Taken for Granted: Why the Church Must Acknowledge Illness

There’s an old adage that insists we take our own health for granted until we lose it. For me, that wasn’t quite the case. I took my own health for granted until I saw my dad, riddled with cancer, lying on a bed parked in front of the television in his living room; until I saw him struggle to get up and walk to the dinner table on his last Thanksgiving; until I heard him hacking and coughing in the bathroom for what seemed like forever. I took my health for granted until the latter half of 2011, as my dad faced his own imminent death.

It was then that I realized how incomprehensibly tied together our souls and our bodies are, and the ways that failing health can wreak havoc on our mental and spiritual state, or on that of those we love, or all of the above. There’s something deeply horrific about our bodies failing us, no matter what the illness might be.

In the midst of illness, we and our loved ones become acutely aware of an ear-piercing and existential record-scratch. We become obsessed with putting the needle back on track. We lift the needle and cringe at the silence. Sometimes we drop the needle too soon, and it bounces across the surface indelicately. Eventually we settle the needle back into the spot, and we continue on our way. Other times we find that the record is beyond repair, and the needle simply rides a continuous line, skipping back into place, never moving forward, until the record player eventually, mercifully, loses power.

Most of us don’t know how to think about this. We think that God must have some will in these maladies. Maybe he is punishing us for our sins. Maybe he is bringing us through some great trial. Maybe it is his will that we suffer. So often we pray for ourselves, and others pray for us with super-spiritual phrases that accept the illness as inevitable. We pray for the strength to see God’s hand in the situation. We pray that God might be glorified in our weakness. Eventually, we begin to see sickness as a gift from God. Well, okay.

But really, it’s not okay. Illness doesn’t just symbolize the fall of man. It doesn’t just remind us of our mortality. It isn’t merely a figurative object lesson for our separation from God. It is the direct implication and result of these things. When we are ill, we are suffering the direct consequences of our sinful state, no matter how good we have been in this life. We are still dead and dying. We are wasting away. And the systems within us are breaking down. We are broken.

It’s tempting to think of our physical state as secondary to our spiritual state, but the reality is that these things are tied together and inseparable. Illness has the potential to make us saints and martyrs, but more often it makes us frustrated, bitter, and fearful. When our bodies don’t work correctly, our minds tend to fail us as well.

We try to rise above this physical curse through prayer, meditation, and pure force of will, but the curse of illness will remain until the resurrection of the church. Until then, Christians can’t afford to ignore the physical maladies that assault the human race, writing them off as “God’s will.” Like death, war, or any other product of the fall, Christians should treat it as the reality it is, all the while taking practical steps to stave it off in the meantime. Whether it’s a family member with cancer, a low-income family with no money for a doctor’s appointment, a young child with AIDS in Africa, or a church member who suffers from infertility, it’s time we started acknowledging this curse by proactively empathizing with and supporting those who suffer from illness and staving it off when possible. It’s time the church stops taking health for granted.

This article was adapted from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, Taken for Granted.

photo credit: drewleavy via photopin cc

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • singing_pigs

    Huh, interesting. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced the church taking health for granted. Though to be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what you mean by that. In the church I grew up in illness was an accepted part of life, not something anybody feared or tried to ignore. Is that unusual?

  • http://twitter.com/mattsmethurst Matt Smethurst

    Beautifully written, Rich.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    You mileage may vary, but in my experience there are two extremes: assuming that health is a given for those who are full of faith, and assuming that lack of health is an irrelevant concern for those who are meant to be primarily concerned about the Kingdom of God.

    In particular, I run in circles that gravitate toward that 2nd extreme. Often when praying for those who have illness, we forget to pray for their well-being and instead pray for God to work through an illness, to sanctify them in the midst of the trial, etc. We forget that Jesus had an interest in making the lame walk and the blind see in a very literal sense.

    The result of all this is a culture that treats physical health as something that simply doesn’t matter all that much, a trial that must be endured rather than overcome or acknowledged outright.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Thank you matt!

  • Luke Gleaves

    As a hospital chaplain I see this every day. There is something powerful in acknowledging someone’s suffering; asking God for mercy, peace and comfort (along with healing, working through illness, etc) for those suffering illness and hospitalization (both patients and family). It is powerful to honestly weep with those who weep, acknowledging this is not how it was supposed to be, while still holding on to the hope of Christ who will make all things right in the end. I love the image of Christ weeping on the way to raise Lazarus from the dead. I think that image is a clear one to hold as we minister to those who are suffering.

    One of the great causes of suffering I see is when people hold onto the belief that God will heal if they just believe hard enough. It is a magical thought process that sometimes does not allow honest insight into illness, preparation for death, or openness to how God works in the midst of suffering (even when people are not cured).

    It is so easy to slide to one extreme or another on this issue. Harsh stoicism and refusal to acknowledge suffering makes things worse; so does ignoring the truth of a prognosis and expecting God to do what we want Him to just because we believe or say He will.

    Thanks for the excellent article. You summed things up well.

  • http://gospelaccordingtodoctorwho.tumblr.com/ dschram

    Just read the book of Job. Try a modern version.

  • C R

    Every church I’ve ever been a member of lists the ill members in the prayer bulletin, or if they find out about it after printing the papers then the pastor will mention it in the service. We also host separate prayer night just for praying for members and other issues. We do home visits, etc as well. Not sure who this article is preaching to. Like I said, every church I’ve been a part of has some version of these activities going on.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    That’s great, CR!