Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
QUESTION: Does God want me to have cancer? In the 1820s, Pope Leo XII said God decides who gets smallpox, so don't vaccinate (and if you did, you wouldn't go to heaven). A few years ago, the Rev. Billy Graham preached that God can use cancer to bring you back to God and faith. However, if Rev. Graham lost his car keys, I don't think he'd walk home thinking that's simply what God wanted; he'd search for the keys.
-- B., via email
ANSWER: How we get cancer is a problem. Why we get cancer is a mystery.
Many problems have solutions, even if we haven't discovered them yet. This is because problems are about science and ultimately have nothing to do with us personally, even if we have cancer personally. The cure for cancer is a problem, and science is about problems. Problems are questions we constitute.
Mysteries are questions about how we ourselves are constituted. This is why they have no solutions. Before the 18th-century chemist Lavoisier discovered that oxygen caused combustion, people thought combustion was a mystery. Once that problem was solved, it never came up again. It was settled by science.
Someday, when we find a cure for cancer, that problem will also disappear. The right attitude toward problems is, "Solve them!" Curing cancer is obviously a matter of world-changing significance, but ultimately has no more religious significance than finding a lost set of keys.
However, whether God does or does not cause us to get sick, or wants us to get sick, for some spiritual teaching moment is a very different kind of question. It's a mystery that will never be solved and will never go away.
The key question in the Book of Job about why God allows the righteous to suffer, for example, remains a compelling and captivating mystery even after thousands of years. That's because the question is really about our place in the universe.
If we were created in the image of a benevolent and all powerful God, the presence in the world of sick good people is a challenge to that belief. On the other hand, if we're alone in the world and God does not exist, the mystery remains of why goodness is so often irrelevant to the fate of the good among us.
The "answer" all depends upon our beliefs about God and the world, and those beliefs can't be proved or disproved. We're either loved or alone in the universe. We must choose which we will believe, and what we choose forms our response to the mystery of human suffering. You see, we can solve problems, but we can only respond to mysteries. This is why so many people become confused and disillusioned about God. My response to your query about the mystery of illness comes from two young boys with leukemia interviewed for our HBO special some years ago, "How Do You Spell God?" At the time, they were patients in an MD Anderson Cancer Center pediatric ward.
One of the boys said, "I don't know why God made me sick. I'm a good boy." His friend, sitting next to him, looked at him lovingly and said, "I don't think God did this to us. I think God does good things to the bad things that got into our bodies." Then he took a deep breath and said, "If you had all the pain I have, you could not get through one day without God." That's what I believe.
I believe that God will be with us in our suffering and will be with us when our bodies are healed, or when our bodies give out and God kisses us on the lips and takes our breath away and escorts our souls to a place where there is no suffering and where the final truth of every mystery is revealed.