Dear Heavenly Father, recently a dear friend gave me an icon, a primitive necklace from Taos that represents Archangel Raphael. According to the small note that accompanied the icon, “your negative thoughts have created your illness. You must change your thinking.” I know, Dear Lord, that many people believe this, that I caused my illness, that it’s my fault, and that I alone can cure myself.
I do not believe this. I didn’t cause my illness, my thoughts are not to blame, and it is not true that I alone can heal my illness. Where are you in this equation? What is your role as healer? And what of children in utero who are born with an injury or a condition—what of a young child who suffers from a fatal illness? Has that child already accumulated negative thoughts? What of years and years of medical history which each day comes to a clearer understanding of illness and its treatment. If I caused my condition because I don’t think ‘right’, and if I don’t get better, then I’m to be blamed for that as well, and so the guilt spirals and spirals.
No. Illness exists because we live in a fallen world, a broken world, a world in which wars and tornados and sudden death exist. I can acknowledge that there are things we may do which could contribute to illness—over-exposure to the sun or smoking, for instance. But even then, not all who seek sunshine to excess contract skin cancer and not all smokers fall prey to lung cancer. And there are those who do neither of those activities, but who succumb to cancer regardless.
I believe too we may inherit a propensity to a particular sickness—in our genetic make-up we may be more likely to develop high blood pressure or cancer, or heart problems.
However, in the deepest recesses of my heart I do NOT believe God uses sickness as punishment. God does not want us to suffer, to be in pain, to waste away. Alzheimer’s is as painful for Him to watch as it is for any family member. God is our Father—He is our family member as well, and He loves us more than we are capable of loving one another.
No, God doesn’t cause illness, but He does use illness for His purposes. Once the sickness is there, He works to bring good from the evil of illness. Always He gives us a choice of responses. We can, in the face of illness, get angry. If we choose to get angry with God, sadly we slam the door shut to any comfort or healing He could provide. If we get angry with our physicians, we waste energy that could be used to help us heal—the doctor will move on to other patients and our anger accomplishes nothing. We can get angry at ourselves, blame ourselves, silently shout at ourselves for deserving or not deserving God’s punishment. And as our energy is depleted, as an auto-immune disease is worsening, we contribute to the self-destruction that some illnesses are.
God gives us another choice. We can work with Him to benefit from the experience of illness. If we work closely with God, we can deepen our sense of dependency, use the illness to focus on God in our lives, on the role He plays in our thinking and feeling and action. We can use sickness to develop a closer relationship with ourselves, to explore and confront who and what we are. When I was 37 years old, I spent six months helpless in a body cast, totally rigid, unable to bend and confined to a hospital bed. During that period I had time when all I could do was burrow into myself, find the strengths God gave me, and identify too the weaknesses and temptations I succumbed to. I came to love myself as Jesus taught us we must—that until we love and respect ourselves, we can’t love our neighbor.
And finally, through illness God gives the gift of altering how we relate to others. Through my own sickness I came to understand that we are all ill—we all suffer in one way or another. Each of us is ill, whether that sickness is physical or spiritual or mental. Once I have learned to be gentle with my own sickness, how can I be unforgiving of all those I meet who also suffer from their own illnesses? I used to hear “there are no atheists in a fox hole”—well, I’ve discovered atheists are rare in an oncology office, or a cardiologist’s office, or in the waiting rooms of many specialists. Very often in such offices there is a gentleness of spirit, a breath of kindness and understanding less common in the world outside. It’s possible, through illness, to become compassionate, empathetic, to grow in a sense of shared spirit, of common pain. Each of us in the waiting room has a ‘story’, and in the telling of our own story we bond together, uniting as one.
No, the little note with the icon necklace is wrong. I didn’t cause my illness and I alone can’t cure it by changing my thinking, my negative thoughts. God does not give illness as punishment, but He does promise to use sickness for a greater good; He promises to bring good even from the evil of illness—if we let Him, if we make a choice to help Him and learn from the experience.
I profited from my illness; I am wiser, closer to God, and closer to the people around me—even those who are strangers. We have the choice of how to respond—to use our energy to benefit from what we go through, or to expend our energy wastefully, accomplishing nothing other than depleting ourselves. I pray, Dear Father, that You would help each of us to work with You, to choose to include You in benefitting from illness, to use our broken bodies in your service and in our deepening faith. Amen.