Other Thoughts

Far as the Curse is Found: Suffering and Holiness

April 25, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,
who comforts us in all our affliction
so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction
with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance,
so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-5

Why is always a big question, isn’t it? If I am exposed to a virus and it overcomes me and I become sick, the virus is the cause of my illness — it’s why I’m sick. Or, we could go further down the rabbit hole and try to figure out why, biochemically speaking, I was susceptible to the virus in the first place. Whether we start talking sleep deprivation, stress levels, microbiome, genetics, nutrition, or more, we’re discussing the possible and probable causes of or contributing factors to the illness. This is helpful, yes, but it’s a very limited explanation for those of us who believe that there is more to this world than its physical components.

The question that plagued me as I went off to college was way bigger than a desire for a diagnosis. I wanted to know why all of this had happened to me. But before we talk about that, we need to remember why sickness happens in the first place.

An incomplete theology of sickness -- or: how I made my peace with sickness, fatigue, and other sufferings I was called to bear.

 


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Almost all of you know the old stories, but it’s good to be reminded. We are a forgetful people.

So it happened like this: God made man, followed shortly by woman, and placed them in a Garden. The Garden had one rule: don’t eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

A serpent came and he told lies and deceived the woman, and she ate. And then her husband ate, too.

This was the saddest day in human history.

The Garden, you see, had been so perfect. It was beautiful and good. In it, no one suffered. No one got sick. No one died.

Thomas Cole - Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole

But when sin entered, we were cursed and cast out.

Ever since, there has been struggle and pain. There has been toil and sweat. There have been tears and sickness.

And there has been death.

This is the reality that we live in, but sometimes we forget it. We start to believe that life is supposed to be all lollipops and awesomeness, and when it’s not, we think there’s something wrong. The truth is that there is something wrong, but it’s not our own lack of personal comfort and happiness — it’s the whole, big, messed up world.

Before we talk about practical things like how to get school done on really bad days, or how to try to get better, we have to face the facts: the world is a far from perfect place, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

The fallenness of the world is the first cause of disease. We get sick for the same reason that other things go wrong: because the world isn’t a perfect place anymore. We can’t choose how we experience the Fall, but we will experience it.

But we ought not stop there.

There is also something that Aristotle dubbed the “final cause.” By this he meant the ultimate purpose of a thing. If I ask, “Why am I sick and tired all the time?” I might be asking whether I have a virus or a hormone problem — or I might really be asking, “What is the purpose of these bad things I’ve experienced?”

That’s a different question, isn’t it?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I have thought about it a lot. So let’s go through some verses:

  • II Corinthians 1:3-5, which I quoted at the top of this post, implies that we experience suffering so that we can both experience the comfort of God, as well as become a source of comfort to others. That can seem a bit like circular reasoning, but it’s true that as we suffer, if we suffer well, we become able to offer comfort.
  • Hebrews 12 is another good place to read. We’re reminded here that Jesus suffered. We’re told that God disciplines those whom He loves — that He scourges each of His sons. People get really uncomfortable with this, but the truth is that the Church has always held this position — that sickness and suffering can be the Lord’s love and severe mercy unto us. We’re clearly told here that God disciplines us — allows our suffering — that we might share in His holiness, that we might become righteous.
  • Romans 8:28 reminds us that God uses everything for the good of His people — that whatever happens to us, God is always working for our good.
  • In II Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul reveals that his personal health struggles were how God protected him from pride — in Paul’s weakness, God displayed His strength. We are told that we can be content with our difficulties because God will work in them and through them.

We have to make our peace with the fact that this is where we are right now, and therefore this is where God wants us. Yes, we can pray for healing, and yes we can try to make wise choices that may help us improve. But in this moment, we just have today. Tomorrow may be better … or not. But we can trust God, who in His wisdom and mercy uses the weak and, yes, even the tired, as vessels of His grace.

When I look back at sickness, I see God’s protection. I think that I could have become very prideful in my teen years, but God’s hand was heavy upon me, and that was for my good. Did you know that’s what that word translated above as “affliction” means? The Greek word is thlipsis (θλίβω). It doesn’t just mean distress — there is this sense of being under pressure, of being pushed down. When I was under His hand, it felt like an attack to me. I had no idea that it was for my protection. But I see that now.

I’m not saying that God is trying to protect others who are sick from pride — I can’t know that — but only that in affliction He is still working. This has long been the view of the Church. God does not seek to make us comfortable. He seeks to make us holy.

Sickness can keep us from getting too attached to this life. It has many times reminded my wandering heart that this life is not my goal and this world is not my home. Sickness and fatigue have been my tutor in virtues in which I can confidently tell you I still require many lessons.

So before we move on with this series — before we talk practical details of coping while homeschooling, or possible ways to conserve or even produce more energy, I suggest we start with a new perspective: thank you, Lord, for this your grace to us, for the vices you are pruning away, for every hard day that has made us long for our eternal Home.

Suffering well begins with an acknowledgment that God wisely directs the lives of His people, that we can rest in His will, that we can accept both easy times and hard times as His gifts to us.


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17 Comments

  • Reply Getting Back on the Health Merry-Go-Round (A Low-Energy Mom's Guide Post) | Afterthoughts August 28, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    […] Mom’s Guide to Homeschooling, I’ve talked about my personal story, and then my thoughts on suffering, followed up with a bunch of posts on homeschooly things like organization or mothering or […]

  • Reply Andrea July 30, 2019 at 5:43 am

    I am not a believer, but Nietzsche was my highest comfort, he says religions exist exactly because of suffering and each one tries to cope with that problem in different ways. For him, and thats what helped me, suffering is similar to God. When the scriptures says “Before Abraham, I am” is the same cathegory for suffering. Its just part of life. That is true for all living beings. What we can do is tranform suffering in something positive because there is positive things in it, we have to pay attention.

  • Reply Alona October 29, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    I came across this while looking up ways to… uhh… address my oldest child’s lack of motivation to do her homeschool work. She’s the oldest of 3 and should be on second grade work, but because of various life circumstances that I won’t get into right now (think abuse triggers involving her dad), she’s at least a year behind and not catching up the way she should be. Part of that is because I have a ton on my plate. I work, have pets, and my younger two kids to take care of as well. When I was my oldest daughter’s age, I remember needing… a lot less prompting to do things. I regularly took care of my newborn brother, and I was public schooled so I wasn’t around my parents much at all. My mom was a rather detached type and I guess I tend to be rather introverted too. But I’m also very low energy. In high school, I’d come home and immediately fall asleep. In fact, I once came home to an empty apartment (not uncommon) and fell asleep hanging halfway on my bed. When my dad and brother came home a couple hours later, I was so disoriented that I thought it was the next day. It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home, eat some cereal or ramen noodles and fall asleep on the couch for 6 hours, just to get up, shower, and sleep all night, then do it the next day. Unfortunately, no one was ever home to notice this. I was afraid I had cancer (I’d heard that can make you tired as a teen) and decided if I died it was probably for the best. (I guess being so tired lends itself to depression too.)

    Obviously, I didn’t die, and I’m some how more tired now than before. No amount of sleep makes me less tired. No diet changes help (tried paleo, no sugar, eating whatever I want (which actually helped a little but probably wasn’t good long term), food based vitamins, etc). Doctors can’t help and, like they did to you, think it’s in my head.

    I’m so tired all the time and to top it off, my oldest is especially high energy (even compared to other kids her age – it’s not just my perception. Others notice it too). And I feel like she especially drains me even more because she doesn’t want to do anything unless I’m holding her hand through it.

    Do you have any advice on getting younger kids more independent? I feel like she knows how to do so much, but just doesn’t feel like it and rewards never really work because she either loses interest in it or I have to keep increasing the reward to where it eventually gets unreasonable (i.e. she wants a horse or something really expensive).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel October 31, 2018 at 2:43 pm

      I have a whole series I wrote on helping children become more independent! You can find the series index here.

      I am not a doctor, so I can’t say what is wrong with you (of course), but I wonder if you have ever had any genetic testing done? I did a number of years ago, and that was a huge turning point for me. I had a couple things that helped me know what kind of supplements to take and it helped SO much.

  • Reply Becky Thomas April 27, 2016 at 8:36 am

    Yes! But it’s not always about us. Sometimes our sickness is about someone else. I swear, He has used my sickness to teach my son empathy.

    Also, I have to be broken to be remade. He remakes me into someone he can use to change others. To understand others.

    Anyway, my 2 cents.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2016 at 8:40 am

      Oh, this is such a good point, Becky! I have definitely seen how suffering is used for the sake of others and not just ourselves. ♥

  • Reply Harmony Moore April 27, 2016 at 7:41 am

    My devotional reading this morning focused on this verse: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12). That idea of being joyful, rejoicing, in the hope we have in Christ – it’s this hope that enables us to be patient in affliction, and I wonder if it isn’t the patience practiced and learned in affliction that teaches us to be faithful in prayer. I really appreciated this post, Brandy. Thank you.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

      I have always loved that verse, Harmony. It’s ironic to me that so many sick mothers spend time in accusing themselves of being lazy when in fact the hardest lesson for them to learn is usually the patience! The to-do list says one things while their bodies say another…

      Thank you for sharing that! It’s such a good reminder. ♥

  • Reply Catie April 26, 2016 at 9:01 am

    “God does not seek to make us comfortable. He seeks to make us holy.” This is something we need to remember! 🙂 It’s not about our happiness or comfort.

    Have you read “What Did You Expect?” by Paul Tripp? It’s a great book about marriage and how marriage is not about US–it’s about the work of God in our lives and our purpose in the Kingdom of God. Anyway, this post reminds me of that–there’s a Bigger Picture and it may or may not include our comfort.

  • Reply SarahD April 26, 2016 at 7:07 am

    All I can say is, “Yes,” to what you’ve written here. “Sickness and fatigue have been my tutor in virtues in which I can confidently tell you I still require many lessons.” Me too!! I’ve learned much, am still learning, and sometimes I still wrestle with “why?” from both perspectives. I haven’t been able to answer the “why” from the perspective of what is actually going on in my body, and because I am an embodied soul, I cannot always tell if it’s a spiritual issue like discouragement or a physical thing like lack of sleep that’s making me feel exhausted. So in the end, it always boils down to saying, “How long, oh Lord?” as I wait for the last day and the transformation of this lowly body into a glorious one.

  • Reply Kristie April 25, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Well said Brandy. Simon Peter’s trials in Luke 22:31-32 are a good reminder of the “why” of our earthly struggles as well…that we might strengthen the brethren. Thank you for the balanced perspective.

  • Reply Amanda April 25, 2016 at 5:15 pm

    Lovely. Thank you!

  • Reply Meghan April 25, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    Beautiful. So glad you’re doing this series!!

  • Reply Sharron April 25, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    So, so good! I had my 16 yo daughter read it too. Such good reminders for all suffering, not just sickness.

  • Reply Amber Vanderpol April 25, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Fantastic post, Brandy, and such an excellent place to start this discussion. I read your post as I was waiting for my daughter to finish the dishes before we were going to start morning prayer, and as we read today’s Mass readings I came across this:

    You will have to suffer only for a little while: the God of all grace who called you to eternal glory in Christ will restore you, he will confirm, strengthen and support you. 1 Peter 5:10

    I love it when this sort of thing happens! And also it reminds me of one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through suffering – that this world isn’t all there is and that God has something better waiting for me. And that if I can keep turning to Him, I will find strength and grace to see through the days he has given me and do the work He has set before me to do. (Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Teaching from Rest – paraphrased – If it seems like you have 36 hrs of work to do but not 36 hrs to do it, then some of the work you are trying to do is not the work He has given you!)

  • Reply Camille April 25, 2016 at 8:31 am

    Thank you for this. While my afflictions are not the same, they weigh heavy nonetheless and it is a wonderful reminder to be thankful in all things and most especially in the virtues grown during these times. I often think back and wonder if I would simply be insufferable if I hadn’t had the trials in my life.

  • Reply Glenna April 25, 2016 at 8:27 am

    Absolutely spot on! His will, grace, and love shine through ALL circumstances. Thanks for these reminders Brandy!

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