In the last month Emma’s been in and out of hospital 3 times (she’s in at the moment) and I’ve consistently had man-flu. (Sorry to those who’ve sent messages and comments recently. I’ll get to them in time).
It’s struck me very forcibly how offensive illness is to our fleshly sensibilities. Just speaking of my own meagre maladie, here’s the sort of thing said to me on a daily basis:
[Shocked] Haven’t you seen a doctor then?
[Tutting] Haven’t you been taking your medication?
[Frowning] Haven’t you been inhaling hot lemon and eucalyptus like I told you?
[Disappointed] Haven’t you rubbed menthol on your chest and belched La Marseillaise?
[Appalled] Elderflower, saffron and moose hair Glen – that’s what I keep telling you. How long will you choose frailty over my curse-proof stratagems??
Maybe I’m imagining it, but I often sense a note of anger in the advice of others regarding illness. It doesn’t really fit our default world-view for people to just get sick. We need to believe that there are practical reasons for the suffering and dependable remedies to fix it. When our friends have an illness that doesn’t budge, it actually becomes very threatening. It forces a collision between two strong emotions. On the one hand there’s deep love and concern for your friend who’s suffering. But on the other is an un-named but powerful belief that life will work for us if we act smart, work hard, keep trusting God and never give up. Of course this entails the belief that bad stuff is preventable if we’re prepared, persistent and prayerful enough. And so when our friend is sick, and stubbornly sick… well… you love ’em. But deep down you know that somewhere, somehow they’ve done it to themselves. (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” John 9:1)
Of course the battle is there in the sufferer too. We end up suffering double when we believe the lie that all bad stuff is preventable. Not only do we face the illness, we face bitter self-flaggelation for succumbing in the first place.
Both sufferer and comforter should stop being surprised by the fiery trial (1 Pet 4:12). We must ditch this ridiculous belief in our curse-proof stratagems. Let’s comfort one another as those who know we are east of Eden and the Suffering Servant is the only way back.