If sin is the “age old rebellion,” then would Adam have refused to go to the doctor if he got sick?
Biblical history often seems to present a clear connection, even a synthesis, between sin and illness—certainly between sin and death and conversely forgiveness and healing—and perhaps, between life and health. But we who live in the era of quickly advancing medical and scientific frontiers can knowledgeably pick apart the story lines of the Old and New Testaments. We can identify the contractible and inherited diseases which plagued those people, along with modern treatments and cures that do not include mud, spit, exorcism, banishment or finding the right pool to wash in. Now hold on, lest you think I simply mock the intervention of God and the healing of Christ that is found so often in the Old and New Testaments. Let’s first consider why a person like myself, one with a chronic illness and a disability might take offense.
Consider the heroes and patriarchs of old. Eve’s sin caused pain and difficulty in childbirth. Jacob wrestled with God and came out with an injured hip—not just a reminder of his humanity, mind you, but in the days before motor cars, a clear disability. Consider Sarah and many other women who were “barren,” as it is put—or infertile, as we would say today. Their inability to have children precluded them from participating in the call of God and put at risk their lineage and even their security in this life. Moses feared his speech problem would cause him to be unable to fulfill God’s command. The psalmists wrote songs of pain and suffered disability from grief. Saul only came to “see’ God through an experience of blindness. Those of the Old Testament who lived to be 600 must have had incredible arthritis, despite their faith. In Jesus’ ministry, scores of cripples, lame men, the deaf and mute were cured by the word of God’s forgiveness—the Power of the Name of God. It would be great if it were that easy at the end of the twentieth century.
During the time that I have spent with a limp, a cane, a crutch or two, sore hips, a wheelchair, paraplegia and the inability to write my name or get out of bed by myself, I have also been an ordained person who has a call from God to preach and teach the Word and administer the sacraments in the Power of the Name of God. But all that didn’t make me better. I’ve prayed, wrestled, yelled, cried and stood silent with God. But I still couldn’t walk.
Some said it was a gift, a way for me to be God’s example and servant. Some said that it was an obvious sign of my lack of faith. Maybe I suffered a trauma at birth. Some said this just happens to people sometimes and it has nothing to do with anything.
I’m still not sure what I believe. But I do know that I have learned more about God’s presence and ability to appear absent, more about sin and brokenness, more about healing and wholeness in the last five years than most people do in a lifetime. The questions are greater in number than answers, but perhaps in this age of reason, questions are what we need to be able to truly see into one another’s lives. The world wants to know, “Why did God let this happen?”—the great stumbling block to those who do not know God. I can’t tell you that. But maybe I can help you know that God has never wished for anyone to suffer, and that illness, disability, and brokenness are the evidence of sin, not the punishment for it.
Health happens when the systems of the body work together in a way God in God’s infinite wisdom created them to. The cells seem to have little lives of their own, producing the chemicals and substances necessary to promote the life and development of other cells, building tissue and organs, bones and vessels. It is all coordinated by a complex chemical and electrical system that the most brilliant scientist can only scratch his head at.
Sometimes, though, things go awry. If such a wrench as a resistant bacteria is thrown into the works, the well-oiled machine endures an annoying, troublesome, and for some, disabling continuum that we call illness—a domino effect of glitches and bugs. Illness happens because the body is functioning abnormally. It is a sign that God’s human creation is not up to par with what God intended. But note, the creation is perfect. (Read Wisdom of the Body or How We Die by Sherwin B. Nuland and you’ll believe this forever.) However, the creation is also vulnerable to its own freedom and sometimes breaks down.
Sure, sin can cause health problems. Carcinogens such as tobacco and the fumes of the city destroy not only lung tissue, but also many of the plants and animals that God worked so hard on those first days of creation. This is clearly our fault. We continually stuff ourselves with surplus fats and foods that we know can cause congestive heart failure or coronary artery disease. As a result of our greed and aimless curiosity, we have invented a world that is destroying itself, and our selves with it. New research gives more and more evidence that environmental toxins are responsible for such diseases as asthma, Parkinson’s and many cancers. Our love of speed and fury causes more auto accidents that I can bear to ponder. Our inner hatred of each other sparks the fuel of thousands whose acts of terrorism cause death and torment for individuals, cultures and entire nations. In an effort to defend a country and a “sacred” way of life, we have developed weapons of war designed to debilitate, disfigure and kill one another. All of this is truly sinful, but God didn’t do it. We did.
But sometimes, God’s wisdom shows through and answers are found. Recently I began taking a tiny pill that contains the precise chemical that my brain missed for years. This chemical crosses the blood-brain barrier and becomes the neurotransmitter dopamine. Upon entering the realm of circuitry, it restores my movement and mobility for about four hours. In short, I can walk. I can even run sometimes and my life is a whole lot easier. (Hopefully the medications won’t ruin my liver in the years to come.) I have been called a miracle, or at least the situation has. I do believe that God had a hand in all of this coming about, but I don’t hold God responsible for the years I spent in a wheelchair. God created such a remarkable body that it’s taken us this long to figure it out. So we can call it a miracle, but it is no greater an act of God than flowers resurrecting to new life when the snow melts each spring. It doesn’t minimize my recent transformation and the healing that can occur with proper diagnosis and treatment to say that all of life is miraculous. All of life, all of wellness, healing and growth, birth and development is miraculous because God’s hand is in it.
Still, it doesn’t help me to understand why a 10-year old granddaughter of one of my flock has suffered with an inoperable brain tumor. The anguish that the child, her family and all of us have experienced seems pointless in the big picture. It serves no purpose, does it, to see the innocent suffer? Truly it was not her sins that made it happen, but perhaps it was the sin that is so evident in our world. We are not as whole as first created, though the Imago Dei gives me hope that God will restore us to new life and true wellness. We can be healthy. We can endure and experience disability and still be healthy.
How is this so? I first realized that I was whole—that I was “well” in the midst of being sick—when I got so bad that I had no other choice but to give it all up. In late 1997and early 1998, my inability to walk had progressed to an inability to stand. Numerous functions of my body began to fail me. Medications caused problems all their own. All this made the activities of daily living very difficult. Everything from getting in and out of the shower to making it up the ramp during worship was becoming more difficult. I doubted whether I could or should continue to do my job. It became increasingly obvious that some concessions would have to be made in my duties at work and at home, and I found myself slowly becoming more isolated, alone and afraid. It became more and more depressing to answer the question, “How are you?” The strength I was holding onto through self-confidence and pride was diminishing. The smile of yesterday was fading and my fear and frustration were beginning to show. This bothered me more than anything. I had not yet learned how to be broken without feeling destroyed.
With scant encouragement from my physicians, little relief from medications and meager confidence in my future, I examined everything that I had formerly taken for granted. It was time to decide if I was going to fight or quit, search or give up. It was time for me to reevaluate my goals, my needs and my dreams. The answer was clear. Of all my accomplishments, my freedom and independence are by far the most important to me. Being free to live as a woman who is wife and mother, a pastor and an athlete instills a sense of achievement and success that is almost irreplaceable. It is my love of this freedom, along with the challenge of keeping it real, that has gotten me through all this.
As the pastor of a congregation, a leader in the church, a wife, a mother, an athlete, I had many roles to fill and much work to do. As I listed the responsibilities of these roles, I realized that none of them specifically required walking or running. Nor did they indicate a need to be perfect, without illness or injury. What was required was a loving heart, a genuine faith, a compassionate soul and a dedicated spirit. I could do these things as God gave me the ability. My disability had no power over them. I was still free, and because of this I was, and am, whole. While my body remains injured and my function impaired I am not defeated by sin or its consequences. This is freedom for the Christian. Even though I no longer fit the definition of able-bodied, my call is not compromised by my need to ask for help or minister in a different way.
Everything has changed and yet nothing at all. I am still who God made me to be, doing what God has called me to do. I finally came to understand that it was God’s creative power (and not that of my doctor or my ego) that makes me whole, just as it is God’s creative power that makes everyone who knows God whole. It is the Imago Dei that I have inherited which makes me well, not the genetic and physical casting of my body and its functioning.
Therefore, calling someone an “invalid” must be a great sin, as none of God’s creation is “in-valid.” God has called us his children, and knew us in the womb. We may discriminate in this world (another sign of our shortsightedness) but there is no one who is not beloved in the eyes of God. Each of us is called a special purpose, and God’s ultimate promise to be with us always is all we need to know. We will never go through life alone. In our weakest moments, it is God’s image of suffering which makes us strong, and in our triumphs we can be reminded that Christ too triumphed over all.
It is okay that our bodies will break down, disappoint us and eventually die. This is part of life for us sinners. Yet even in our dying, through faith we can be whole. Christ died that we might live, overcame death and brought us to newness of life through the glory of the empty tomb. We receive this gift of life even today because the power of the Spirit of God dwelling in us sustains us despite our sin, despite our suffering (self inflicted or accidental) and despite our refusal to give up that which destroys us.
I know that God’s forgiving, renewing and healing Spirit within me keeps me alive, well and whole.
Wholeness, therefore, is not the absence of sin, but the presence of God. This is a message of hope for all God’s people.