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.