Update: What’s been said has been said. Both sides have aired their opinions on the matter. I have no wish to further continue a stressful and unproductive argument on my blogspace. All the participating commentors have blogs of his or her own, and of course are free to continue talking over there. To sum up: God allows all manner of bad things (trials) in our life to strengthen us. From sickness to job problems to relationship difficulties. But there is a key difference between allowing trials and INFLICTING trials. God does not afflict the children God died for.
There is a lot I don’t like about being sick. I hate the pain. I hate the inescapable nausea–I’ve either got pain so bad it makes my gorge rise or the medication I take to correct the root causes carries its own brand of regurgeousness. But more than anything else I deplore the current trend of Blame The Patient thinking. Any person with a serious illness will inevitably hear that the illness is their fault. Sure, medical conditions like pregnancy (while not an illness) can definitely be traced to a person’s participation in certain causal events, willing or unwilling. But more often than not, the reasons behind a person become sick are such a convoluted permutation of factors that there is simply no way to say “you have this because did that.” And that’s okay. Real life is not an episode of House M.D. where finding out the origin of a disease directly leads to a cure. Real life is complicated. It’s messy. And it’s always, always, always terminal.
[Since this is longer than my customary 500 word limit, I'm throwing in a jump]
But you will hear from young people that you are sick because you don’t maintain positive energy or a “healthy lifestyle.” From older people you will be told that your illness is due to some crazy thing your generation does which their generation considered unthinkable. Crackpots will tell you that alien ghost people are invading your cells to recreate their volcano dominion over this planet and you have to maintain positivity to drive the alien ghost people out.
Christians will tell you that you have sinned. Blogger Rebecca Luella Miller writes:
I wonder if sickness caused by sin doesn’t look like any other sickness. When I was reading about the symptoms the Philistines suffered, I couldn’t help but wonder if they didn’t have small pox. Or not. God could have given them their own special “don’t touch the ark” disease, just as He could give us a special because-of-sin virus.
Of course I believe that ALL sickness is caused by sin, in that we live in a fallen world. Death in all its forms–include the rapid entropy of any illness–entered into the world when sin did. That’s my basic Christian belief. But I do not believe for one second that any person’s illness can be said to be their “punishment for sin” or “caused by their sin” in that way that the Health and Wealth preachers constantly drive home. Our God is not a black magician, bewitching us and hexing us. God has offered one remedy for sin. One. It is an all-time cure-all. Why would any God who has already gone through the trouble of becoming human and enduring the painful self-alienating torturous sacrifice that Jesus went through then be so petty as to give a sinner cancer or arthritis or AIDS as a sort of reminder to get saved?!? It doesn’t make one iota of sense. Now that we have the eternal presence of the Holy Spirit, the pre-pentecostal ways of communication God used to get the point across are no longer necessary. Those things–like the plague boils–are for another time.
Now I know that most of you who are reading this are thinking at least in part about those verses in James that talk about anointing. I have great issue with those verses because of how many Christians over the years have misinterpreted them. Let’s have a quick look at what they say, first of all:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15, NKJV).
Now over the years I’ve heard more than one sermon blazingly preached about how these verses mean that if you pray hard enough, or get the right people to pray hard enough, or use the right oils or have enough faith that you will be healed. I’ve seen more than one person lose faith entirely when they do what the Bible says and aren’t cured. They’ve prayed hard, had the oil poured on their heads and still they can’t walk. They lose a breast to cancer. Their baby dies of liver failure.
My mother has been urging me for years to be anointed and I’ve resisted the practice for the sole reason that I don’t wish to be communicating that I want to be healed. I KNOW from countless conversations with God that my illness is with me for a season of undetermined length because it serves several purposes. To demand that I be healed is to shortchange God of the job of work God is trying to do in my life.
But look at those verses again, this time without Joyce Meyer or that over-enthusiastic new convert with the guitar and flip-flops (mis)interpreting them.
They don’t say you’ll be cured. Anywhere. At all.
What they do say is:
the prayer of faith will save the sick
In our earthly desires and our limited point of view we are most inclined to think of “saved” as meaning “cured”. But God is in it for the long game. For a sick person to be saved means that they will receive the peace of God. It’s an eternal sort of “saved”, one that’s far better than getting over any illness of the body.
the Lord will raise him up
This doesn’t mean that God gets you off your sick bed. It means that the Glory of God will give you a joy that transcends illness.
if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven
Kind of a no-brainer, really. The forgiveness of sin is the cornerstone of our faith. This is a reminder that God forgives when beseeched.
It’s a backwards logic to read this verses as many people do. The thought pattern seems to be that if we’re forgiven of sins while we are sick then the sins and the sickness must go together. And that’s sad because it means that for all the decades I’ve been alive (and possibly longer) people have twisted these words of comfort into a denouncement of the ill.
Look at it this way.
When I had the flu as a child my mom would say “take a shower or at least wash your face and you’ll feel better.” What that meant was simply that the hot water would soothe your aching muscles, that having the grease and grime of fever rinsed from your hair and the stale sweat from your skin would be refreshing and distance you slightly from the gutter of your worst symptoms. It never meant that you had the flu because you hadn’t showered.
Or, in an analogy I used with my friends, say you have an aunt who makes killer herbal tea. You may tell a friend that your aunt’s tea, drunk three times a day, is the best thing for a bad cold. What that means is that the tea will soothe your symptoms and relax you. It doesn’t mean that you have a cold because you never drank the tea before.
Illness is a difficult thing. Illnesses like mine–where there is no cure–can break your mind and spirit as well as your body. Believe me when I say that any ill person has examined their life in minute detail to see what they could have done differently. We all have an ache of futility inside us. But is God bullying us into being better people? Not the God of Grace. Not the God of the Cross. Not the God of the Empty Tomb and the Rent Veil.