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God Gave Me Breast Cancer Because He Loves Me

calvin and hobbes god

Joni Eareckson Tada was severely injured in a diving accident in 1967. For the past fifty-three years, she has been a quadriplegic. Tada’s life story was popularized in a best-selling book titled Joni: An Unforgettable Story (1976) and the movie Joni (1979).

In the Friday, June 25, 2010 edition of the Defiance Crescent-News, there was a story about Tada undergoing treatment for breast cancer (behind paywall).

As I read the article, what astounded me was Tada’s comment about God’s involvement in her breast cancer.

Tada said:

I’ve often said that our afflictions come from the hand of our all-wise and sovereign God, who loves us and wants what’s best for us. So, although cancer is something new, I am content to receive from God, what ever he deems fit for me. Yes, it’s alarming, but rest assured Ken and I are utterly convinced that God is going to use this to stretch our faith, brighten our hope and strengthen of our witness to others.

In other words, God gave Tada breast cancer because he loved her and deemed it best for her. God gave her cancer so that she and her husband would have more faith and be a stronger witness to others.

Tada’s God is best described as a know-it-all deity who afflicts humans with sickness, disease, suffering, and death because he loves them and wants to increase their faith in him. He then wants them to use the afflictions he gave them to tell others what a wonderful God he is.

Crazy, isn’t it? I doubt if Sigmund Freud could even figure this out. How is this any different from a violent sadist expecting his victims to praise him for not killing them. “Hey, I cooked them awesome dinners while they were hanging in my basement!”

The Christian interpretation of the Bible presents God as a father and the Christian as a child (a son). Good fathers love, protect, and nurture their children. They don’t beat them, abuse them, or afflict them with pain and suffering. Every right-minded human being knows what qualities make for a good father. We also know what qualities make for a bad father.

In his best-selling book, The God Delusion, Dr. Richard Dawkins described the Bible God this way:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Anyone who has read the Bible knows that this is an accurate description of God, the “father.” If God was Santa Claus, he would definitely be played by Billy Bob Thornton, of Bad Santa fame.

A father who has the power to heal and doesn’t is a bad father. A father who causes suffering, sickness, and disease when he could do otherwise is a bad father. A father who afflicts his child with breast cancer is a bad father. A father who gives his child breast cancer so she can tell everyone what a wonderful father he is, is a bad father. From my seat in the pew, this God-the-father, as presented by modern Christianity, is a bad father.

Tada’s argument for a breast cancer-giving God is one of the reasons I left Christianity. I could no longer believe in a loving God that willingly afflicts and kills his children because he has determined that it is best for them. This God demands the Christian bear whatever affliction he brings upon them, and in true narcissistic fashion, he also demands that they love him while he is afflicting them. I want nothing to do with such a capricious, vindictive, warped God.

Disease, sickness, suffering, and death are all around us. If God could do something about these things and doesn’t, what are we to make of such a God? What are we to make of a God who is seemingly involved in the intimate details of life — helping Granny find her car keys — yet when things really matter, he is absent without leave (AWOL)?

Christians sing a song that says “what a mighty God we serve.” A mighty God? In what way is the Christian God mighty? Batman and Superman were mighty gods. They used their powers for good. They were always on call, ready at a moment’s notice, to swoop in and help those in need. But the Christian God? It seems the bigger the need the harder he is to find. As I noted in another post, God seems to involve himself in trivial matters like getting a woman a $200 refund on her plane ticket, but he seemingly can’t be found when an environmentally catastrophic oil leak needs plugging or forest fires are destroying lives and property. Perhaps we need to forget about this God and turn on the Bat-signal.

I am saddened by Joni Eareckson Tada’s affliction with breast cancer. Being a quadriplegic for over fifty years is enough suffering for one lifetime. But I know just because you have one health problem in life doesn’t mean you won’t be afflicted again. As I have learned in my own life, just because I have fibromyalgia doesn’t mean I won’t get some other disease. Life isn’t fair. Life can be cruel. I’ve known Christians whose lives were devastated by one tragedy or sickness after another. I know one Christian woman whose oldest son recently committed suicide, her middle son is in prison for murder, and her youngest child died of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma at age 23. Yet, she still devotedly praises God for his manifold blessings. If God is the one dumping all this on them, it would seem proper to ask God to move on to someone else. “Please God afflict sister so-and-so. She is in perfect health.”

Christians often quote the verse that says God will never give anyone more than they can bear. In other words, no matter what you face in life, God has determined you can bear it. This verse always leaves God off the hook. God, who is sovereign over all things, determines that you can bear to have cancer, AIDS, fibromyalgia, ALS, MS, emphysema, or any other dreaded disease, so he afflicts you. You are expected to bear whatever he brings your way. If you don’t, it is your fault. Your failure to bear your burden shows that you lack faith or you have secret sins in your life.

Reality paints us a far different picture. Many Christians, if not most, do not bear their burdens as the Bible says they should. I have counseled hundreds of Christians over the years who were weighed down by the burdens allegedly given to them by God. At the time, I encouraged them to have more faith, but rarely did the faith of the afflicted rise to the weight of the burden. Most often, the burden broke their back. Sadly, many of these people continue to walk around, stooped over and crippled, all the while singing “what a mighty God we serve.”

There is a hypocritical vein in this line of thinking. The theory is this: God afflicts his children with suffering for their good because he loves them and wants to increase their faith. I would ask then, why do Christians go to the doctor and take prescription medications? It seems to me that not seeing the doctor and not taking medication would result in a greater increase in faith. Surely a sovereign, omnipotent God is bigger than high blood pressure or diabetes, and surely a sovereign, omnipotent God is bigger than any pain a Christian might have, right?

There are Christian sects that do have this kind of faith. They don’t go to doctors, and they refuse to take medication of any kind. And every few years we have the privilege of reading about them in the newspaper when they are charged with manslaughter or child abuse for failing to get proper medical care for one of their children.

For me personally, it is more palatable for there to be no God, or a deistic God that is not involved in his creation, than there is a God that afflicts people because he loves them and wants to increase their faith. Such a God is a monster of vast proportions, a deity unworthy of worship.

I recognize that sickness, suffering, and disease can be instrumental in shaping us and changing us, and making us better people. But this is far different from a loving God-the-father afflicting us so that we will love him, have more faith, and be better witnesses. Such thinking is barbaric and best relegated to the ancient past it came from.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    so, how does one distinguish between:
    a) god doesn’t give me more than i can bear
    b) god is testing me
    c) i have a secret sin that is causing god to punish me

    (plus whatever other mental-pretzel logic that you’ve seen used?)

    i assume (c) is reserved for all the people you don’t like, and (a) and (b) are for people you do like. it’s really crazy that the people inside the bubble simply can’t see this.

    also, tangentially, have you ever read mother teresa’s autobiography which talks about all her doubts and “dark night of the soul” and similar? i haven’t read it, but heard snippets about it. sounds like she was pretty miserable on the inside, but kept up the external “loving god” mantra going.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I have read excerpts of her book. She indeed had dark periods in her life. Quite amazing to hear this about a person who is considered by some to be one of the best Christians ever.

      I never could figure out what God was doing to or for me. Blessing? Chastisement? Test? Life is much simpler now. Shit happens 🙂

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    John Arthur

    Hi Bruce,

    Compassion never sends anyone disease but seeks to relieve suffering and distress, where able. There does not seem to be any god in the sky who answers prayers for those who are suffering most. As Buddha said, “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart”. All we can do is to show empathy and kindness and seek to understand the person in their suffering and to be there for them, where we are able. Proper medical treatment is required but, alas, this is not always successful.

    John Arthur

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    Joni quote: “I’ve often said that our afflictions come from the hand of our all-wise and sovereign God, who loves us and wants what’s best for us. So, although cancer is something new, I am content to receive from God, what ever he deems fit for me. Yes, it’s alarming, but rest assured Ken and I are utterly convinced that God is going to use this to stretch our faith, brighten our hope and strengthen of our witness to others.”

    Imagine thinking that paralysis, the stretching of your faith all these years, the hope you thought you had attained and the strength of your witness all these years wasn’t enough? 🙁

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      Bruce Gerencser

      Your observation is where every rational person should take Tada’s words. I know some Christians who God seems to take great delight in beating the shit out of them. One dear family…oldest child wouldn’t speak to them, middle child murdered his girlfriend, and young child died of Hodgkin’s. If that is not enough, they lost their business and retirement and the husband got cancer at age 60 and died. A life of suffering and misery for good people. What kind of God does this to people and calls it love!

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        What kind of God does this to people and calls it love!

        Zoe: A “God” who uses torture to win people to Christ? Nice.

        In turn, what kind of people continue to believe in a tortuous “God” and love Him?

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    Texas Born & Bred

    As science progresses, religion regresses.

    For 2015, cancer is still a mystery. Humans tend to attribute mysteries to either enemy action or God’s action. Just like humans in the past thought God caused the sun to rise every day. Or that God is punishing people that got tuberculosis.

    Science will continue to discover the cause and mechanisms of cancer as well as other diseases. The real culprit could be some as-yet unknown virus, or even a smaller phenomena such as nanobacteria. At that time, we will realize Joni did not get cancer as a result of a test from God or other spiritual workings. It was entirely natural.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      I think you are right and this is why sectarian leaders fear science,. It continues to answer questions that were once the domain of religion. I don’t think science will ever give us all the answers, but I hope for a day when sickness and disease is no longer viewed as God’s punishment, test, or blessing.

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    “God will never give anyone more than they can bear” is a saying, but I don’t find it as a verse, in the Bible or elsewhere. Considering that it’s a Christian bromide, it is strangely redolent of Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Neither saying fits my experience. Bad things can cause, if not death, then permanent damage to the psyche in addition to the body.

    Many Christians are unwilling to get angry with God, and I truly think that is a missing piece of Christianity. People of other faiths seem to have greater success in shaking their fists at God. In Night, Elie Wiesel wrote of his anger with God because of the Holocaust: “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

    My own view is that God is with us all, no matter what. I have often, but not always, found comfort in that. If we are willing to thank God for our healing, it would seem just as fair to get angry with God over illness and death. Why does that feel sinful? Is that an American Christian thing, or did we import it?

    Does the embargo of anger against God causes us to get quite imaginative in our praise of God?

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      Len Koz

      “Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing? Then whence comes evil?
      Is he neither willing nor able? Then why call him god?”

      Just something to mull over, Friend.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I Corinthians 10:13 is the verse most often quoted:

      There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

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        This hogwash verse, like so many others is a clever one used in any and every situation the user needs it. The really hog part of the wash here is that the preachers define the temptation so that it is locally known. In the days of slavery, it could be an African-American being tempted to sit near the front of the bus! Today, it is Satanic forces making god’s chosen one, Donny Trump, look bad to the people of god so that they will waste their votes on a woman!
        Verses like this hold people captive in their own hearts and minds! For instance, look at me, tempted to stay in the church family because even though I don’t believe, I have a whole family who are involved, a whole multi-generational embrace of the woo! But dear Gawd in deep wisdom helped me walk out and resist the temptation to stay and said, Brian, you just go on and walk away. I’ve got plans for you to save a pain-in-the-butt American preacher who says he’s an atheist. How was I to know that I would become an instrument to save Bruce Almighty! (Shhh, he doesn’t know it, yet.)
        Yep, it’s quite a handy verse, 1 Cor. 10:13. Later, the fellow who has visions along the road, says, Follow me, as I follow the example of Christ…
        Preachers like to do this all the time, set themselves up as the right hand man who speaks for the man behind the curtain.

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    Makes no sense to me. I guess the point from Tada is to have a submissive attitude toward anything that comes upon you. But, does God then want you to fight against the cancer? How is getting treatment to try to make it go away, being submissive?

    Or, if God’s given you cancer and that is a good thing because you’ll have more faith, etc., why would you even pray to him to take it away-after all, he’s the one who gave it to you-so why would he then want to take it away from you? If he didn’t want you to have it, he wouldn’t have given it to you to begin with, right? Or is God just wanting to show you who’s boss-a boss who can and will give you cancer, and then wants you to beg him to take it away and maybe, just maybe he will??

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      Thank you for that. Ah yes, submission. And another possibility, “God’s perfect plan,” often mentioned at the worst possible moments. (Of course, I cannot speak for Joni Tada.)

      If Jesus lived through the full range of human experiences, then suffering is familiar terrain. An omniscient God should know I love my healthy body, and therefore that I suffer when grave illness threatens it. God should know I love my family and friends, and therefore that I suffer when death or illness strikes.

      Acceptance is a more useful idea to me. Life forces us to face hardship and tragedy—but acceptance happens slowly. Any worthwhile belief system should sustain us in the worst moments, without demanding that we (instantly or ever) call bad things good.

      The comments here are wonderfully insightful. Thank you, Bruce, for this compassionate posting, and to all who have responded.

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        Michael Mock

        “If Jesus lived through the full range of human experiences, then suffering is familiar terrain.”

        I’m… to be honest, I’m not sure that’s actually possible. Even leaving aside the question of whether an omnipotent being can be made to suffer (except voluntarily, and that isn’t really the same since part of the experience of suffering is the feeling of being powerless)… The standard Christian line as I grew up with it was that Jesus lived a mortal life without sin.

        Stop and think about that.

        If He didn’t sin, if He didn’t F*ck up, if He never thoroughly screwed the pooch and only realized it afterwards, well… how much of a mortal life was that, really? If He never experienced regret, doesn’t that exclude the possibility of Him being fully human (as well as fully divine)? How can someone like that — something like that — have lived through the full range of human experiences?

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        Thanks, Bruce. A high compliment. Another thing that strikes me is that some Christians say it all comes from God-good and bad. Other Christians say it’s a battle between good and evil with Satan doing the bad stuff like cancer and God not liking that. That’s a pretty big difference, and they’re all reading the same Bible.

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    Mary Ellen

    First, I relate well to some aspects of Buddhist thought, so John Arthur’s comment is, to me, a really good one.
    To me, we are human beings, and sometimes, we get sick, and some of us more than others…I’ve been a “frequent flyer” at both local hospitals, and I’ve heard cries of suffering, sometimes from the roommate just the other side of the curtain…Joni’s words may be an attempt at explaining the unexplainable…
    In my case, I drew a family genetic wild card called Marfan’s Syndrome, and the cardiovascular aspects nearly took me out in my mid 30s…
    I’d like to see the spin that Joni would put on why the people she most ardently supports politically as a conservative christian, seem to want to take away the SSDI and Medicare, that I and others in my position paid for, away from us…it’s the only thing keeping many of us out of a plot at the local cemetery…what does her god have to say about that? She has made all kinds of money on art and books and such, but what about the rest of us?
    There may not be any answers, but Bruce, you ask some good questions…

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    Bruce–No one enjoys pain, but that does not mean that pain does not have a purpose. If I touch a hot wood stove, pain alerts me that something is wrong. If there were no pain, I might not be so quick to remove my hand from a dangerous situation. I could even lose my hand if I left it there long enough.
    Did you ever think that maybe God allows pain in this world to alert us that here on this earth things are very wrong? In the absence of pain, many people just continue to blithely ignore God. This life is hardly a blip on the screen compared to eternity. A really compassionate God would be preparing us for that, wouldn’t He? Joni understands God’s compassion better than most, I think, because she’s been walking close to the Lord through very hard times. When you go through hard times with someone, it brings you closer together. That’s a very precious thing.

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        Don’t worry, Mary…. I’ve got this joker covered. You and I know that God kills and maims for a reason! And that if He didn’t do that we would probably all sleep with our neighbor’s wife and have sex with poodles, not to mention turn into lovers of same-sex and such likes! God gave me (and much of my extended family) bad hearts and I know it was so that I could praise his holy name and appreciate suffering. You and I know what we know, Mary, so you go ahead and remove your hand so it does not get burned by Satan and I will deal with this mockery in due time. (We win, finally, Mary… we always win.) The atheists have nowhere to go! They have no compass! They eat their own children because it doesn’t make any difference and they think they won’t be punished! Did they not read 1 Cor. 10 where 23 thousand sexual sinners died in one day! No, they have no reason to be alive and will suffer! But don’t grumble, the Bible says, as some did and were killed by the destroying angel. Don’t you just love how Jesus does that, Mary? 23 thousand in one day! Let us prey.

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      It is perhaps the most difficult part of being an apologist, steering a logical way through the problem of pain, something about which Bruce writes frequently.

      It’s all very well analogising the pain we understand in the world as beneficial, stubbing one’s toe, the stove burn to which you refer, or even a heart attack. All of these have a purpose in that they warn us of danger or a need to take an aspirin. However, there comes a point where the pain ceases to serve a purpose. At more mundane levels there’s everyday pain that just won’t go away, but there’s also the pain that exists at a much greater level; victims of war, the victims of the holocaust, the starving of the world. The list is endless.

      So you can understand and explain ordinary pain that serves as a warning, but when it comes to anything more severe you fall back on ‘well god must have a purpose’. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. The level of pain god inflicts, if indeed it is god inflicting it at all, renders him vindictive, capricious, and totally lacking empathy. If he were a human, we would lock him up for life.

      Yet there actually is an explanation, and it works in solving not just the problem of pain, but all the other conundrums caused by belief in god. Yep, that’s the one; THERE IS NO GOD. Think about it and you’ll find, quite quickly, that it is the only explanation that makes complete sense.

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      Did you ever think that maybe God allows pain in this world to alert us that here on this earth things are very wrong? In the absence of pain, many people just continue to blithely ignore God.

      Zoe: So, “God” is using breast cancer in Joni’s life because she hasn’t had enough pain thus far and she’s probably slipping and forgetting that things on this earth are very wrong . . . so , He gives her more pain as He perceives it’s likely that she’s dangerously close to “blithely” ignoring God? How precious!

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      I should have thought about your philosophy Mary when I was spending six years of misery grinding out an existence on dialysis watching my friends die. I should have realised that God was teaching us all a lesson.

      Best wishes

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      “In the absence of pain. . .” Pain is everywhere, Mary. People don’t need a cancer diagnosis or to break their neck before they are aware of pain both in their own life and in the lives if other people.

      But suggesting that these sorts of sufferings (and others: seeing your loved ones murdered in the Holocaust, being raped, tortured, starving to death) are “hardly a blip on the screen” suggests to me that you’ve had quite a bit less suffering than many. Or that you are, as Joni appears to be, buying into a message that is very masochistic.

      I’m sad to read that these are Joni’s views. . .but no longer surprised. Perhaps it’s the only way she can see of giving meaning to her experience. But it’s an appalling meaning, imo.

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    Gary Walston

    Bruce God is Love. God doesn’t give someone cancer; He may allow affliction to test our faith; to mold us and shape us in His image; as he did Job…… God Heals……. and sets the Captive Free; I Pray that you come to know Him in the Power of His ressurection Love Gary Walston

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    Yulya. Sevelova

    I’m just reading this now, and had no idea that on top of everything else, she was dealing with with that damned disease. How awful That’s the pits. She got a raw deal. I used to hear her radio program, ” Joni and Friends ” and at that time she had to cope with painful muscle spasms in her back, and she didn’t want to wake her husband up by complaining or asking for help. She’d ride it out many a night. Hearing that story appalled me. I was angry on her behalf. Wow. So much for that Blab N Grab, Health N Wealth doctrine my ears were beaten with years ago. I did wonder why God was so stingy with her,of all people.

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    I notice a difference in how I deal with bad things, whether I’m Christian or not. As a Christian I thought God was afflicting me, or allowing me to be afflicted, which is a distinction without a difference. Now, I’m more inclined to more actively fight against the bad things (if possible), than to try to be patient about them. Although I do admit that trusting God gave me some inner peace. Now? I don’t feel inner peace so much but then again, since November 2016 it’s been quite difficult.

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    Ah, Joni – she was highly revered at our Southern Baptist church where I grew up. Our church library had her book, and I remember seeing the movie when I was a child. She was supposed to be a hero we all looked up to, someone whose faith and trust in God were so great that despite her great suffering she was a faithful servant to and advocate of the God who wouldn’t heal her. It’s sad that she suffered again.

    It’s hard for me to understand why anyone would worship such a God except from fear, I suppose. I would hate to think that a supposedly benevolent and all powerful God CHOSE to give me cancer (or any other bad thing). That’s not benevolence, and if you think it is you’ve been seriously manipulated.

    It’s so much more freeing and makes so much more sense to understand that there is no God, and sh!t happens.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    I don’t know any person in a wheelchair, be they paraplegic or quadraplegic , who accepts, endures, or welcomes their fate. I do think that fear, more than any other emotion, along with self-loathing is behind these masochistic statements about God. Fear you will really be punished if you complain to others about how God treats you. Better to say the Party line.

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    As a father nothing is worse than seeing your children sad or suffering and you do everything to avoid this and you feel completely helpless when you can’t take their pain away. Throughout the centuries no one has been able to reconcile an omnipotent and all loving god with the presence of horrible and unrelenting suffering so all that is left is rationalization. I’m comfortable with the realization that there is no god but I could never worship a god who could take away suffering but failed to do so

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Bruce Gerencser