The purpose of illness
A personal story and biblical reflectionby Brian Stucky
The test results came. Another diagnosis. Another chronic illness. I couldn’t even say the name of it for three days. So unfair. Not just because of the condition itself but because this is just the latest in a long list of chronic conditions I’ve acquired. And every time, my attention drifts away when the doctor says, “Well, there’s no known cause and no known cure … with a few adjustments, you can live a nearly normal life … there are some treatments we can try… the good news is …” And every time, I think, I’m way too young for this.
Then I just plain got angry with God. “What’s wrong, God, isn’t it enough? You’ve got to pile some more misery onto me?” I shouted. You mean God wants me to have this? If this is the will of God, I want no part of it.
Paul spoke in 2 Corinthians of a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble. How about four or five thorns in the flesh? I have often thought that, too, while praying for humility. But tell me exactly how I have been too arrogant for you, God? Silence. What have I done to deserve this? Silence. All right, God. Whatever you want. I’ll do anything.
I ran through the mental checklist of the five stages of grieving: shock, denial, anger, bargaining with God, then finally acceptance. But my mind just drifted elsewhere.
Rewind to a couple of years ago. My psychiatrist uncle passed away. In his last few days, friends and family were able to say goodbye. His worn-out body simply could no longer endure his long list of illnesses, from teenage polio on down. At his funeral, even those who knew him well were blessed by stories of his healing presence to others, in spite of his own suffering. I tried to ponder the meaning of it all. I’m still pondering today.
So after years of health conditions slowing me, I’m wondering how I got here. A lot is genetics. After all, I was once an athlete; I’ve never abused drugs or alcohol, or lived dangerously (unless you count a couple of college pranks). Maybe this is just what 50 looks like. A sense of mortality looms.
It’s hard to repeat, “God’s grace is sufficient for me.” I’m not sure I even know what that means. Am I just supposed to sit there and take it? It makes no sense to me right now. Harold S. Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People answers some questions but not nearly all. The illnesses have not gone away, and I still try to cope. There are good days, but there are days when coping is just so hard. The Sunday school discussion of whether God caused the tornado or allowed it has worn thin.
I’m tired of having a thorn in the flesh. I’m tired of the cross to bear. I’m tired of being tested, and I never had Job’s wealth to begin with. Don’t tell me it’s a challenge—a challenge is like climbing a mountain or parallel parking in a tight place, so don’t call it a challenge to make me feel better with semantics. Don’t tell me this is character building. I’ve got my fill of character building. It makes no sense that we are supposed to discover our spiritual gifts so that we can better serve the church and God’s kingdom, but then he takes away or lessens my ability to serve him. Why? I can accept that maybe God does not cause the bad things that happen to us. Sometimes they just happen.
Is there a purpose for illness? A purpose God has for tragedies and hard times? Wouldn’t it be easier to “curse God and die”? What does healing mean when there is no healing? What does healing look like then? Are there other paths? Are we ever meant not to heal so that we find other truths God is telling us?
Our Sunday school class once discussed when we felt our faith was strongest or weakest. To some, faith could be weakest when prayers aren’t answered, frustration mounts or loss of control is felt. Perhaps it’s the tragic loss of a child or parent. Where is God then? There’s supposed to be a saying that God will not put on us more than we can bear. But that’s not even in the Bible. The misinterpreted passage is 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NIV): “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” Do some receive more than their share of testing? Of course. Suffering has the potential to devastate faith in God. But is it testing that makes our faith weak?
I tend to think it is more often when times are easy that our faith is weakest, that we think we need God least. It is exactly in the hard times that our faith becomes the strongest because it is then we realize we need God. Faith is only faith when you have to make a leap for it.
It’s sort of the upside-down thinking that occurred to me one Thanksgiving—that those who are the least thankful are those who have everything. But those most grateful are those who have the least, or have chronic illnesses, or have had a brush with death. They are most thankful just to be alive to count their blessings.
Then the fog begins to clear. We can’t know everything, but we hunger to believe God has a reason for things. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a purpose for illness and hard times. What if the purpose for illness is so that we draw closer to God? I’m not even sure that is sound theology, but I’m thinking about it. Even from the smallest child’s sniffles to terminal cancer, are we drawn closer to God during our healthiest, wealthiest times or our weakest, most vulnerable times? And could it be that the ultimate illness, death, is when he draws us so close to him that he calls us home? For the believer, I wonder if this might be true. For those without God, I can’t really answer.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NIV), Paul has profound words on suffering, weakness and strength: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We can identify with Paul about the thorn in the flesh and pleading with God to remove it. With contemplation we read, “My grace is sufficient for you.” To this we either slump in the thought that no obvious physical help is on the horizon or search desperately for the definition of grace and try to rally our courage, settling for a deep peace. The challenge of chronic illness is to not lose hope in a situation that will not change. God is always with you, even through this. And, maybe, just maybe, all this will help me better minister to others. Maybe this will help me be a better deacon.
But how do we comprehend “my power is made perfect in weakness” and, “For when I am weak, then I am strong”? This oxymoron illustrates the mystery of God. It is only when we recognize our vulnerability that we see the need to tap into the greatness and power of God. If we see ourselves as successful and invulnerable, we have no need for God. And that is foolishness, faithlessness and ultimately weakness.
If personal spirituality is our goal, we should not pray for the easy life if it lets us drift away from God. Hospitals and health services do wonderful work with healing and should continue the mission to relieve suffering. Physical treatments may relieve stress long enough for us to praise God. There may be other paths for our souls. Our desires should be to draw closer to God, to acknowledge our need of him. It is then that faith emerges. Sometimes this can only be accomplished through hard times and illness. That is when our faith is strongest. And that I can begin to accept.
Brian Stucky is a member of Goessel (Kan.) Mennonite Church.
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