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On Sickness: Reflections on Illness & the Christian

By Fr. Justin Clemente

In my adult life, I’ve tried to make an intentional habit of reflecting on the meaning of illness, as well as God’s sovereign and good purposes, in these times of dependency and limitation. Admittedly, I have not suffered much in my life, and there are others who could write, and have written, much more profound material on sickness (and, by extension, death). See, for instance, Tim Challies’ recent reflection on the sudden death of his twenty-year-old son. Those are words on suffering, illness, loss, and death.

Yet, I want to try. I think the people of our parish need this right now.  In our local context, the battle against COVID will most likely get worse before it gets better. Some of us had the virus, have it now (including myself), or probably will have it soon. We’ve been fighting this battle for ten months now. It’s in this time that our people will have to individually apply all things we’ve been talking about up to this point.

So, out of my limited experience with sickness, here are seven takeaways that I believe every Christian ought to spend some time with when illness, big or small, strikes.

1. Remember that you will die

Sounds morbid, I know, but it tops my list. St. Benedict of Nursia, founder of Western monasticism, included in his Rule the daily provision that one ought to “keep death daily before your eyes.” (ch. 4)

My old pastor used to say that every time we get even a case of the sniffles, we ought to prepare to die. Sickness, light or heavy, begs us to ask the following questions: Is your soul in order? Do you have a true and lively faith in Christ? Is your house in order? Are your relationships in order? One day there will be a sickness unto death and the time to prepare for that is in all the other little sicknesses we encounter in life.

2. Remember how limited and dependent you are

Each one of us is loved and supported by relationships in this life. Some are blessed with many, and some with few, but all are upheld, grown, and made to stand in this life through others. As the old Collect says, we thank the Lord for “the loving support that surrounds us on every side.” That is nowhere more clearly revealed than in a time of sickness. We are not as strong as we think we are, and others have strengthened us in our lives more than we probably give them credit. All this is from God.

3. Remember the goodness of ordinary life

At this present moment, I still cannot taste or smell anything. It’s a lingering effect of COVID, and a reminder of how blessedly good ordinary life is, even in in the wilderness of sin. The world is an amazing place!

Some of you may have seen the viral videos of teenagers getting their wisdom teeth pulled out. Some of them say some incredibly funny things. The one that tops my list, though, is a video of young man coming out of anesthesia, learning that he has a chair, a mother and father, two sisters, and a dog named Bane. His reaction is priceless: “My life is perfect!”

4. Remember that your gifts and talents are just that: gifts

The longer we are healthy, the bigger our bank accounts, the more we flourish, the greater the temptation is to think we have achieved all this on our own strength. It is not so. A time of sickness is a time to remember that all we have is a gift from God. Remembering that will keep us from bitterness, should we called to lose our gifts and talents.

“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)

As the Great Litany reminds us, “In all times of tribulation; in all times of prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment, Good Lord, deliver us.”

5. Remember you’re in the wilderness

The wilderness state, pronounced by God over creation after the Fall, has not ceased to be (as we are so painfully aware these days). Sickness, even slight bouts of it, is a reminder of the persistent, piercing thorns of sin. The Lord’s words to Adam ring true in our ears when sickness brings us low:

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”
 (Genesis 3:17-19)

6. Remember the mercy of God

And yet, our God is merciful, and loves to show his power and goodness to his people. Pray for healing. Call for a priest or deacon to anoint you. Ask intercessors to lift you up, that your whole person: body, mind, soul, and spirit might be healed. Ultimately, this is God’s promise for every believer in the New Heavens and New Earth. We are not Gnostics. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, “God likes matter. He created it.” God cares for you – the whole you.

14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:14-16)

7. Remember the hope of the resurrection

The preface for Ministry to the Dying in the Book of Common Prayer says this:

For Christians, death is a defeated enemy. In Christ, death has become the gateway to everlasting life. As St. Paul reminded the Church at Corinth:

Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Your sickness can only hold you for so long. Death will not hold the Christian captive. It cannot. For us, death is but the gateway to life.

In a time of sickness, you are called to remember that death is not only the last enemy to be destroyed, death is your last enemy to be destroyed. After that, Christ is all. It is both a finish line and a brand new beginning, consummated in a body that will be gloriously free from death and all its effects.