Is it possible to harmonize the perplexing issues of disease, disability, suffering and death with the concept of a loving, merciful God? This vexed quandary has exercised the minds of many philosophers, theologians and commentators for generations. Much has been written on the subject producing numerous conclusions and expositions, some less satisfactory than others. Augustine, an early Church Father, commented that “since it is of God we are speaking, then of course you do not fully understand it. If you could, then it would not be of God”.
However, there is one aspect of the debate that probably attracts more attention than others: are diseases and disability punishment from a vengeful God?
For sure, many ailments and disabilities are self-inflicted or inflicted by others, either deliberately or accidentally. Age itself brings a degree of disability and frailty to all of us. The daily news reminds us that “bad things happen” (to ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people). Even Christ remarked that “in the world you will have tribulation, distress and suffering” (John 16 v33, Amp Bible). Regrettably, we do live in a broken world in which bad things do and will happen, and often no one is obviously to blame. The Scriptures occasionally remind us it will be thus until the end of Time when God will restore His once perfect Creation.
Yet these explanations still don’t fully satisfy or address that nagging, uncomfortable query – is disability (of whatever kind) a punishment from an angry God?
This disturbing belief has existed among many cultures for generations. Certainly it was a distinct Jewish belief that the disabled in their society (especially those who were blind, deaf, mute, crippled, suffering from leprosy) were in fact being punished because of personal sin. The Old Testament describes many such incidents where an individual was punished for sin and/or disobedience (eg Uzziah struck down with leprosy and King Jeroboam experiencing sudden paralysis). Invariably such ‘victims’ became isolated and excluded from social, economic, political and religious life. It was even thought that the affliction might be a type of ‘virtuous suffering’, to be endured in order to purify the ‘sinner’ and bring him/her back to a life of obedience. The situation would be further compounded if the ‘sinner’ sought healing from God but was denied. Being righteous meant there could be no excuse for physical flaws or suffering. It was a persistent belief that sin and evil within prevent everyone acquiring a perfect body, and so sin and impurity define disability. Unfortunately these beliefs still exist.
Perhaps a disabled individual was a particularly ‘bad person’? This might be a reasonable explanation to justify their plight. But such a distressing notion just doesn’t survive any scrutiny. The Scriptures are quite unequivocal – everyone is a ‘sinner’ in the eyes of God. The Psalmist states, “If God were to keep an account of our sins and treat us accordingly, who could stand?” (Ps 130, Amp Bible). The Lord when addressing the rich young ruler (Mark 10) stated, “there is no one good except God”. So, the obvious question arises - why aren’t we all then seriously disabled? To add a further twist to the debate, time and time again the Scriptures protest about the apparent injustice when the ‘wicked’ seem to prosper. The prophet Habukkuk was particularly upset on this score (Habukkuk 1 &2). The issues don’t seem so clear cut now!
This Jewish belief (disability implies sin and punishment) was prevalent even among Jesus’ disciples. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9 v1), was the question asked of Jesus when they met a blind man. This condemnatory attitude was again manifested in relation to the deaths of the Galileans, killed by Pilate’s soldiers, and those caught in the collapse of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13). Maybe all these people deserved their lot! Was it therefore appropriate to interfere and ‘fix’ everything?
Jesus totally repudiated this notion and belief system, and rebuked his disciples. Everywhere He went He healed and restored the sick and suffering. Such individuals should not be viewed as if they were cursed of God! His mission (as stated in the Nazareth synagogue, Luke 4) was to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed”. This was all in stark contrast to the prevailing negative beliefs of the time. The four Gospels relate story after story of how Jesus spent so much time with the least in society, always displaying great compassion towards the diseased and disabled, recognising their experiences of discrimination, marginalisation, prejudice and inequality. Even His parables reflected these sympathies – the parable of the “Great Banquet” (Luke 14) described how the poor, crippled, blind and lame were brought into the feast from the streets and alleyways. This banqueting was such a contrast to the etiquette of the times!
It is interesting to note that on a number of occasions, when Jesus was performing a particular healing (eg the paralytic man lowered through the roof, or the disabled man by the pool of Bethesda), He also forgave the sins of those being healed. Would this suggest Jesus made a link between disability and sin? Most unlikely; such a conclusion doesn’t fit in with the overall ministry of Christ. For sure, He was very aware of the dominant thinking on the subject but, more importantly, He knew His audience would always make the link between sin and disability. By forgiving sins Jesus also removed the stigma imposed on the sufferer by a culture which ostracised the sufferer and deemed him/her unworthy of society’s acceptance. Jesus was not just concerned with curing the sufferer’s physiological condition but also concerned with the restoration of that person back into his/her community and allow the re-establishment of self-esteem and identity.
Christ was always concerned about the physical and spiritual welfare of the crowds who followed him. His disciples followed in this tradition (as detailed in the book of Acts). Not surprisingly His church is also obliged to follow suit, making it part of their mission to remove existing discrimination and create inclusive communities by challenging oppressive and dehumanising systems and structures. Social restoration and physical healing should go together.
Back in the Middle Ages when much inconceivable suffering was widespread the Church had a list of “Seven Works of Mercy”: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive and bury the dead”. In a magazine article written shortly after the 2011 Japanese Tsunami the responsive “mission statement” of the small Japanese Christian community was recorded. It included an additional list of “Spiritual Works of Mercy”: to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offences willingly, comfort the afflicted, pray for the injured and bereaved”. These are indeed inspiring sentiments for the Church at large. Ultimately there must be a recognition that suffering and disability will always exist but always a determination to never conflate punishment, personal sin and disability.
Written by Ray Allen, MMN Trustee