“God, in the Midst of our Pain”
A Review of Being Well When We’re Ill,
by Marva Dawn.
By Jenny Price.
Although Marva Dawn has written numerous books, her new book Being Well When We’re Ill is truly a deep find. Indeed, Dawn argues that being well in the face of chronic illness is about finds as well as losses. Her primary task in this book is to provide an in-depth look at the question of how we can remain well in Christ while we struggle with physical pain. Even though Dawn looks mostly at coping with physical affliction and not necessarily the pain of mental illness, she examines many sides of chronic illness, reaching for wholeness and not just pat answers for those who struggling.
The most captivating part of this book, however, is that Dawn uses her own personal illnesses and pains as examples throughout the book – her own struggles with chronic illness include diabetes, a kidney transplant, partial blindness and several more infirmities. She humbly describes her own sufferings, and when you think nothing worse could befall her, it does. Even in the epilogue of her book, Dawn shares another recent struggle with physical pain, in which she herself finds encouragement in the chapters of this manuscript.
This is not a “self help” book for those coping with chronic illness, but is an offering of hope that we can be well when we are ill. (which, as Dawn emphasizes, does not necessarily mean “feeling well or doing well”.) Her case for being well is built on the teaching of scripture, particularly the Psalms, which she uses repeatedly to show where our hope lies. In each chapter, as she reflects on scripture, she encourages the reader to memorize and meditate on scripture and the liturgical prayers of the Church. Her own stories of these practices offer immediate comfort through Christ to an audience that may be struggling with chronic illness or have a friend/family member who is.
Dawn stresses that for the follower of Christ, illness cannot, and should not, be borne in isolation. This call for community is vital for both for the person in illness (as a reminder to seek out relationships with others) and for those who are not ill (as a reminder to look after those who are ill and not let them lapse into isolation). She speaks frankly of the downward spiral that can occur when one is chronically ill – addressing the feelings of abandonment from God that we often feel and showing ways to overcome that spiral. She directs us to search for truth and not just emotional solace. She also looks at the bad theology, often thrust upon people with illness, that maintains such illness is direct punishment for their sin or the sin of another. She counteracts with John 9:3, in which Jesus responds to his disciples’ inquiry about the man born blind, saying: “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (NASB). Jesus’ response here is a key element throughout this book; the primary issue in illness is not about who is to blame, but rather about what God might reveal through this affliction. Following the teachings of scripture, she encourages us to lament our illness for as long as is necessary. She also encourages us not to thank God for our handicaps, but to rejoice and be grateful that God is in the midst of them. The different kinds of isolation one feels in chronic illness can be overwhelming, which serves as a reminder that we all need to be in community with other believers. In one chapter, Dawn also examines the scriptural witness about physical pain and discovers that there are only a handful of times when the word for physical pain is used. Even in the descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion, his torment is described in language that emphasizes his spiritual and mental anguish, rather than his physical pain. The focus in that hour, as Dawn notes, is on the Gospel, not on his feeling of pain.
Another struggle that we might have as we face chronic illness is the loss of productivity, but Dawn found no scriptures that say anything about our inability to serve God while our illness encumbers us. In our society, we find that the need to be productive outweighs many of our other needs, but Dawn sheds light on the fact that there is no truth in our fears about being productive.
In Being Well, Marva Dawn gives a thorough examination of many facets of chronic illness. Her writing flows honestly, compassionately and transparently out of her own life and struggles with chronic illnesses. She offers hope and clear insight into the challenge of being well when we’re ill. It is a book for all who suffer personally, as well as for any believer who serves others in illness.