“God punishes bad children!” – or, why you have heart disease

by Carolyn Thomas  ♥ @HeartSisters

When I was a little girl growing up in a rabidly catholic family of seven, my mother had a standard response to anything bad that happened to her children (like even just stubbing a toe on the coffee table leg as we skipped across the living room floor):

“See? God punishes bad children!”

Under her tutelage, my siblings and I learned a couple of important life lessons:

1.  that we were basically bad children (this fits right in with the catholic church’s doctrine of original sin, so likely made perfect sense to us at the time), and

2. that God must be very, very busy keeping track of every opportunity to personally administer the punishment that my sibs and I so richly deserved.

When children like us grow up and get diagnosed with, oh, let’s say –  heart disease, it’s proof positive that we’re just getting what we had coming.  

Turns out that my mother’s philosophy was completely in keeping with what author Ken Wilber describes in his 1991 book, Grace and Grit. In this book, Wilber discusses, among other more weighty things, the meanings that various cultural and healing traditions attribute to serious illness. 

He writes, for example, that people are condemned to meaning – condemned to creating values and judgements:

“It is not enough to know that I have a disease, but I also have to know WHY I have this disease. Why me? What does it mean? What did I do wrong? How did this happen?

“I need, in other words, to attach some sort of meaning to my illness. And whenever illness strikes, our society is on hand with ready-made meanings and judgements through which the individual seeks to understand the illness.”

Your unique personality, as well as those societal influences, can also impact how you’ll try to make sense of a significant diagnosis like heart disease. Consider, for example, the eight distinct ways in which patients and their family members might view this diagnosis based on their individual coping strategy tools as defined by the late Dr. Zbigniew Lipowski of the University of Toronto.

And meanwhile, here are some examples, courtesy of Ken Wilber*, of society’s responses to our diagnoses:

1. Judeo-Christian: The fundamentalist message of my mother and many recovering catholics: “Illness is basically a punishment from God for some sort of sin.” The worse the illness, the more unspeakable the sin must have been.

2. New Age: Illness is a lesson. You are giving yourself this disease because there is something important you have to learn from it in order to continue your spiritual growth and evolution. Mind alone causes illness, and mind alone can cure it.

3. Medical: Illness is fundamentally a biophysical disorder, caused by biophysical factors (from viruses to trauma to genetic predisposition to environmental triggering agents). You needn’t worry about psychological or spiritual treatments for most illnesses, because such alternative treatments are usually ineffectual and may actually prevent you from getting the proper medical attention you need.

4. Karma: Illness is the result of negative karma; that is, some non-virtuous past actions are now coming to fruition in the form of a disease. The disease is “bad” in the sense that it represents past non-virtue; but it is “good” in the sense that the disease process itself represents the burning up and the purifying of the past misdeed; it’s a purgation, a cleansing.

5. Psychological: As Woody Allen once put it, “I don’t get angry; I grow tumors instead.” The idea is that, at least in pop psychology, repressed emotions cause illness. The extreme form: illness as death wish.

6. Holistic: Illness is a product of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual factors, none of which can be isolated from the others, and none of which can be ignored. Treatment must involve all of these dimensions (although in practice this often translates into a resistance towards orthodox treatments, even when they might help).

7. Buddhist: Illness is an inescapable part of the manifest world; asking why there is illness is like asking why there is air. Birth, old age, sickness, and death – these are the marks of this world, all of whose phenomena are characterized by impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. Only in enlightenment, in the pure awareness of nirvana, is illness finally transcended, because then the entire phenomenal world is transcended as well.

8. Magical: Illness is retribution. “I deserve this because I wished So-and-so would die.” Or, “If too many good things happen to me, something bad has to happen.”  And so on.

9. Existential: Illness itself is without meaning. Accordingly, it can take any meaning you choose to give it, and you are solely responsible for these choices. Men and women are finite and mortal, and the authentic response is to accept illness as part of one’s finitude even while imbuing it with personal meaning.

10. Scientific: Whatever the illness is, it has a specific cause or cluster of causes. Some of these causes are determined, others are simply random or due to pure chance. Either way, there is no “meaning” to illness, there is only chance or necessity.

* Ken Wilber, Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber, Shambhala Press, 1991.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about sharing – and not sharing – details of a serious health crisis in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press).  You can ask for it at bookstores (please support your local independent bookseller!) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from my publisher Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).


See also:

Are You Too Hard on Yourself?

Why Hearing the Diagnosis Can Hurt Worse than the Heart Attack

Which One’s Right? Eight Ways That Patients and Families Can View Heart Disease

Resilience: It’s Hard to Feel Like a Victim When You’re Laughing

How We Adapt After a Heart Attack May Depend on What We Believe This Diagnosis Means

Looking for Meaning in a Meaningless Diagnosis

The Day I Made Peace with an Errant Organ


This post was also featured on Dr. Doug Willen’s blog The Health Fixer and also on Chronic Babe

12 thoughts on ““God punishes bad children!” – or, why you have heart disease

  1. I very much appreciate your outlining the many views of illness. One that isn’t mentioned is Baha’i. I would love to hear your opinion on it (apologies for the long quote but it speaks for itself):

    “There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first is by the use of remedies, of medicines; the second consists in praying to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practiced.

    “Illness caused by physical accident should be treated with medical remedies; those which are due to spiritual causes disappear through spiritual means. Thus an illness caused by affliction, fear, nervous impressions, will be healed by spiritual rather than by physical treatment. Hence, both kinds of remedies should be considered.

    “. . .But the principal causes of disease are physical, for the human body is composed of numerous elements, but in the measure of an especial equilibrium. As long as this equilibrium is maintained, man is preserved from disease; but if this essential balance, which is the pivot of the constitution, is disturbed, the constitution is disordered, and disease will supervene.”
    `Abdu’l-Baha: Baha’i World Faith*

    Excellent post! Thank you,
    Judy Westerfield


    1. Thanks so much for sharing this Baha’i perspective, Judy. It appears that there is still room there, however, for considering that somehow “man – and woman I’m presuming! – is preserved from disease” by some combination of right living and right thinking.


  2. Oh my goodness, we must be twins separated at birth, Carolyn. This was MY own mother’s constant refrain, too when we were growing up. I found this piece to be funny, thought provoking, and well-written. Thx a bunch!


  3. This article is going to change my life!

    Reading over these interpretations of the “why” of illness, I see I have been laboring under at least 4 of them (Christian, (which should be Judeo-Christian), Karma, Magical and New Age) all of which put the guilt and cause of my SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) squarely on my head.

    I’m wondering why my post-incident anxiety level is through the roof when I realize that somewhere in my head I believe that I did something to deserve this in this lifetime or a previous one, and furthermore I am not properly learning the lesson I’m meant to learn whenever I have a thought or feeling that isn’t nice, loving or “heartfelt.”

    I have to go out and buy this book and explore this further. Here’s my blog post about my SCAD event.


    1. Hi Rachel,
      Thanks so much for your comments here. I think one reason most of us question how this heart attack could have happened to ME OF ALL PEOPLE is that everybody around us is basically asking us the same question, as if they are demanding an immediate and satisfactory answer from us – an answer we just may not ever have.

      Another way of looking at your specific SCAD situation is that your brave little heart managed to somehow survive what 70% of patients do not survive. You are in very early days of physical and emotional recovery yet – prepare for the perfectly normal and expected psychological roller coaster to come as you try to make sense out of something that makes no sense at all.

      Good luck to you – pls keep me posted, okay?



  4. Joan, I find it curious that you say: “I feel sorry for your mom that you seem to feel such hostility toward her childrearing” instead of saying that you feel sorry for the children who are being raised like this!!

    Was it just ME who found this essay delightful, insightful and even funny? Maybe we should all just lighten up a bit?

    Thank you Carolyn for giving me something to laugh – and think – about over my morning coffee today.


  5. Unfortunately, there are quite a few faiths that seem to express the belief that there is “punishment” for sinning. There are many parents who happened to absorb this message and pass it on to their kids, whether to use the cautionary tale to control behavior, or because they genuinely find this to be a reasonable explanation.

    Not all parents offer loving and unconditional love in child-rearing, Joan. I wouldn’t blame the child (and future adult) for suffering the emotional conflict from these messages, as they can be devastating.

    Unfortunately, not all mothers are saints.



    1. Hello Mary,
      Honest, I’m not mother-bashing here! Simply stating the reality of my mother’s pervasive sense of an all-powerful and hypervigilant God – as you say, common in quite a few other faiths that are similarly based on sin, guilt and punishment.


  6. I too am a former Catholic. However, I never experienced the “illness as punishment for sin” phenomena you describe. In our home, we prayed to a loving and forgiving God. I feel sorry for your mom that you seem to feel such hostility toward her childrearing.
    That said, I love your site and have learned much. Please keep up this wonderful work.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Joan. “Hostility”? Nope, just stating facts – and these were not limited to my mother’s childrearing style. See Dr. Zbigniew Lipowski‘s landmark research defining similar reactions to illness “as a punishment being delivered justly or unjustly for your lack of perfection”. My mum didn’t invent “God punishes bad children” – she came by it honestly.


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