God in a Box
1 Corinthians 11:29,30 Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
My son and I were recently working on a project when I got a little careless with the table saw. As I fed the plywood through at an awkward angle, a piece caught on the blade and shot back at me, catching me in the hip. As I doubled over from the force of the punch, my son managed the perfect balance of concern and laughter. I was fine, but I learned, or relearned, a lesson. My careless behavior can easily translate into pain and injury. My pain is often my fault.
This is not always obviously the case. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, the uncertainty, pain and illness often provoke existential questions. Why God? Did you cause this? Are you punishing me for something? I have met those who insist that every illness is directly attributable to some sin in a person’s life. If you have cancer, it is because you have sinned against God and this is his punishment. Unless you confess and repent, you will not be healed.
I disagreed. I knew that as I lived under grace, that I was forgiven for all my sin. A God who has forgiven me could not possible discipline or punish me, right? I put God in a box, insisting that I knew the boundaries of his behavior. So too did those who insisted that all sickness if a result of sin.
We put God in a box whenever we take one verse or attribute of God and elevate it above all others. When we say that God is love and thus, He would never punish someone, we ignore passages like today’s, where Paul instructed that anyone who participates in communion must examine themselves to see if their heart is right before God. He insisted that some individuals had fallen into illness and even death, as they had consumed communion in an unworthy manner.
The reality is, God is not confined by any box of our creation. He may well cause an illness but the Bible does not say that all illness is directly caused by him. We suffer illness and pain for a variety of reasons.
In my addiction, I caused myself physical harm. If I smoke for years, I will cause lung disease and possible cancer. My illness is sometimes directly attributable to my behavior. The newborn, affected by his mother’s smoking or drinking, suffers from the behavior of another. God does sometimes allow illness and injury to be caused by others. Job suffered at the hands of Satan.
Some physical ailments seem to have no obvious cause. When asked if a man was blind because of his sin, Jesus insisted this was not the case (John 9). Since the fall, we live in defective bodies that are prone to decay and disease. We are all going to die eventually, whether we sin greatly or not. Still, God does cause some illnesses directly. Ananias and Sapphira met with immediate death due to their sin (Acts 5).
What then, is to be my response to my illness? First, I must not put God in a box, telling him what He can or cannot do. He is, after all, behind all things and in some way, ultimately responsible for everything. In my illness or pain, I am to go to God and ask if my ailment is a result of my actions. I am to ask what He wants me to learn from my pain. I am to treat every discomfort or trial as an opportunity for God to work his will in me (James 1, Hebrews 12).
Whether or not God directly caused a thing, He can always use my pain as a tool to shape me. It would be a tragedy if I suffered without allowing God to work his will in me. Whether I see my pain as directly caused by or allowed by God, He is in control and I would do well to seek his will in it. When I put God in a box, the only thing I limit is his work in me.