When you visit your doctor as a patient, you present him or her with a main complaint. The “main complaint” is the single most bothersome thing that drives you to seek medical help. Researchers tell us that, in more than half of all doctor visits, the main complaint will have something to do with pain. Sore throat tops the list, followed by aching joints, stomach ache, earache, backache, neck ache and headache.
Are you nodding in agreement? Anyone wishing to claim the whole list?
But is pain really the main complaint? Pain is a symptom, not a cause. What lies behind the pain and discomfort? To treat the pain properly, one needs to treat the cause.
Worldwide, the secular view of health and disease dominates. According to the secular view, all diseases (and their symptoms) have a physical root. It also thus follows that all diseases require a physical treatment. I guarantee: you will not leave your doctor’s office without a prescription for something tangible like a pill. Thus, in the secular view, the main complaint is caused by an underlying physical problem. Maybe an infection, or some inflammation, or an imbalance of sorts. The physical causes of pain are many. It takes a skilled and experienced doctor to cut through the options quickly and to arrive at a handful of possibilites. From here, a few investigations should normally pinpoint the single most likely cause, which then gets treated.
I’m sure all of us can appreciate that our pain has a physical cause. However, this is not the way most of us perceive our pain. What I think drives the vast majority of us to seek medical attention is not so much the physical pain, as three short non-physical little words I have never come across in any medical text book. Those three words are
Fear. Guilt. Shame.
Yeas ago, I saw a cartoon of a patient visiting a doctor. The patient asks, “Doctor, do you have something for the human condition?” These three little words pretty much summarise the human condition. Our experience of something bad, like physical pain, digs deeper into feelings of fear of what may be causing it. We may feel guilty about the behaviour we think is causing the pain and we will feel some degree of shame at our loss of function or dignity. Physical disease opens up a netherworld of non-physical complaints we thought we could suppress.
Can fear, guilt and shame be treated medically? No. They don’t appear in medical textbooks, remember. But fear, guilt and shame are not the last stop. Behind them lurks an even bigger, darker beast. That beast is Loneliness. When adversity strikes, we have to build a new identity, a new way of relating to those around us.. This rebuilding of identity does not happen overnight. For a long time afterwards, you are vulnerable and dependant on the kindness of others, maybe even for life.
In a nutshell: Beneath it all, the fear, or guilt or shame of looming loneliness is what drives most of us to seek medical help. Doctors, however, are ill-equipped to deal with fear, guilt or shame. They simply skirt around the issue or, if pressed about it, may prescribe an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety pill. It is, after all, simply a chemical imbalance, isn’t it.?
And so two people – one a doctor, one a patient – meet and yet do not meet. The patient leaves, feeling slightly cheated, but hoping for the best. The doctor sees the next patient and is unlikely to recall the consultation until the next appointment. Case closed.
From a Christian view, our main complaint is not pain. It is much worse. Our main complaint is that we are dead, without connection to God, God’s word and God’s world. The loneliness we feel is the loneliness of sin. Sin that cuts us off from God, from our community, from our family and even from ourselves. At core, sin is the human desire to be god, to worship ourselves and to sit alone on the throne of our heart. And that self-worship is where the loneliness begins and ends.
The Indian novelist R.K. Narayan once commented: “A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life.”
I understand Narayan’s angle. He suffered many terrible things. But loneliness is not the only truth of life for the believer. Disease and disability don’t create the loneliness, they merely expose it. Disease is the bell that tolls at our funeral. What I mean is: Disease is the messenger of our mortality. We instinctively know that, after death, we will have to face the God who made us. Does that thought bring fear or hope?
Let me emphasise here that I do not believe that a direct line of cause and effect exists between a sinful action and a particular disease. In some cases, there may be such a link between cause and effect. But in the vast majority of cases, there is no direct link. “We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Likewise, we all fall prey to the degradation of age, disease and disability. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yes, my fellow believers, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” If you are not a sinner, Christ cannot save you. We got the problem for free, and God is offering the solution for free.
Jesus addresses our main complaint, our loneliness, our alienation and our existential anxiety by asking us to stop. Stop worshiping self. Dying is the ultimate non-act. When we die, all our human functions stop. The heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, the brain stops thinking. You stop acting. You stop deciding. You no longer have identity You no longer have possessions. You no longer have ambitions. Everything you fought so hard to preserve comes to a screeching halt.
Paradoxically, as we each pick up our cross and enter into our Via Dolorosa – that profound loneliness of giving up control – we hear the dull scraping of a heavy object dragged across dark cobblestones. We find Jesus next to us. Jesus was the ultimate nobody, the ultimate failure. He failed at being God, He sucked at being human. He wasn’t even a half-decent criminal, remaining silent in the face of his accusers. He failed, so that he could meet us at the point of our ultimate failure – death.
Only once you let go of the idol of self, can you find eternal life. “Whoever believes in Jesus, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Today we bring those who work in the medical and healthcare fields to the prayerful attention of the church. Traditionally, the alleviation of suffering and pain is one of the mercy callings of the church. Today’s readings all underline that there should be no differentiation between spiritual and physical healing. The proclamation of the gospel and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is automatically accompanied by healing and freedom from oppression.
Does this mean that believers do not suffer physical disease? Not necessarily. In most cases, it means that they no longer have to fear it, feel guilty over it or be ashamed by it. Every time the sick list is read in church, you can know for a fact that each name on that list is experiencing profound loneliness and isolation. Not only they, but also those who live closely to them and care for them. Our job is to restore the hope of salvation to them.
Jesus addresses the root complaint of all disease, even though the physical disease may remain. In the Acts reading, St Luke is careful to remind us that this is the Suffering Jesus who is talking. He is telling his disciples about the Kingdom of God, His favourite topic. It is exactly His suffering and the unfathomable loneliness of the crucifixion that ushered in the Kingdom of God for all of us to enter.
Once inside God’s Kingdom, the Holy Spirit comforts us in our sufferings. And once we’ve been comforted, it is our Christian duty and calling to extend that comfort to all whom we meet. “Peace be with you!” is the call of the redeemed. Peace in human relationships is the natural and universal consequences of salvation.
Let us pray for those who earn a living by bringing relief of suffering to many. But let us not abdicate the role of peacemaker to them alone. All of us, the body of believers, are called to proclaim freedom and to come alongside the imprisoned, the sick, the elderly and everyone else who is suffering in loneliness.
Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.
-Adam Lindsay Gordon, poet
There is no room in the Kingdom of Heaven for fear, guilt or shame. They must flee away. Instead, the healing power of the Holy Spirit takes over. Once we’ve been healed at this deep level, our Via Dolorosa becomes bearable. A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us. And with the cross on our back, we shout aloud, “Peace be with you!”