I said, “Lord be merciful to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”
Psalm 41:4 Book of Common Prayer
Since at least biblical times, it’s been tempting to link misfortune and sin. When Job’s friends came to comfort him, they offered the standard wisdom of the day—confess what you have done to deserve this, and be healed. When Job maintained that he was innocent, his friends didn’t believe him. Confronted with a blind man, Jesus’s own disciples asked who had sinned, the man or his parents, that he should have been born blind. (This has always struck me as illogical—how much sin can an unborn baby commit in utero to “deserve” a disease or deformity?)
In our own time, Rabbi Kushner struck a nerve with the publication of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. We somehow can’t believe that good people get misfortunes they “don’t deserve.” I have a friend whose first response on learning she had cancer was, What did I do wrong?
When cancer strikes us or someone we love, it may be tempting to look for a direct cause. I struggled with this when my mother’s cancer was discovered. It was hard for me not to blame her for the decades of smoking, to instead consider environmental factors such as working with lead paint or airplane glue as a younger woman, or biological factors such as her father’s death of cancer. When we are in pain, we want someone or something to serve as a blameworthy target.
Jesus told his disciples that no one had sinned to cause the man’s blindness, but that his affliction would be an occasion for the works of God to be manifest. And then he opened the man’s eyes. For some of us, healing will be elusive until the final healing that we call death. But even in the midst of sickness, we can look for ways to show forth God’s work. I’m grateful, in this month that my ovarian cancer is highlighted for awareness, for my doctor and nurses, for the drugs that have kept the cells from mutating again so far, and for all the kindness others have shown to me. My two cancers are not a punishment from God, but a new way to see God’s hand at work through others.