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Is my cancer a punishment?

By: Lee Davis, Lead Pastor at Berlin Church

We cannot live very long in this broken and groaning world without becoming acquainted with suffering. Cancer is one of the common and tragic ways that we experience this unwelcome reality. It is, more often than not, accompanied by suffering for those diagnosed and for those that love them. That suffering may be physical (direct effects on our organs, side-effects from radiation or chemotherapy, etc.) or emotional (sadness, fear, depression, anger, etc.).


One of the most common searches on Google for those experiencing suffering is, “Am I being punished?” People tend to shed their veneer of pious reserve when they are suffering. Internal, nagging questions that they might customarily suppress or perceive as inappropriate or faithless slip past the most restrained and highly edited filters. As a pastor, I hear versions of this question quite often. Other variations include, “What sin did I commit to deserve such suffering?”, “Is God angry with me?”, or even “How could a good God allow someone He claims to love to undergo suffering like this?” My heart usually breaks, not because the question asker would dare to utter such a question, but because of the pain that is beneath it. As a fellow sufferer, I resonate with such questions because I ask them myself.


Fortunately for us, we are not left without answers to such understandable questions. God’s Word is an indispensable gift to suffering people like you and me. There are a myriad of texts in the Bible which are relevant to this matter, but one of the clearest ones comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 9. In this true story, Jesus encountered an adult man in Jerusalem who had been blind from birth. Not only was he unable to see and fully experience the world around him, but there were also other sad realities he was forced to endure including loss of agency and permanent poverty (John 9:8).


Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus a question at the beginning of the narrative that is very similar to the questions we’ve already considered. Their question was, “Rabbi (teacher), who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind (John 9:2 ESV)?” This was a common conception in that day, that physical impairment or sickness must be traceable to someone having sinned. Jesus’ answer to His disciples is striking. Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (John 9:3-5 ESV).”


John 9 is a fairly long narrative which I don’t have space here to fully unpack. However, there are three very hopeful truths that Jesus reveals to us that provide correction to our innate bias that the presence of suffering in our lives must be due to something bad in us or, dare we say, bad in God.


Our experience of suffering is no reliable indication that God is angry with us for sin we have committed. You and I sin. That is undeniably true. God, because He is holy, hates sin. Sin has consequences and sometimes we experience the fallout of our own sin or that of the world around us. However, we must be very careful to not have a binary view of God. The blind man surely asked the same question that the disciples did. Even Jesus’ self-righteous enemies reduced suffering down to a retribution-like view of God (John 9:34). From the very first sin of our very first parents in the garden, God promised to do far more than curse humanity for its rejection of Him. He promised to intervene through the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15). God created this world and us in His image not as arbitrary play-things, but as objects of His love. God was not caught off-guard by humanity’s sinfulness, but rather had a plan to intervene, to paint His grace on the canvas of our story.


God has loving and unstoppable plans to prove His goodness to us. Our world is bent. Things aren’t like they’re supposed to be. Cancer and its attendant suffering is not right. It’s bent. In a perfect world, things like cancer and blindness would not exist. And yet, such sickness and infirmity won’t have the final word. The man born blind had suffered long enough and it was time for him to experience the miracle of grace that Jesus, the long-awaited redeemer promised way back in the garden, could alone provide (John 9:32).


Jesus shines His light into our darkness to rescue us from our brokenness and groaning. The servant of the Lord foretold by Isaiah, the same seed and redeemer, was prophesied to be one who would bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, bring us peace, and heal our wounds (Isaiah 53:4-5). The darkness, both literal and emotional, that the man had faced was penetrated with light. In fact, his familiarity with darkness made his new experience of light all the more significant and beautiful. Jesus became one of us in order to rescue us. He died to take our punishment and rose again to usher in a world in which decay and death would be undone.


Suffering is real and it can seem as though it is our closest companion and only reality. Dear friend, beloved by God, do not despair. All of those who place their hope in Jesus await a day that’s coming soon, when our groaning will be replaced with jubilation, when our nagging questions will all find their answer in Jesus, the lover and healer of our bodies and souls.


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