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.