Illness – a thorn in the flesh for our good and our salvation

healer(2 Cor. 11 : 31–12 : 9)
In above apostolic reading we touch upon an unpleasant subject for many of us: illness.
St. Paul says, “A thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:7-9).

I have come across these words of St. Paul’s many times, but in the days of my youth, when I was at the peak of my physical strength, I never even tried to delve deeper into their meaning. Now, however, when I am suffering small but nevertheless painful thorns in my own flesh, these words of Apostle Paul are closer and clearer to me than before.

The first to draw my attention to these “thorns in the flesh” was a true, pious Christian from Niagara, late Dusan Djordjevic. He used to stand as straight as a candle at all services and chant responses. He had become blind due to acute diabetes. When he fell into a coma, I saw open wounds on his feet where the flesh had been eaten away. We took him to hospital. Since he had no next of kin there, I signed the acceptance form for his surgery. After the operation in which both his legs were amputated, I asked him how he was feeling, expecting to hear cries of pain and anguish. But he, may God rest his soul, calmly and even joyfully answered using St. Paul’s words about the thorn in the flesh, that it was God’s will and that we should endure our sufferings without complaining. This made me reflect very deeply about physical illness. I still think about it very often on many occasions.

When an illness befalls us, the first thing we must know is that illness is a consequence of sin, our own sin, or that of someone in our family (up to the ninth generation, as our people say).

The disciples asked Christ about the man who was blind from birth, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:2). In his case, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (Jn. 9:3). And St. Theophan the Recluse writes about a doctor who would only begin treatment after his patient had confessed his sins and taken Holy Communion. If anyone doubts that illness is a consequence of sins, then let him hear what God said through Moses, “If ye will not hearken unto me… and if ye shall despise my statutes… I will appoint over you terror, consumption and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart” (Lev. 26:14-16).

Reflecting on this with the Holy Scriptures in mind, we can find encouraging and comforting answers to many of our questions. After writing about his sufferings, and also about being caught up to the third heaven, the Apostle says this: “A thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.” This means that the Lord permits sickness and suffering to come upon us in order to calm us and to protect us from pride and other sins. Indeed, we should all asks ourselves what sins we would commit and whether we would ever even think of God and our own death if we had the health and vitality of young men for the entire duration of our lives. One of the Holy Fathers, Abba Daniel said: “The body prospers in the measure in which the soul is weakened, and the soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened” (Athonite Patericon).

It is difficult to accept illness as a sign of God’s mercy. We are “geocentric,” meaning that we measure everything according to earthly standards. With our limited field of vision, just like ants under a glass jar, we ask God to give us health, so that we may “eat and drink well.” However, we forget that we are truly ephemeral like the dandelions in the field, and that the wind can blow us away at any moment.

When we, or someone close to us, is afflicted by some serious illness, our world comes tumbling down and we see this illness as an embarrassment and a defeat. We do not know, or do not want to know, that God permits afflictions of this sort upon us precisely because He loves us and wants all of us to come to Him purified. Illness gives us humility, softens our soul and takes away its heavy burdens. It is difficult for a healthy person to remember death. Therefore the Lord sends sickness to us in order to remind us of our death. St. Theophan the Recluse says that sometimes the purpose of illness is to awaken our sleeping soul. He says that there are illnesses which the Lord will not heal if He deems that they are more profitable for the soul than health.

St. Paul, who was probably tormented with every possible affliction in his lifetime, imparts to us this bitter but healing truth, that “whom the Lord loves, He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6-7). “God chastises, but He also gives joy,” says Bishop Nikolai. One repentant thought is enough to soften the wrath of God, for God’s wrath is not that of an enemy but that of a father. His anger lasts a moment, but His mercy is forever. If He chastises in the evening, He brings joy the following morning, so that His people will know Him both in His chastisement and in His mercy.

“Brothers and sisters, if people would only see God as the supreme Benefactor, they would not know Him as a chastiser and a judge”, says Bishop Nikolai. “Even God is more pleased when we know Him through His mercy rather than through His wrath. However, there are some people who are very ungrateful and thoughtless. They never think of Him when He is generous in His mercy, but only remember Him when He shows His wrath by illness, death in the family, shame and unsuccessfulness, or by fire, war, earthquake, floods, and by many other misfortunes which are like rods with which He beats those who have not yet awakened, warns the ungrateful, brings to reason the unreasonable and reminds everyone that He is the creator, the Giver of all gifts and the Judge.”

In order for the wrath of God to be fruitful and unto our salvation, we must accept it without complaining and despair. Of course, believers, too, fall ill and die, as we all know. However, it is easier for a believer to accept the will of God because he has faith in Him. St. Theophan the Recluse says that “a soul which has not been tried through afflictions has no greatness in the eyes of God.” And in the Athonite Patericon we read that “as wax which is hardened and cold cannot accept the seal which we put on it, neither can a man who has not been tried by misfortune and sickness accept the power of Christ.” “Sickness is like threshing – the more you beat the grain, the richer the harvest,” are the wise words of St. Theophan the Recluse. In this context, the words of the Holy Apostle Paul ring even truer as he cites the words of the Old Testament Prophet: “My son, do not despise the chastising of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him” (Heb. 12:5).

When we pray to God we say, “Thy will be done.” When sickness and misfortune come upon us, we should tell our troubles to the Lord and put our lives in His hands, knowing and believing that God will grant us always what is best for us, not in our human eyes, but in His. If everything is from God, then sickness and misfortune also happen because He so wills it. “If everything that the Lord sends to us is for our good, it is the same with sickness” (St. Theophan the Recluse).

May the good Lord give us faith, peace in our souls and patient endurance, as well as “a disposition of the spirit which will not shame us before Him” (St. Theophan the Recluse).