An elderly woman in our ward recently passed away. I visited her in a hospice before she died. Her room at the hospice overlooked a garden with floor to ceiling windows open to the summer breeze. She was the only patient in a spacious, decorated room filled with comfortable furniture for family and friends to gather. Staff were friendly and unhurried. The woman’s husband and I took a long walk down the garden path which led to a dramatic lookout point over the beautiful Calderdale Valley. I don’t think one could ask for a more comfortable and caring place to die, or to witness the death of a loved one.
Modern medicine regards death as a great failure and sometimes takes irresponsible measures to try to keep people alive as long as possible in joyless, chaotic hospitals with no quality of life. But in the hospice philosophy, dying is not a tragedy. It is simply another stage of human development, like childhood, adolescence or middle age. This final stage often bears the greatest spiritual fruits, as families gather around their loved ones, speaking truths and expressing feelings for each other they had long kept locked away inside their breasts. Hospice is all about providing a comfortable and welcoming space for this to beautiful transformation to occur.
My experience at this hospice got me thinking about the LDS metaphor of the gospel as a hospital. Elder Holland and others have noted that the church is a hospital for healing the spiritually sick. But what if some of our spiritual afflictions, like some of our physical ailments, cannot be healed? Is there room in the gospel for a hospice as well as a hospital? Our physical body has periods of sickness, health, chronic ailment, and eventually death. But no one is overly judgemental when it comes to the body. If we go to a hospital, the doctor might say we did something we did “wrong,” like failing to exercise or eat properly. But we know that physical sicknesses are often out of our control, so we don’t blame ourselves and others too harshly.
Our attitudes change when it comes to spiritual sicknesses. When someone has spiritual problems, we propose all sorts of things they should do to remedy the situation, and we notice all the bad things they did to create the problem. But what if spiritual sickness is no different than physical sickness? What if it comes along, randomly, like bacteria in the air, for a variety of reasons, some of which are completely out of our control? In a spiritual sickness we expect to be healed. But why should we, when many physical ailments cannot be healed? If God gives people chronic and malignant physical sicknesses, why wouldn’t He give them chronic and malignant spiritual sicknesses as well?
My father is one of the most long-suffering and obedient members of the church I know. He has spent his life anxiously engaged in trying to overcome his personal weaknesses. But like many of us, he still struggles, even after decades and decades of effort, to control his temper. God promises to help us make our “weaknesses into strengths” but in reality, does this always happen? Like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” it seems we are destined to carry some of our spiritual weaknesses with us to the grave.
Hacking Rather Than Healing
In the case of chronic spiritual ailments, the hospital metaphor can be a bit demoralising. If healing never comes, even after years of trying to overcome the problem, perhaps the answer is that God wants us to learn to live with it, to manage it, rather than overcome it. A friend of mine once said that we sometimes look at our problems as if they were black stains on the living room carpet, and we spend all our time scrubbing and scrubbing, trying to get them out. But maybe God wants us to live with the stain, to make it part of the furniture.
People who suffer from physical disabilities find all sorts of creative ways to live effectively, from increasingly sophisticated artificial limbs, to mental tricks to help chronic stuttering. It’s about hacking, not healing. “Life-hacking” is a modern term associated with finding creative solutions to chronic personal weaknesses without having to overcome them entirely. It’s a pragmatic approach to life that recognises that some of our weaknesses our here to stay. Could we teach “spiritual life-hacking” in church, proposing strategies to deal with weaknesses, rather than overcome them? Bridling passions rather than squelching them? Strengthening weaknesses rather than eliminating them?
“To Succour Them In Their Infirmities”
The Book of Mormon says Jesus takes upon himself our infirmities that he may know “how to succour” us in our afflictions. What does succour mean? I don’t think it means “healing.” Succour is more associated with hospice than hospital. Jesus is there with us, comforting us AS we suffer, with us AS we die. For me, that is the deepest essence of the atonement. The reconciliation comes as God shares the suffering and tragedy of life with us without necessarily healing or eliminating the suffering.
Of course the deepest essence of the gospel is repentance, change, and healing. We’ve all seen wonderful transformations in people’s lives when they begin to live the gospel. Just because there are cases where change is not possible doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to stress the healing-dimension of the gospel. But I think we should always make some room for spiritual hospice as well as spiritual healing.
- Do you agree that we are overly judgemental when it comes to spiritual ailments compared to physical ailments?
- Are we realistic enough about the chronic nature of some of our spiritual ailments? Should we try to “hack” them instead of “heal” them.
- How do we balance the hope the gospel brings for healing and change, with the realisation that not all of our problems are destined to be overcome?