The Trouble With a Cause-and-Effect God

Delegate Bob Marshall’s comments on disability stirred a storm—and revealed a gap in our view of how God works.

In the story “Disabled Children are God’s Punishment” dated September 12, 2012, Virginia radio station WTOP reported that state delegate Bob Marshall had declared disabled children to be God’s punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy.

According to WTOP news, a radio station in Virginia, Western Prince William Del. Bob Marshall, R-13th, “made that statement last Thursday at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood.” The article stated,

“‘The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children,’ said Marshall, a Republican. ‘In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.’”

The WTOP story was picked up by the traditional media and spread rapidly via social media.

Christians are under a microscope, and the natural posture of the watching world is to assume the worst, not the best.

Unfortunately, the WTOP story contained several errors. The press conference in question took place on February 18, 2010, not in September 2012. The Virginia Christian Alliance covered the press conference in depth in February 2010 and made a video recording of Rep McDonnell’s statements available in their coverage.

Marshall’s wife Catherine has issued a clarifying statement regarding the story on Rep. Marshall’s website in an undated blog post. She says that her husband’s words were taken out of context and paraphrased and that, to the contrary, Bob Marshall “believes that every child is a gift from God regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth or stage of life.

Catherine Marshall continued,

“My husband never said that disabled children are a punishment from God for abortion! He does not believe that at all. He was simply reporting the results of medical studies finding that first pregnancy abortions can cause problems in later pregnancies, including low birth weight, which can cause medical problems for children.”

Given his wife’s statement and the chronology of events, it is debatable that Rep. Marshall made a Westboro-esque correlation between disabilities and abortion at all.

This story, and its contradictory coverage, demonstrates a number of challenges presented by social media and the speed at which information spreads today. Christians are under a microscope, and Christians have a reputation for simplistic thinking about suffering, sin and judgment. The natural posture of the watching world is to assume the worst, not the best.

Asking “What are you doing?” is a more expectant and hopeful version of the question, “Why?”

The view that it is God’s judgment when a child is born with disabilities to a woman who previously had an abortion, is nothing new. In Ancient Israel, people understood disabilities in the very simplistic cause-and-effect manner described here. If someone was born blind or deaf or deformed, the cause must be sin. Job’s friends accused him of the same thing, saying that the tragedies that befell him must be the result of his own personal sin.

Yet Christians today can interpret these passages in light of the New Testament as well as the Old. In John 9:1-3, Jesus blatantly rebuked this cause-and-effect mindset. Encountering a blind man from birth, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Jesus’ responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned ... but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 1:3).

Jesus does not equivocate. He states plainly that disability is not the result of sin. And when Christians read His response, it becomes evident that the alleged statement of Rep. Marshall cannot be given any credibility.

The Message paraphrases this story with an interesting angle. When His disciples ask who sinned to cause the man’s blindness, Jesus replies,

“You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”

Jesus says that asking who is to blame for suffering is the wrong question. He says that our response to suffering and disability should be to ask, “What are You doing, God?”

Asking “What are you doing?” is a more expectant and hopeful version of the question, “Why?” It acknowledges that God knows. God sees the suffering and the struggle, and God is not passive. This question anticipates God’s action. It may not be healing or restoration, it may not be relief. But God is there, and God is working in and through the people to co-opt that tragedy and redeem it.

This is not to say that God caused the disability or the illness, or that these things are not tragic. That is another form of simplistic cause-and-effect thinking about disabilities.

Christians must guard against pat answers like “God is in control” or “Such and such good things happened because of this, so it is good.” These may have a grain of truth in them, but the message they convey to a mother of a disabled child is that God is the cause of her child’s pain and that her pain is invalid. She hears these words as saying that what is bad is actually good. That is neither true nor godly.

This is the kind of language Christians should use for disability—language of compassion and of hope, language that acknowledges the suffering intrinsic in broken bodies and anticipates what God is going to do.

9 Comments

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Diana Trautwein commented…

Good work, Joy. I think your New Testament example trumps the Exodus passage noted in the comment above to some extent, although I want to allow room for a little mystery and for that wonderful question you've offered: "What are you up to?" Sometimes what we view as bad, is in actuality a good - or it is used for good by God. (See Joseph's response to his brothers. However - when we look at that passage, we need to remember that a LOT of time has gone by and that a heckuva lot of good has happened in the meantime.) But I think I agree with you - still working through some of this myself - that using these quick, often trite responses to tragedy is just plain deadly and destructive. We need to be more aware of how these platitudes can just level a new mom suffering with a hard diagnosis for her child. There may be room for discussion, for earnest, open, heartfelt discussion about how God is at work in the midst of disability and danger - but speaking out with such spiritually shallow words in the midst of shock, sadness and deep fear - well, it just isn't helpful, in the extreme. We all need to become more comfortable with simpler responses - like: "I am so sorry." "Tell me more about what this feels like." "How can I pray for you?" "What one thing could I do that might actually help you in the midst of this pain?" Or, even better, just sit in the pain for a while, next to the hurting person, without one word. Thanks for your usual good and thoughtful work, Joy.

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Joy in this Journey commented…

I'll have to respectfully disagree with you, Shannon. I just cannot wrap my head around a God who loves us causing the horrible things that happen in the world. Somehow, in a way that I cannot understand, God is God and yet we still have the freedom to choose right or wrong. God is God and yet nature is still broken. I will not place the blame on God for my children's medical challenges, my daughter's cerebral palsy, or her death 4 years ago. God can pull good things out of bad, but God is not to blame for those painful things, not to me. I know and love many people who find comfort in a God who controls the bad stuff too, but I don't.

Whatever your take is on the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans, that isn't a conversation to have with a suffering person. It isn't comforting to say, "God is in control" when a person's child is hurt or dying. It's much more comforting to cry with them and acknowledge that it's awful. That was my main point, really.

Thanks for commenting!

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Shannon Dingle commented…

Thanks for responding, Joy. I don't think we disagree as much as you think we do - I do agree that God is God and nature is broken and the God is God yet we still have free will. I just can't reconcile verses like Exodus 4:11 and passages throughout the Bible in which God takes credit for calamity as well as good with the idea that God isn't in control of the pain. It doesn't matter if God is responsible for painful things to me and that I can wrap my mind around; what matters to me is what the Bible says, and that's what I wrestle with, looking at the God of the Bible not the God who behaves like I think He should. I'm not saying that coming to this conclusion was easy - it's just where I end up when examining all of what scripture has to say about pain and suffering and where I am comfortable resting now, even in the midst of the pain that is part of my life and my daughter's life.
I also agree that dismissing pain with comments like "God is in control" isn't comforting, but I have - in the midst of pain - been comforted by those truths when shared in love by sweet friends who are with me through it (while crying with me and acknowledging how terrible it is) and not just declaring God's control as a way of making themselves feel better. I agree that the latter isn't comforting, but I don't agree that the former lacks comfort or love or compassion. It doesn't have to be either/or, as in either you say "God is in control" or you just cry with a friend. I've been ministered to most by friends who cry with me while not shying away from truth.

I did love your article and am thankful for it, as I mentioned at the start of my first comment. Our disagreement about God's sovereignty in disability doesn't change that.

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Anonymous commented…

As a father of triplets with cerebral palsy (one of whom is severe), this is an issue my wife and I have struggled through for the last eight years. While there are no easy answers, I'd would like to share what I have learned on our journey so far

First, God has PROMISED that ALL things work together for the good of those who love him. This is a promise I hold onto and stand on when doubt creeps in and threatens to rob me of my joy in Christ. Our God is a good God, he loves his children beyond comprehension, and he desires nothing but the best for us. This truth shapes and informs how I look at tragedy and suffering. Because of this promise I should be able to look at any situation and trust that "God is in control" though I may not right now (nor maybe ever in this life) understand how this circumstance is God's best for me. I say "I should", but often that is not the case, I frequently shake my fist at God and scream "why me God?", "why did this have to happen?"

This leads to my second observation, God is God and I am not, period. God is under no obligation to provide me with an answer to my questioning. The story of Job in the bible is a very sobering example. Forget the fact the though God is not the primary cause of Job's tragic suffering, he is the secondary cause in that he 'allows' it to occur. Instead, focus on when God finally speaks to Job at the end of the book in chapter 38, "Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind. He said: Who is this who obscures My counsel with ignorant words? Get ready to answer Me like a man; when I question you, you will inform Me." (HCSB) Shockingly, God doesn't speak words of comfort in the midst of Job's agony, nor does he offer any explanation as to why Job's suffering happened. No, instead he says 'Job, who do you think you are to question what I allow to happen in the world?' and proceeds to ask Job nearly eighty very humbling questions that reveal the great vastness between Job and God. While in God's mercy and grace he sometimes provides answers to our difficult questions about suffering, we should never take those answers for granted and become offended or angry with God when he doesn't answer. He is God, and we are not.

At this point I have to revert back to my first point and remember I serve a God who loves me and wants nothing but the best for me.

Third, when it comes to my children in particular, I believe God knit them together in their mother's womb exactly as he intended them to be. They are perfect in His sight. My daughter, who is non-verbal and will probably never walk is one of the greatest gifts God has given my wife and I, and she is exactly who God intended her to be. She brings our family (and everyone who has the privilege to meet her) such great joy. The truth of the matter is I believe, because of her total dependance on others and her great freedom from the cares of this world, she has a closer relationship with God than I will probably ever have as crazy as that may sound. She is our little angel.

Finally, Jesus is enough. If what I want are healthy kids, or a good job, or an exceptional marriage and I hold these over and above a relationship with Christ then I have a problem with idols. Jesus should be the ONLY source of my joy and happiness, NOT the things (in his grace) he may (or may not) see fit to bless me with. This includes healthy children.

Life is a journey and these are a few lessons God has taught me on mine

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Sally commented…

I am a mother of three teenage boys with Fragile X Syndrome/Autism. I have attached a blog that is very informative. I hope it provides additional information to parents with disabled children. More Than Skin Deep: The Image of God in People with Disabilities http://biologos.org/blog/more-...

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