Diagnosed at sixteen with a lifelong autoimmune disease, I’ve had a lot of time to think about physical suffering and how best to approach it. Crohn’s disease and inflammatory arthritis are not usually life threatening, and I’ve been blessed to not have them disrupt my life too severely. Still, I’ve had my fair share of doctors’ visits, middle-of-the-night emergency room trips, and giant pills to swallow, so I think I have some experience with the pains of the body.
Whenever I leave the hospital, despite my usual relief to be healed — or at least soon to be — I feel a tug at my soul as I pass those who may never leave. I am reminded that I will one day be back, eventually to lie on my deathbed. And so healing presents us with an existential paradox: A toymaker fixes a toy with the hope that it will last forever in its new condition. But a doctor fixes a body, knowing full well that it will one day break again, and eventually to a point beyond repair. Is the act of healing therefore superfluous? Why not let God run His plan as He pleases and end it when He wishes?
Some religions and cultures believe this — that medicine is a forbidden meddling with the course of nature, and draws our eyes away from the only Healer, and the only cure of eternal life. And yet, Jesus healed the blind and lame, and raised Lazarus from the dead. There seems to be an instinctive desire in the human heart to relieve suffering and fix what will still break later — I can see it in myself.
This became particularly clear when my puppy was diagnosed with OCD and generalized anxiety disorder. Laugh, but it was serious. He bites his tail when he gets nervous — not just chases, but bites — and thrashes around when in pain, often refusing to be consoled. It was obvious that something was wrong inside his brain, and we needed to do something about it. Up to that point, I had serious moral reservations about the acceptability of most psychological drugs. I assumed that any anxiety I or others felt was a soul matter — one that God gave you to deal with — or something that was merely a manifestation of a separation between you and God. Yet here was a sinless, reason-less, instinct-driven animal in such distress. I knew I had to help him. And I knew that his suffering was not his fault.
Suffering is not a good in and of itself, but a result of man’s separation from God — the fruits of a fallen world. Creation aches and groans to be reunited with its Maker, and we feel these pains in all our various ailments, be they bodily, psychological, emotional, or spiritual.
There is a tendency among us to either demonize suffering as evil itself, or to use it as a guarantee of holiness. It is neither. Holiness is the presence of God, while evil is the absence of Him, and suffering may accompany both. It should not be eliminated at all costs for it is not the worst thing that can befall a person (evil is, and evil causes eternal suffering.) However, despite the fact that it offers us the opportunity for greater surrender to God and growth in holiness, we should not be afraid to ease suffering, for God has many avenues through which we may find Him. Neither should we hesitate to heal, simply because we’re all headed toward the grave.
Medicine ought to be used lovingly and wisely to engage in a battle that may seem unwinnable — it makes the struggle all the more heroic. Fighting for the priceless gift of life is a beautiful act of hope and love that says, “It doesn’t matter that I will lose this battle. The fight itself is worth it.” We know, instinctively, that the consequences of a fallen world — that a fallen world itself — are not natural or as they should be. So we fight desperately for a return to Eden, and in that fight participate in healing God’s creation.
We can’t stop our bodies from breaking down, but it doesn’t matter. We heal, knowing full well that what we repair will again break, until that joyful day when long after death, all things will be made new.