Whether it strikes suddenly or progressively, serious illness or disease is often perceived as a divine trial or punishment. But is it?
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In and of itself, illness is an evil. “Illness is at times so deep within us that it invests in us like a conquering foreign power,” said St. John Paul II. And this evil seems to us particularly outrageous and insupportable when it strikes a child. As a parent, we would give anything to take on our child’s illness, to suffer in their place, and yet we remain powerless spectators, often eaten up with despair, anger, and guilt. But, just as health is not an absolute good, neither is illness an absolute evil.
Illness: Divine punishment?
“Good health,” wrote St. Basil of Caesarea, “inasmuch as it does not make its possessor good, is not among the things which are good by nature.” Which prompted another Father of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, to say, “Let us not admire all forms of health, nor abominate all illness.” In other words, it all depends on what use we make of health or illness. It depends on the way we view it, the way we approach it.
Illness is not a curse. Even if it be a consequence of original sin, or even of poor habits on our part, it’s not a personal chastisement sent by God. Recall the disciples’ question regarding the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” To which Jesus replied, “Neither he nor his parents sinned” (see Jn 9:1-2). Over and over, Jesus tells us the same thing. But when faced with illness, we wonder, “What have I done to deserve this?” And he tells us the same thing.
“When I am weak, then I am strong”
Jesus, too, suffered, and he suffers along with us. Illness becomes an occasion to get closer to God, to enter more deeply into the mystery of His love. Of course, that’s easy to say, but infinitely more difficult to live through, as much for the sufferer as for their loved ones. But it is possible because God makes it possible, even for very young children and even when the pain is so great and the fatigue so crushing that one’s incapable of doing anything except suffer.,
God asks nothing more of us than to make the effort to say “yes” to what is happening to us, moment by moment, without regretting the past nor fearing the future. A “yes” that draws its strength from Christ: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). In the face of illness, especially when it’s serious, we beg God for a miracle. And, more often than not, God seems deaf to our pleas. But is it He who doesn’t hear us, or we who don’t know how to listen? For, despite appearances, He does wish to give us what is best.
Illness isn’t the last word
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