Some years ago, I read a book that had a chapter specifically devoted to pain. I don’t recall the chapter heading, but if I had to guess, it would be something like, “The Blessing of Pain”. The premise was essentially that pain was a good thing, because without it the body wouldn’t know that there was a problem, or that there was something that it shouldn’t be doing.
In that chapter, there were a few pages that addressed leprosy, because as it turns out, leprosy is an excellent illustration of why pain can be a blessing. The disease’s physical ramifications were discussed, along with experiences from leper colonies (yes, they still exist, although they’re a foreign concept to us “first-worlders”) and observations from those in the medical field who have devoted their lives to pursuing a cure.
The observations about this disease frankly left me staring open-mouthed at the book while I mentally connected the physical with the spiritual. I began to gain an understanding of why the issue of leprosy was addressed in scripture, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Leprosy is a topic that really isn’t on our radar screens. For the most part, it doesn’t impact any of us. We all know someone—close to us or not—with a serious disease: cancer, diabetes, cardiac problems, dementia, etc. Because of this, we have a sense of the seriousness and impact these have one people’s day-to-day lives.
I don’t personally know anyone with the physical disease of leprosy. Not one person. And I doubt that most people do. That’s why the topic is not on our radar—it isn’t visible in our lives. But scripture actually gives this disease a fair amount of attention. In the Bible, we can find the word leprosy in the bible upwards of 40 times, depending on which translation you’re using. Leviticus 13 and 14 is a major section that deals with this disease, a part of the “cleanliness” laws. These chapters are somewhat technical and tedious, and because of that are not my favorite section of the Bible to read. What they essentially cover are the identification of the disease, when to quarantine, and the remediation of the person/clothing/house.
So what are we to get from this? In recent years I feel that I’m getting a glimmer of why this subject is covered so heavily in God’s word.
“…Written for our example…”
Although Paul made the statement in 1 Corinthians 10 specifically about the exodus from Egypt, we can be sure that this concept of scriptures being “written for our example” applies to the rest of the Old Testament scrolls. Paul also described the purpose of the Old Testament scrolls, saying, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
So what can we learn about leprosy, and especially how it can apply to us in a spiritual sense? Well, here’s what I have learned…
The physical impact of leprosy
Let’s start with some of the characteristics of the physical disease. As we go through these, you’re free to get out ahead and start thinking of the spiritual implications and analogies for what we consider the ecclesia of Christ:
- Leprosy has a long incubation period. It can take years, even a decade or two, for symptoms to definitively show up.
- It’s actually not easily contagious. It takes close and repeated contact with someone who has untreated leprosy. Children are more susceptible than adults.
- Leprosy primarily attacks the nerve endings. Left unchecked, this will lead to loss of feeling and muscle weakness, leading to atrophy and deterioration.
I always thought that leprosy was this fungus-y, flesh-eating monster. It’s really not. The main damage that comes with leprosy is the attack on the nerve endings, which will lead to muscle weakness and a loss of feeling—the person literally loses the ability to feel pain, which will eventually lead to the kinds of body abuse (intentional or accidental) that a sane, healthy person wouldn’t even consider.
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Why is pain necessary?
If you were to spend time reading books, articles, and blogs that deal with leprosy, the stories start to become graphic and even nauseating. Stories abound about bodily harm due to the loss of the pain mechanism (which is necessary for a healthy body). A few examples:
- Reaching into a fire to retrieve a dropped bit of food.
- The leprous person did not even react but the doctor knew that damage was done, and it would have to be treated somehow, or infection would set in.
- Many stories of terrible cuts, fingers being crushed, etc.
- If these weren’t treated, infection sets in, there is tissue loss, and eventually bone loss (fingers and toes actually shorten). Again, there is no pain mechanism to curb this behavior.
- Ankles injured to the extent that a normal person couldn’t even walk because of the pain.
- The healthy person would understand that an injury of that sort needs to be treated, rested, and allowed to heal. Not so when there isn’t any pain. The leprous person continues to use the limb, leading to permanent injury.
- Blindness, in advanced cases.
- Did you know that blinking is not an involuntary action? I didn’t. We never really think about blinking; it just happens, so we assume it’s involuntary. The eyes need to be constantly lubricated to remain healthy, and this is accomplished by blinking. There are tiny pain receptors on the surface of the eye that give the brain the signal that there better be a blink, or the eye is going to get raw and irritated. Why do you blink a million times when you’re in the wind and grit, but only every several seconds when you are in a controlled climate? The pain mechanism is working as it should, but when this malfunctions it can result in irreparable damage to the eyes, leading to blindness.
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Let me tell you about a conversation I had with my friend Peter about four years ago. At the time, we were both in our mid-50s, and were part of a small group of people who (for the most part) had taken abuse from various corporate acronym-based COGs, and had become disenfranchised with that system. Somewhat unusually, the majority of this group was made up of very young families.
This conversation took place on the Sabbath during a break in activities. Peter and I were standing a few feet from a table that was populated by this younger generation. They were still talking about scripture and meditations. There was energy, vitality, enthusiasm, hunger, and curiosity. Some of these young folks had been “asked” (a.k.a. told) not to attend their previous corporate church group. Peter is looking at the discussion going on, and asks: “How could [minister’s name] do that?”
Now, we all know how. These people are given corporate authority, with little or no accountability, to make decisions on local corporate dynamics. But Peter wasn’t really asking that. He was asking: How could he [the minister] do that to the body, and not really care about it? How could he just whimsically cut off a young, energetic part of the body, and…and…not feel pain?
I didn’t have a good answer for him at the time, but I think I do now.
The pain mechanism is shot.
All the symptoms are there
As you’ll recall, earlier on we went through a few characteristics of leprosy—a long incubation period, transmission through very close and repeated contact, and nerve damage leading to loss of feeling.
The incubation period has been going on for a loooong time in the sabbath-keeping churches of God. I remember as a teenager in South Dakota back in the early- and mid-‘70s, we kids talked about “being disfellowshipped” and “being marked” in a tongue-in-cheek, joking sort of way. We never felt the effect in our local congregation that I recall, but it was such a part of our church culture nationally that it was noticed even by the younger generation. What a topic of conversation among teenagers!
It’s a natural thing for people to ally themselves with—stay as close as possible to—the source of power, the benefactor, whether on a local or national level. It was contagious because trickled down from the top.
The deadening of nerves did not apply solely to the upper portion of the hierarchy, although early on it probably did. It did eventually trickle down to the average member. This isn’t to throw stones; it’s to paint a picture of a culture that developed over the decades. Let me illustrate by a made-up conversation. I guarantee that I have heard variations of this conversation over the years, wherever a cutting-up of the body has happened.
“…oh, and that reminds me, what happened with [him/her/them]? I haven’t seen them for awhile.”
“Well, it’s a private matter, but I had to ask [him/her/them] to not attend for awhile until they come and talk to me and straighten this out.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. Hope everything works out.”
“Hey, you better get in line before we run out of food at the potluck here.”
“Yeah, thanks. And, oh, that was a good sermon today.”
Even though this is made up, it reflects variations of actual conversations I have witnessed, and have happened hundreds of times in congregations across the world. It reflects the “depth” of the emotion that is expressed in many of these places where body parts have been wounded or cut off.
It has taken decades for spiritual leprosy to be normalized, but it now is to a large extent. There is no pain when a body part is injured or amputated. There is no “99 and 1 sheep” mentality. There hasn’t been in decades, and I really worry about how this will all end. There have got to be exceptions out there; I sincerely think that there are. They seem to be found mainly in the small, independent groups that have had to form out of the necessity of spiritual survival.
In the second (and final) part of this study, we’ll explore the only course that I believe we, as the ecclesia of God, have at our disposal to reverse the symptoms of spiritual leprosy. This is imperative if we have the desire to be in the firstfruit harvest, and will have to be undertaken on an individual scale. As an indicator of how important that I consider this to be, I will end this part of the study by quoting what Paul wrote about the body of Christ:
“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11. 27-30; KJV)
Please take that last verse as it should be taken: sick and asleep in a spiritual sense. We all need to protect our spiritual nervous system so that the spiritual body can recognize and respond to attacks, pain, wounds, and so on. Ignoring these things just continues to debilitate the body, and Paul was pretty clear as to how that will end.
The antidote is actually simple, but probably not easy, and we’ll dig into it next time. This is my view, and I welcome any constructive feedback.