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Wednesday Writings

The Lord of the Rings and Chronic Illness, Part I

I just finished re-reading The Lord of the Rings again. Each time I read this masterpiece I gain a new layer of appreciation for the story, the writing, the characters, the themes, and the language. While all those things impacted and inspired me afresh this time around, I also found a new connection with Frodo and his burden of the Ring, especially at the end of The Return of the King

He was taking a far greater risk than he knew; but Frodo was much too occupied with his burden and with the struggle in his mind to debate, and almost too hopeless to care.

p 226

All this last day Frodo had not spoken, but had walked half-bowed, often stumbling, as if his eyes no longer saw the way before his feet. Sam guessed that among all their pains he bore the worst, the growing weight of the Ring, a burden on the body and a torment to his mind.

p 227

“Come on, Mr. Frodo!” he whispered. “One more crawl, and then you can lie still.”
With a last despairing effort Frodo raised himself on his hands, and struggled on for maybe twenty yards. Then he pitched down into a shallow pit that opened unexpectedly before them, and there he lay like a dead thing.   

p 223

Perhaps you relate to these descriptions the way I did. You don’t have to imagine the exhaustion, the stupor, the despair, the pain and weakness, the fear, because you’ve felt them or are feeling them. We carry the weight of our chronic illness that drags us down, body and soul, like the evil Ring of Power around our necks. 

But here are eight themes from Tolkien’s work that enormously encouraged me:*

1. Our burden is not a mistake

“Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”


Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring, p 61

Though these books don’t delve deeply into the forces behind the characters’ lives and the events of Middle-Earth (The Silmarillion may lend better insight to that discussion), Tolkien makes it clear that just as Bilbo was meant to find the Ring in Gollum’s cave under the Misty Mountains, so Frodo was meant to have the Ring–the One Ring of Power, the most dangerous Ring of all and the deadliest weapon in Middle Earth–in his possession. Along with the responsibility to destroy it. 

In the same way, we were meant to have the burden of chronic illness–and we know the One at work behind our lives and the events of our Earth. Your sickness, your weakness, your season in this valley is not an accident. It’s part of God’s plan. (Maybe not part of our plan, based on our finite understanding and human desires, but part of God’s plan from the very beginning.)

I love what Tasha Marie Brown said in her rescheduled Diamonds Summer Event session on Saturday: our plans may have changed, but that only makes everything fall into place in God’s plan. 

And Gandalf was right: it is an encouraging thought. After all, which would you prefer: wondering why you’re carrying the burden of a chronic illness, perhaps believing it’s a punishment, senseless torture, or a capricious roll of the dice; or knowing that your burden was appointed for you by the good and sovereign God of the universe (who’s also your Father)? 

And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139:16

2. Every day brings us closer to the destruction of our burden

So the desperate journey went on, as the Ring went south and the banners of the kings rode north. For the hobbits each day, each mile, was more bitter than the one before, as their strength lessened and the land became more evil. . . . But far worse than all such perils was the ever-approaching threat that beat upon them as they went: the dreadful menace of the Power that waited, brooding in deep thought and sleepless malice behind the dark veil about its Throne. Nearer and nearer it drew, looming blacker, like the oncoming of a wall of night at the last end of the world.

The Return of the King, pp 226-27

This part struck me because so often I feel like Frodo, and my life feels like the barren, smoky wastes of Mordor. When I spend another day in bed or forfeit another project to brain fog or say no to another opportunity because of weakness, I feel like I’m stuck in one of the pits of Gorgorath. Going nowhere, doing nothing. My journey stalled. 

But friends, our journey never stops. Every day is another step forward. We may not recognize this truth as easily as if we were physically traveling from Point A to Point B (from Rivendell to Mount Doom, for instance), but Scripture makes it clear we are on a spiritual journey, through the physical realms of space and time, from salvation in Jesus’ blood to glorification in God’s presence. 

And every day–even the days of doing nothing, lying in bed, too weak to move, too tired to think–is another step closer to that eternity with Jesus. 

I’ve clung to this truth to combat the lies that the bad days don’t accomplish anything, there’s nothing good about them, I’m wasting time, etc. True, the sun may not be shining and I may be in the desolate plains of Mordor rather than the lush valley of Rivendell, but day by day, breath by breath, moment by moment, I’m still moving forward. Inching closer to the day I’ll see Jesus and be forever healed. Drawing nearer to the time when, in the words of the songwriter Horatio Spafford, “my faith shall be sight.” 

And instead of bemoaning another wasted day or dreading another day of weakness, I’m excited and grateful to be one day closer to eternity. 

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but . . . embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

Hebrews 11:13

3. Our burden will be destroyed

And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away.
“Master!” cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free.

The Return of the King, p 241

Frodo never had the certainty that his quest would succeed. We, however, have the promise from God Himself that someday our burden will be cast off and we will be our true selves, the selves God designed us to be, without the limitations of sin in our souls and with our bodies unmarred by the curse, sanctified by Jesus’ blood and glorified by His presence. 

If there’s anything that gives me hope, it’s the promise that someday I will be free–free of my burden, free of my sin, free of this broken body, free of the curse of this world. Free to enjoy God in a perfect relationship for all eternity. As Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:1, someday we’ll cast off this earthly, broken tent (our physical body) and replace it with a sturdy, perfect house (a glorified body). 

Amen! 

“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:4

4. We are not alone

“I am glad that you are here with me,” said Frodo. “Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

The Return of the King, p 244

We all have a Sam with us on our own journeys, a Helper and Comforter who stays by our side no matter what (Jn 14:26). But God has given us so much more than one Helper–just as Frodo left the Shire with Merry and Pippin, and later left Rivendell with a company of eight others (including a wizard and the future king of Gondor) and received aid from allies along the way (Tom Bombadil, the Elves of Lothlorien, Faramir and his Rangers), so we journey through our valleys of chronic illness with friends, mentors, companions, and other allies. 

“And I will choose companions to go with you, as far as they will or fortune allows. . . . The Company of the Ring shall be Nine.”

Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring, p 309

We may feel lonely sometimes, but we are never, ever alone. God Himself walks with us, and He has placed beside us and along our path many, many friends to sustain us, encourage us, help us, and guide us.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

*Note: Unlike his contemporary C. S. Lewis, Tolkien didn’t write The Lord of the Rings as an allegory–any connections to spiritual concepts are my own and not the author’s intent. I think his work demonstrates, however, that even though fiction isn’t inspired like Scripture, it still has great power to be inspiring, especially to those of us who recognize the Scripture truths echoed in the themes of a well-told story.

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