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How I found God in sickness and health

Thank God for One Direction. Every time I feel bad about myself, One Direction is there to pick me up. They remind me that “I light up the world like nobody else” and the fact that I don’t know I’m beautiful, well, that’s what makes me beautiful. And when I worry about what other people are saying, Christina Aguilera tells me, “You are beautiful, no matter what they say.” James Blunt is always complimenting me: “You’re beautiful, it’s true.” (He can see it in my face, even in a crowded place). Oh, and of course, Ed Sheeran is in love with the shape of me. I know, you’re jealous. I’ve got all these famous singers who love me, writing these beautiful lyrics for me. Maybe it’s vain, but I do think the song is about me.

Time for a reality check. None of these singers even knows who I am. I’m not on the cover of fashion magazines. If I relied on popular standards of physical beauty to determine my self-worth, I might never leave the house. My body is no wonderland. (Sorry, John Mayer.)

Even so, I am made in the image of God. I’m “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God tells me not to worry about how badly I dress because God cares for me more than “the lilies of the field,” which are dressed better than kings. In God’s eyes I am, in fact, beautiful. God created an amazingly beautiful genetic system that has led to this wonderful body that carries me through life and functions perfectly even when I don’t understand it.

Well, except for when it doesn’t function perfectly. Like on sick days, or when I have headaches, when I need my wisdom teeth removed, when my appendix gets inflamed, when my kidney makes stones, when my heart beats irregularly, when my legs cramp up, or when my eyes stop seeing clearly. Yes, my body is a marvelous, well-oiled machine – except for times like those.

What happens to our image of God when our bodies get sick? If we’re made in the image of God, does that mean God gets sick? Does that mean God has birth defects, that God has poor eyesight, that God gets arthritis after a few millennia?

Does that mean that God gets cancer, too?

As a pastor, my instinctive answer to those questions is a resounding “NO.” God is eternal, changeless, all-powerful and invulnerable to weaknesses like sickness or injury. God doesn’t have a human body like we do that is made from dust and will return to dust.

Well, except for that one time when God did have a body. Jesus (who was fully God and fully human) probably got sick. Maybe he had poor eyesight. His legs got tired when he ran, his eyelids drooped shut when he was tired, his stomach growled when he was hungry. Even as I write this it seems counterintuitive. After all, he was God! Couldn’t he just have chosen not to catch a cold?

Perhaps. But according to Matthew, Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy because “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Sure, he healed people – but he also took our infirmities and diseases by living as a human being like us.

This is helpful to me, especially now. Not long ago, a close family member of mine died from complications after overcoming cancer at the age of 59. We watched for a month as our hope slowly turned to despair and grief – grief that was somehow still sudden, unexpected and terrible. As she laid in that coma, I remembered that Jesus is not a stranger to this kind of weakness. Jesus not only caught colds, but in the end succumbed to bodily injuries and died.

The theologian Nancy Eiesland understood this Jesus to be the “disabled God.” It was meaningful to her (and it is to me as well) that after death, Jesus kept the marks on his hands, feet and side. She writes, “In the resurrected Jesus Christ, [the disciples] saw … the disabled God who embodied both impaired hands and feet and pierced side and the imago Dei [image of God]. … In presenting his impaired hands and feet to his startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God.”

Nancy Eiesland taught me that sicknesses, impairments and injuries do not change the fact that I am made in the image of God. They complete my participation in the image of God. She writes further, “Our bodies participate in the imago Dei, not in spite of our impairments and contingencies, but through them.”

In this understanding, people who have disabilities or are suffering from cancer or other sicknesses aren’t just people to be pitied and looked down upon. They are people, like others, who are made in God’s image and remain in God’s image. We don’t have to avert our eyes and tell ourselves that God is still present only because there are healthy people elsewhere, or only because there’s hope for healing. We can look the ugliness of cancer head on and say that this cancer-riddled body is participating in the image of God. We don’t have to wait until someone is healed from cancer or any other issues to see God at work: God is at work even (maybe especially) when no healing is possible.

God is also at work when no healing is needed. To be sure, we participate fully in the image of God when our health seems to be stable. But according to Nancy Eiesland, Jesus reaches us through our weaknesses, not in spite of them. And so, we would do well to remember that simply having good health doesn’t make us good people. In fact, she shares that the “experience of disability is an ever-present possibility for all people. … Thus for the temporarily able-bodied, developing an empathy for people with disabilities means identifying with their own real bodies, bodies of contingency and limits.”

We, as a church, cannot care for people suffering from cancer or any other type of bodily infirmity unless “temporarily able-bodied” people like me are first willing to admit that we, too, have our “contingencies and limits.” Most likely, I will be disabled at some point in my life. And maybe I won’t get cancer, but something else will eventually cause my death. When I see someone going through cancer and its aftermath, I can’t let myself think that I’m immune to it and perhaps Jesus will have pity on this poor person and make them “normal” again. I have to remember that I will most likely share in their experience, at least in a small part.

We are all human. To be human is to get sick and eventually, to die. This is how Jesus chose to reach us, by taking on a fragile human form, living a full life and dying. He is present in the dying, he is present in the sickness, he is present in the recovery and the healing. He is present with holes in his hands, feet and side. He is present to cancer patients with IV lines and ports sticking out of their hands, feet and side. And I believe he is asking us to be present, too: fully present to our own sickness and health, fully present to the sickness and health of others, fully present to the image of God in ourselves and those around us. That is where the real beauty lies: in being fully present to God and each other, in sickness and in health.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.