Spiritual Growth, The Silver Lining In Sickness

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Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.

-Psalms 39:4

I had high hopes a glorious Christmas-time blog post. Or maybe a glorious New Year’s post. Then the reality of our annual winter pilgrimage to Utah set in. It is, in a word, insane. I should’ve known. With all of our family and many friends concentrated in Northern Utah, the trip is always a whirlwind of socializing, driving, eating, and playing. We squeeze in as much fun with as many people as we can handle. (and sometimes maybe even a little more than we can handle!) My intention to fit some writing into the trip became even less likely when I came down with strep throat on Christmas Eve. After snowboarding all morning and enjoying an amazing celebration with family all evening, we returned to home base at my in-laws. Right after getting the kids into bed (when visions of sugar plums should’ve been dancing in my head) I got hit with a high fever and severe body aches. There was no gradual onset. I was fine, and then I was sick. Really sick.

I’m going to stop right here to openly admit I am a wimp. There are so many people who have been so much more sick than I can even imagine. I’m not trying to trump anyone’s suffering. But I am going to try to articulate something I feel every time I get sick but have never quite put into words. Being ill has a way of giving me laser-like focus on things that matter most and melting away everything else. Suddenly writing a blog post about all the prophecies of Christ didn’t matter at all. Neither did snowboarding, or gorging myself on holiday goodies, or the fun gifts I'd soon give and receive. I didn’t even feel like playing Santa Clause.

I was consumed by one thing: How horrible I felt. Prayer becomes simple and constant: “Please help me endure well, please help me get better ASAP, please by some miracle don’t let my family get this, and thank you so much that I don’t feel like this all the time.” “This” in the current case being the ambitious streptococcal bacteria and its ill effects. A sore throat, runny nose, and cough I can handle. The common cold is annoying, but only annoying. Fever and nausea on the other hand are like a stranglehold. My mind does really strange things when I have a fever, and everyone knows that nausea is one of the most acutely horrible sensations known to man. Sleep, the only relief, is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, time, whose passage means eventual healing, ticks by slower than seems physically possible. Both mock me.  During such illness, I’m left to marvel at how some invisible creature has brought me to my physical, mental, and emotional knees.

What is the role of illness in our Heavenly Father’s plan? Here are some things it does for me:

It humbles me. A perfectly clear message that any capability I claim to have can be wiped away in an instant. Despite my tendency to feel in control, I am always at the complete mercy of the mortal world.
It invites me to rely on Christ and the power of the priesthood. Without the Savior, everything eventually is wiped away. A priesthood blessing brings comfort and strengthens my faith.
It makes me grateful for health and for the eventual resurrection. Our bodies are amazing, and every healthy day is a miracle. One day, I won’t "get better" without the great miracle of the resurrection.
It teaches me about the Atonement. While the price of admission is high, I always feel closer to God after being sick. Perhaps it’s sharing, in some tiny way, the suffering the Savior endured, as taught by Alma:

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
— Alma 7:11-12

I’ve probably referenced this talk before, but “the Opening and Closing of Doors” by President Howard W. Hunter contains many powerful statements about the role of suffering in our Heavenly Father’s plan. Many of these are applicable to special suffering brought on by illness. Here is one of my favorites from President Spencer W. Kimball:

“Being human, we would expel from our lives physical pain and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort, but if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery”
— Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 98

Illness is a frustrating but valuable opportunity to demonstrate our faith and character, and to remember what Jacob called "the frailties of men” (2 Nephi 9:28). Sometimes the frailty runs high and the faith low, but illness always provides an opportunity to learn obedience by thing things that we suffer, just as the Savior did (Hebrews 5:7). As with all of life's challenges, the trick is enduring it well and learning the lessons that are there for us. If we are careful, we may find that none of our mortal experiences are wasted.