Chronic illness and health – a meditation on Job, ‘Be Not Afraid’ and my own experience


Chronic illness makes me angry.  And it makes me afraid.  That is it is a visceral rather than intellectual experience.  Sure I can think about it and reflect on it but above all I feel it

 Why O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
Why must I walk about mournfully

Because of the oppression of the enemy?

 These quotes from the psalms reflect a Biblical theme of challenging and questioning God when we experience suffering and it is replicated most forcibly in Job

 Job has everything stripped from him – family, wealth, possessions but he responds in a remarkably calm manner: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  This prompts Satan to ask God if he can attack Job’s body, when he does this Job remains silent except to rebuke his wife who wants him to curse God and die.  Finally his friends come and sit with him in silence as he scrapes the sores which cover his body from head to toe.  Then it all comes out

 Let the day perish in which I was born
And the night that said ‘a man child is conceived’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it, or light shine on it.

 In the Be Not Afraid workshops we rarely have intellectual discussions.  They are about personal, visceral experience.  Sometimes we don’t even talk about illness but the focus on chronic illness enables people to talk about a sadness in their life which has a similar visceral impact.  Often we talk about how to avoid bitterness, which is perhaps our version of Job trying to avoid the temptation to curse God and die.

 But although Job’s experience is a personal and visceral one it is not a solitary or individual one.  The main body of the book relates his dialogues with his friends – although dialogues is perhaps the wrong word, essays in misunderstanding might be more accurate.  Pain and illness is one thing but it is an entirely different experience when to this pain and illness are added loneliness, or misunderstanding, or being judged because you are ill, or being accused of sin because of your illness.  Other people have the ability to ease pain and even transform pain into a positive experience but they also have the ability to diminish and demean and extinguish the spark of life within our hearts.

 In Be Not Afraid the favourite story for people to choose is the story of Jacob and Esau which we title “Families: can’t live with them, can’t live without them”.  The care and love which family shows to someone suffering from a chronic illness is perhaps the single most important factor in their ability to cope with that experience.  It is so important because the illness does not only affect the individual but the whole family.  Chronic illness is not a private experience, it is a family experience.  People often talk about churches being family – perhaps the best way to judge whether or not this is the case, is the impact that the chronic illness of one of its members has on the whole church…  and, furthermore, the nature of the church’s response to it. 

 But although chronic illness is not a private experience, it is a personal journey.  This is the purpose of Be Not Afraid – to enable people to go on their own personal illness journey and learn from the experience of entering into the wilderness of chronic illness.

 In my redramatization of the story of Job I conclude with these words

 I search for God in all his immense strangeness
And you offer me moral platitudes
I batter at the edge of human experience
And you want to make everything nice
All I know is the way things are
I experience my own suffering
I feel the truth of my own existence
And it is this that I present to God

My words are ended, only God remains

 For Job, whose life was entirely centred around his relationship with God, his illness meant that he had to reexamine his faith and his religion.  As people listened to this reexamination they found it difficult to cope, because it threatened the easy confidence of their own beliefs.  But it is what Job had to do.  This is the opportunity with which chronic illness presents us: the chance to reexamine our deepest convictions, not as an intellectual exercise, but as a visceral journey which demands the full exercise of all our intellectual powers, all our emotional resources, all our spiritual energies, not to mention all our physical courage.  And chronic illness also brings similar challenges to our natural and spiritual families.  But is this a journey which we are willing and able to take?

 A final thought.  We are told at the end of the book that Job received back everything that he had lost and more besides, although nothing is said about his health.  Perhaps his skin continue to trouble him to the end of his life, perhaps for him it was a continuing journey, a reminder of those dark days when he came face to face with God.  An opportunity to continually examine the reality of his faith and his religion.

Joe -- a story about chronic illness

I hate my life.  It is a story without sense or meaning
My birth was a tragedy
My conception a farce
My life a horror story from beginning to end
Stillbirth would have been a blessing
Miscarriage a joy
Perinatal mortality a cause for celebration
Anything better than this crude, malicious plot
No doctor can diagnose my agony
No guru chart my way to freedom
No philosopher makes sense of madness
All that exists is the bewildered story of my pain
Then Dr Eli spoke
May I be permitted to speak,
Not for myself, but on behalf of my profession?
You should not so easily dismiss
The science and the skills of modern medicine
Every year we make extraordinary advances
Our diagnostic skills are unparalleled
And there are many treatments
For every kind of disease: both acute and chronic
Put yourself in the hands of a skilled physician
He will soon diagnose your complaint
And if she finds no organic basis
A psychiatrist could treat and restore your mind
But Joe responded
My heart is heavy.  I am crushed
Gravity is reversed
And the earth weighs down on me.
My pain cannot be measured
What use is your medicine?
You prod and you poke and you dissect my spirit
But it brings no relief
You forget that I am a human being in anguish
My life has come to an end
My body evaporates
So why should I be reasonable
I have no status to protect.  I have ceased to exist
Then Belle the healer spoke
You are full of negative energy
It is not surprising your body is sick
We all know bad thoughts create bad karma
It is as inevitable as the dying of the sun
The cause of your sickness is in your soul
You have let darkness become your light
Illusion has become your reality
Let go of your pain and all will be well!
But Joe replied
Do you think I don't know this?
Of course my soul is sick
Sick with fear and dread and terror
But what good does it do to have this knowledge?
I do not deny my suffering
I do not blame someone else for what I am
But I can see no purpose in my suffering
It comes and it goes on without explanation
O universe!  Why was I born?
Why was my story begun in joy
Only to end in terror and despair?
It is a callous joke, without meaning
Then the Rev Sofia spoke
You should listen to what your friends say
Do not despair of medicine
It can achieve amazing things
Which a few years ago were not possible
And yes, you should examine your heart
Do not be afraid.  Be ruthlessly honest.
Perhaps there is lurking there some hidden sin,
A guilt too terrible to admit
If you do these things God will surely come to you
You will be amazed
We must believe that by repentance and faith
God will bring our healing
But Joe responded to his three friends
Oh yes you are very sensible
Your arguments are rational and sound
You truly have the wisdom of God
But I have no use for you
I have not rejected God
Just because he hasn't given me
What I think is my right.
I do not think God is here to pamper me
But God is far stranger
Than we ever imagined
His mystery demands silence
Not your half digested babblings
Life is trouble and pain and strife
Begun in anguish, it ends in despair
Don't pretend it is anything else
We will die and our words will die with us.
Then Dr Eli spoke once more
Come now Joe let us think about this
We are both rational men
We have studied long and hard
And come to understand somethings about this world
Science is our best way of achieving knowledge,
Through it we uncover the secrets of nature:
The wonders of the natural world are revealed
And its mysteries made plain to man
So you should still have hope
May be medicine has not yet cured you,
But we are always learning more
Be persistent and you will find a solution
But Joe replied
Do you really think I don't know this?
Do you think I couldn't say exactly the same?
But if I was in your position
I wouldn't let myself speak these cold words
I would speak words of real comfort
Words that acknowledged my pain
And recognised the injustice done me.
O my spirit is broken!
I am a dismembered man
And there is nothing left of me
Once people spoke well of me
But now they don't even acknowledge my existence.
Then Belle once more spoke up
Of course we understand what you are saying, Joe
Your life has taken a difficult to turn,
Once everything was going well for you
But now you are experiencing the shadow
This is an experience we all understand
Who has not known difficult times in their life?
Who has not had a bitter pill to swallow?
Now you are in a time of suffering
But listen to the wisdom of people who have been there before
Do not give in to bitterness
Do not be consumed by the darkness
Turn to the light and you will find freedom
But Joe continued to speak
Don't you realise that your words ravage me?
They are like broken glass torturing me
With unspeakable agony.
You are the worst torturer because you claim to be a friend
God has abandoned me
I cannot even defend myself against you,
Because God has stripped me of all my dignity
I have no defence against your words of wisdom
But my argument is not with you
It is to God that I cry out
Somewhere he is listening and will send my salvation
All your words are an irrelevance
Then the Rev Sofia spoke out
Joe, you are speaking about God
And maybe I have something useful to say
I think perhaps your concept of God is flawed
You have misunderstood the nature of the divine
God is not a torturer
He takes no pleasure in inflicting suffering
But desires for us only the good
This is what we must believe
Listen to those who have an understanding of these things
They have great skills and great wisdom
They can bring healing into your pain
Do not believe that all hope is lost
But Joe had no time for this
Why are you speaking theology to me?
How can you say anything useful
When you have not paid attention to my words?
When you treat me like a fool
No doubt you will carry on with your inconsequential drivel
But at least listen to me for a short time
I have as much intelligence as you
I have no need of you to speak for me
I am in pain.  It is my pain, but I did not cause it
I did nothing wrong, but God struck me down
That is it as simply as I can put it
Now carry on and give me some more grief
So Dr Eli had one last go
You say medicine can do you no good
That doctors are charlatans
And all the resources of medicine useless
But this is most certainly not the case
You insult us by saying these things
We are only offering you our knowledge
Tried and tested in the laboratory of science
This is something you should show more respect for
We do the best we can
And often we achieve remarkable results
But people like you make everyone dispirited
You should think more carefully before you speak again
But Joe responded to this with disdain
Thank you!  That's really what I needed
You getting defensive and telling me how wonderful you are
I don't care what you think about yourself
I'm broken by pain and your pride is not my concern
The only thing I'm interested in is God
I want to drag him down out of heaven
And speak to him face-to-face
Human words don't matter any more, only God interests me
Then Belle spoke once more
And it's God we are trying to speak to you about
But not the God you are imagining:
That vindictive God of punishment and anger
But the God who is our own deepest selves
This God is to be found in the surgeon's skill,
In the love of a mother for her child
And in the immense beauty of the world circling oceans
Turn to this God and you will change your mind
You will find within yourself your own healing
What is confused will become clear
What is painful will become beautiful
And you will truly see God face-to-face
But Joe had had enough of his so-called friends
All you offer me is words
But these are of no use to me
You haven't even got the intelligence to listen to me.
Your ears can only hear your own voice
I search for God in all his immense strangeness
And you offer me moral platitudes
I batter at the edge of human experience
And you want to make everything nice
All I know is the way things are
I experience my own suffering
I feel the truth of my own existence
And it is this that I present to God
I have always struggled the best that I can
When someone was in trouble I helped them
And when they were beyond all help
I respected them and treated them with kindness
Now in the midst of my pain I see clearly.
I see that wisdom is the greatest of all human prizes
We search for it with restless energy
But it never submits to our will
So now I present my case to God
If I have been mistaken, I accept my punishment
If I have done something wrong,  I welcome correction
My words are ended, only God remains