When I started a foundation that supports teenagers living with HIV & AIDS in Zimbabwe, I had no idea that I was going to “answer for God”. Please allow me to make a few clarifications to the best of my knowledge, especially to all those teenagers who are living with HIV & AIDS.
Why do people suffer? All religions have had to address this question. The world is full of human suffering caused by hunger, disease, poverty, and multiple forms of oppression and injustice. If these things are happening, does this mean they are God's will and, therefore, God wills us to suffer?
Evil is a very real force in this world, a force not of God's making (Mark 1:32-24). And HIV/AIDS is certainly a devastating evil not of God's will. Jesus never punished people with sickness, He healed. HIV/AIDS is a tragedy, and God suffers with all who are victimized by it or who lose loved ones because of it. Bad things happen. We suffer many times through no fault of our own, because the world can be an unfair, unjust place.
God does not create chaos or injustice. God brings order out of chaos, and demands justice where there is injustice. God does not cause tragedy, but God does respond to suffering with healing. God heals sometimes through physical restoration, and other times with grace sufficient to grow in the midst of suffering, even in the face of death (I Corinthians 12:9). An example of God's healing grace is well-described by a woman with a friend who died from the complications of AIDS: "As a child, he had been abused and abandoned by his mother. But as an adult, in his last months, his mother came to live with him, nursing him around the clock. In their times together, old wounds were healed, forgiveness was shared, and faith grew. My friend received a healing gift of family and love he had never known."
Even when the injustice of tragedy invades our lives, God's passionate love can bring good in the form of healing and growth. We can find God's healing touch in our tears of sadness and our screams of anger. We can find God's healing touch in the words of love and comfort shared by others. More than anything, we can find God's healing touch through that inner peace that comes from God's presence and promises. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love God (Romans 8:28).
So, Is God punishing humans with HIV/AIDS?" These are the kinds of questions that have been asked for centuries before HIV/AIDS became an issue. Each time some mysterious problem or disaster befalls an identified community; there have always been some who claim that God has caused the disaster as a judgment against the affected people. If indeed HIV/AIDS is a plague sent by God into sinful humans, there are some flaws in the plan. There is the matter of all the other sinners who are not HIV positive. For example, what is the explanation for sinless children who are born infected and affected?
Clearly there is no justification for suggesting that God has unfavorably judged his people and created HIV/AIDS as a punishment. People had similar questions during the time of Jesus Christ. Then, as now, many assumed that suffering is a direct result of sin. But Christ challenged that assumption.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, was it his sin or that of his parents that caused him to be blind?" "Neither," answered Jesus, "it was no sin, either of this man or of his parents. Rather it was to let God's work show forth in him."(John 9:1-3) Jesus then reached out to heal the blind man. Christians, too, must reject the idea that HIV/AIDS, or any other illness, is punishment for sin.
People of faith, like Jesus Christ, must reach out with a healing touch. Rather than being understood as God's retribution, suffering becomes an occasion for God's love to be demonstrated. When Christians reach out and touch those with HIV or AIDS, they can transform suffering into a living example of God's love. While today's culture often focuses on sin and evil as an individual matter, the Bible speaks frequently of sin as something in which human beings are involved as a group. Similarly, evil happens in groups, in structures, and in forces beyond the individual. A faithful response to HIV/AIDS, then, must be a group response, as well as an individual one.
If God does not cause suffering or punish his people with HIV/AIDS, then what keeps people, particularly the NOW teenagers who were born HIV positive, from responding faithfully? One answer is the unrealistic fear, hatred, and rejection of HIV positive by their families, friends and the society.
Fear and suicide thoughts people living with HIV & AIDS when they believe that there is something wrong with them. They question the validity of who they are and give in to self-hatred. The resulting low self-esteem has caused some to abandon safe sex practices. In the case HIV Teens, this low self-esteem, sometimes prevents them from adopting safe sex practices from the beginning of their sex lives. Combined with the feeling of invulnerability to disease, common among young people, it is no wonder that the HIV infection rates among youth are among the fastest-growing of any population.
Facing the fear of one's own status and identity is the first step toward ending the paralysis which affects much of society. Freedom from discrimination and abuse is an important first step toward the prevention and elimination of this tragic disease with a great help of training, advocacy and faith in God.
Jesus said, "The Truth shall set you free," (John 8:32), and yet people too often deny the truth, or avoid learning about HIV/AIDS because of fear. It is the responsibility of all people of faith to educate themselves and all who can be reached. Many people have fears about the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS; that fear can be overcome with facts. With the facts about how HIV is transmitted, people of faith can remain sex-positive while advocating for an HIV Free generation.
Following the example of Jesus, people of faith are called to eat with people with HIV/AIDS, and to share their home with them (Matthew 25:6); to touch people with HIV/AIDS and give them intimacy (Matthew 8:2-4); and to heal people with HIV/AIDS (Luke 17:11-19). A faithful, intimate presence in the lives of those with HIV/AIDS, witnessing to them of Jesus' healing touch, is one of the most important responsibilities of all people of faith.
Is HIV or AIDS a punishment or judgment from God? In the minds and hearts of many people of faith, the answer is clearly, "No! Absolutely not!" This pandemic is a tragedy. It does, however, present people of faith with the opportunity to be faithful witnesses to God's love and healing grace, even in the face of suffering, death, and grief.