Friday, March 10, 2006

Not Unto Death

We don’t usually have a very good understanding of the meaning of the events of our lives, why things happen to us, or in general what the heck is going on. We misinterpret, jump to conclusions, and perhaps think the worst in any given situation. Jesus tries to tell us that there is often a divine plan or mystery underlying the experiences of our lives, and if there is, then all is ultimately well, for God works things for the good for those who love Him.

A classic example is that of Lazarus. He had fallen seriously ill, and his sisters sent an urgent message to Jesus. His response: “This sickness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (John 11:4). It is not usually our first thought when we or our loved ones get sick, that this is for the glory of God. But Jesus knew what He was going to do for Lazarus, and He knows what He is going to do for us. A similar example is that of the man born blind. The disciples thought that sin was the direct cause of his affliction, but Christ said: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be manifest in him” (9:3).

Now there are some physical illnesses that are unto death—bodily death, anyway. This must be accepted as an immutable law. We are all going to die one way or another (unless we happen to be still alive at the Second Coming), and often death is preceded by sickness. But even this can be turned into glory for God (who then shares his own glory with those who choose to give Him glory) by simply accepting it in faith and trust. We share the Cross of Christ; we accept that earthly life must come to an end, and we confidently hope to receive everlasting life after bodily death.

It may be that mental, moral, or spiritual sicknesses may be not only harder to endure than physical ones, but also harder to understand as means of glorifying God. Clearly, a sinful habit gives no glory to God, yet even here we are not without hope, if we are at least struggling sincerely to overcome it. The Lord says to us: “This sickness is not unto death,” that is, the second death, the everlasting one. He means to heal us, to help us overcome our weakness or defect, to deliver us from evil and to make all things new. In this God will be glorified and we will be overjoyed, for his truth will have set us free. He will cry out to his hidden, disfigured image within us, as He cried out to Lazarus in the tomb: “Come out!” Then, “Unbind him, and let him go free.”

We also have to be aware that our personal struggles are not unique (and hence without a known cure) but in some way are part of the universal burden of mankind. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1Cor. 10:13). So we ought to be aware of our solidarity with all sinners and saints throughout history. We don’t need to despair, for our sickness does not have to be unto death. If Christ could raise the malodorous corpse of Lazarus, He can heal the sin-sick soul.

I just came across a touching passage from John Donne’s “Hymne to God the Father,” which expresses poignantly both our relentless sinfulness and our awareness that through divine mercy this sickness need not be unto death. (I’ve modernized some of the old English spellings for ease of reading.)

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I’ve begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do them still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore.
Swear by thy self that at my death thy Sun
Shall shine as it shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I have no more.