It's been a pretty rough start to the year for my family. About a month ago we found out that one of my nephews had whooping cough, which is bad enough in itself. What made it worse, however, was the fact that we'd all just had a big extended family holiday together. Six families, with lots of kids, toddlers and babies.
Whooping cough is highly contagious and can be very dangerous for young children, so we went into panic mode. Over the next few weeks someone from each family came down with it, and despite our best efforts at containment, the disease spread beyond our families before we knew what was going on. We've cancelled social engagements, taken antibiotics, called off our church, taken time off work until we're certain we're not contagious, made calls to everyone we saw who we might have passed it on to, and spent most of our time confined to our house.
The worst part is how it affects the kids though. When they have a bad enough coughing fit they can't breathe. One of the dads told me his little girl was coughing for a good two minutes without being able to take any air in. He said, "There was a point there where I thought 'This is it. She's gone.'" It's a terrifying experience.
And that's been our year so far. Worrying about our kids, worrying about friends' and families' kids, waiting and hoping that no one else comes down with it. And in the midst of all this my 10-year-old daughter asked me, "Does God have a reason for whooping cough?"
Does God have a reason for sickness? What would you have said? Moments like these shape the world for our kids. When a child asks a question like this you can't fudge over it, ignore it or offload it to someone else. So you stop,
take a breath.
Then you need to have an honest answer for them. If you don't have it all figured out it's ok to say that. Just be honest.
When I was younger I thought that God did have a reason for everything. Diseases, tsunamis, earthquakes, famines, everything. I believed that God was controlling it all, so therefore sickness must also be part of his plan. "God's got a reason for this," people would say. "Just trust him and you'll see. Maybe this suffering is a test, or a challenge to make you stronger or more humble." Then if ever it felt like a situation was too terrible, we would tell ourselves, "Well obviously I just can't see the big picture." This is a fairly common worldview among religions.
Now that I've experienced a bit more of life, I'm no longer comfortable with that idea. What kind of god causes suffering? What kind of god would give whooping cough to a newborn, or cause a miscarriage, or make millions of third-world people suffer blindness? What kind of good reason could there be to destroy a city with a hurricane? Maybe a god like that is all-powerful, but is he GOOD?
Thankfully, the Bible provides another way to look at this. If you follow the biblical story through you can see that God doesn't control everything, even in the Bible. People are the most obvious example. God isn't making us dance with marionette strings. Adam and Eve ate the fruit, Abraham lied about his wife, Moses killed an Egyptian, King David knocked up Bathsheba and knocked off her husband, Solomon chose way too many wives, Peter denied Jesus even existed and so on. All the way through, humans are free to make choices - a myriad of choices, even bad ones. God gave us creativity, wisdom and passion, and we can use it how we like - for better or worse. This shows a fair amount of respect on God's part.
The natural world is another example. This blue planet of ours is bursting with life and beauty, but it's not entirely safe. Many parts of it seem tailor-made for human life, but there are some challenges for us to face if we want to thrive here. The sun gives life, but it can also cause cancer if we don't respect it. River systems provide water and food, but it can be dangerous living on a river. Bacteria can be beneficial, but it can also be lethal. All of these are morally neutral, and with our intelligence we can use them for good or evil. This is the world God gave us - a stunning, perplexing and wondrous world of energy and colour - and as a whole our Earth is brilliantly set up for human life.
All of that my daughter has heard before in our conversations over the years, so my answer was much simpler. Does God have a reason for whooping cough? No, diseases are just part of this world. But we can work hard and learn how to understand them, contain them, and someday we will cure them. Maybe my daughter will find that cure.
Our Earth is both dangerous and beautiful, and with respect, creativity, wisdom and some divine support we can make it better still. That's a challenge for us all.
Ben is a fully-trained minister, but he's chosen to be the groundsman at a local primary school because it's a great way to bring hope to his local community. He believes everyone can make the world a better place, whoever or wherever you are. Ben also leads a simple alternative-style church in his home in Brisbane, Australia. Online, Ben produces the Facebook page "For Want of a Better World" and works to facilitate safe places for vibrant conversation on faith and life.
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