Five Ways Atheism Helped Me Deal With Chronic Illness

When I got sick, my church expected me to respond like a living saint. No complaining, no questioning, joyful and reverent… I spent three years trying to live up to their expectations. I went to chapel services and was anointed with oil for healing. As if rubbing salad dressing on my forehead was going to cure muscular dystrophy. The words of comfort they offered were empty. God knows what you are going through. God understands. God cares. Trust in God. Lean not on your own understanding.

Stop. Just stop. I dreaded going to church. Being called Job grated on my nerves. Something had to change. After three years, I decided to stop going to church. I still wanted to hold on to my faith, so I did the one thing no Christian should ever do: I read the entire Bible.  When I started reading, I was a Christian. When I finished reading the Bible, I was an Atheist with a capital A. People assume I am an atheist because I am angry with God for not healing me. That’s isn’t why I am not a Christian. I’m not a Christian because of the verses pastors leave out during their sermons. I read about a talking snake, a magical boat, a talking donkey, giants and unicorns. Many people have written extensively about the craziness that is in the Bible and done a better job than I could ever do. My point is, I read the entire Bible and I was amazed anyone believes this baloney is real. The Bible is wrong about science, and math, and reality. It reads like a book written by desert nomads who were guessing about how the universe worked. It was written by ancient people, for an ancient civilization. It is hard enough for me to imagine life during the American Civil War, let alone comprehend the social and moral rules of a civilization 2000 years gone. Reading the entire Bible cemented my decision to stop going to church.

I stopped praying and started dealing with my new reality face on. Do you know what? It was a relief. Once I embraced atheism, my life improved in these five ways.

1. My emotions belong to me   

By walking away from religion, I freed myself from the pressure to be a Christianus Sickus. Having to be a living saint added a level of pain to my life that I no longer carry with me. When I am sad because my body doesn’t move like it should, I get to feel sad. I get to feel angry and frustrated. I have a progressive, incurable, sometimes fatal, neuromuscular disease. I also have insulin dependent diabetes. Know what? That sucks. I don’t have to pretend I’m OK. I don’t have to put on a happy smile and go to church, nod and smile and laugh when people call me Job. I just get to be me.

2. There isn’t a deeper meaning to chronic illness

I don’t have to search for a metaphysical reason why I have chronic illnesses. I don’t have to figure out what a deity expects me to do with it, either. Not everything that happens to me has a higher purpose. Chronic illness has no higher meaning for me than falling on ice. Why did I get sick? Because I live on a planet where sometimes the lion catches the gazelle. There is no reason why this happened to me. I just know I didn’t cause it.

3. This is not part of a deity’s good plan for my life

If someone deliberately gave a person muscular dystrophy and diabetes as part of a master plan, they would be evil. Progressive, incurable illness, where you get to helplessly watch your body fall apart and then die, is a cruel fate. I don’t have to pretend it isn’t cruel. What is happening to me is tragic, but it isn’t anyone’s fault. A deity didn’t cause this any more than I did. Disease is not part of a master design, but a battle we human beings have been fighting and winning with science. When I inject insulin, I don’t thank a deity. I thank Dr. Banning and Dr. Best. I thank science I have insulin. It is because of science that I am alive.

4. I don’t have to pretend this is a blessing in disguise.

If a mass murder was given my illness as a punishment for just one week, it would be cruel and unusual punishment. Chronic illness is ugly. It makes no sense. Making sense of nonsense and accepting the unacceptable is a way of life for me. This is not a good thing pretending to be a bad thing. It is a bad thing. I don’t have to paint chronic illness with pretty rainbows. I can face reality with courage and truth.

5. I’m responsible for how I respond to my chronic illness

This is a huge gift to me. I’m free to respond to how my illness impacts my body, cognitive abilities, and emotions. I don’t have to wait for rescue from on high. I can rescue myself right now. My life is not over. It’s different from what I expected, but still worth living. I’m happier now than when I was a Christian. The enjoyment I get out of life is simpler and more pure. It’s not hemmed in by platitudes. Life is messy and doesn’t always make sense. That doesn’t mean life isn’t good.


I'm Not An Afflicted Saint

I wasn’t raised a Christian. My boyfriend Alex was a Christian, and when I married him I converted. We attended a mega church. For me, becoming a Christian was akin to learning to speak Zulu and struggling to learn click consonants. Everything was foreign to me, so I immersed myself in Christian culture. I read the Bible, Christian books, listened to Christian music, and went to church twice a week. I attended Bible study groups and conferences. Although I am embarrassed to admit this, I even wore cringe-worthy Christian T-shirts. At our mega church, I made new friends, joined the worship team, and played violin during services. I did all I could to be a faithful Christian wife and mother.

Then, I got sick. Nothing in my past prepared me for the shock and fear I felt when my health evaporated. My whole life was set ablaze. I had so many questions. What is wrong with me? Does anyone know? Will I get better? Why is this happening to me? I couldn’t make sense of anything. Between doctor’s appointments, I went to church looking for comfort and peace. 

What I found at church confused me as much as getting sick. My nickname, I am not making this up, was, “Job.” As in, “Hi Job, I’m praying for you today.” I felt like I was on display in a holy terrarium. I am a shy person by nature and all the attention made me feel like a side show act.

People asked me, “How has your illness strengthened your relationship with the Lord?” No one ever asked me if my faith was weakened, or if I was struggling. I was told, “God wouldn’t allow this much trouble in your life unless He planned on giving you the strength you need to handle it.” I heard a lot of holy platitudes about God’s comfort, but when I prayed there was nothing there.

I prayed for healing. No. I begged and pleaded and cried and wailed and fasted and prayed and… Nothing happened. I read the Bible and believed that God could heal me. I trusted and trusted and listened and believed and… Nothing happened. There wasn’t a flash of insight, or a quiet peace that passed all understanding. There was just the anguish of an unknown illness, and a church full of people who wanted tickets and front row seats to my struggles.

I learned quickly that expressing real distress and pain was not allowed in church. Instead, I had to become a Christianus Sickus and follow the unwritten rules.

The Christianus Sickus Ten Commandments

1. Thou shalt be grateful for your afflictions

    It is a holy blessing to be a Christianus Sickus, a sure sign of God’s favor, for He only prunes those He loves.

2. Thou shalt be full of peace

    A Christianus Sickus receives the Lord’s chastisement with grace and prayer.

3. Thou shalt be silent

    A Christianus Sickus is quiet and reverent in her suffering

4. Thou shalt not complain

    A Christianus Sickus is continually rejoicing always in her heart, for this life is short and the blessings of eternity are assured.

5. Thou shalt be happy

    God shows his mighty power through a Christianus Sickus, giving her the strength to be joyful in her suffering.

6. Thou shalt feel blessed to be sick

    A Christianus Sickus is closer to God because she can truly share in the suffering of Jesus.

7. Thou shalt be an inspiration to others

    A Christianus Sickus is overflowing with the Holy Spirit and uplifting at all times.

8. Thou shalt be a prayer warrior

    To be in the presence of a Christianus Sickus is to be closer to the Lord, because her prayers have more power.

9. Thou shalt not ask, “Why me?”

    A Christianus Sickus is not concerned with her own pain. Instead she is to ask why God allowed Jesus to suffer in her place.

10. Thou shalt evangelize

    It is the responsibility of a Christianus Sickus to use her affliction to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world.

People at church treated me like an afflicted saint and expected me to act the part. I was cast in a role I never auditioned for and didn’t know how to handle the pressure. The music director in particular took it upon himself to shepherd me. By shepherd, I mean beating me down with guilt. Pastor R. called me into his office and forced me to listen to him tell me I wasn’t showing faith in God. He told me I had a complaining spirit. I was selfish and too concerned about my illness. Didn’t I realize my light and momentary afflictions were achieving for me a glory that far outweighed any pain on earth? Perhaps if I was more holy, God would heal me.

I wanted to yell, “Screw you! Shut up and leave me in peace!” But, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything. I just listened, and nodded. I felt stripped, flogged, and dipped in acid. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t a good enough Christianus Sickus. After church, I went home, got in bed, and cried.

The pressure to conform shredded me inside. Human questions like, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” stayed bottled up inside. My entire world fell apart and I was expected to say thank you. Thank you God for your great plan. Only, I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I wanted to say, “This hurts. I don’t understand why this is happening to me.” I wanted to say, “I don’t know how to live with this.” I wanted to say so many things, but I couldn’t say a word. My church turned me into a Christianus Sickus and denied me the right to be human.


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