The Injustice of Illness

This summer, I read a memoir about illness, a reflection on the loneliness and frustration of convalescence. A friend with chronic pain recommended it to me, and the author helped me to pause and peek inside the experience of injury or illness. With a crash of helpless feelings, it seems all plans go out the window, for who knows how long.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating considers how slow life became, how sickness seemed to remove her from the world. Her illness so suspended her life that she begrudgingly befriended a snail; eventually, by learning to move at her new pace, she found some peace and hope. In fact, from what seemed like a suspended reality, she discovered fresh insight into the rest of us spinning around her. She writes,

We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.

-Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, kindle loc. 292

This swirling unreality caused me to ask, how could I have encouraged Tova Bailey? What do we know, as Christians, that meets us in that seemingly suspended place, the shock and frustration of chronic fatigue or pain?

I think primarily this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

-Matthew 5:3-5

This “sermon introduction” from Jesus is not everything that I might rush to say: “I’m sure you’ll get better soon…I’m sure God has a plan in all this…I’m sure…” Then again, why am I so sure? Jesus doesn’t say anything here about soon or not soon, nor about bad things actually being good. Jesus doesn’t suggest to the poor that they will soon be like everyone else, nor to the mourning that they’re thinking about it all wrong, nor to the meek that everyone will soon be so impressed with their meekness that they’ll never have to be meek again.

Instead, Jesus makes a promise (one that still takes faith to receive, because we have not seen it come true). It’s not a mantra, teaching us to just see things differently. It’s a personal promise, which means that it’s as trustworthy as the promiser, that the promised gift will be in proportion to the promiser’s power. It’s not primarily about reframing the present; it’s about our hope for real, future change.

Sickness really isn’t fair. Sick people often don’t need proverbs or adages or insights from those of us who haven’t been sick. That’s why we can only pass on a promise–with the quiet voice of those still waiting in hope–from our Maker and King, the one, unlike any of us, who has gone through death itself, who has risen from the dead and turned back to soon raise us too, the Beginning and the End: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

As John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

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