The sickness unto death


I woke up this morning feeling lousy – cough, sore throat, you know the combination.

I attributed my condition to my 15-month old grand-daughter who, in addition to being beautiful and brilliant, is a petri dish of micro-organisms, enough germs and bugs to take down a healthy adult male, which is what I was until a week ago when I couldn’t resist holding, cuddling, and reading to a sick child.

So, today I am sick, but have no regrets about it. I am also aware that what I have is “not a sickness unto death,” which is what Jesus once said about his friend Lazarus’ illness. I should be back to normal in a few days.

One reason – among many – that I enjoy reading the gospels is to notice the way Jesus often left his listeners scratching their heads: “What did he just say?”

Did his listeners the day he described Lazarus’ illness know what he was talking about? Maybe, but I have my doubts. In fact, it’s not clear why Jesus didn’t hustle off to Bethany when he first received word of Lazarus’ illness. What could have been so important that he couldn’t drag himself away to see his dear friend one last time?

That’s Jesus for you, I’ve always said. Mysterious, unpredictable, making comments that leave you wondering for days, pondering what he might have meant. The way I imagine it, it was only years later that his followers came to understand what he had in mind by mentioning a “sickness unto death.”

For most of my preaching life I have been content to let mystery be mystery. In other words, I have been content not to answer every question, to allow some things to gnaw at us, to keep us awake at night. I love to send my congregation away on Sunday afternoon with something to think about for the rest of the week and, if I’m lucky, for the rest of their lives.

And that approach has worked for more than 30 years in what is still a mostly-Christian culture, the United States. Today, though, I find myself in what cannot be called a Christian culture, in spite of the ringing of chuch bells at all hours, and interesting questions to think about no longer feel quite right.

My people – not all, but a few – are telling me that I need to “connect the dots.” I need to make things clear, when – almost instinctively – I prefer the open-ended question. In a truly missional context, it may be that we no longer have the luxury of enjoying the mystery and pondering the questions. It may be that certainty must win out over mystery.

From the bookshelf behind me, I grabbed Kierkegaard’s slim volume titled, The Sickness Unto Death, and opening it I recognized the underlining and enthusiastic marginal notes of an undergraduate philosophy major, which is what I was or pretended to be. Kierkegaard’s explanation for this “sickness unto death” is rooted in the spiritual condition of despair, and I am persuaded that he’s right about that, though I can’t help pointing out that the best explantion I know of – Kierkegaard’s – took a number of years to develop. And frankly, there is probably still more to be said.

Flu symptoms are nothing to be concerned about – my own or whatever it was that drove poor Lazarus to his untimely death. It’s the other conditon, the spiritual condition, that Jesus was always far more concerned about. It was the other condition that Jesus came into the world to do something about.

Let there be no ambiguity about that.


About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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10 Responses to The sickness unto death

  1. Suzie January 4, 2015 at 11:21 am #

    Get well soon, Doug. It is always lousy to be poorly when you are on holiday!

    • Doug January 5, 2015 at 7:37 am #

      But a good excuse to do nothing!

  2. Mandana January 4, 2015 at 11:33 am #

    I totally started feeling tickly throat yesterday morning then a full out blown coughing and now (Sunday morning) full out yellowish green mucus! Couldn’t even go to church today! :0/ So eating home made soup and taking Claritin! :0/ here’s from one sick child of the most high GOD to another…May GOD protect you (& me :0) ) from all evil, all diseases and all dangers Amen! :p

    • Doug January 5, 2015 at 7:37 am #

      Get well soon, Mandana! And see you in Zurich in a few weeks!

  3. Phil Goodchild January 4, 2015 at 4:54 pm #

    The older I get, and the harder I’ve looked for it, the less stock I put in comforting certainty in all things. Once all the mystery is gone, seems to me it’s almost checkout time. In a world where man is the measure of all things, certainty might seem possible. Maybe God sent us his son to illuminate a mystery, but not completely explain it.

    As I look over my shoulder at 2014 one last time, let me thank you, Doug, for your weekly (and oftentimes more!) reflections. The blogosphere is rife with chatter. Your entries make me lift my gaze, and I’m grateful for that.

    Phil Goodchild

    • Doug January 5, 2015 at 7:34 am #

      That one made my day, Phil. Thanks for writing, and grace and peace to you in the new year.

  4. Jeff Edwards January 4, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    so sorry

  5. Steve Stimpson January 5, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    Gesundheit heute, morgen und in die Ewigkeit.

    • Doug January 5, 2015 at 7:32 am #

      Vielen dank, Steve.

  6. Steve Williams January 9, 2015 at 12:57 am #

    Would you rather receive your vaccination from Helga wielding a hypodermic needle or hugging your beautiful granddaughter?
    Miss you Doug…still enjoy lurking your blog.
    Take care, Steve

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