Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cancer and the Quest for a Guarantee

Within the last week, two of my friends died of cancer.

Karen, a fellow musician and longtime friend, was around the age of my parents. It was still too soon, and she will be sorely missed.

Mike, on the other hand, was only 35, and left behind children roughly the age of mine. I cannot even imagine the pain that they are experiencing.

Cancer is an ugly disease, eating the body from the inside out. It seems to be Psalm 22 as a reality:

I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint ; My heart is like wax ; It is melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And my tongue cleaves to my jaws ; And You lay me in the dust of death...I can count all my bones.

Perhaps more than anything else, more than death itself, we fear cancer. What would we not do to avoid this fate?

Perhaps this is why we are so vulnerable to false promises of deliverance. 

I feel I should talk about this, because I have been wrestling with thoughts that stem from the poison I ingested during my teen years. Poison administered by mostly well-meaning people who were craving certainty. Craving a magic system that would keep bad stuff from ever occurring.

Most people with a working knowledge of the television shows of the 1980s will be familiar with the “Word Faith” movement in pentecostal Christianity. In a nutshell, it is the belief that disease can be cured if a person has enough “faith.” Thus, to sucumb to cancer means that one had insufficient faith to be healed. (Leave aside for a moment the obvious fact that according to this philosophy, all of us eventually lose our faith enough to die.)

So anyway, this stuff was on TV, and plenty of people were really into it, and sent large amounts of money to these guys, some of whom eventually ended up in disgrace because of financial and/or sexual shenanigans. My family was never a believer in this sort of stuff, and neither was I, but I bring it up for a reason.

We fell for a much more cruel philosophy.

The “Word Faith” philosophy was based on the idea that one could obtain blessings by having the right amount of faith and the right kind of faith. You work the formula, you get what you want. (It also helps if you send money to the preacher. Some things never change.) It is God as Coke machine. Put the quarter of “faith” in, and make your selection. It worked for move venial things like wealth too, but I think most clung to it out of a desire to avoid bad things than to really make it rich. And yes, to feel that there was a certainty that they could get God to keep them from dying of cancer.

In a very similar way, Bill Gothard’s philosophy is all about getting the results through the formula. If you follow the seven principles, you get the spiritual and physical blessings promised.

I have written here and there about my experiences, and why I have rejected Gothardism and its philosophical sibling, the Christian Patriarchy movement. I want to explain how Gothard talked about cancer.

At the time we were part of ATIA (Gothard’s homeschool program), he was, I have come to find out from others within the program, working on a comprehensive system linking various diseases to specific sins which caused them. I do not know if it ever became part of the official curriculum or not. However, one thing I remember him focusing on in the seminars I attended was his belief that cancer was caused by “bitterness.”

That’s right. You get cancer because you are “bitter.”

I use quotes intentionally because Gothard’s definition of “bitterness” tended to include many who merely disagreed with his teachings or who were unwilling to submit to abusive authorities.

I discovered recently, through an article written by a fellow ex-ATIA student that this teaching was taken in part from a book by a guy named Henry Wright, A More Excellent Way. This book laid out the belief that disease is not physical by spiritual, and that by following the rules, you can avoid them. Familiar, yes? Sounds a bit like Christian Science, the cultlike organization?

Now, in some ways, this is a very attractive philosophy because it makes a nifty little promise. If you purge yourself from bitterness (by forgiving, submitting, agreeing, or whatever) you will never get cancer. Wow! I can be guaranteed freedom from an awful disease if I just follow the system!

Perhaps you can already see the problem with it, though. I’ll get to that in a moment.

There is a third version of this which lacks the explicit religious connection. Once again, it preys on the fear. I don’t want to get cancer.

My family was also heavily into so-called alternative medicine during most of my childhood. (I discussed some of this in my review of The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton.) If you want to know the common thread connecting every possible quack remedy, dietary idea, or supplement, it has to be fear of cancer. (For the record, my experience indicates that number two is weight loss, and number three is probably heart disease.) Take this antioxidant and you won’t get cancer. Be a vegetarian and you won’t get cancer. Eliminate carbohydrates and you won’t get cancer. Buy this book and you won’t get cancer. And on and on.

The most recent trendy diet, the gluten free diet, capitalizes on this too. (Apologies to my friends who are celiac. You have a legitimate issue with gluten. Listen to your doctor.) I remember reading an article sent to me by a friend who is an apostle of the gluten-free lifestyle. In that article, which unsurprisingly displayed a disgraceful ignorance of basic chemistry, the author claimed that all people should avoid gluten. Why? Because the body was supposedly always in an auto-immune reaction to gluten, which stole away resources that the body otherwise uses to kill the viruses that supposedly cause cancer. (Viruses do cause some cancers. HPV for example. Which is a good reason to get the vaccine. However, most cancers do not appear to have a viral link.)

So, do you follow the logic? If you avoid gluten, you won’t get cancer!

And, if you like, you can find a philosophy that combines the worst best of both alternative medicine and pseudospirituality! I remember my mom being into a book - still in print - by the name of None of These Diseases. The premise, if I remember correctly, is that there are hidden truths in the Bible that will keep you from getting sick with all the diseases that the gentiles non-Christians get. Yes, it cited a promise to the nation of Israel as a proof-text for why its program could...wait for it...keep you from getting cancer. I recall that a big part of the idea was that one should rigidly follow Old Testament dietary laws. [Subsequent note: None of These Diseases apparently isn't the book with the big no-pork idea. It was a different book whose name escapes me. I did find out though, that None of These Diseases does have a bit on why abused women are at fault for the abuse. Didn't remember that...] I think there was also stuff about regular fasting, and so on, but the dietary laws were a big deal. As a result, my family went off of pork and shellfish for quite a few years. I didn’t have a slice of real bacon again until after I moved out. It wasn’t just our family. I had to re-introduce my wife to pork after we married. (Her paradigm shift on ham occurred only a few years ago, after tasting my uncle’s world-class Easter dinner.) And, of course, we were led to believe that pork - more than any other food - caused cancer.

See, if you just follow the right program (whichever one is the right one), you won’t get cancer!

Except that NONE of these things work.

In what must surely come as a surprise to those who sincerely believe that cancer didn’t exist before (fill in the blank: modern diet, pollution, rock and roll, feminism), the earliest fossil evidence reveals that, yes, cancer was a problem from pretty much the dawn of time. And, contrary to urban legend, it is not increasing in rates. What has happened is that other things are not killing us sooner. Because fewer of us succumb to infections and accidents, we live long enough to die of heart disease, Alzheimers, and yes, cancer. Because we all die of something someday.

We do know a few things that will increase a cancer risk. Number one is smoking, of course. It turns out, contrary to Nineteenth Century belief, to be bad rather than good for you. Getting sunburnt is a risk too. Also, playing with radioactive stuff, ala Marie Curie. And, catching HPV (human papilloma virus). I find it interesting that conservative Christians are freaked out about the development of a vaccine for this disease. Because it is usually sexually transmitted. Better to die because of a sexual indiscretion than take steps to prevent it, I guess. It certainly coordinates with the belief that disease is caused by specific sins, though. That way, it preserves the belief that early death is the result of being bad. Actually, with those few exceptions above, most cancer risks are out of our control. Genetics, of course. Accidental exposure to carcinogens. We try to minimize the risk by utilizing screenings, and by legislating air and water pollution, and so forth. But for the average person, we are stuck with the risks we have.

[Weird genetic fact: short people are less likely to get cancer than tall people. At this point nobody knows why. We also fit in sports cars better, but the reason for that is more obvious.]

[Additional side note: I have known a number of people who used mainstream medical treatments for cancer. I also have known a number of people who used alternative medicine. The second group of people have one thing in common: they are all dead. I don't know if mainstream medicine would have saved them, but I actually know people alive today after mainstream treatment. Not so for alternative medicine. Just saying. Also, I heard a lot about laetrile, a chemical found in peach pits. Supposedly it was a miracle treatment. You may have heard of a man named Steve McQueen. Starred in movies like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Bullitt. He got lung cancer, probably due to his smoking habit and asbestos exposure. He went to Mexico, and came back, claiming he was cured of cancer. By laetrile. Two weeks later, he was dead. Of lung cancer. Because laetrile doesn't cure cancer. But it might give you cyanide poisoning. This was obvious back in 1980, but continues to be gospel in alternative medicine circles today.]

So, guess what? There is no way to guarantee that you will not get cancer. You may in fact die of it some day. Maybe in your thirties. Maybe as a child.

But that sure doesn’t stop people from selling a false promise, does it?

Now, let me bring this back to the real problem with all of this. Yes, it isn’t nice that people sell false hope for profit. (And believe me, there is plenty of profit in alternative medicine and in the Gothard organization.)

The worst part is the corollary to the false “cure.”

If cancer can be prevented by [insert system here], then the reason you got cancer was that you didn’t follow [system]. It’s your fault!

There are degrees of cruelty here, of course, which is one reason that I brought up the alternative medicine angle.

At the low end of the scale, you have a narrative like this: The evil drug companies and corporations know that you can cure cancer with [insert snake oil product or diet here], but they won’t let you know that, because they wouldn’t make money. (Yes, I heard this one A LOT.) I find it stretches credibility to imagine a vast conspiracy. Is it really likely that NO ONE other than [insert quack salesman here] would be willing to forego a little profit to save millions of lives? That EVERY government decision maker would rather see people die than take a bribe? That either giant corporations or the government would be able to pull this off without screwing it up? (Dilbert and The Office are more representative of my experience of corporate and governmental competence.)

So, this narrative assigns evil to faceless corporations and bureaucrats. A person who dies of cancer is merely ignorant and the victim of a vast conspiracy. The narrative slanders government workers and corporate scientists, which is bad, but not quite as bad as victim blaming.

It is when we cross into pseudospirituality that things get really evil.

Let’s take the “Word Faith” narrative: The reason you got cancer was that you didn’t have enough faith.

Obviously, this is a little cruel. A healthy person can then believe that he or she is a more spiritual person than the sick one.

But this is still better than the Gothard narrative. Let me explain. We all have different levels of faith. Some managed to make the “Hall of Faith” in the book of Hebrews. We rightfully lionize them for having a strong trust in God that led to noble actions.

On the other hand, many of the heroes of the faith had faithless moments. Peter denied Christ. Thomas doubted. These were lapses, sure, but they were human lapses, and they were forgiven.

A person can be a good person, and generally have faith, without having the level of faith necessary to cure cancer. So my friends, in this narrative, could have been godly, decent folks, who just couldn’t quite pull enough faith out of the hat to be cured.

But, let’s look at the Gothard narrative. Cancer is caused by bitterness. And not just bitterness. Persistent, long term bitterness caused by actively resisting the grace of God. Think Ebenezer Scrooge before he met the ghosts.

In the Gothard narrative, a person gets cancer not by a mere human failure, but because of active and persistent sin. Of an internal poison that eats both the body and soul. In effect, the person’s soul is like the very cancer that eats them.

Thus, if I see a person dying of cancer, why should I pity them? They caused it themselves through their vile sin.

There are many things about Gothardism and the Patriarchy movement that I strongly dislike. I hate its roots in Lost Cause history and Reconstructionist theology. I hate the way it treats women like property. I hate its emphasis on hierarchy and authority. I hate its book burning ways. I loathe the way it views abusive relationships.

But, healthy people telling sick people that they are sick because of vile sin in their lives?

It is this part of my experience in the movement that I loathe with every fiber of my being.

Yes, I judged people for being sick. Yes, I feared that I would get sick myself if I didn’t follow the program. But I judged the sick and the dying. I really thought (and I hope I didn’t say) that a relative died of cancer because of the pork she ate.

I’ve used cancer here, both because of the recent trigger, and because it is the one example that best displays the worst cruelty of legalism. However, this is merely the one example.

Although cancer is a natural and great fear, for conservative Christian parents, the greatest is that their children will turn out “wrong.” Certainly, failing to embrace the religion of the parents would be a clear example. There are others. A HUGE one is that a child will have an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Or become an alcoholic or a drug addict - although I think pregnancy would induce more horror. And then, there is the Evangelical Fate Worse Than DeathTM, homosexuality. And there are more minor ones related the subculture. Homeschooling. Women staying at home rather than having careers. Certain styles of dress. Movies. Actually, wait, the list keeps on growing and growing. Why?

I believe it is for the same reason that alternative medicine is able to rip people off.


Parents (mine included) are desperate for a guarantee that their kids will turn out “right,” however that is defined. Of course we want that. I want my kids to turn out well too. I would prefer that they be good and kind and moral. I would prefer that they embrace my religious beliefs. I would prefer that they not make decisions that will haunt them later. All decent parents want this.

So, when someone comes along and offers a formula, it is SO tempting.

There is a book called Growing Kids God’s Way that was popular when I was a kid. At a church my aunt and uncle attended with their kids, it became a litmus test for who was “godly” and who wasn’t.

My family (correctly, in my opinion) rejected the premise of that book, which was that babies are inherently selfish, and should thus be placed on rigid schedules, and allowed to cry themselves to sleep until they adapted. (Yes, that does sound abusive...)

Later, Michael and Debi Pearl (who I discussed briefly in my post on domestic violence), took the approach a little further, advocating what would be considered criminal behavior in most states. As a result, several children died.

Although it doesn’t have the obvious element of physical abuse, Gothardism has many common elements. The main one is an insistence on absolute, complete, and immediate obedience by children (and teens - and in many cases, adult children as well). I call it the “Growing Teens God’s Way” approach. More and more control, of every area of life.

At the core, all of these have the one lie in common: if you just follow the formula, everything will work out right.

Your kids will turn out the way you want them to - the “godly” way, of course. You won’t get sick. You will prosper. (Gothard’s Basic Principle #7: Success. Meditate on Scripture and you will have success. Insert quarter, get coke.)

The formula, of course, contains lots of rules. For the same reason that you don’t sell books with one page saying, “eat more vegetables, less processed junk, and less sugar,” you can’t sell a program with one page saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The key to making the money is to sell a whole lifestyle. (In the case of Gothard - and really the other luminaries of the Christian Patriarchy lifestyle - it is a vision that resembles, as my blogger friend puts it, “a quirky combination of antebellum femininity, 1950’s homemaking, and Jane Austen drama.” And, I might add, a healthy dose of literalist Old Testament theonomy, ala Rousas Rushdoony. It’s a whole culture, preferably with links to a whitewashed past.

As with the cancer avoidance scams, this leads to two unpleasant results.

First, the fear is necessary to keep people buying the system, so the whole philosophy is based on that fear. And fear leads us to do odd things. Some are good: quit smoking, don’t hold onto anger and bitterness. Some are benign: nobody ever died from avoiding pork or movie theaters. Some are more dangerous: herbal supplements can harm you, abusive and controlling parenting damages children.

When you are afraid, it is harder to tell the difference. Fear trumps skepticism.

When you buy into the system because of the fear, you then cannot tolerate disagreement. Restrictive diets keep you from breaking bread with the hoi polloi. (See the experiences of Saint Peter.) You can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t rush to buy your favorite snake oil.

It’s worse, though, with pseudospirituality. When someone doesn’t buy the system, they are not just missing out, they are “ungodly.” Otherwise known as evil or bad. A risk to your children, and so forth. The system divides.

The second bad consequence is related. Now, when anything bad happens to other people, you get to judge them. They obviously didn’t follow the system - or didn’t follow the system well enough. (And believe me, it is impossible to follow a legalistic system well enough, because there will always be someone who does it with more vigor. That’s why the number of rules keeps increasing. It’s also why the rules are rarely about inner virtues and are instead about cultural preferences. Those are easier to see.)

So, if someone’s kid ends up as an atheist, or gets pregnant, or does drugs, or whatever, there is a ready answer. That happened because the parents didn’t follow the system. Didn’t homeschool the kids. Let them watch a wrong movie. Wear the wrong clothes. Have friends that didn’t follow the system. Or, Gothard’s favorite - really, he blamed everything that went wrong on this - listened to music invented by people of African descent. Yep, everything bad happened because of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

I don’t mention the legalism connection just because I felt like it. There actually is a connection between legalism and the belief that “godliness” and prosperity are a mathematical equation.

There is a great story in the Gospel of John about a man born blind found in Chapter 9 (all quotes from the NASB):

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.  And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

The disciples didn’t ask the question out of the blue. This is the teaching of legalists throughout history. Follow the formula and things will go well for you. Deviate from the formula and you will be punished.

This connection is made obvious by what follows. The man is cured, talks to the Pharisees. (For those who are less familiar with the Bible, these are the legalists par excellence, for whom Christ reserved his harshest words.) The Pharisees, unsurprisingly, are not impressed, and give the poor ex-blind guy the fifth degree. Then they go on to focus on the fact that Christ broke the Sabbath by performing work - healing.

They didn’t care about the blind man. He confirmed their system. Christ broke their neat little system, and they were less than thrilled. Because the system mattered more than the person.

There is a whole book in the Bible that focuses on the nature and cause of suffering. It is generally believed to have been the first written. Whether or not you believe the story of Job is historical or a parable, it is powerful and unsettling.

Job, a man as innocent as a mortal can be - even the Devil himself admits as much - experiences horrific suffering as part of a celestial wager of which he knows nothing. (In fact, Job never finds out why he has suffered.)

Jobs friends come around and sit with him. Job, who has lost everything except his wife - and she urges him to curse God and die - and is miserably ill. As all of us would do, if we are honest with ourselves, he expresses his unhappiness with situation, wondering why God is afflicting him.

Jobs friends cannot stand the idea that God could be called unjust. They firmly believe that God is a cosmic coke machine: do what is right, and you will prosper. If you are not prospering, it is because you sinned. You didn’t follow the system.

And so, on it goes for page after page. Job asserts that he hasn’t done anything to piss off God, and his friends insisting that he must have some major, unconfessed sin in his life, and if he would just confess it, he would be fine. Job does have some glorious statements of faith:

Though He slay me,
I will hope in Him.


Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
That with an iron stylus and lead
They were engraved in the rock forever!
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
Even after my skin is destroyed,
Yet from my flesh I shall see God;
Whom I myself shall behold,
And whom my eyes will see and not another.
My heart faints within me!

But he also demands that he have a chance to argue his case before God, and get answers.

Job never does receive a full explanation (although the narrator does), but he does have his encounter with his creator.

What I find amazing, though, is what happens to the friends. Job gets a bit of a rebuke for talking of things he doesn’t understand, but the friends are told that they have not spoken what is true about God, as Job has.

Their system of virtue and reward isn’t true. Job’s complaint that we don’t get justice in this life is true.

You cannot look at people’s prosperity or health and learn anything about the state of their souls.

I assume Gothard and those who follow his system have read Job. If they follow the system, they probably have read through the entire Bible every year or close to it. How on earth did they miss this?

The whole system is taken right from the mouth of Job’s friends.

Because it is scary to think of an unjust, unpredictable world. Fear.

And so, we cling to the belief that somewhere, somehow, there is a system that will give us certainty. Guarantees.

I believe that most who follow legalistic systems - and even those who try to impose them on others - have good intentions. (I do not believe this about the leaders. I believe they are interested in empire building. I may post in the future on my personal experience with Gothard, which led me to believe that everything is about his empire. This is related to the connection of the Patriarchy movement to Christian Reconstructionism, but I’m not sure whether it is primarily a cause or effect.)

However, this is what the fear and the consequent trust in the system breeds:

Rules, and condemnation for those who stray from the rules.

A belief that the cause of bad things that happen to other people comes from a failure to follow the rules.

A desire to separate from those who do not embrace the rules.

And, ultimately, a desire to judge others based on a combination of rules and prosperity/health.

I am going to end with another thought that has haunted me for some time.

Along with the belief of a direct causation of disease by sin came a morbid interest in the exact manner of people’s death.

In essence, this is the thought: a person who was a “true Christian” would have no fear of death. Thus, anyone who did not die peacefully could not have been a true Christian.

So, guess what? You could tell a person’s eternal destination by watching them die!

Again, I am ashamed that I actually gave any credence to this thought.

I remember a discussion during the reading of Christy, by Catherine Marshall. The book is historical fiction based on her mother’s experiences. During the course of the book, there is an outbreak of typhoid fever which kills several major characters, and nearly kills Christy herself.

The first to die is the rather admirable Fairlight Spencer, who has always feared the shadow of the mountain as the sun descended. (Fairlight is devout, and not more superstitious than her neighbors.) She dies as the shadow crosses, and her terror is memorable. It also meant that she must not have been a “true Christian,” and thus went straight to hell. (Not in the book, which makes no such judgments, but in the worldview I am describing. I swear on a stack of Bibles - we had this conversation in my home when I was a kid.)

Fairlight is a fictional character. But I remember doubting that an elderly lady from our church, who I didn’t really know, was a “true Christian” because she died in fear from cancer. Which was eating her brain.

Let me be clear: I have no idea about this woman’s soul. I can’t even remember her name. I cannot believe the degree of arrogance it took to believe that I could make that judgment. But that was the worldview.

Since that time, I have had a few fevers so bad that I passed out. I remember (in a fog) waking up on my bathroom floor, and falling several more times before crawling back to my bed. It is a miracle that I didn’t smash my head. As it was, I scraped several inches of skin off my back, and it bled enough to stick my shirt to my back.

I have no idea what I would have said or done during the delirium. And that was just a fever. What would I do or say if cancer was eating my brain from the inside? Might I feel fear from purely physiological causes? Is it possible that my intellectual assent to an afterlife might not be able to assert itself over my autonomic nervous system?

Again, we feel this need for certainty. We want a guarantee that death will be as pleasant - under the circumstances - as it will be. (A few of the apostles would have benefited from such a guarantee...)

And so, our fear leads us to be cruel and judgmental to others.

It leads the healthy and the prosperous to heap insult to the injury the less fortunate already have. It isn’t enough that they have trouble. “Did this man or his parents sin?”

This is the biggest reason why I have difficulty spending time with those who still believe in the system.

I know that I may - indeed will - have things go wrong in my life. Or my kids’ lives. (Hey, the chances of raising five kids, none of whom ever make a mistake seems low.) Unless I somehow live a charmed existence, something bad will happen someday.  

And I know that those who believe in the system will have their knives out, ready to tell me that bad things happened because I have left the system. It will be my fault.

I know, because I believed it myself once.

So let me circle back to my friends.

When thinking of Mike, one word that would not come to mind was bitter. He loved his wife and kids, lived a generally healthy lifestyle. His one risky behavior was his job as a police officer. That put him at elevated risk for being killed by a criminal with a weapon. But that job also revealed something about him. He was well liked by my legal colleagues, both prosecutors and defense attorneys. That is not the mark of a bitter man, in my opinion.

I can’t even express how much many of us will miss Karen. When thinking of her, the words that I find are “kind,” “encouraging,” “helpful,” passionate,” and “ray of sunshine.” Over the years, I played many weddings and parties with her as part of a string quartet. She was an amazing musician, but never uppity. Us young guys and gals learned from playing with her, but never were treated as lesser, even when we made errors. “Bitter” would never ONCE come to my mind.

So obviously, experience doesn’t match the formula. And it didn’t in other ways as well.

It greatly bothered Mike that he was dying. (Another friend from church who visited him a week before he passed said that he admitted to not being at peace with leaving his kids behind.) No shit! It would be an unusual man that would be fine with it! I’m not sure I would believe a man who claimed to be perfectly at peace. It doesn’t seem human.

Likewise, Karen wasn’t all rosy about having to go through cancer again. (She beat Hodgkins as a young adult.) It took courage within the Christian culture to admit feeling down and depressed. Because we aren’t supposed to be that way. It’s in the back of the mind that to admit the struggles could lead to us being dismissed as fake Christians.

So no, as far as I can know, my friends were not bitter. They were unlucky, if you will. Their suffering is not cosmic justice for bad acts. Whatever story underlies their fates is not for us to know. As a Christian, I believe there is a greater purpose and meaning to the universe. But I don’t know if I will ever be told the story behind the suffering. I don’t know if my friends will ever know. Like Job, they didn’t know in this life.

In our fear, we allow ourselves to believe that there is a formula, and that we can know these things for certain. 

As part of the changes I have gone through over the last decade and more, which I alluded to a year ago when I mused on turning 36, I have purposed that I will fight the urge to judge the hurting, but instead seek to ease burdens. I want to be an instrument of love rather than condemnation. Because I have no illusions that I will be immune from pain because of some system. Because I know that I can’t see behind the curtain to the purpose behind each person’s suffering.

And, like Job, all we can do sometimes is cling to the faith that someday, in our flesh, we will see Him face to face.

Two versions of this have spoken to me through the years. First is the classic from Handel’s Messiah. Every year we play some of this together, and every year I rediscover the inspiration and genius of this incomparable work.  

Second is the Vineyard version. Before my family’s sojourn in Gothardism, we explored the Charismatic side of the Christian spectrum. This was a big deal for a family that had previously attended John MacArthur’s megachurch. (His attacks on the late John Wimber - who seems to me to have been a humble, gentle man - were rather legendary.) Our journey on the Charismatic side coincided with my junior high and early high school years, so I naturally remember everything from then as larger and brighter than life, of course. Still, I had the chance to attend a Vineyard conference at Wimber’s church with my mom and grandfather. The live worship remains an inspiration to me to this day. (Fiddle and mandolin? Yes!) I also got to spend a discussion class with Andy Park, who proved that introverted nerds can be good worship leaders too. In some ways, this conference was the last hurrah before everything changed. This song was brand new then, and I have never forgotten it.

Final musical note. In the wake of Karen’s death, I discovered via one of her other friends that there was a good video of her playing Duplicitous Encounter, written by my composer and guitarist friend Jim Scully. Whether or not you like the style of music - modern classical, surely you can appreciate the skill and passion she brings to this work. Karen, we will miss you so much.

Note on Bitterness:
I don’t want to create the impression that I support holding on to bitterness. I believe forgiveness is an important internal process, and that we can in fact harm ourselves by refusing to release hurt and anger. I also recognize that this is a difficult thing for those who have been hurt deeply.

I also want to make clear that within all abusive, legalistic systems, words do not mean the same thing as they do to everyone else. Gothard threw around “bitterness,” “rebellion,” “forgiveness,” and “authority,” in ways that were, quite frankly, calculated to control subordinates. As the unforgettable Inigo Montoya said, “You keep using word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

In the Christian Patriarchy world, obedience to parents is owed long after adulthood - indeed all one’s life. (Douglas Phillips uses the code words, “Multigenerational Faithfulness.”) Rebellion is disagreeing with one’s “authority,” meaning a father or religious leader. “Bitterness” comes from rock music, of course, but also from failing to obey authority. So if one chooses to avoid an abusive religious leader, for example, or hold him accountable for abuse, one is “bitter,” and should forgive. (Hello, Sovereign Grace Ministries child molestation scandal.)

This is also the logic - and the code words used - for keeping wives in violently abusive marriages.

I recently read a blog post by a thoughtful fellow ex-fundamentalist who noted that it isn’t the specifics of the rules. Many of them are laughable in retrospect. As I noted, I doubt my life will be changed much because I missed a few years of bacon and ham.

What is poisonous is the philosophy behind the rules.

We are trying, as I heard it put once, to make God like us more than other people. We make up rules, and judge others by how well they keep our rules, and then we feel superior because we keep our rules better than they do. And then we can feel secure in our belief that our set of rules will make God like us enough that we don’t have to experience our deepest fears. We can punish and contemn those who suffer, because they didn’t follow the rules. Because we know the mind of God on every subject. Because the system tells us so.

So it wasn’t the bacon, but the fact that I couldn’t share it with others with different rules. It separated us. I was, whether I said it or not, better, because I had found more rules lurking in the pages of the Bible.

I know. I thought that way. And I HATE it.


  1. There is truth leaking out of this fabulous essay from every paragraph. I, too, have been deeply wounded by the belief that enough faith can cure what ails me. Of all the psychological wounds I've endured, the deepest were inflicted by Christians. Some of the roots from this evil tree can be seen in the book of Job. From him we learn how to rightly divide the Word of God and His promises from the advice of man. Thanks for this tremendous and soul-baring blog.

    1. I didn't even begin to get into the issues of less visible illness, physical and mental.

      It is amazing the callous disregard for real pain when it doesn't fit into the neat little worldview package.

  2. Thank you for your well-written feelings and your "so-far" found truths about religion, raising kids, excepting sickness and death, and getting through life. We all do the best we can with what brain-washing we can cast aside. Believe it or not, your kids will have to cast aside some brain-washing too, just like mine have. Being almost twice your age, it's no wonder that I'm dealing with friends and family deaths quite often This year, more than any, has been atrocious. Karen's loss is greatly felt in our home. I have a friend from high school I love like a brother. He's dealing with his third battle with a cancerous brain tumor. When he sees me he always tells me he's an "answered prayer." I say nothing but inside I feel that is the most arrogant statement I've ever heard. Unfortunately,I hear that attitude far too often. My prayers are bigger than your prayers. The fact is 17 children who have not reached the age of 5, will die before I finish this one sentence...1000 every hour, 24,000 every day and over 11 million a year. The majority of their parents are praying for them to live. All of their prayers will go unanswered. Another fact...according to most Christian religions, a large group of those kids will burn in hell for all eternity because their parents were praying to the WRONG God. We just haven't evolved enough to think about how crazy some of our beliefs are.

    1. You are right that my kids will have their own stuff to work through, as every generation does. If I have learned anything from being a parent, it is that it is impossible to figure out with any degree of certainty. I hope that I can avoid as much damage as possible.

      I will say in response to the claim about Christian beliefs that (in my experience) most would say that a child who has not reached the age of moral responsibility (whenever that is) would not be punished in the afterlife.

      The number of those child deaths that are preventable kills me, I must say. Fortunately, the numbers are declining, but there is so much more to do.

  3. Thanks for writing this. When you get a chance, read The Fault in Our Stars. I found it to be cathartic and beautiful. I'm so sorry for the loss of your friends, and I admire your candor and courage. I'm glad we're family. :-)

    1. Thanks! I will put it on my list. (Now, if my list would stop growing faster than I can read!)

  4. Well said. My family still believes some of this. Yet for me, I left it behind years ago. Thank you for validating all the points that sickened my spirit a little.

    I refuse to look at my illness-Fibro-in their light. My body is what it is. It has genetic markers that work and don't work. My responsibility is to do the best I can with the time I'm given.

    1. I like how you put that. Our bodies are what they are. I didn't win the genetic lottery either. I was sickly as a child, and have the dubious distinction of being allergic to something wherever I go.

      My health is better than it was, but I know that every couple of years, I'm going to have a bad run. No magic diet or supplement, no spiritual epiphany is going to change that. As you said, we endure, and do the best we can with the time and limitations we are given.

  5. Thank you for your candid yet lucid comments. I have give much thought this week to the loss of Karen and how we deal with illness, death, and dying. Thank you for your insight.

  6. As one who has suffered the deaths of two parents - both from cancer - I have opinions on this subject. I have avoided your article so far for a myriad of reasons, one of which is becasue it hits close to come.

    When a close relative of yours dies, you will find people saying the stupidest things. And you realize then that what it all boils down to is that Christ is sovereign, He is Lord, He is the only One worth putting your trust in (and yes, He can be trusted). He is always working all things together for our own good and for His glory. Correct theology matters a great deal.

    People will believe any variety of things and they can be well-meaning and very misguided and still be Christians. I don't hate anyone who said something stupid to me after my dad died or my mother-in-law died. We just know that we must cling tighter to the promises in scripture and trust God. He is faithful, He is good. Our statement on the subject is quite short. It also includes no bitterness, though it does include great pain as we mourn the loss of our parents and our children's grandparents. The pain is there, but so is God. And I don't think much more needs to be said on the topic other than that.

  7. I attended a vineyard church in Asia. It will likely always remain the best church I've attended. I'm not saying it was perfect; I just think the people were looking in the right place. I remember this teaching of Gothard's now that you brought it up. Thanks for sharing this post. I tweeted it.