Is Cancer a Punishment From God?
Taking a deeper look at a difficult but necessary question when facing cancer.
(Pastor and Colon Cancer Survivor)
Is cancer a punishment from God?
Long-term or terminal illness is the kind of disruption that causes one to wrestle with questions like this. These questions can come during the stillness of a sleepless night or in a conversation with a friend. It matters not where they originate. Once asked, they echo in our minds until we find an answer.
I started thinking about this question after reading a question posted on the Hope Has Arrived support group on Facebook:
“Do other cancer patients feel that they’re a disappointment to God and/or by having cancer, it’s our punishment??”
An invitation to reflection
I resisted the urge to fire off a quick reply. After all, I am a pastor who has dealt with my own stage IV cancer journey.
Instead, choosing rather to sit with the question, I wrestled with it on a personal level.
“Do I feel that I am a disappointment to God and/or by having cancer, it’s my punishment?”
Cancer is not a punishment
The short answer is yes; I have felt that way. There have been seasons when I felt I must have disappointed God, and I was walking this journey because of my failure. So, yes, I have had those feelings.
A deeper, more complete answer would be that while there have been seasons when I felt that way, I do not believe those thoughts. Cancer is not my punishment, nor am I a disappointment to God.
In fact, I believe the exact opposite. I believe we are the beloved of God. I also believe God wants nothing but the best for us, even if the scans and blood work show disease progression.
Let me share two stories found within the scriptures that give me this confidence.
The first story
In Luke 15, Jesus shares about a youngest son who can’t wait for his father to die to grab hold of his share of the inheritance. The youngest son asks to receive his portion immediately.
His father, while hurt by the request, gives him his share. Without a backward glance, the youngest son heads off and squanders everything on wild living. With nothing left to his name, the young man starts tending pigs to try and support himself.
In a moment of clarity, he realizes that life would be far better as a servant in his father’s house than struggling to survive out in the world. Humiliated and broken, he heads home to beg forgiveness and ask to be a servant on his father’s estate.
Jesus tells us that the father watched the road and saw his son “a long way off.” Dropping everything, the father runs to greet his son. Embracing his lost child, forgiveness was immediate. The relationship is restored, and dad throws a giant party celebrating the return of his lost child.
Meaning of the story
Jesus tells this story to speak of our relationship with God. The father in the story is God, and we are the children. Jesus wants us to understand how God welcomes us. The love of God overcomes and overwhelms anything we may do or whatever difficulties that happen to us.
While I may feel like a disappointment, God’s response is always to welcome me home with his love.
Do you believe this is true for you, too? Why or why not?
The second story
The second story is when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his betrayal. At one point, Jesus prays,
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39, New International Version).
Jesus understands what the days ahead held. The chaos and suffering leading up to his crucifixion. I believe part of what Jesus is asking to avoid is that moment on the cross when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The road ahead is difficult, and even Jesus is required to walk the road of suffering.
Scripture tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God descended upon Him and said,
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, NIV).
If Jesus, one whom God loves and is pleased with, must walk a season of suffering, what makes me believe I will go through life and avoid suffering myself?
Life is difficult
I do not believe cancer is a punishment from God. Life happens, cancer happens, often, there is no explanation for the what or why of life. We live in a broken world.
God wants what is best for us. My (our) cancer breaks the heart of God. In my pain, I can choose to focus on myself, or I can use the suffering to connect with the struggles of others.
The belief in God’s love is healing and transformative. How can we navigate those seasons where the darker questions begin to speak into our lives?
Let me share four thoughts that may help you as you wrestle with the question, is cancer a punishment from God? Keep in mind that each cancer journey is unique. I am not traveling your journey, nor are you traveling mine.
Give space for your true feelings.
There have been moments, sometimes days, when I have wrestled with ideas such as disappointment or punishment. My darker thoughts typically come after hearing difficult news from my doctors or amid an especially difficult round of treatment. There have been days when I Awake Not Okay with my reality.
Early on, I would work to suppress such thoughts. I saw them as bad, something to be avoided or overcome. It was hard to “will or push” them aside when these darker thoughts captured my mind. My “failure” to get rid of them left me in an even darker place.
I wanted to live whatever life I had left with joy, hope, and positive energy. So why was I allowing these dark thoughts to control me? In my experience, the weight of cancer gets heavier as the dark thoughts swirl and “pile on.”
See your dark thoughts as temporary, not the final word.
As years of cancer treatment have rolled on, I have grown to see my dark thoughts as one of many seasons. Treatment cycles are filled with times of joy, worry, celebration, anxiety, feelings of disappointment, and so much more. There are moments when it is very clear that God is walking alongside me, and then seasons where I question if God even knows my name.
I have found the wisdom of Ecclesiastes helpful, which declares that there is nothing new under the sun and a season for everything:
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, 3:1, NIV).
Understand that emotions roll like waves.
I have reached a place where I am not surprised by much. Emotions come and go. Feelings well up and then disappear, like waves crashing upon the shore. Just as I think I have a handle on one feeling or emotion, another comes crashing upon the beach of my soul.
One can quickly become transfixed by the smooth, gentle rhythm of waves washing up on the shore. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a large wave comes and disrupts a peaceful pattern. Over time the waves slowly return to a more gentle rhythm.
My favorite time at the beach is following a large storm. Large waves are crashing and breaking upon the shore. All the churning brings to the surface treasures left unseen when the gentle waves roll. Sometimes it takes days for the ocean to return to a more peaceful, gentle rhythm, but return it does. There is a season for everything.
I have grown to see my emotions much like those ocean waves. Different waves, different emotions reveal their unique treasures. My spirit may be turbulent and dark for a few days, but like the saying goes, “This, too, shall pass.”
When I am living hopeful and joyful, I remind myself that this too, is a season. Yet, just as God is with me in the light, so will he be with me in the dark and come what will.
Embrace all of life as a gift.
No matter what emotional season I may find myself traveling, I strive to see all of life as a gift. This includes seeing my cancer as a gift. I do not pretend that this is easy. However, there are seasons where it is more possible than others.
Let me share a few of the gifts cancer has brought to my life:
I like the person cancer has helped me become. I am gentler, more patient, and understanding.
Cancer granted me clarity about life. As a result, I have a clearer understanding of what is truly important in my life.
I have lived my best life with cancer. Being clear on what is important has allowed me to focus on those people and things that matter most.
An invitation to suffer with Jesus
My cancer is an invitation to join with the suffering of Jesus.
Jesus endured suffering he did not deserve. Likewise, there is nothing I did to deserve my cancer—as far as I can tell. So, when I start asking why or wandering down the trail of dark thoughts, I think of Jesus.
I invite the Spirit to help me draw near Jesus and draw strength from the way he lived, even during his time of suffering. In some strange way, my cancer has drawn me closer to God.
Viewing my emotions as seasons and striving to see all of life (including cancer) as a gift has helped me spend less time in dark places.
Wherever you find yourself on your journey, if you find yourself asking the question, is my cancer a punishment from God? I encourage you to find the hope that is waiting to be found through God.
God loves you deeply. And he loves me, too.
May we strive to share openly and honestly about the reality of our journey, allowing others to find hope and strength to live theirs, too.
For more help with finding gratitude, see Every Day is a Gift.
Would you like to learn more about the person of Jesus? See Beyond Blind Faith.