Saturday, January 31, 2009

Unbidden Lessons

Illness always intrudes; it never ingratiates. It comes unbidden, without invitation. But as Christians, we can become more humble and faithful through it in several ways. Let me give an partial list.

1. We can realize we have not thought through out theology of sickness and healing, of God's Kingdom in relation to illness. We can change and seek the deep things of God on this by immersing ourselves in the Bible, prayer, and books on the topic.

2. We can embrace virtues we have never developed and shun vices we have identified with our very personalities. Illness requires great love and faith and patience to deal with. Anger and bitterness, while things to work through before God, are not the answer to this crucible. We may submit to lessons otherwise unlearned: love is patient, kind, and gentle. Remaining faithful to God, come what may, is a staple of the Christian life, as is lamenting the losses and crying out to God for liberation. The Psalms have so much to teach us in this.

3. Illness also opens up areas of other people's lives we may not normally see--in both the sick and the well. Unexpected kindnesses are expressed by unlikely souls. Those smitten with illness may show strength and resolve in surprising ways. And, of course, inner darkness can be revealed through chronic and acute illness as well. It is, after all, still a world groaning in anticipation of its final redemption.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Inner Language of Sorrow

Chronic and acute illness may call forth a bevy of emotions--or, perhaps, a paucity of emotions. Some of us are emotionally undernourished, ill-equipped to "weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh." Our affective vocabulary is attenuated; our passional repertoire is minuscule. We are stunted.

The palate of the soul should be multicolored, with the proper colors brought to bear on a whole range of situations associated with illness and recovery and healing. For many men, anger and impatience may nearly exhaust the range of response. Every since high school, I have relished words, learning as many English words--and some foreign phrases to throw around--as possible. In college, I began to note and define all the new words I was learning. This stared in 1976 and my last entry was in 1994, covering well over 100 pages. I mastered quite a few sesquipedalians, in fact. (This blog's spell check does not even recognize this word.)

When it comes to emotional vocabulary, I sit at a much lower level. Yet just as higher education evoked a mastery of words, health crises evoke--or should evoke--a mastery of emotions: learning to find and experience the proper emotion to the proper degree. For some of us, this meaning learning how to weep. Consider all the weeping of godly people--not just women--in the Holy Bible. Jeremiah was "the weeping prophet." Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. One could go on. The Hebrew people knew how to mourn, lament, and to do so before God and with each other. Consider all the emotional range of the Psalms, I have much to learn from them and through the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5) concerns healthy and apt emotions, not just actions.

Lord, teach us to feel the gamut of feelings that fit the facts at hand.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Not Reading

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven--Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV).

Ever since I started college in 1975, God has granted me large periods of time to read, study, and write. Not long after my conversion in the summer of 1976, I sensed a call to become learned, to study as a way of life. Reading Schaeffer's The God Who is There that fall was pivotal in this discernment. The call was further crystallized by my reading of Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing about a year later. I have not always used my time wisely, but I have never deviated from a desire to develop a knowledgeable and Christian mind about the things that matter most (see Romans 12:1-2).

About thirty years later, having become a professor and an author, I am learning how not to read, not to study, and not to write. You see, life "under the sun" has gotten in the way. Sickness takes time and requires assistance. I am the primary assistant. Study time is what is left over after doctor visits, administrations of medicine, weeping, praying, and general care taking.

Most people in our overly-busy, nonstudious culture need the disciple to read, to take time away from other distracting things and be alone in a room with a good book (which would probably be a form of torture for many if extended beyond a few minutes). I often publicly exhort people unto such things in the name of God.

Now, I need the disciple not to read, study, and write--and not be bitter about not reading, not working on my magum opus (an apologetics textbook). I have need of patience and endurance, Christian virtues available through prayer, repentance, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

From The Book of Common Prayer (1926)

41. For the Recovery of a Sick Person.

ALMIGHTY and immortal God, the giver of life and health: We beseech thee to hear our prayers for thy servant N., for whom we implore thy mercy, that by thy blessing upon him and upon those who minister to him of thy healing gifts, he may be restored, according to thy gracious will, to health of body and mind, and give thanks to thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Softening or Hardening?

15 For this is what the high and lofty One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
"I live in a high and holy place,
but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite."--Isaiah 57:15

Illness, whether chronic or acute (or both at the same time), can make one more tender and receptive to the Spirit of God or harder and more rebellious against the Lord. Or, it can do both, at various times. But what matters is the general direction of your soul your very life.

Illness comes unbidden--against our will, our dreams, our hopes; it invokes fears, even terrors; it can bring out the worst in us. However, under God and in God, we can take this as an occasion to learn of more our creatureliness and fallenness. We are agents and patients in a world that is groaning amidst the groaning of God himself (Romans 8:18-24). East of Eden we are, yet still under God's heaven.

The world is, in one sense, out of kilter, out of alignment--a bent and broken world. When we cannot escape this systematic brokenness, we may hate the world and its Maker, cursing the darkness as well as the Creator. But if we come under the authority of Scripture, if we take up and dwell within a biblical worldview (which takes a lifetime), we can see the disease and despair of the world as a result of human sin in the beginning and sin ongoing. When we hit the granite wall of illness, we can realize the reality of the space-time fall of humanity and our incorporation into it (Genesis 3; Romans 3). Yet, we do not stop here, but God does not stop here.

Jesus Christ came to redeem the world, all of it. That takes time, of course. One may be forgiven, justified, and set right with God in an instant, if we simply entrust ourselves to his grace by faith alone. Yet our own sanctification and healing is incremental and episodic. The End of all Things is future and unchartable (yet certain). When illness strikes us or a loved one, we--still beset by the proclivities of sin--may strike out at God. I often do. But, God in Christ offers forgiveness to his disciples (1 John 1:8-10). Our hardness may, through repentance (Matthew 4:17) turn to tenderness and genuine humility before God Almighty. We realize that illness indicates the fall of humanity and the cosmos: it is not right. But we can seek God for deliverance from illness and that we might learn what we need to know through the process, whatever it may be. We can be both contrite and earnest seekers of God's healing power, which is so evident in the Gospels and Book of Acts.

But we must not turn against God, for that means alienating ourselves from our only sure hope, our only consolation, our only true friend in trouble (see Psalm 91:14-16). We may lament; we may weep. But let us do so before God, knowing he is at our right hand with his strong right hand (Isaiah 41:10). When we do turn on God, let us turn back t God. God is ready to forgive and restore. The biblical pattern is simple: submit and draw near to God; resist the devil (see 1 Peter 5; James 4). If we reverse this pattern--resisting God and submitting to the bitterness and hatred of Satan (who came to steal, kill, and destroy)--we only grieve the Spirit and wound ourselves and others.

May we become tender and teachable before the Lord in this groaning world--not ceasing to groan, not ceasing to exercise faith (even a mustard seed's worth), not ceasing to hope, not ceasing to passionately pray through the promises of Scripture; but never giving up on God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Coping with the Substandard

6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your fellow believers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. 10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. 10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. --1 Peter 5:6-9

When health slips, everything else slips with it. Things don't get done, or get done poorly. Plans are laid aside; new plans take up time, but must be done: doctor visits, infusions, tests, etc. The break down of the body also means the break down of one's personal world (umwelt). One has to cope with the substandard for an indeterminate or indefinite period of time. But how?

We can focus on eternal things such as our relationship to God and others. We can try to do a few things well and not resent all we are not doing well, not doing it all, or could be doing. We can be thankful for what we have taken for granted. We can let friends serve us in new ways and make new friends who are eager to serve us. We can learn more of desperation for God.

We can wait on the Lord and hope and pray and build up our faith for restoration, of both body and soul. We can make our peace with the substandard--for now. We can resist the dark thoughts driven into us by the devil. We can grow in grace and truth--in the mess.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


20 Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Heb. 13:20)

Scripture exhorts us, enjoins us, encourages us to bless and not to curse. I have assembled many of the benedictions in the Bible and sometimes pray them over my wife. I did so tonight as she was resting during a treatment.

We must train ourselves to bless and not curse. We have lost the art of benediction in our glibness, our superficiality, and our ignorance. We should wish God's best on all, and say so. Many services lack a concluding benediction. This is sad and a great loss. "Have nice day," does not do it. It is a humanistic benediction, lacking theological and spiritual power.

Pray benedictions over your loved ones who are ill, over the loved ones who are healthy; have others pray them over you. Bless and do not curse. This is not magic; it is biblical. We have lost the skill in many ways. Let us return to the living and active word of God: the benediction, the invocation of divine blessing beyond what we could possibly ever do.

I will send you my list of benedictions--which may not be complete--if you email me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


"They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength..."

How do you wait when you are ill or are caring for the ill? The Bible emphasizes that the waiting itself can be strengthening. It is not that you wait until you get strength, but that in waiting before the Lord, calling our to Him, hoping in Him, one finds strength. As Andrew Murray pointed out, waiting on the Lord also means refusing to act in the flesh. We wait on God's wisdom and power and do not race ahead of God's wise ways.

We are waiting to find out how my wife will heal. She is getting better, moving in the right direction; but she has not yet reached the destination of freedom from a staph infection. We are waiting on the Lord. One way to not wait on God is to project a future where God is absent. As John MacArthur once preached, God does not does give you grace for tomorrow today, but tomorrow.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year; Same Problems

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.--Proverbs 13:12.

How can one cope with chronic illnesses and still have faith in God and not lose hope? Here are a few ideas to ponder for this new year.

1. No matter how anger or disgusted you may get with God, do not stop praying, reading the Bible, attending biblical worship (if you can get there), or having fellowship with serious Christians. You have have seasons of disengagement or disgust with God--as I do--but don't let them last very long. If you cannot attend religious services, some churches will send ministers to pray and celebrate communion with you at your home.

2. Be open to, but not naive about, new medical possibilities. Yes, that thing you never new about that might really help you may be out there or something new may have just come out. On other hand, who knows? And, of course, beware of the snake oil.

3. Try to be patient with people to just do not get chronic illness. Explain your situation and give them some literature to read. Pray they will have eyes to see and a heart to feel your situation and that of so many others.

4. Never forget that the sufferings of this world are not to be compared to the glory to be revealed in the Kingdom of God at the sound of the Last Trumpet. Look ahead; it is not escapism, but realism. The resurrection of Jesus assures Christians of that (1 Corinthians 15).

5. Be on the look out for mature Christians who have faith to pray for healing. Don't rush into this, but consider praying with these folks. Some have this special gift and have pray in ways that you and those close to you cannot.

Friday, January 2, 2009

When small is not small

Each heart knows its own bitterness,
and no one else can share its joy. --Proverbs 14:10

Small problems are not small to the chronically ill. Why? Because their entire lives are defined by and lived within physical and psychological and spiritual problems--that do not go away. So, when a new ailment breaks in, or a little thing goes wrong, or someone misunderstands them, they may breakdown and curse the day of their birth.

For normal folks, this seems uncalled for or absurd. Why the temper tantrum? It only seems absurd to you because you do not live inside that person's body. You have not experienced the aching pains of their soul. Things may bounce off you; they stick and prick the chronically ill.

Keep this in mind next time you are tempted to lecture your Lupus-enfeebled or chronically fatigued, or chemical and environmentally sensitized friend or family member when they "lose it over nothing." It is not nothing to them. "Love is patient and kind," writes the Apostle Paul.

How I need to learn this lesson!