This picture, which is part of a series posted on Emerging Grace, has been on my desktop for several weeks now, hooking the question of relevance into my brain in a very visual way.
In my last post, I said, “if I’m going to believe something about God to be inherently true, it cannot just be true in the cozy comforts of America. It must be true for people who are starving in Asia, for those who are being persecuted, for those suffering the ravages of horrific wars (as if there is any other type), for those who battle with mental illnesses. Whatever extreme situation I can imagine, I want to grapple with what the grace, mercy, provision and sufficiency of God looks like there, in that place.”
Tied into this is a concern for what it means to care for people who are suffering. How do I show/share God’s grace to someone whose suffering is incomprehensible? Whose struggles seem so incredibly complicated? How do I fight for relief of the problems they face?
While reading Dr. Paul Brand’s book, The Gift of Pain, I read the following quote. It does not directly answer my questions about relevance, but it spoke to me in the area of my heart that is trying to understand, “What is good news for this person?” (with “this” being a very full word, encompassing many different people). He is talking about medicine and physical suffering:
The primary assurance we all require is that we will be cared for in our sickness regardless of the likelihood of cure . . . . The greatest failure of contemporary healthcare is that it has tended to overlook this point, has become distracted from it by the glamour of cure and the war against illness and death. At the center of caring should be a commitment never to avert its eyes from, or wash its hands of, someone who is in pain or is suffering, who is disabled or incompetent, who is retarded or demented; that is . . . the one commitment a healthcare system can almost always make to everyone, the one need that it can reasonably meet.
Dr. Brand shares the above quote from Daniel Callahan, in discussing the hospice movement. He says, “In a word, the hospice movement has shifted the focus of medicine from cure to care.” I do not think it is an either/or situation. I do think, however, that a person who cares deeply about relieving suffering and facilitating a cure to the suffering (whether the point is to relieve medical suffering or suffering of any source–poverty, war, etc.) should remember the distinction and take care not to be distracted from caring for those who suffer “by the glamour of cure and the war against illness and death”.
I think it is easy in our eagerness to make the Kingdom of God relevant and present to suffering people, to think that we can only successfully do so by solving the problem–eradicating the suffering, making the person better, getting them out of the awful situation.
I experience incredible dissonance as I think about this. I want to fight against poverty. I care deeply about helping a depressed person find relief and healing. I want every bed in Africa to be covered by mosquito nets to prevent malaria. I want oral rehydration fluid to be available everywhere so no small child has to die of diarrhea. I want every woman to feel safe in her own home, and if not, to have a place to go where she is safe.
In these and other areas, I have and will continue to do what I can to make a difference, to make things better. Without diminishing the importance of those things, though, I am drawn to thinking about what it means to convey the grace of God to people when I cannot fix the problem.
I hope, for example, that Bill Gates never stops fighting to eradicate malaria in practical ways–funding research for a vaccine, distributing mosquito nets. God’s grace is seen through that fight. And yet, I do not believe that God’s grace is only seen through conquering malaria or the other things that cause suffering around the world.
On a deeper level, I believe that God’s grace is relevant in the middle of people continuing to die, continuing to be hungry, continuing to be depressed or battle with bipolar. However successful our battles against these sufferings, I believe that, “[t]he primary assurance we all require is that we will be cared for…regardless of the likelihood of cure.”
Again, I do not see it as either/or, but I do think it is important, in general, to keep our fight for cures and solutions, and our fight against illness, poverty and death subservient to truly meeting and caring for people IN their suffering. It is not a clear cut thing or something that is easy to formulate or put on a checklist. If I become obsessed with whether or not I am caring enough in my fight against suffering, I probably won’t do a great job of either caring or truly relieving suffering.
I also know what I’m saying is idealistic in some ways. There are days when we care less about people and more about fixing the problem. That is reality. But still, for me, the care/cure tension is an important part of grappling with the question, “What is good news for this person?”