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Home > Additional Reading > Physical Illness (02-10-08)
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Physical Illness (02-10-08)

Physical Illness

As everybody knows, the human body is a remarkable organism. Consisting of billions of cells, numerous chemicals, hundred of muscles, miles of blood vessels, and a variety of organs, the body can grow, heal itself, fight disease, adapt to temperature changes, react to environmental stimulation, and survive a host of physical abuses. Centuries ago, the psalmist praised our heavenly Father because we are "...fearfully and wonderfully made" Psalms 139: 14. And the more we learn about the amazing human body, the more we can stand in awe of both the body's complexity and the Creator/God who made us. How amazed we are when we stop to think about being made in God's image!

But the physical body does not last forever in its present state because of what we ourselves, through Adam and Eve introduced into the world. Sometimes it is injured beyond repair. It can break down if it is not cared for and eventually bodies begin to wear out.

Of course, we do not think much about this when we are healthy. When there are no physical problems, we take our bodies for granted as much as we take for granted the God who created us. Colds and periodic bouts with the flu are annoying but usually only temporary interruptions to the activities of life we assume are always going to be the usual healthy same for us. When sickness is more serious, painful or longer lasting, however, we are forced to recognize our own limitations. Physical suffering vividly confronts us with the stark reality that each of us inhabits a body that is destined to die. Sometimes, most of us try to avoid thoughts of illness and sometimes we even ignore symptoms. It becomes more difficult to tolerate and accept sickness when it does catch up with us. Sickness inhibits our activities, slows us down, makes life more difficult, and often seems to have no meaning or purpose. If the illness persists, we start to ask hard, largely unanswerable questions like, "Why me?" or "Why is this happening to me now?" Often the sickness is accompanied by anger, discouragement, disappointment, loneliness, helplessness, bitterness, and confusion. Counseling, prayer for the physically sick is a major challenge for believers in Christ because the effects of illness need not always be entirely negative.

In many instances it is difficult to separate the effects of sickness from the causes. Pain, feelings of helplessness emotions, and family reactions to an illness can all be as much the effects of sickness as they are causes of additional physical and adjustment problems. Many reactions, such as guilt or anger, can complicate the sickness and cause the physical illness to get worse. This leads to more guilt or anger, and a vicious circle develops.

It is easy to focus on the negative effects of an illness but most fail to see the more possible benefits. When we grumble about our illnesses and blame others for them, citing problems in the family, for example, or stress at work, there is a much greater likelihood of morbid thinking and certainly prolonged and continued illness. If we instead change our spiritual approach, alter our religious views and work to improve interpersonal relationships with others and most importantly, with our God, take better care of our bodies, the result can be there will be a better quality of lifestyle and fulfillment. If we seek after virtue and as we slowly respond to God's grace in attaining it, we will have a more positive life style and our moments of fulfillment will be increased so that negativity is brought to a far lower level. Regretfully, however, the effects are often more negative than positive. The following reactions to illness are seen frequently and may have to be dealt with soulful sensitivity.

Defense and Denial. Since sickness is unwelcome, there is a tendency to deny its seriousness and sometimes its presence. This is true if the illness is serious or likely to be terminal. At least for a while and with some, right up to the time of death, there is an attitude that says, "It can't be me. I am sure the diagnosis is wrong. God will surely heal me if anything threatens my life." A number of defense mechanisms have been devised. These are ways of thinking that enable us to deny reality and pretend that a frustration or a conflict is of little importance. Such thinking is very common and is used automatically, without prior deliberation and often without our even being aware of what is taking place. It has as its purpose to protect us from anxiety. We like magical thinking and the gimmick can be helpful if it gives us time to gather strength and acquire the knowledge needed to cope realistically with reality. When defenses and denial persist, however, the patient or family member may be rudely awakened later.

Withdrawal. When we are sick, we need to let others help and love us. For many people, however, this is not easy. They feel threatened by their dependence on others, weak and misunderstood. As a result they withdraw, sometimes in an attitude of self-pity and subsequent loneliness.

Resistance and Anger. Some patients come out fighting. Since it is not easy to fight disease, they direct their anger to doctors, nurses and family members and health care professionals. Criticism, and noisy protests characterize their relationships with others.

Manipulation. Some people go through life attempting to control and manipulate others by subtle or more blatant steam-rolling tactics. When such persons become ill, it is not surprising that they use their sickness to control others or to get attention or sympathy.

Malingering and Hypochondriasis. Sickness sometimes brings benefits, like attention and sympathy from others, an opportunity to do nothing, having freedom from responsibility and socially sanctioned permission to stay home from work and get up late. Some people enjoy benefits of being sick. As a result they never get better or they experience a series of physical symptoms for which there is no organic basis and little relief.

Malingering has been defined as a "voluntary fabrication or exaggeration of physical or psychological symptoms in order to achieve a tangible goal distinct from the gain of being in the patient role." Some times it is brief like when the student feigns illness to avoid going to school for a particular purpose, or long lasting like when the worker attempts to get some sort of compensation while out of work. Suspicion of malingering often angers family and friends and physicians often fear lawsuits if they fail to treat a supposed malingerer who really does not have an illness or injury.

Hypochondriasis is an assumed illness, but there is no conscious effort to appear sick. These tend to be preoccupied with disease or illness so they look for physical symptoms and assume that even the most minor physical changes are indicators of illness. When physicians find nothing wrong, these individuals get angry and seek new doctors to confirm their imaginary and perceived illnesses.

Regardless of the causes or characteristics it is helpful to recognize sickness is a way of life for some people. Such individuals find it easier than living life without any physical complaints.

Hope. Sometimes illness has the effect of stimulating hope in patients and their families. Whenever a patient stops expressing hope, death soon follows. Even seriously ill people who have realistic views of their condition find that hope sustains and encourages them, especially in difficult times. Medical and non-medical counselors found that patients get along better when there is at least a glimmer of hope. This does not mean doctors and others must lie about a patient's condition, but does mean that we share with them the hope that something unforeseen may happen, that they may have a remission, that they may live longer than they expected, and if they place their faith in God, there can be even greater hope in the knowledge that the loving sovereign God of the universe is concerned about us both now in difficulty and then for all eternity.

So we come each time healing services are available and we have hope in God's loving mercy and concern. We place ourselves realistically in his care and trust He will do what is best for our body and our soul. May hope always fill our souls with the certainty of God's love.

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