DOES GOD ALLOW SICKNESS?
Job 1:1, 2:1-10, Psalm 95, Mark 10:13-16
October 5, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
When you are sick, often you find that emotional questions trouble you more than the question of what ails you. Anxiety, guilt and damaged self-esteem is more serious than the actual sickness. I have recurrent migraine headaches. When I have a migraine, I feel useless and guilty staying in bed for a whole day. These feelings are worse than the headache itself. When we are seriously ill, we suffer as much from what illness does to our self image and sense of security as from what is does to our bodies. We often ask the meaning and reason for our sickness. I don”t think other animals ask such a question. When you ask "why", you are asking spiritual questions. The book of Job asks why we suffer.
The book of Job belongs to a category of old Hebrew scriptures that are called "Writings". Books like Job, Jonah, Ruth, Esther and Psalms, which belong to this category, are stories and poems written by people, who were seeking God”s plans in their lives. Because of their origins, it is OK for us to appreciate their good points, challenge some others, and sometimes say, "I don”t agree." The author of Job teaches us many important lessons about faith. But in the end, I, for one, don”t agree with his conclusions. I rather take the position taken by Jesus Christ, which is different from Job”s.
You see, the author of Job interpreted life as a stage where a contest between God and Satan took place. The story has it that God was proud of faithful Job. But Satan challenged God by saying, "Job is faithful to you because he is happily married, has good and hard working children, and is wealthy and healthy. But if you take away those good things from him, he will betray you." So they had a contest. God allowed Satan to take away the good things, one by one. After losing everything, Job contracted an ugly disease. His body was covered with boils and scabs. His wife thought that her husband was a fool, and told him it would be better to "curse God and die." But Job remained faithful to God. So God won the contest with Satan.
I don”t agree with the suggestion of this book because I don”t believe God, who loves us, will ever treat a person like a football in a game with Satan. God, who became like one of us and suffered for us, would never treat us like a pawn, a chessman, or a football. I wonder if the presence of Satan in this book is really the presence of our own self-doubt and frustrations with sicknesses that limit our energies and plans. Looked at in this way the contest that the book of Job teaches us about is not a contest between good and evil but a contest between our self-doubts and our faith in God”s love for us. The book makes clear that Job, who in the end accepted his suffering as the will of God, did not give up easily. He kept demanding an answer, pointing his finger at God and saying, "I did not do anything wrong. I never betrayed you. Yet you make me suffer so much. Why? Why? Why?" I do admire Job”s determination in asking questions. He never gave up, while many of us just give up and fall like a dead leaf. Job teaches us about the uniqueness of being a human. We ask, "why?" Animals don”t ask such questions. They just take whatever comes. Job”s refusal to stop asking why, shows his continued faith in a God who will respond despite all his other losses, Job did not lose his self-esteem and sense of being a valued child of God.
Buddhist philosophy stands in marked contrast to the lessons we might learn from the book of Job. Buddhism is based on the idea of "giving up" as the best way to solve of life”s problems. The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Siddhartha, knew that life was full of misery and suffering. As a wandering monk he searched for a solution to misery and suffering. After many years of search, he reached the conclusion that all sufferings came from desire. All suffering would disappear when we were free from all cravings. In other words, we must not expect anything from life and accept whatever comes to us as fate. Then we will no longer suffer. This is a philosophy that teaches people to accept suffering without asking questions. Job would make an bad Buddhist.
To accept suffering without asking questions can lead to a kind of fatalism that is damaging to ourselves and to others. To not ask why, means we may fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as our fault. Guilt is an enormous barrier to healing. To view our sickness fatalistically can also lead to discrimination against others. This is how our society justifies discrimination against mentally ill people, people with AIDS, and people with the kinds of sickness that generate feelings of disgust. We think that there is something wrong with them and they got what they deserve.
People in the Bible had a similarly fatalistic attitude towards the sick: they thought that lepers and mentally sick people were cursed by God. They made those sufferers outcast of society. This is why when Jesus touched and healed the sick people – those untouchable, it was a shocking incident. He refused to accept suffering as unchangeable. His miracles were the expressions of his concern towards people who were suffering. They were also a response to people who actively sought his help. Like Job who continued to demand an explanation from God, these people believed that their suffering was not the end of the story. From this, it is clear that God does not want anyone to suffer. He cares about us when we suffer. He expects us to have the same attitude towards sick people as Jesus did.
I can not tell you why God allows sickness. The Bible does not give a clear answer. But what is clear is that God does not expects us to accept suffering fatalistically – either the suffering of others or our own.
The book of Job reminds us that to question is to be human. It also teaches us that we must continue to believe that there is a God who will respond even if it is a response that we are not comfortable with. God does not play games with us. As Christians we have faith in a God who reaches out to us in our suffering. Believing this, not just patiently but persistently, means we may just hang in long enough for a miracle to happen.