Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.
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.
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, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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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