongst our biggest champions, showering us with more love and grace than we deserve. They started a GoFundMe page which will allow us to cover all of my medical expenses and then some. They’ve made and delivered meals to our home and even offered a freezer to store all of the extra food in. And just last week when I made an unexpected trip to the emergency room, they came over to watch the girls so my wife could come pick me up from the ER…even though they have a kid of their own and the wife had to work in the morning…and, oh yeah, she’s 37 weeks pregnant.

If it’s true, as Piper and his theological brethren argue, that God gave me cancer, then our non-Christian friends are objectively better than Piper’s Christian God. For, I was sick and they came and comforted me for no other reason than it was the right thing to do, while Piper’s God authored my suffering for the sole purpose of somehow making himself look better.

Of course, faith is ultimately a matter of what we personally believe is true about God. So, maybe Piper’s version of God is indeed who God is, but if Jesus is the means through which we know God, it cannot be the God of Christianity.

Jesus heals the sick; he doesn’t bring about their illness.

Jesus liberates the oppressed; he doesn’t ordain their oppression.

Jesus sets the prisoner free; he doesn’t imprison.

Jesus restores a broken creation; he doesn’t further cripple it through disease, suffering, and pain.

And, perhaps most importantly for folks like Piper to remember, Jesus doesn’t seek out power and couldn’t care less about glory, but instead emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

The fundamental problem with Piper’s Calvinism is it sees the world and reads/interprets scripture through the very power dynamic which Christianity fundamentally rejects. The God of John Piper and John Calvin is an extrapolation of the kings and principalities Calvin and his forbearers knew too well: kings who controlled, at least indirectly if not directly, nearly every aspect of their subjects lives, all for their own glory. Seen through this lens, God therefore must be an infinitely more powerful king who directly controls every aspect of life for everyone and everything for God’s glory.

But if the gospels are to believed, neither glory nor micromanaging are of any interest to the God of the Christian faith.

The God we see in the gospels is born into poverty and scandal, raised as a pauper, lives a life of homelessness, and dies in humility after being beaten, stripped naked, and nailed to a cross…all the while devoting his life to the healing and liberation of the sick and the dying, the marginalized and the oppressed. Oh, and there’s that whole bit about inviting people to freely join him in the work of salvation by going and doing likewise.

As Christians, it is through the lens of Christ that we must read scripture and it is this christological lens that, no matter the isolated prooftext, precludes us from ever being able to conclude that the God of scripture, the God we see incarnated in Jesus is a God who gives people cancer and afflicts others with Alzheimer’s while ordaining unspeakable abuse against children and the murder of innocents.

To be clear, that doesn’t resolve the problem of evil or theodicy. Even taking into account free will, the laws of nature, and the idea of self-limited God, surely a God who creates existence has the ability to create differently, less painfully, or at least in a way that doesn’t involve so much wasteful suffering. Of course, maybe this is the so-called best of all imaginable worlds and I would certainly agree that creating a world with the potential for evil is a much better alternative to authoring every act of evil in that world, but that God didn’t create a world with less suffering is a question that will remain unanswered this side of eternity

But, if life of Jesus is to be both believed and be our guide for understanding the nature of God, then we can say definitively that God did not give you or me cancer or your grandfather Alzheimer’s, nor did God chose and empower a pedophile to molest a child or a murder to take the life of their victim.

That is not the God of the Gospels.

The God of the Gospels doesn’t revel in the suffering of creation, nor does the God of the Gospels cause that suffering, nor does the God of the Gospels worry about you “wasting” your cancer or any other horrible experience by not doing more to promote a particular ideology.

The God of the Gospels is a God who heals, who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death calling on us to fear not, and who even in eternity bears the scars of God’s own suffering as an eternal reminder that our pain matters to God. God did not cause it, but God will ultimately heal it.

And in the meantime, we need not worry about wasting our suffering as if such a thing were possible.

But John Piper, if you’re listening, please know this: I promise I won’t waste my cancer.

I will use my diagnosis as a platform to speak real hope into peoples live and will spend every moment I have of whatever life I have left doing whatever I can to make sure no one going to chemotherapy or sitting beside a loved one with Alzheimer’s or working through past abuse from their childhood or trying to figure out how to make it through another day after surviving a horrific attack ever has to hear that God ordained their suffering for his own unspeakably perverse and utterly selfish ends.

If I can do that, if I can do my part to ensure that at least one less person never ever has to have their suffering compounded by such heinous theology ever again, then maybe, just maybe my cancer won’t be a waste after all.