My friend has suffered chronic discomfort for months, as well as acute pain in feet, legs, shoulders and hands.
My friend has suffered chronic discomfort for months, as well as acute pain in feet, legs, shoulders and hands. The pain was accompanied by exhaustion, which led in time to depression. He was sinking lower and lower.
Physical discomfort was nothing new to him: Cancer had complicated his life for years. But he could tell that this pain was something different, so he went to his doctor; but his doctor wasn’t able to help him. He went to the University Hospital to see his oncologist, but no one there could find the cause.
After awhile his doctors began to suggest that his symptoms were all in his head. Nothing had really changed, as far as they could tell. He must be imagining these new pains.
Then a mutual friend encouraged him to consult a different doctor, suggesting that a new set of eyes might be helpful. This doctor performed other tests and, when the results came back, called with the bad news: there was something wrong.
The fact that something was wrong really encouraged my friend. If, as his other doctors claimed, there was nothing wrong with him, there was no hope of improvement. If his experience of the past few months was normal, then pain and exhaustion were simply his lot in life.
But if there really was something wrong, and if it could be set right, then my friend might find relief. The bad news, it turned out, was the beginning of good news.
If American society was a patient, it would present a wide variety of troubling symptoms. We have lived with cultural pain for so long that we are almost used to it. If nothing is wrong, then injustice, poverty, prejudice, abuse, lovelessness and selfishness are simply our lot in life.
The secular approach to understanding culture, like my friend’s former doctor, fails to detect an underlying disease. Painful as they are, poverty, injustice, selfishness and prejudice are, according to this view, normal at this stage of cultural life. Perhaps we will eventually outgrow them. Until then, the best we can hope for is to manage the pain.
Christianity, on the other hand, detects an underlying illness. When Christianity examines society it finds that something is clearly wrong — something that can, with treatment, be put right. The disease is systemic in society, but exists in the individual cells (or selves) and must be treated on that level.
This paradoxical understanding — that the bad news is indeed goods news — is as old as the faith itself. In the Gospel according to St. Luke, John the Baptist explodes on the religious scene breathing fire. He warns people of the dire consequences awaiting them and prescribes repentance as the only effective treatment.
His diagnosis is blunt. Treatment must be radical. The sacred text then states, “With many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”
There, again, is the paradox. The bad news is the beginning of the good news. Acknowledging that something is wrong — that there is an underlying disease — opens up the possibility of putting it right.
What is wrong, according to Christian thought, is spiritual. There is a disconnect between humans and their creator. Our circulation has been cut off, spiritually speaking. Humans are not receiving the life that has its source in God. The pains we see in society and in ourselves — selfishness, injustice, prejudice, lovelessness — are the withering symptoms of the disease.
That is the bad news. The good news is that there is a cure. The connection can be reestablished between God and humans. The treatment is radical — repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ — is how St. Paul described it. But it has been tested and it works.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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