The Sickness Unto DeathMarch 25, 2018 - Spirituality & Theology
The words we choose are tremendously important. It is so easy for our meaning to get lost because we don’t put enough thought into our words. The most obvious negative result of this is that we hurt others. But another, subtler, but perhaps more potent effect of poorly-chosen words is that we misunderstand something that is extremely important. When I say “something extremely important”, I mean divine things, things of God. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mt 24:35). How dangerous could it be if we misunderstand the things of heaven? Or at least, how much benefit are we missing if we do not truly understand a matter of great worth? I’m afraid that we’ve done this. We use words over and over again, and I’m afraid that in doing so, these words are losing their power and their effect. I’d like to start this afternoon by considering just one of these words, to revisit it, rebrand it, and hopefully restore its potency. And maybe, in the process, we’ll find something of spiritual worth.
The word I’d like us to consider is, in a very basic sense, a focus of the Lenten season: sin. What is sin? Can we define it? You could say that sin is an act in which we turn away from God. Or you could say that sin is the act of turning in on ourselves. These two definitions are pretty similar, and both very true. But what really is sin? How do we understand its effect in our lives and in the world? What we need is a phrase that conveys the true gravity of sin. To find this, I’d like to turn to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Now Kierkegaard used this phrase in a different context, specifically the context of existential philosophy, but I think this little phrase is extremely powerful in communicating the reality of sin.
For a few minutes, I’d like to forget the word sin and think of that thing we refer to with the word sin rather as “the sickness unto death”. Sin is the sickness that leads only to death. And it’s not just something that will eventually bring us to death, it is the very thing that causes us to die. Jesus tells us that He is life itself, and each rejection of Christ is in essence a rejection of life. This is a sickness that is a prolonged and gradual death.
Scripture describes man’s relation to this sickness. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve first became sick, and Abel’s death at the hands of his brother Cain demonstrates the fierce grip this sickness has. Man became so sick that God nearly wipesdall trace of him from the earth. But despite how vile and wretched this sickness is, no matter how much God despises it, he loves us even more. For He chose to spare man through Noah and his family even in spite of the wretchedness of our sickness.
How easy would it be for God to eliminate this sickness completely! All he needs to do is eradicate man, who certainly deserves punishment. But instead he chooses another remedy. Out of slavery he called the Israelites and delivered them the law, teaching them how to cure themselves from their sickness. But man was so sick he soon forsook the law, and even in the most virtuous of God’s people we find evidence of this sickness. Take, for instance, Daivd. Despite his virtue, he remained in the grips of sickness. He was the chosen king of Israel, but he nonetheless committed adultery and murder.
When we have a sickness of our bodies, we go to great lengths to find healing, and even when we are not sick, we make a great effort to prevent physical sickness. But when it comes to the health of our soul, how often are we concerned? When we see spiritual sickness within ourselves, what lengths do we go to to find healing? “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” warns our Savior (Mt 10:28). If we truly understood the words of Christ, we would make great sacrifices, even sacrifices of physical health, to ensure the health of our souls. In the words of the spiritual writer Thomas a Kempis, “how foolish to wish for a long life but not care whether it’s a good life; to think of present and not of eternity.” When we find we are truly very sick, we know that we need a doctor, a physician. And this was the reason God sent His only Son, the Great Physician Himself, to provide for the world a cure for its terrible sickness.
When we look around us at the world we live in, we see how sick we truly are. We know the symptoms very well. War, poverty, and abortion are the norm in our world. We need only consider the recent school shootings, sexual abuse scandals, and bombings to see how wretched the world is. But this is not a physical sickness, although the symptoms can themselves be physical. This is a sickness of the soul. We live in a culture of death, a culture that rejects Christ, the font of life.
It’s important here to make a clarification. When we think of sickness, we may think of an ailment that is out of our control. But this sickness unto death only continues to kill us if we cooperate. A total rejection of this sickness is itself a perfect cure. We know, however, that a total rejection of this sickness which is in our very nature, is so terribly difficult. Only God’s grace can truly bring our souls healing, though our acceptance of and cooperation with His grace is paramount. God wishes to pour His grace upon us, but he will only do so if we will accept His help.
It is often so easy to inadvertently reject God. We can set up in our minds the thought that the God who created all things, and who reigns as Lord of heaven and earth, is not particularly interested in our affairs. We may seem small and insignificant in the grand scheme of creation, but it is not so in the eyes of God. Even as we long for God “as the deer longs for streams of water”, so also does God pine after us (Ps 42:2). It pleases God to turn sinners into saints, and it glorifies Him to do so. “Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool”. Take for instance, Saul, who became Saint Paul. He was one of the most wretched sinners who God transformed into one of His most faithful servants. “I will put my spirit in you that you may come to life” (Ez 37:14).
God is ever present with us, wishing to transform us into saints. But he does not do so with a great display of power, with lightning and fire. He whispers to us quietly, in the depths of our hearts. When Elijah stood at the entrance to the cave, and the Lord was passing by, the Lord was not in the fire that blazed, or the earthquake that shook, or the wind that rent, but rather in the gentle whisper. Our God is one who rejects our grand ideas of doing things, selecting rather the quieter and humbler way. He’s the God who would rather kneel to wash our feet than to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem. But let us remember to not be like Peter, who initially refused Jesus’ offer to wash his feet because a humble God defied his expectation. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts,” says the Lord (Is 55:9). God will come to us quietly and meekly, and we must expect and accept Him as thus.
This is how we will heal from our sickness that leads unto death, by embracing the humble God. Every moment that we spend with Him, in prayer, at Mass, in adoration, is precious to Him. It pleases God to be with us, to love us. He offers us the remedy for our disease, and it is delightful to Him when we accept it. In this final week of our observance of the Lenten season and beyond, let us strive to serve God in every moment, and to seek after Him, and to love more deeply our Savior who humbly accepted even the cross for our sake. “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their way, and the sinners their thoughts; let them turn to the Lord to find mercy; to our God, who is generous and forgiving” (Is 55:7).