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People of Faith Facing The Dilemma of Illness and Death . Chaplain Carlos F. Woodard, Th.D. Facing Terminal Illness.

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facing terminal illness
Facing Terminal Illness
  • Regardless of a persons profession of faith or religion terminal illness is universal. It is devastating. It can cause stress, shock, and shake the equilibrium of the person who has it.
  • Once a terminal illness is discovered the first helpful thing for that person experiencing the illness is to obtain as much information as possible about the illness.
  • DO NOT BE BASHFUL ask questions, questions, questions, etc. Take notes, if necessary. Also, consider a second opinion.

A person with terminal illness will touch everyone who cares about them.

  • For some people of faith any illness is not acceptable. To acknowledge the illness is to diminish or reduce one’s faith.
  • Terminal illness has challenged some people of faith to believe that the disease is due to certain actions or deed.

When a terminally ill person of faith believes their illness is due to certain acts or deed they become a victim of “Ambush theology.”

  • Ambush theology implies God is out to get you. This is not true.

Illness can be conceptualized as irreparable loss or damage.

  • Illness can be conceptualized as a enemy.
  • Illness can be conceptualized as a challenge.
  • Illness can be conceptualized as strategy.
  • Illness can be conceptualized as a relief.
  • Illness can be conceptualized as punishment. (Lipowski, 1979).

In the mist of all of the competing interpretations of illness, the ill person must cope or adjust with how to live with the disease as it follows its own pathology.

  • Terminal illness is medical terminology used to describe an active and malignant disease which cannot be cured and is expected to lead to death.

Death that comes through illness is not as acceptable for some faith or religious traditions as a death that is perceived as normal.

  • Death is a ambiguous term. The ending of life is one thing, and the condition of having life over is another. Death can refer to either.
can suffering be evil
Can Suffering be Evil?
  • Suffering from an illness does not imply evil.
  • Suffering can bring benefits (Sponheim, 2000).
  • Suffering can be good or bad theology.
  • It is not good for someone else to interpret your suffering.
  • What sounds like a profound truth to one sufferer may be seen as a pious platitude, or worse, by another (Sponheim, 2000).

Suffering has the power to influence.

  • Suffering makes one experience pain.
  • Suffering does not enhance character nor does it earn people a higher position in the life hereafter; it can lead to a miserable life and needless distress in all who see helpless dying people suffering.
  • Human suffering has been assigned with sin.
does your faith require suffering
Does Your Faith Require Suffering?
  • The Holy Bible in New Testament scriptures makes much of redemptive suffering starting with the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Redemptive suffering according to the Roman Catholic belief is that human suffering, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, can remit the just punishment for one's sins or for the sins of another.

Roman Catholicism further states like an indulgence, redemptive suffering does not gain the individual forgiveness for their sin; forgiveness results from God’s grace, freely given through Christ, which cannot be earned. After one's sins are forgiven, the individual's suffering can reduce the penalty due for sin.

  • Protestant Christianity embraces forgiveness similar to Catholicism in that it is given by faith in Jesus Christ after confession of sin.

Protestant Christianity teaches grace is granted by both God and Jesus Christ.

Source: Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. Chaplain C.F. Woodard. 2007.

  • The Jewish tradition on health and suffering teaches that suffering is therefore not seen as a judgment from God, since all of us are mortal.  Rather it is a by-product of the illness and anything that can be done to ease the suffering of the patient is highly recommended.

Source: University of Virginia Chaplaincy Services and Pastoral Education 2007.


In the Islamic tradition suffering through illness is not promoted as practice. Muslims perform prayers five times a day.  A sick person is allowed to combine noon and afternoon, and sunset and evening prayer.  If conditions permit, washing is required. The Prayer rug and the Koran must not be touched by anyone ritually unclean (e.g., with blood or urine on hand), and it is preferable that nothing should be placed on top of it-   


For persons on bed rest only symbolic ablution (known as tayammum) is sufficient.  Provision of privacy is important, especially for the female during prayer.

  • Source: University of Virginia Chaplaincy Services and Pastoral Education. 2007.

In the Buddhist practice the goal is to develop the mind to its fullest potential which involves the perfection of compassion and wisdom.  Spiritual well-being involves developing a compassionate mind and working with the suffering of illness and death in a maximally optimal way. Buddhist clergy, as well as lay practitioners are available to assist those who are interested in these practices.

Source: University of Virginia Chaplaincy Services and Pastoral Education. 2007.


Hinduism ascribes to the theory of Karma (the law of cause and effect).  Each individual creates his or her own destiny by thoughts, words, and deeds.  Illness, accident, and injury result from the karma one creates and are seen as a means of purification. 

  • “Karma is believed to accrue over many lifetimes.  Hence, an illness may be seen as a result of actions in this life or a past life.”

Source: University of Virginia Chaplaincy Services and Pastoral Education. 2007.

how do we make sense out of suffering
How do we make sense out of Suffering?
  • With all the various interpretations both religious and non-religious on illness and suffering the focus should be on the person first and foremost.
  • Friendship and hope can help the person dealing with their illness and distress.
  • Define the person apart from the illness (Swinton, 2000).

Swinton suggests there are five key attitudes that should be present in offering friendship and hope as follows:

  • Empathy
  • Unconditional positive regard
  • Respect
  • Warmth
  • Commitment and caring
spirituality and religion how can both help
Spirituality and ReligionHow can both help?
  • Spirituality is a way of living that arises from an appreciation of human life (Coll, 1994).
  • Confucianism stresses being spiritual and not being religious.
  • Spiritual development comes after physical emotional and mental development.

Religion with spirituality helps the person dying to look at their values, creeds, tradition, etc., in seeking to enrich their life in being relational with God.

  • Religion can become sick when one practices religiosity.
  • There is a saying “if you’ve been met by a religious legalist don’t give up, Look up.”

Ethnic (Language)  and Cultural Sensitivity:  Varies within same religious group however, understanding the person and their spiritual background is important for providing support.

  • Spirituality is the safe ground to dialogue with anyone seeking to understand their own spirituality or lack thereof; and how that relates to their view of death.
final words on dying
Final Words on Dying
  • In the book A time to live by Barbara Karnes pg. 9. She states. “Dying is very sad, but it doesn’t have to be bad……. Remember, no where is it written how long life will be-three months, three years, thirty years or three-hundred years! There will never be enough time to do all that we wish to do or say. It will never be OK to die. So don’t expect acceptance. We can however reach an understanding –an understanding that everyone dies, including ourselves. With that understanding, perhaps we can accept our gift-our gift of time.”