It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.
Psalm 119:71 Book of Common Prayer
I know, O Lord, that your judgments are right and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
Psalm 119:75 Book of Common Prayer
During the late winter of my sixth grade year I was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis—my doctor said idiopathic meant no idiot knew what caused it. I spent almost two years in a full body brace; the treatment was largely ineffective. Next came surgery to fuse vertebrae (this was before the doctors began using steel rods, so bone was taken from a hip) followed by six months in a plaster cast that enveloped my torso. This wasn’t the best way to go through puberty.
I searched long and hard for a reason this had happened to me. Various ideas suggested themselves, but the only one I came to rely on was expressed in these verses—that God in wisdom had afflicted me for some purpose not to be explained, but probably having to do with sin. (Sin was a big topic within the fundamentalism I grew up in.) I didn’t tell anyone my theory, except a Sunday school teacher, who told me that God never punishes little children. I knew she was wrong; even then, I knew the story of the bears that came and ate up the children who mocked Elisha. Not until I was in my late thirties did work with a therapist to address the damage done to my psyche during those “lost years.”
I have given up fundamentalism and its insistence on biblical literalism. I do believe the Bible is a holy book, a compilation of sacred writing, with wisdom to share. But I do not believe it is to be read literally. When I read and interpret the Bible in its historical and cultural context, I have discovered that it opens up the text as well as my heart.
So I’m sorry about the psalmist and whatever affliction he had to bear. I cannot believe in or worship a god whose teaching methods include afflicting the student. I cannot accept the notion that my cancers are a gift, a lesson, or a means of discipline from God—perhaps you can. I believe in a God who companions me, who takes suffering into the divine hands, as Psalm 10:14 says. My faith is in a God who is here with me, who wills good to come out of afflictions of all sorts.