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Illness with a Purpose
October  1st , 2010

We have so many questions about suffering.  Why me?  How can I stop the pain?  Why am I being punished?  Books have been written trying to explain why bad things happen to good people, yet it seems that most of us have yet to accept their answers because we continue to ask.  Near to the heart of our continuing questions about suffering seems to be an understanding that as long as we’re “good people”, we don’t have to worry about accidents, sickness, or disease.  Somehow only “bad people” have accidents, get sick, or catch serious diseases.  So then, why me?

With all of the perspectives from these books, there are two, equally important, but less well-known, aspects.  The first of these is that somehow talking about our illness seems to help.  When our scrapes are minor, we generally welcome attention and don’t mind telling anyone who will listen about how it happened and where it hurts.  When our illness is more severe, we still welcome attention and still want to tell everyone where it hurts.  True enough, talking doesn’t make the pain go away, but somehow, for a while, the pain isn’t quite as bad.

What is it about talking that seems to help?  It may well be that talking is simply a distraction from our suffering.  It’s hard for us to concentrate on our suffering when we’re trying to describe it.  Most of us are not able to keep two thoughts in our mind at the same time.  Therefore when we’re describing our pain, we can’t concentrate as much on the pain itself, hence we’re distracted and we don’t feel as much of the pain – we feel better.  Distractions keep our mind busy and keep us from focusing on just one thing – in this case, our suffering.  However, when we are severely ill, it seems like we can only focus on our suffering and that automatically minimizes our distractions.  Talking about our illness is a welcomed, forced distraction.

The second of the aspects concerns our level of isolation.  The more severe our illness, the more isolated we become from our surroundings.  When our scrapes are minor, we’re still interested in what’s going on around us.  We’re still interested in news about the stock market, which team won the Super Bowl, and if there’s enough time to clean the house before the company comes.  We’re still very connected to the world around us.

Intense pain, however, acts very differently on us because it commands almost all of our attention.  When we have intense pain, it’s hard to think straight, to carry on a conversation, or worry about what’s going on around us.  About all we can do is to talk about our pain.  While a kiss seems empty of help, medicine seems minimal, conversation still seems to help.  It still feels good to talk to someone about our problem, even when we say the same thing over and over.

Here’s why these two aspects are important.  Our need to talk to someone about our suffering is a driving force for us to connect with someone else.  The isolation we experience eliminates most of the distractions that keep us from talking to the most important person: God.

If you don’t believe in an all-knowing and loving God, then you are truly alone, there is no one to talk to.  Without an all-knowing and loving God, there is no one who could understand and care about what you’re going through, what the pain is like, or how much longer you can take it.  Without an all-knowing God there is only “the luck of the draw” and “chance” for the reason for your suffering.  Without someone to connect with and without any distractions from the suffering, you can only intensify your suffering through self-absorbed attention.

However, with a loving God, we have someone who cares about our suffering.  With an all-knowing God, we know that nothing can happen by accident and nothing can take God by surprise.  Therefore, we know that our suffering has a purpose, because God is involved.  We have “design” as a reason for our suffering.  On a human level, our suffering could be the result of something that we did, like swimming in shark infested waters or eating something that we didn’t know we were allergic to.  However, on a spiritual level, it could simply be that God has allowed our illness to happen because He wants to get our attention, because He wants us to talk to Him for a while.

It’s interesting to see how the two aspects can work together to bring us closer to God.  Isolation interrupts the stream of distractions and our need to connect with someone who understands and cares about us provides the energy and purpose for our conversation.  There is an additional bonus from our connection with God – we get additional comfort (we feel better) when we lift our concerns and hopes from our shoulders and rest them on God’s shoulders.