It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a decade: am I really sick?
I come from a family where it is considered bad form to blame your shortcomings on outside forces, as if they were out of your control. I was made to take responsibility for my own actions. And I was taught that I always had a choice.
I still believe this was good for me. I think it’s correct. What happens if we teach our children that they aren’t in control of their actions? That they are nothing but the product of their circumstance and surroundings – their skin colour, their social position, their economic status, their upbringing? You get children – and eventually adults – who believe they are powerless. They get the comfort of blaming their problems on anyone else but themselves, but no way of solving those problems.
It’s a cruel thing to tell someone that they can’t change. That they are what they are. That their choices aren’t a result of free will, but of chemical signals causing neurons to fire in a brain that evolved through random mutations that survived to be reproduced against a backdrop of the deaths of trillions of competing organisms – what we would call natural selection. This sort of indoctrination makes human beings out to be nothing more than organic machines; and not even machines put together for a purpose, but by a series of mistakes. An accident. Without purpose, without agency, without power.
We gain nothing by making people into victims of their own biology. It doesn’t make them strong, or happy, or good. It isn’t right. And no one really believes it. Saying you believe something, and behaving as if you believe it, are 2 different things. The first is incredibly easy, and proves nothing, unless speaking the truth costs you something. The second is much more indicative of what we truly believe about the world. If I say I believe dentistry is a scam, that all dentists are quacks, and that the world would be better off without them, but I run to see a dentist as soon as my tooth hurts, then I don’t really believe what I said (and maybe even thought) I believe. And if I say I believe humanity is the result of random evolution, and that we have no free will, but I act as if my own life is worthy of dignity and protection, well, then, guess what? I actually believe I’m more. People want the moral absolution that comes from victimhood, but they can’t stop acting as if their life has meaning.
We’re not victims. We’re free agents. We are responsible for our own actions.
Unless, of course, we’re sick.
Sickness Limits our Control
Sometimes, our actions are out of our control. Because we have a physical body, and sometimes it doesn’t work properly. If an epileptic strikes and injures a bystander during a seizure, no one blames the epileptic. Of course, if an epileptic gets behind the wheel of a car and runs over an old lady while having a seizure, well, that’s a different story. If you know you’re ill, you have some responsibility to take certain steps to minimize the damage you may cause to yourself or others. Just how far that responsibility goes, however, is fuzzy. Epileptics shouldn’t drive cars, but they are allowed to leave their homes. What about holding scissors? Taking care of children? Preparing meals? Should they be force-fed medication?
We don’t know how much our choices are limited by physical illness. When it comes to diseases of the mind, the allocation of responsibility is even more sketchy. We don’t blame people for being depressed. But does depression excuse unwashed hair? A sarcastic remark? Neglecting your child? Beating your wife? Mass murder? Exactly how much leeway do we allow a person because they feel sad? Because what constitutes depression is also pretty fuzzy. You can get a diagnosis if you’re having a hard time dealing with the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. Depression exists on a scale, and it’s impossible for someone on the outside to tell exactly how debilitating another person’s depression is. Some people are rendered nearly comatose. Others fight it, and make themselves get out of bed every morning even though they feel dead inside. Do we give credit to the fighter, and admire their determination, or are they simply less ill than the person lying in bed?
Addictions, now – addiction really is the worst.
In Canada, you can’t fire an employee who doesn’t show up to work if he’s addicted to drugs or alcohol. He has a disability. And it’s his employer’s responsibility – legally – to accommodate that disability.
I may be wrong, but I think paraplegics may have some reasonable objections to being put in the same category as the town drunk.
They are obviously not the same thing. And yet – who among us addicts hasn’t felt helpless against the forces that keep us trapped in our addiction? As powerless to change our condition as that paraplegic is to stand up and walk.
How responsible are we, really? How much blame do we bear? How much can it be truthfully said of us, that we did this to ourselves – that we are continuing to do it to ourselves?
Compared to the paraplegic, how much pity do we deserve?
Gradients of Responsibility
The reason we pity the paraplegic more than the drunk is that the paraplegic is a true victim. He didn’t paralyze himself. He was probably doing something that people do every day: driving a car, diving into a pool, working at a dangerous job. Or maybe he was born with a crippling disease. Or maybe he was injured during an act of selflessness, like fighting a war to protect the innocent. Of course, maybe it was a skydiving accident – but even then, few people would say that he deserved to become paralyzed for the rest of his life – the punishment is disproportionate to the crime. The drunk, on the other hand, did this to himself. He started drinking – an unnecessary pastime. He started drinking too much – not just risky behaviour, but harmful behaviour. And he continues to drink too much, despite the harm to himself and those around him. He is the one putting the alcohol into his system. If he would stop – and many do – his symptoms would go away. No paraplegic has that option.
I had an option. I did this to myself.
I ate. It wasn’t something done to me by an outside force. I put the food in my mouth. And just like the alcoholic, I can choose not to put the food in my mouth. My brain may be messed up, but I’m not a rat, driven purely by instinct. I am a human being, with the ability to supersede my biology. I don’t have to eat. It might feel that way, sometimes, but it’s not true. I can stop.
It’s just really, really difficult.
In the interest of absolving myself of as much responsibility as possible, I can point out that sugar and flour may actually be more addictive than other substances, like alcohol or drugs. And unlike the alcoholic, who can simply stop drinking alcohol, I can’t stop eating food. Not completely. I can eliminate the most addictive elements – flour and sugar – but let’s face it: at this point, almost any food is somewhat addictive to me. Why else would I have to weigh my portions? Because left on my own, I would binge on salad. Also, unlike the alcoholic, I didn’t choose to start eating sugar and flour. It was fed to me as a child. I was addicted before I had any idea what was causing it.
On the other hand, I am no longer a child. I now know which foods addicted me, and my diet is no longer dictated by anyone else. And I have a way out. Susan Peirce Thompson and Bright Line Eating provided that. And still, I’ve failed, with months of perfect eating interspersed with months of complete rebellion.
I go back and forth, between self-pity, and self-loathing. Which is right?
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.Matthew 4:23-24
Jesus healed a lot of people. And we love that he healed sick people. Because we hate sickness. The doctors and nurses who fight against it are revered in society – any society. Sickness and disease is a universal enemy. No one is advocating for the rights of germs to exist. Sickness is an evil, and the fact that Jesus cured it proved that he was on our side. It’s why crowds of thousands followed him. It’s why those in power were jealous of him.
If I’m sick – if my addiction is an illness – then I can ask him to heal me. Like “those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics”, I can throw myself at his feet and ask him to show me mercy.
But what if I’m not really sick? What if this isn’t an illness, but a sin?
As obvious as it may seem, this didn’t actually occur to me until today: it doesn’t matter.
Jesus healed the sick. And he forgave the sinners.
I have spent years tortured by this question of guilt. Completely forgetting that sin and sickness are essentially the same thing. Not exactly the same thing. But so intertwined, that pulling them apart is almost impossible. Certainly not something I could ever manage.
The Origin of Sin & Sickness
Let’s start at the beginning.
Where did sickness come from? It didn’t exist in the beginning. Adam & Eve weren’t getting the sniffles in the Garden of Eden. They were running around in perfect, naked health. In eternal youth. It wasn’t until the fall that it ended. That death became our ultimate destiny, and sickness our constant companion. Sickness entered the world through sin. With sin.
Every baby is conceived with genetic mistakes that render him less than perfect – whether obvious or not – and susceptible to all sorts of diseases. Before they are even born, their health can be affected by the environment inside their mothers. Ultimately, they enter a world full of germs and danger, with only their mothers’ care, and the antibodies in her breastmilk, to protect them. They grow up in a society built by others, with standards of diet, healthcare, and sanitation that are outside of their control. When they grow older, they begin to have some agency. They can make some choices. They can have some influence on the world around them, if they choose. So they become slightly more responsible for their own health. But only in a very limited capacity. They can fight against sickness, but they can never really win. They will eventually succumb to it. They will die.
In the same way, every baby is also conceived with a sinful nature. As much a part of him as any genetic mutation, and just as much outside of his control. He is susceptible to all sorts of temptations. Before he is born, his capacity to discern between right and wrong can be impaired by his mother’s drinking or drug habits, or even the nutrients she consumes, which affect his brain development. Ultimately, he enters a world full of temptation. He grows up in a society shaped by forces for good or evil. He can’t control his upbringing. Whether or not his parents love him or discipline him – or if they’re there at all. Eventually, he grows into a man who can make choices. Who is responsible for those choices. But without help, his destiny is sealed. Just as he will die physically from illness, he will die spiritually, from sin.
We can’t get away from either of them, sin or sickness. We’re steeped in them. They’re a part of us.
And Jesus came to save us from both.
Healing & Forgiveness
I don’t know how I could have missed this, before. Jesus never just heals sickness. Look at those verses. At the same time as he was healing people, he was “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel”. And right among the physically ill people he heals, Matthew lists “those oppressed by demons”. Jesus treats sickness as an evil. He treats evil as a sickness. He hardly makes a distinction between the two.
And this equation is repeated throughout the Bible. Wherever Jesus is healing sickness, he is also dealing with sin.
And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.Mark 1:34
And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.Mark 1:39
Even in the Old Testament, God’s ability and willingness to forgive sin and heal sickness goes hand in hand.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases…Psalm 103:2-3
And in many passages, the word healing is used, instead of forgiveness, in the context of sin. We need to be healed from both.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.1 Peter 2:24
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.Isaiah 53:5
Whether I’m a sinner, or sick, is not the point. I am both. And the treatment for them is the same – a fact acknowledged by the early church.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.James 5:14-16
I don’t need to distinguish between sin and sickness. The blame is irrelevant. I can’t fix either of these states, while God can handle them both. How much responsibility I bear makes no difference. I can fall at his feet and ask for mercy. Because although he’s my God and Judge, he’s also compassionate.
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.Matthew 9:35-38
So what about responsibility?
It’s a strange dichotomy. Free will, and the supremacy of God. Judgment and mercy. Do I have choices? Absolutely. Am I responsible for my actions? Of course. Did I make myself the way I am? Nope. Can I change? Yes, but not on my own.
I should face judgment for my sins. I should stand before God and have him show me exactly how much of this mess I am responsible for. I should be made to understand just how ungrateful I have been for the life he has given me. And I should pay for it.
But I won’t. Because he paid it for me. He’s forgiven me. And he’ll heal me.
It doesn’t mean I sit back and do nothing. But it means I have to recognize that my ability to fight this thing is entirely dependent on him. It means I have to rely on him. That I have to wake up every morning and ask him for help.
And it means that my weakness is irrelevant. It’s my faith that matters.
I don’t know how long it will take. Jesus isn’t walking around Nazareth anymore, making blind people see and lame people walk. But he’ll heal me. In his own time.
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.Malachi 4:2