There is a joke in my family about our skin.
More specifically, my siblings and I berate our mother for a promise she made to us when we hit puberty.
“By the time you go to college, your skin will clear up,” she told us. “I promise.”
Needless to say, it was an empty promise and we never let her forget it. On my last trip home to Ohio for Christmas, my mother gently touched the red skin of my cheeks and shook her head.
“I feel like I have leprosy Mom!” I exclaimed woefully. I’d tried everything to combat the dry, Utah air, but my fragile complexion seemed to be losing. I didn’t even have to bring her promise up. She did it herself.
“I’m so sorry I ever told you your skin would be fine.”
After some research, a more intense skin care regimen, and a tub of Vaseline, my skin problems have subsided. But one night, as I sat tearfully on my bed thinking of the emotional struggles I faced and the loneliness it left me with, this moment with my mother came to mind.
“I feel like I have leprosy,” I told God. “My soul is leprous and everyone can tell.”
Leprosy was the most dreadful and feared disease in the Holy Land. While the Bible uses the word leprosy to describe a variety of conditions, the most common disease known as leprosy attacks the nervous system. Those with leprosy experience disintegrating skin and muscle, sometimes until the bone is exposed, twisting of the limbs, and loss of pain sensation. This means rats or other animals could gnaw at a leper’s limbs while they slept and they wouldn’t know. Because of the highly-infectious nature of leprosy, those pronounced unclean by priests were banished from their communities.
Even though it may have felt like it at 15, I’ve never actually had leprosy. Chances are you haven’t either. But I believe we all have had reason to feel like our hearts and souls have become leprous.
Perhaps we face a destructive mental illness. Maybe we find ourselves trying to work through thoughts or feelings that don’t fit in with cultural or societal norms. It could be as simple as an insecurity or as complex as serious sin. No matter what it is, in those moments when we feel disfigured, isolated, and completely undesirable, we can take hope in a single interaction Christ had with a leper.
The scriptures relate how Christ, after delivering the Sermon on the Mount, descended from the mountain and encountered a leper who “worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”
The way in which Christ chose to heal this leper is significant. Christ chose, very deliberately, to reach out his hand to touch the man before healing him.
The rituals surrounding leprosy were extensive. From bathing and waiting periods to the burning of garments, even those who came in contact with something or someone unclean became unclean themselves and had to undergo an extensive cleansing process. For Christ to willingly touch a leper was a powerful statement about the depth of His love and what truly mattered to Him. George Macdonald states this perfectly by saying:
“Jesus could have cured him with a word. There was no need he should touch him. No need did I say? There was every need. For no one else would touch him. The healthy human hand, always more or less healing, was never laid on him; he was despised and rejected. It was a poor thing for the Lord to cure his body; he must comfort and cure his sore heart…It was not for our master, our brother, our ideal man, to draw around him the skirts of his garments and speak a lofty word of healing, that the man might at least be clean before he touched him…I thank God that the touch went before the word.”
One of the primary weapons of the adversary is to not only make us feel like Christ can’t heal us, but that He doesn’t want to. We sit feeling like we are disgusting to the Savior, that perhaps our prayers go unanswered because He can’t bear to be close enough to listen, that by revealing our true natures we become abhorrent. We then begin to place the burden on ourselves, feeling if we could just get some of the healing done ourselves, presenting Christ with our best makeshift remedies and a clean bit of flesh to touch, then we’ll finally be worthy of His grace and mercy.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Savior beckons to all, as so powerfully stated by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
I do not know who in this vast audience today may need to hear the message of forgiveness inherent in this parable, but however late you think you are, however many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines.
It is natural in moments where we feel disfigured to turn away. Learning how to keep our face towards the light of the Son of God can be the quest of a lifetime. But for me, knowing there is someone who will not only touch me, but fully embrace me in the midst of my leprous torment is an empowering and enabling truth.