By Hannah C. Lokos ’20
There are some answers we don’t get this side of heaven. But occasionally, we get a glimpse, a piece, a hint of what, maybe, we’ll one day understand in full.
I got one such a glimpse during my third year, one afternoon during clinic at the VA.
“My med student can help you with that,” my attending told our patient. She handed me a tube of over-the-counter antihistamine cream and proceeded to leave the room.
Mustering a smile, I put on some gloves and knelt to remove his shoes. Two combs hibernated at the bottom of one shoe. I asked if he wanted me to remove the combs or leave them there.
“Oh, that’s where they went! Don’t know how they got there.” He took them from me and put them in his bag.
He’d been dealt a difficult hand. Mildly mentally disabled, he had no state-appointed decision maker or caretaker, but things like remembering to take his medications were hard for him. He’d lost at least two of his blood pressure meds, and from a glance at his vitals, his blood pressure today was high. Despite this, what was bothering him most was his “itching feet.” He had a roaring case of foot fungus, but he’d lost his prescribed anti-fungal cream too. He’d brought what medications he could find with him, namely a single tube of antihistamine cream not listed in his chart. When was the last time he had used the antihistamine? He couldn’t remember. So my attending was off to try to sort out some of the underlying issues and get his medications replaced, and I was to help him with his chief complaint, the itching.
Trying to discretely hold my breath, I started to apply the antihistamine cream to his feet. For a moment, a flickering thought crossed my mind that this is what Jesus would do. For a moment, I felt good, like I was going the extra mile for my patient, but then I felt a twinge of shame.
Jesus didn’t put antihistamine cream on feet that maybe hadn’t been showered in a few days. He washed multiple sets of feet that had tread sandal-clod on dusty roads likely laden with donkey waste. And He certainly didn’t wear gloves.
As a child, I generally viewed God as the Almighty Maker — like the God we see in Isaiah 6, a God sitting on the throne. Not running around like headless poultry trying to hold everything in place, but seated calmly, completely in control. As I’ve grown older, I’ve been awed by reminders that God is not only over everything, but also chose to enter into it. That He became a human, a human ultimately betrayed by His friend, who died a shameful, wrongful death on a cross. But in that moment, while I was massaging antihistamine cream into my patient’s feet, it was not Jesus’ death of which I was reminded but that He had lived.
That He had probably skinned his knees as a boy, sweated when it was hot, felt hunger, gotten head colds and maybe even explosive diarrhea. How screeching our voices must have sounded after hearing the choirs of heaven. How rancid our air must have smelled. Jesus didn’t wear gloves with us. He practically rolled in our filth. His sacrifice wasn’t just in His death, but every moment of His life.
This was the price of His healing ministry.
I helped my patient put his shoes back on and saw him out, but a question remained to gnaw at me long after he was gone.
For most of my life, it had been little more than a mental Rubik’s cube, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” After a first week of med school spent shadowing in the SICU, however, it had faces.
This question surfaced often in our “God and Human Suffering” class. During the class, I realized that to even ask this question means we are operating under the presupposition that God holds responsibility for the way things are because He made it like this. It also assumes that if He made it like this, He could have made it differently. I found myself asking, “Why didn’t He? Why did He make it like this?”
Like this, where my patient lived in a room and board, struggling on his own with no local family to care for him?
I like writing and especially enjoy writing characters. The sheer creativity is gratifying, but so too is the absolute freedom. After creating these people, I can do anything with them that I want — even kill them horrifically — and it costs me nothing. I can bring them back to life if I want or erase their story lines entirely. At the end of the day, I’m still sitting on my couch drinking tea, entirely unscathed.
It wasn’t like that for God. He didn’t just write a world where there was suffering. He came down into it and He suffered right alongside us.
So why, then, did God create a world in which there was suffering, where bad things happen to good people, knowing that ultimately He would enter into it and die? Why did He make a world like this, one in which He would suffer too?
It’s a question that will likely follow me well into my career, something I doubt I’ll ever fully grasp in my lifetime. But I’ve wondered if one of the facets of suffering was to allow us to glimpse the depth of God’s love for us, to know exactly what it cost Him to heal us.
There are some answers we don’t get this side of heaven, but sometimes we get glimpses, echoes.
My glimpse, that day? God met us where we were and suffered with us.
And He didn’t wear gloves.
Dr. Lokos is doing an internal medicine residency at Loma Linda University Medical Center.