July 30, 2014

Sin and Sickness

sickmaninbedThere was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself. -St. Augustine, Confessions, IV, 9.

One of the realities of being a semi-regular correspondent with an audience returning day after day looking for something new from your pen is the fact that you will be writing during all the various states of the human experience. Christian writing on the internet has the tendency to sound as if it is always coming from the warm glow of the study, with drippings of devotional gold appearing on the page after hours of prayer and meditation. I’d judge that to be, almost universally, a myth, and I’m not much on mythologies in my Christianity.

There are times that one may be writing out of boredom, other times out of emptiness or despair, and even holding onto the crumbling edge between faith and unbelief. There will be times I will write from a season of joyful usefulness and other times I am writing in the slop of my own sinful pigpen.

That would be today. Reporting live and in person from a week that contained some of my biggest sinful binges this year, I’m Michael Spencer. Your Internet Monk. (Two hours from any priest to confess me and the Baptists will just tell me to take two church services and I’ll feel better next week.)

When I tell anyone that I have shocking sins, they are generally shocked. I am the one who is supposed to speak about shocking sins, but whose sins shouldn’t be shock-worthy. The implication is, of course, that the audience actually has a list of “shocking” sins- running a drug cartel, frequenting prostitutes, rooting for the Yankess- that come to mind when I say my sins are shocking. If I said, “I was a rotten husband,” they would sigh with relief. Thank God. Nothing serious.

I was a rotten human being for most of last week. I was also sick. Probably with H1N1. I just dealt with it, but the day I was most miserable was also the day my wife needed me to be the most attuned to her needs and helpful to her.

Calvinists love to preach that we are dead in trespasses and sins, and that’s a true and important component of the Gospel. What is unfortunate is that rather than letting the metaphor be, well….metaphorical, i.e. the life of God is not in us, well meaning enthusiasts try to make being dead the only significant fact in human experience. As is so often the case these days among the theological class, the failure to let all the Biblical images and metaphors live together without having a “there can be only one” party has serious pragmatic results.

The Bible uses disease and sickness as metaphors for sin from cover to cover. (In fact, given its prescientific interpretation of illness, sin is often seen as the cause of illness.) Sinners are sick. Fallen humans are diseased.

What’s interesting about this is that when we say someone is “sick,” we are often eliciting compassion and understanding. Rarely are we saying that a person is responsible for themselves and what they do in the same way they would be if they are healthy. Sickness is….an excuse.

Of course, metaphors have a focus and that is true with saying we are diseased and Christ is the great Physician who “comes to heal the sick, not the healthy.” Sin as sickness is one of the ways we understand what is happening in Jesus’ healings and miracles. Isaiah said that we are healed by his sufferings. All our diseases were placed on him says the prophet and the Gospel.

I’m glad about what I come to know about Jesus’ attitude toward me as a sick person. In a 1983 column, Dr. John Piper explored the sickness metaphor as an image of the community of Jesus. About Jesus as the great Doctor and ourselves as patients he said

Christ is walking among us. Not because we are so much fun to be with but because he loves to make house calls on patients who glory in his medical expertise. He is not partial to the healthy. But he has a special fondness for the homeliest, weakest, sickliest patients whose eyes sparkle when he enters the room….What a motley sanatorium we are! Paralyzed, clubfooted, humpbacked, pockfaced, nearsighted, cancer-eaten! But there is life at Bethlehem! The Doctor’s here! He’ll touch any sore without a flinch. And O, how it soothes. He spends time. He talks. He looks you in the eye. He takes your elbow when you rise. He asks how Jake is doing. He promises he’ll be back. And he comes!

Actual, physical illness amplifies the greatness of God’s compassion, and it also illuminates my wretched sinful condition. In illness, my sinfulness takes on cartoonishly monstrous dimensions. I become the Godzilla of sin.

By mid-week, I was miserable, feverish and feeling as if I’d been hit by a bus. These are the flu symptoms I recognize from the few times I’ve had the flu.

My first- sinful- thought is that I cannot miss work. I’ve never missed a class for being sick in 18 years. I’ve never missed a day of work for being sick, including being in my room to meet families on Family Day….when I had Chicken Pox. (I covered them in make up.) I’m feeding my idol of being essential, irreplaceable and absolutely necessary.

See. Shocking. It’s Halloween.

Mid week my wife needs me to be in charge of matters on an important day. I’m willing, but now that I’m sick, I’m doing everything with the attitude of a captured and tortured prisoner of war. Nothing is too small for me to immediately think of myself as the only person of worth on the planet. When she needs me to be attentive and sensitive, I am…..to me and the flu. Of course, I season this with some classic verbal idiocy, whining and pouting so that my sin isn’t just ordinary, but especially cruel.

I’m almost worse than useless for the situation we have to deal with that day and I make the whole matter far more stressful for her. Of course, all I can think about is the flu that seems to be settling into my chest.

And then, as my final performance, I come home and go to bed…..in order to get up the next morning and act as if the whole focus can now be off her and on me and the flu.

The next day, I’m supposed to help get the house ready for visitors if I feel better. I can barely make it to work, and when I come home, I crash again, offering no help. My flu eventually causes a change of venues for the visitors- my daughter’s home- and I am left alone to recover. I’m dimly aware that it must be hard to like me when I’m sick and as I start to feel better my suspicions increase that my wife, who has treated me as any sick husband should be treated and with more kindness, probably should have smothered me and blamed the swine flu. No jury in my county would convict her.

Sin and sickness. Sinners and sick persons. Jesus loves us as both. That’s more than I can comprehend. Because in my illness I am short-sighted, self-consumed, uncaring toward others, hyper-sensitive, dictatorial and immaturely manipulative. Once I’m over it, I want to put all my rotten behavior in the “Well, I was sick” file, but even I can’t entirely buy it.

I’m just a sick, rotten, selfish jerk. With a lot of repenting to do and a lot of sin to confess.

Sometimes, really, the Gospel seems too good.

But then, when I’m not sick, I’m still a sinner. I live in ways contrived to excuse my sin, avoid the truth and keep up a religiously acceptable front.

It takes the swine flu to show me, and remind me, that with just a small push, I’m very comfortable living in the mud.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Comments

  1. I understand your situation. I’ve never taken the time to correlate the two issues (physical sickness and spiritual state) but the fact is, my son’s recent brush with H1N1 should have been an example for me, and I didn’t see it. All I did during that illness was hope that the rest of us didn’t get it, including our daughter, who has cystic fibrosis. Not once in my writing about it did I claim my need for God to protect us. Even when it was someone else who was sick, I managed to be selfish! I have so much work to do.

    Hope you’re feeling well soon!

  2. From The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks:

    “Syncletica also said, ‘If you are troubled by illness, do not be miserable, even if you are so ill that you cannot stand to pray or use your voice to say psalms. We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body; they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast. In the same way that a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion. A great deal is gained spiritually by bearing illness quietly and giving thanks to God. If we go blind, let us not be upset. We have lost one means to excellence, yet we can contemplate the glory of God with the inward eyes of the soul. If we go deaf let us remember that we shall no longer hear a lot of silly talk. If suffering has weakened the strength of your hands, you still have inner strength against the enemy’s attacks. If the whole body is afflicted by disease, your spiritual health is still increasing.’”

    page 64, Penguin Classics edition

    • That my friend, is gnosticism. Matter is evil. God wants us to be other than human.

      The psalms are full of legitimate complaints. Suffering may bear fruit, but we should never pretend like it doesn’t suck.

      • George, at the risk of getting off-topic:

        Rather than gnosticism, I hear echoes of James, chapter one: “2Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

        I can see where you may notice a bit of gnosticism/matter-is-evil in Jeff’s reference to Syncletica, (“We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body.”), but it’s very similar to what Paul says in Romans chapter 8, contrasting life in the sinful nature to life in Christ and in the Spirit: “12Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”

        We do need to be careful of gnosticism, but if we’re too careful we could paint Paul with that brush.

        • There is a huge difference between what Paul taught and what the quote teaches.

          Paul teaches keeping yourself in check (ie self control) so as not to sin. The quote is teaching that suffering is a medicine to help to avoid sin and to quench passions which is contray to:

          ” If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

          The idea that physical weakness or sickness somehow corelates to spiritual stregnth is nonsense.

          James is telling us to look forward to the fruit that a trial may produce, but that is a far cry from not letting the trial bother you. Part of the maturing process is complaining about the trial itself. That is evident in many the Psalms.

      • I tend not to read anything more into this quote than the idea that like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, physical difficulties help us learn humility and dependence on God. Giving thanks in everything includes giving thanks in illness. I thought Ted’s reply also conveyed what I personally see in this quote. I thought it seemed appropriate for IM’s topic for the day and had no intention of it leading into anything so completely in a different direction.

  3. Boy, I have to go a long way before I would not be upset if I went deaf or blind. And I hate being sick. I don’t wants lots of attention when I am sick though. I just want to be left alone.

  4. Michael, I hope you’re feeling better. And Jeff, thanks for the reference to the Early Christian Monks.

    One obvious bible reference to sin/repentance/assurance is that beautiful package deal in Romans, chapters 7 and 8. Paul wallowing in his sin (“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”), then rejoicing in the God who forgives him (“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”; and “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?”).

    Or First John, chapter 2: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

    On a notso lighter note, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (take in large doses) illustrate sin and grace remarkable well–and I think you’ve written about her before, so you’ll get the idea. For just plain sin, try the music of Tom Waits, particularly the “Small Change” album (take in small doses). Now THERE’S a man with problems. May you feel better after listening—but not quite as smug as the Pharisee (“God, I thank you that I am not like this tax collector…”).

    Get some rest. I don’t know how you do all this anyway.

  5. There ya go. Being self-absorbed again. :-)

    As always, the transparency will draw many, repel one or two. Thanks for bein’ real, iMonk.

  6. Oh, I’m much more inclined these days to be drawn towards people being real, rather than living in fictitious lands of Christian middle class moral good behaviour while indulging the porn habit when no one’s looking, or kicking the cat, or saying mean things to your wife when you’re sick.

    Revealing our own bad behaviour and sinfulness doesn’t detract from the gospel, it just places it in its rightful context – in the midst of the motley sanitorium.

    I love it real. Good stuff.

  7. For every person who wants to milk their illness there’s a martyr who doesn’t know when to stop working and go to bed.

    Here’s a word: grace.

    No one should have to apologize for being sick. That’s American workaholism writ large. If other people can’t deal with it, too bad. They should grow a backbone.

    We are all dust. If we don’t acknowledge that and welcome the Lord’s grace, then we’ll always be living under the crushing finger of performance.

    I was sick this week, too. But at no point did I flagellate myself for it.

    And when someone I care for is sick, all I ask of them is to do what they need to get better. I can take care of myself.

    Life would be so much simpler if we all lived under grace and not performance.

  8. Thanks for this, I/M. I just got over the flu myself (no idea which one it was – all my doctor did was call me in prescription for tamiflu and told me not to bring it over to her office – LOL) and so I find your reflections all the more interesting.

    How’s this for being humbled in terms of the “being irreplaceable” at work thing? My boss, a well-known germaphobe, emailed me when I started making noises about coming back to work after about three days and offered to pay me extra to stay home.

  9. KR Wordgazer says:

    Thanks for writing this, IMonk. I mean it. I’ve been struggling with an area of personal selfishness I just can’t seem to overcome. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’ve got to be the only Christian out there who can’t seem to do what I know I should, and who keeps on doing what I know I shouldn’t. Yeah, I know Paul struggled with the same thing, but you know that line from the song– “Today I feel like I’m just one mistake away from Your leaving me this way. . . ”

    It encourages me that other Christians struggle too and are willing to admit it. The grace of God be on us all.

  10. Awesome Blog! I would be honored ifyou would be a contributor for my Christian Wellness Network. I would also love to link your blog from my site. Very Good work. Please visit when you have the time – http://www.thedivinewellnesscenter.com.

    God Bless!

  11. Sickness humbles us. Sin convicts and humbles us. Our failures humble us. Weakness humbles us. How far we are from being – in – Love humbles us. But they can also lead us to Kirkegaard’s despair he knew so well. Confession, repentance, forgiveness through the reconciling love of Christ for us humbles – and heals us!
    Be well and be forgiven my dear brother.

  12. This doesn’t necessarily address your points, and I’m not saying this is you, Michael; but here’s a fun poem that, while not theologically deep, makes me smile when I’m really down on myself for my own sin. It’s written by James Thomson.

    Once in a Saintly Passion

    Once in a saintly passion
    I cried with desperate grief,
    “O Lord, my heart is black with guile,
    Of sinners I am chief.”
    Then stooped my guardian angel
    And whispered from behind,
    “Vanity, my little man,
    You’re nothing of the kind.”

  13. I feel you, Michael. Several weeks ago I too was struck down with what I suspect was H1N1. And, yes, feeling like a useless lump of rotting, germ-infested meat has a way of making one reflect on the sinful, wretched state of one’s existence. I know I prayed my own blubbering, semi-incoherent version of Psalm 22 several times that week. “But I am a worm, and not a man.” Now, there’s a passage of scripture I can relate to while I’m drowning in my own body fluids.

  14. I know this post is about you (and I hope you are well soon), but I love the lines “Calvinists love to preach that we are dead in trespasses and sins,…What is unfortunate is that rather than letting the metaphor be, well….metaphorical, i.e. the life of God is not in us, well meaning enthusiasts try to make being dead the only significant fact in human experience. As is so often the case these days among the theological class, the failure to let all the Biblical images and metaphors live together without having a “there can be only one” party has serious pragmatic results.” It is here that MacArthur drives me nuts. In a sermon listened to recently he preached that if a nonChristian desires something you must not tell him he can have it through Christ. If he wants it while yet an unredeemed sinner, it is thereby bad. We must tell him that Christ came to give him what he does not want. This is crazy. Is there no hunger for truth, beauty and goodness? There is no real point of contact with the nonChristian with this mindset. I buy into total depravity, but this eradication of “humanness” makes no sense and sets up false contradictions. You can be critical of Osteen and still not end up with this image-denying mindset.

  15. Rob Grayson says:

    Michael,

    I’ll just add my voice to those who have already said thanks for being real.

    “I’m just a sick, rotten, selfish jerk. With a lot of repenting to do and a lot of sin to confess.”

    Truth is, that’s what I’m like most of the time even when I’m healthy. Being ill just exacerbates it.

    How we need the gospel of grace.

    Rob

  16. Nice move George. One sentence and banned. Thanks for passing through.

  17. My first thoughts while i was reading your post (aside from flashes of my own sins) was the Petra song called “St. Augustine’s Pears” :

    Late one night I heard a knock at the door
    The boys were really painting the town
    I was just another bored teenage boy
    Kickin’ up and actin’ the clown… Yeah

    One dare led to another dare
    Then things were getting out of control
    We hopped the fence and we stole the pears
    And I threw away a part of my soul
    Yes, I threw away a part of my soul (now it’s)

    (Chorus)
    Haunting me how I stole those pears
    ‘Cause I loved the wrong
    Even though I knew a better way
    Not for hunger or poverty
    It was more than pears that I ended up
    throwin’ away… Yeah

    Time goes by – now I’m old and grey
    Those pears are just a memory
    I would gladly pay all I have today
    But that’s just not the problem you
    see… (’cause it’s)

    (Chorus)

    Bridge:
    Why do we love all the things that are wrong
    Forbidden fruit has a strange siren song
    Why do we do what we don’t want to do
    When we live with regrets our whole lifethrough

    Repeat Chorus

    And I don’t even like pears that well…

  18. You’re ganked.

    (offers tissue)

  19. Two things, with love, 1 , When you have the flu, STAY HOME, quit being typhoid-Monki
    2, When my dog is sick it lays down. It took me years for my dog to teach this to me, but fortunately my dog is patient. Now when I am sick I LAY DOWN. I pushed through way too much in my youth, and I just can’t find the “perfect Attendance” medal is should have earned.
    Until you are issued the incorruptible body, be as smart as a dog, and keep your germs to yourself, especially in the beginning stages, they tell me that is when it is most contagious. Excuse me, I am now going to wipe my keyboard with Purell, I think Michael S. has the internet =Monkey pox.

  20. Message to those churches that abandoned the common cup for fear of the swine flu: look at the teachable moments like Michael’s your parishoners are missing out on!

  21. Oh I can empathize here. I can pretty much predict that when I am sick I am going to fail. Upon reflection part of it has to do with my level of tolerance – which drops to very low when I am sick and I fall from being rational to being irrational – going from my humanness to my mammalian brain and finally to my reptilian brain.

    Secondly I guess I have to admit to myself that I don’t put myself out there to be taken care of (even though very deep down somewhere I want to be), but I expect everyone to understand. In fact I have expectations that no one should have expectations of me – because I am sick after all (most times I am going 100 miles an hour). Totally unrealistc but then I am not very rational when I am sick.

    And thirdly I get the condition known as ‘the sickness made me do it’ meaning I lash out if provoked (or even asked a simple question, and take things too far or out of proportion (but I am sick you know).

    So in a nutshell when I am sick I am at my worst as a human and husband God help me.

    • You just described me with one difference: in order to avoid being the worst human and wife, when I am sick, I hole up in the guest room w/ all necessary items (including mini fridge, jugs of water, and medicine chest) until I am fit to be among the healthy. After 45 years, I’ve discovered anything positive gained from trying to remain active is promptly negated by my poor attitude/behavior. The unofficial quarantine serves to protect my loved ones from the offending sicko as well as the offending bug.

  22. I was reflecting on Psalm 66:5 last week, “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf!” and sharing yesterday it with an adult Sunday school class that I facilitate. One of the things that struck me was how our tendency is to pray to God for healing mercies when we are sick, not recognizing that God has already done an awesome thing within our bodies that helps us fight off illness in the first place. I mean, if God hadn’t created in most of us an immune system and blood coagulation system and “you name it”, none of us would ever reach the age of 1. So I was thinking…look at the awesome thing God has done on our behalf, giving us bodies that can fight off diseases and illnesses and life-threatening crud.

    I relate it a bit to your post, Michael, because of your equating illness with sin. We tend to think “woe is me, for I have a body that likes to sin,” but maybe…maybe…we can turn it around a little in our thinking. Maybe we can look at it as God has also given us bodies meant NOT to sin. Could that be another of His awesome works on man’s behalf, that He’s given us bodies that can fight off illness, and He’s given us bodies that are meant to fight off sin?

  23. Seems to me that illness can be a great teacher for both the healthy and the unwell.

    When we are sick, we not only need care, but we may be very limited in how we can respond to others needs, even if those needs are very urgent. In the tension of not being able to respond to the needs of others, we can more plainly know how we are needed and be aware that we have no real control over how others need us. We can also become more aware of how we need others, even when we wish we didn’t.

    For the well, the tension of illness works similarly: The well must accept that they cannot always have their needs met by someone, even if that someone “promised” to meet that need. Even if they love that “someone” dearly and that love is reciprocated. The sickness of another reminds us that our needs can’t always be met, no matter how important they are. It reminds us that we too are needed, even in the midst of our own needs What the sick need from the well is grace and care, even when the well suffer real setbacks because the other got sick.

    Illness and wellness, and how we respond to both, are important parts of being one body.

  24. Hi Michael, New to you but appreciate your “real-ness”. Will stay tuned. Loved your reflections on being sick. What is “ganked”?