Bitter Medicine

My best friend in the world died of a brain tumor many years ago. Anyone who has either struggled with cancer or knew someone who did, knows the radical nature of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy is literally poison used to kill cancer. But it’s still poison. Many have wondered if the cure is worse than the disease. And yet, modern science sees us surviving cancer at higher percentages every year.

So, how do we reconcile the pain of the treatment with the danger of the disease? Are there some illnesses that simply have to be eradicated for the benefit of humanity? We certainly feel that way about cancer.

Look at our lesson today in Genesis 6:9-22:

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

I never will forget a dinner table discussion with my family about the Flood. One of my relatives insisted that this was cruel of God to flood the world. And then I asked him this question: “Is physical death the worst thing that can happen to a person?” The answer to that question reveals a great deal about what you believe about God, about humans and their purpose, and even about Jesus Christ and His resurrection. In other words, if physical death isn’t the greatest tragedy that can happen to a person, then the story of the Flood begins to come into perspective.

In Noah’s day, human society was murderous and dangerous and the full sickness of the disease unleashed into humanity in the Garden was at a fevered pitch. Men were destroying themselves and piling up sin upon sin and corrupting their souls to the point that they heard nothing from God. So God, the Father, lovingly brought an end to these sins of humanity. This is exactly what St. Nikolai means when he writes: “Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. A sensible man knows that suffering is not evil but only the manifestation of evil and healing from evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin. Everything else that men generally call evil is not but is bitter medicine to heal from evil. The sicker the man, the more bitter the medicine that the doctor prescribes for him. At times, even, it seems to a sick man that the medicine is worse and more bitter than the sickness itself! And so it seems at times to the sinner: the suffering is harder and more bitter than the sin committed. But this is only an illusion – a very strong self-delusion.”

Today, are you afraid of the spiritual medicine in the Faith because it seems to be bitter and difficult? Don’t be. The truly bitter and difficulty is to continue rebelling against the wisdom of the Faith. That takes energy and effort greater than anything the Church ever asks of you. Enter the spiritual “hospital” of the Church and allow the Divine Physician to prescribe the “medicine” that will heal you forever. It’s what we mean when we say “Be Orthodox on Purpose.”

P.S. O Lord, The Orthodox Faith is filled with spiritual medicine that I’d rather not take. It is hard and it confronts me in my selfishness. I’d rather have magic or nostalgia to soothe me rather than transform me. But even though this spiritual medicine tastes bitter, it really does save my life and makes me like You. Please help me do the hard work of taking this medicine for my salvation and give me the strength to be patient with this medicine to truly set me free. Amen.


  1. How does this relate to genocide? Is the suffering from genocide “spiritual medicine?” Only so much suffering is redemptive before it becomes redundant.

    1. The horrors of genocide are never justifiable or even comprehendible. The evil that attempts to destroy a whole people is worthy of eternal condemnation. But even that evil is temporary. In light of the victory of Christ over mortality, this evil will be undone by the love and grace of God at the resurrection of the dead. So, genocide, as evil as it is, is impotent against the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Physical death is not the worst thing that can happen to a human.

      This suffering also participates in the mystery of the filling up of the sufferings of Christ Himself (see Colossians 1:24). This mystery of suffering is joined to the unjust suffering of Christ Himself and serves as an eternal rebuke of the evils of humanity in their pride and arrogance and lust for power and control. In the end, genocide only serves the temporary desires of evil, but Christ takes the eternal value of each life stolen, fills that life with His life, and shames the evil one and those enslaved to his infernal kingdom in history and all eternity.

      In light of Jesus Christ, all suffering and each suffering is redemptive and potentially salvific. Not one tear is ever shed in vain when referred to Jesus Christ. Not one!

      I pray this perspective helps you understand my words better.

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