Marriage and Illness – A few thoughts

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This weekend I am presenting my first ever seminar entitled, “In Sickness and in Health: A Biblical Perspective on Marriage and Illness.” It will be held at Lethbridge Evangelical Free Church January 22-23,  in conjunction with their “E-Free School of Discipleship.”

This is an area that is really outside of my “technical” expertise. It’s not as if I have formally studied the topics, even though I have had long interest now in the theology of marriage (largely due to the influence of Douglas Farrow, my Doktorvater, who has written passionately about it for a number of years now. If you haven’t read his Nation of Bastards yet, you should!).  However, the idea of relating marriage and illness came to me late last fall after having a pretty long conversation with one of my seminary students whose spouse has a long term, serious illness. It then occurred to me that out of 20 years of marriage, my wife has struggled with one form or chronic illness or another for almost 16 or 17 of those years, and maybe I had a few things to say about it. It was then I volunteered to do this topic in Lethbridge, even though in the past few weeks I’ve wondering what in the world I got myself into!

Once I began preparing (by, of course, going to the library! that’s how a theologian does it!), I realized just how very little has been written in this area specifically. Yes, there’s tons written on marriage, and tons written on illness, but I could hardly find works that explored exactly what illness does to a marriage and how the Scriptures might inform how not only to “survive” but to “thrive” in a marriage where chronic (or even terminal?) illness is the reality.

So in the end, I found myself having to work out a lot of the concepts and content for my seminar on my own. And to be sure, Maureen has been my sounding board and encouragement for lots of the concepts I’m trying to work out. Thanks, Bub!

If there are a couple of items that stand out as central there are probably two really important things (though now I could write a whole lot more than a few weeks ago!)

1) The concept of marriage being created (even before the Fall) with a prelapsarian mandate to battle chaos–a reflection of the Creator’s driving out the “formless and void” of Gen 1:2 (“chaoskampf” for those who need the technical word!). The male and female were mandated to “Be fruitful and increase, to fill the earth and subdue it” (a chiasm in the Hebrew). Fruitful marriage is marriage that has figured out how to subdue chaos, my thesis goes.

All couples, of course, have to contend against the chaos that seeks to break up their relationship. The forces seeking the destruction of marriage are varied, including the “expected” things like sexual impurity, workaholism, financial stability, the stresses of raising a family, and the like. Yet for a couple struggling with chronic illness in the mix, the “chaos” is just a little more evident and “in their face” than perhaps couple who do not need to contend with it. The “blessing of illness,”  if I can put it that way, is that it serves as a very physical, concrete reminder that we are all travelling the road to death and decay, and if viewed properly, can be an opportunity to learn to “live well” in light of the “grieving” that all couples will eventually face when death separates them. But really, all couples really are tasked with this important task–to “order the chaos” as a reflection of the good Creator’s creative and redeeming activity.

2) The importance of “lamenting hopefully.” I stumbled across Michael Card’s A Sacred Sorrow in my research in which he states that too many Christians suffer in a “harmful silence” in the face of disease, death, sin, and destruction. In marriages where illness is a factor, hopeful lament can become a spiritual salve: It doesn’t heal the illness, but it allows couples to give word to the frustrations they both face by directing their hopeful lament to God. Thus, biblically, lament is (almost always–there are exceptions, like Psa 88) coupled with hope. So, I argue  that:

Lament without hope leads to despair and fatalism.

and

Hope without lament leads to unrealistic optimism.

I’ve been tempted in both directions (though frankly, somehow I find that Maureen seems to have a better balance here, even though she is the one with the sickness!) Sometime illness can lead a couple into a perpetual spiral of despair, and lament comes out sounding more like resignation to fate than submission to the Creator. On the other hand, there are those who hope so much in a potential cure (either through hoping for divine intervention, or looking for the next great medical cure) that they ignore the reality of the sickness and fail to lament. This unrealistic optimism is, finally, an idolatrous activity that hopes “in the created rather than the Creator–who is forever praised” (Rom 1:25).

Anyways, for those who know me personally, I’d appreciate your prayers on my behalf for this weekend–that it would be fruitful, that the right people would come, and that I’d be pastorally sensitive to the Spirit.

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7 thoughts on “Marriage and Illness – A few thoughts

  1. Dr. Penner and Dr. Jacobson might have a thing or two to say on this.

    As the Boomer generation ages, this work will be very timely, David. Bless you as you think and write and speak.

    Grant

  2. would love to connect w/ you. Am founder of Rest Ministries for those w/ illness and an affiliate ministry of Joni E. Tada’s Joni and Friends. would love to have you write guest article for our web site, etc. Husband’s perpsective is always appreciated and needed!

  3. As someone who has lived with chronic illness and whose spouse also has had chronic illness our entire marriage, I am happy to hear you will be speaking out about this. It is very difficult to even find a counselor who can understand this dynamic and give relevant counsel considering our situation. God bless you and your seminar. I look forward to hearing more about this topic from you.

  4. Kathy

    Thanks for this David! Those of us who haven’t yet had to face serious illness in marriage need to be reminded to pray for and support with sensitivity couples who have. I also find your thoughts on hopeful lament very appropriate to my workplace setting. As a neonatal nurse, I’ve often struggled with how to think and act like a Christian when caring for infants who face a lifetime of chronic illness due to birth injury, birth and/or genetic defects – it’s easy (I speak from experience!) to fall into despair/fatalism or unrealistic optimism. I’m grateful for your thoughts on hopeful lament as a biblical way of responding to these “unsolvable problems”.

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