The Darker Side of Relating Christianity to Chronic Illness

church edit
Photo © a rainbow at night

My experience is not uncommon and yet no one is talking about it. Christianity never helped me deal with being sick. It told me–or maybe it was just the people involved–to “hold on to God’s promise” and if I “just believed hard enough,” God would restore my health. Yet what I actually found was just how threatening the reality that is chronic illness can be to people with deeply held religious beliefs.

While reading a few days ago, I realized I’m still so angry at the people who hurt me that I instantly recoil at the mere mention of Christianity. However, much of what the religion has become today is a mockery of what Jesus actually stood for, and I owe it to myself and others to focus more on the type of person Jesus was and less on what people have done with him. I need to stop judging Christianity by the actions of people calling themselves Christians. This anger arising in me is a healthy response to having been wronged, but it is also a message and warning that something needs to change. I of course cannot change what has already happened, but I can work toward forgiveness before it turns into a lifelong bitterness that I blindly accept instead of rightfully question.

Forgiveness for the brainwashing, when I was at my most vulnerable;
Forgiveness for the innumerable times I was told in a manner of words,”If you’re sick, it’s your own fault for not believing in God strongly enough“;
Forgiveness for the years wasted on false promises, year that could have been used to help me find real meaning.

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

In our context, “forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different,” and “in order for forgiveness to happen, something must die.” So I understand I need to stop clinging to what I wish would’ve happened and move forward…after I properly grieve.

Most Christians I was exposed to back then felt they had to protect their image of god through bizarre logic, such as:

  • If you believe in Him, you will be protected from anything “bad” ever happening to you;
  • If something bad does happen, it’s because you weren’t doing something you were told to do; and
  • Bad things will continue to happen until you get rid of all the “evil” in your life allowing the bad things to happen.
  • In other words: Everything is your fault.

The Christians I encountered literally blamed me for this disease. They told me I must have been doing something wrong in my life for this to be happening, and said God was “allowing satan to punish [me]” for it.

During my first few years of illness, some of their suggestions about this “evil” were:

“Stop drawing dragons; they’re symbols of the devil!”
“Someone in your household has been watching pornography!”
“Get rid of that gargoyle; it has a ~bad energy~!”
“This is a generational curse because of your parents’ sins!”

It was all about other people telling me what I needed to do in order to earn their god’s love, nevermind that being “perfect” is completely unattainable; was that the catch? Trying to appease “The Church” in order to be loved by their god will only leave you struggling in self-hatred. But apparently, then and only then would their god take away this “curse” of illness, a plight bestowed upon my physical form because I literally wasn’t good enough to receive his mercy.

Does this mean Tammy Faye Bakker died from cancer because she didn’t pray the right way, was tainted by original sin, didn’t repent enough, or had a generational curse?*

From what I’ve seen, things like this are the main reasons people stop believing in any religion, especially Christianity. They are led to believe that God hates them for being a lowly human, that God is punishing them for “original sin,” and they can’t wrap their minds around anything “allowing” so much suffering in this world. (Side note? Buddhists believe in original goodness.) But a belief in Something Greater is not your opt-out of experiencing anything painful.

Disease is a not some freakish anomaly that shouldn’t exist. Anything with a body can and likely will get diseased at some point, and it’s not a punishment from either the underworld or spited gods. There will also come the morning where you will see your last sunrise, and you will die. Yet instead of being one of our greatest, most revered teachers, Christianity describes death as our “last enemy.”

I have a different view on how spirituality and illness intertwine. Is it not true that disease is one of the main conditions drawing people to religion in the first place?

Within the many boxes and ellipses of spirituality and religion, I mostly fit within Buddhist Unitarian Universalism. I believe there are infinite ways to connect to the divine, and anything claiming to have a monopoly on that force should be approached with caution and skepticism.

In Buddhist practices, there’s a common misconception that “life is suffering.” But as Thich Nhat Hanh elaborates in his book, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching“:

If we are not careful in the way we practice, we may have the tendency to make the words of our teacher into a doctrine or an ideology. Since the Buddha said that the First Noble Truth is suffering, many good students of the Buddha have used their skills to prove that everything on Earth is suffering. … But in other parts of the same sutras, the Buddha says that he only wants us to recognize suffering when it is present and to recognize joy when suffering is absent. . . . We need to say, ‘The basis for this suffering is such and such an affliction,’ and then call it by its true name.”

I believe, before we incarnated, we all agreed to the conditions of this earth and the existence of suffering, illness included. I don’t believe God/the Universe/whatever-your-preferred-title controls our actions. This Source Energy might want to pull us toward Love, toward our connection to this Source, but cannot stop us from hurting ourselves or others. We are all beings in our own right, not puppets, and free will exists. “Bad” things do happen to “good” people. Natural disasters happen. Terrible diseases happen. People abuse each other in unthinkable ways. And from those situations emerge some of the strongest people on this earth.

To admire strength but then deny that this is how strength is actually born, is to ignore that steel results from setting fire to iron. As Viktor Frankl famously said, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

Wonderful things can come from having experienced illness, and its’ timing in our lives–truly the timing of everything in our lives–is absolutely essential. Most are stopped in their tracks and have a chance to ponder how they arrived there. Near-death experiences invariably bring people closer to, if not the divine, then what they consider divine in their own lives. What’s really important to them? And what’s really important to the people closest to them, who often obtain a second-hand awakening by osmosis?

If someone can look at me and say that God, however you define It/Him/Her, has not healed me and transmuted my life, they’re not looking closely enough. I was a horribly angry person, swarmed by negative emotions, spiritually and psychologically fractured. Like so many others, I thought chasing The American Dream would give me happiness. Nothing could have ever given me pause like the experience of disease. I can say in all honesty that I wouldn’t change a thing, because no other turn of events in my own life could have possibly created the person I am today.

In a perhaps ironic twist, I actually do believe my soul helped decide this life. Not all the specifics, but I do believe we help choose our time of birth, our place of birth, our body, even the parents to whom we incarnate, and have decided beforehand which main lesson we wish to tackle this round of life. Reincarnation is a given, although I don’t yet see any evidence to support we were once ants, trees, or tigers; the energy of other types of life operates on a different vibration than we do, I think.

But am I enacting the same blame upon the sick as the Christians I rejected, by saying our soul chose to experience disease?

I don’t think so. Saying our souls choose a specific outlet for the powerful alchemy of suffering in order to grow, is not the same as saying you are inherently bad, that some omnipotent being is punishing you and you must appease it to make the pain stop, or it will continue to berate you with suffering until you “love” it enough. As a survivor of many types of abuse, I can say with some authority that sounds no different than being under the control of an abuser.

The people trying to tackle my experience of disease through Christianity didn’t know they were hurting me. They didn’t realize they were blaming me for my disease because of their own desire to protect their personal understanding of god; their inability to reconcile the version of Him in their head with the thought of Him “allowing” illness to happen; and because they saw illness as a curse to be delivered from, not a fact of life with which all must cope.

They didn’t know it all ultimately came from their fear of not being in control. 

Those people should not have turned this devastating illness into my responsibility to “pray away,” but inside I’d like to think that if they knew any better way, they would have done so. Even if I am still working on my forgiveness, I am glad I have not become that which has hurt me, so I will not hurt others in the same way. And may it be so.

a rainbow at night

Updated October 2015
* Of course not–don’t send me hate-mail.

See also:

7 thoughts on “The Darker Side of Relating Christianity to Chronic Illness

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with God Is Love.

    Love is not about punishment or sacrificing things or fear of inanimate objects
    It’s about accepting us as we are, who we are, not as someone else thinks we should be. Unconditional love…not dependant on our actions.

    Love God. Love God’s Creation.

    Jesus did not seek to punish Peter for denying him 3 times. And he told Judas to go ahead and betray him and most certainly didn’t condemn him.
    He surrounded himself with sinners…living among & loving society’s low-lifes while the righteous he took to task.
    Paul declared Everything is free to me. Everything is permissable. Not always advisable (esp when it harms someone else who we should love) but the ensuing consequences do NOT include God punishing us.
    There is no condemnation as the penalty for sin has been paid. We are forgiven our sins…past, present AND future.

    People who tell you illness or bad things happen are punishment for sins or for lack of faith (ie. belief in hoped for unseen things) are in fact placing limits on God…they’re saying Love goes this far and no further…like a fence around a field…finite Infinity. They are judging you & in doing so are saying they are better than you.
    Yet God alone has the right to judge us. And has chosen not to
    No one else has the right to judge us.

    Jesus told a parable over this very issue. About the servant forgiven massive debts by his lord only for the servant to turn around and start beating other servants under his care for not being able to repay lesser debts. And when the lord found out he threw the ungrateful man into jail until he repaid the previously forgiven debt.
    So Christian who ignore this do so at their own eternal peril. This is the blasphemy against the Spirit (of Love) … the ONLY sin not forgiven. They are throwing Love’s Love back into his face.

    It’s also written that what we are afraid of, that is our God…the reason we should fear God…(the better translation of fear in this instance is Love. love Love) it’s in the same letter by John as the God is Love and Love Is verses…not devils or demons who have no power over us. Jesus won that fight at Golgotha.

    In Isaiah 44: 10-20 it’s clearly written about the absurdity of worshipping a piece of carved wood or stone object. You take a piece of wood, burn on end on a fire to cook your dinner and carve the other end then bow down & worship it. Being afraid of a picture of a dragon or a carving of a gargoyle most assuredly comes under this teaching.

    I was going to write more but this is already too long. I hope you will forgive me for the Bible-bashing.

    I also hope you are able to keep cool in this hot weather and are happily a long long way away from any and all bushfires.


    1. Hi Julia, no problem about the long comment–I am flattered that you thought it important to spent your energy expressing yourself on my post. ♥

      The way I see it, the punishment we get through NOT living a life the way Jesus lived–a life of compassion and love–is the consequence in and of itself: A life away from Love. “Hell” has always been traditionally defined as seperation from God, so seperation from Love–what worse life is there?

      Actually, your words applied even greater to an “issue” with a family member I’d been having the day you posted it, so thank you for that. It really helped me sort through what to do about it. What an unexpected source! ;) Many hugs to you! Stay well. ♥



  2. I’ve no idea what kind of wackos you dealt with but day-mn! They sounded like fools, the statements you made “someone watched porn in your house that’s why you are sick”
    Uhhh isn’t God supposed to “punish” the porn watcher NOT the pron watchers sister, mother, father etc?
    Also whatever happened to God allowing sickness to “call you home”?
    I somehow got the idea in my head that God allows sickness/deaths to Call his people Home sort of thing.
    I’m not religious because of all the People involved that try to take away everything that’s me.
    Music clothes books games.
    I felt like that if knowing Jesus means throwing these away then I don’t want to know him.
    But lately I’d been thinking the opposite.
    Maybe God likes booze and boobs.
    How do WE know what god wants?
    Jesus always drank in the Good Book.
    I think he doesn’t want us to act like jerks and worship him. Perioid. None of those get rid of this or that drama.


    1. A lot of people give God human characteristics and I think that’s bound to end badly. Whatever judgements they have–about others’ actions they just simply don’t “agree” with, about the human body and sexuality–they attribute to some divine being (or write in a book that gets passed along thousands of years…) so as to not face their judgements, themselves.

      As for the other stuff, that makes perfect sense to me. The idea that everyone is “supposed” to have a loooooong life is just.. not.. realistic? I think we’re here to impact one another and our souls, and that doesn’t always take 90 years! Quality, not quantity, and all that. I’m happier than most anyone I know, and most would think I was dealt an “unfair” hand…


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s