(Friends: this is longer than usual, but it addresses a vital issue that requires much Biblical awareness and understanding. Thanks for your patience. Glen)
As I write this, I have shingles - on the roof, and on the left side of my torso. The former lie quietly and faithfully atop our house, so much so that I rarely think about them. The latter maintain a noisy and running conversation with their host. “Hey Glen, we’re still here! Hope you’re enjoying our visit - Ha! - and don’t worry, we’re planning on staying awhile!” Add a pulled muscle to my upper back (which may actually be a shingles nerve involvement), and it has made for, shall we say, an interesting week.
My “guests" have generated a lot of thought about the Bible’s teaching regarding physical illness. I’d like to take the occasion to address the matter in a series of essays concerning the reasons God allows and sometimes even determines sickness. The issue is not complex in Biblical terms, but it does require a thoughtful and thorough understanding if we are to respond to the discomforts, pains, and limitations caused by illness. Most importantly, we must seek the Lord in times of sickness, a pursuit that cannot adequately occur if we do not know the Bible’s teaching regarding this challenging matter.
We begin with an overview of the reasons illness sometimes confronts born again believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible addresses a variety of spiritual implications regarding sickness. As you read each particular consideration, remember that not every malady experienced fits into that category. Sometimes we suffer for one reason, sometimes for the other. We must keep this in mind in order to rightly understand and respond to Scriptural truth in times of illness.
1. We live in a fallen world, the ground cursed by God because of sin, and the atmosphere poisoned by Satan’s presence and involvement. As members of this fallen realm (our faculties and members being composed of earthly substance) we sometimes experience the inevitable consequences of earth's imperfection.
“Unto Adam He said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree which I commanded thee, saying thou shalt not eat of it, cursed is the ground for thy sake” (Genesis 3:17).
“In time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).
“We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not they only, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan without ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:22-23).
Obviously, God did not glorify us physically when we believed, to the extent that the Apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10). The problem with our bodies is far worse than we think. They are not just imperfect, susceptible to sin, and sometimes ill or injured. God pronounces them dead, to the degree that we require His perpetual enlivening - “But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwelleth in you” (Romans 8:11). Such a condition in our present earthly environment fosters the possibility and actuality of sickness in all believers. In the case of my shingles for example, the varicella zoster virus (chicken pox) lay dormant in my body for 50 years after I contracted the disease during my childhood. For some reason, the virus activated last week, causing the herpes zoster virus that generates shingles. In a fallen world, such virulent contagions exist as the result of God’s curse upon the earth. It’s the world in which we live, which thankfully will one day be purified by fire (II Peter 3:10-14). Presently, however, we sometimes experience its imperfections in terms of physical illness.
2. God sometimes allows Satan to attack the bodies of believers with physical illness.
“The Lord said unto Satan, Hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in all the earth, a perfect and upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil? And still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst Me against him to destroy him without cause. And Satan answered the Lord, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse Thee to Thy face. And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand, but save his life. So went Satan forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown” (Job 2:3-7).
“Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure” (II Corinthians 12:7).
For His glory, our benefit, and the benefit of those to whom we minister Christ, God sometimes uses the devil’s malevolence against us to administer our humble recognition that any goodness that flows through us is not of us (as in the case of Paul mentioned above). Or as with Job, physical calamity serves to reveal God and His truth in far greater measure as we trust and submit to Him in times of illness - “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of Mine ear, but now mine eye seeth Thee” (Job 42:5). We need difficulty in order to grow in both understanding and humility, difficulty that sometimes involves the Lord lengthening the devil’s leash in order to allow our enemy to smite us with physical illness that serves God’s good purposes. “Before I was afflicted, I went astray. But now have I kept Thy Word” (Psalm 119:67)
3. God sometimes chastens His children with illness.
“For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world” (I Corinthians 11:30-32).
The context of the chastening referenced by Paul involved the Corinthians’ disrespect for the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. The holy observance had devolved into a debauched and self-centered revelry rather than the grateful remembrance of our Savior’s broken body and shed blood (I Corinthians 11:20-26). This led to the Lord’s severe chastening in some - death - along with weakness and sickness in others. Thus, we must take into consideration that illness can sometimes involve God’s scourging rod, administered in love, but nevertheless applied by the hardship of physical malady. This is not always the case, of course, but we cannot omit the possibility in times of sickness. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (Hebrews 12:6).
4. Sometimes, illness prepares us for ministry to others.
Consider again Paul’s thorn in the flesh. We do not know the actual constitution or nature of our brother's thorn. Many students of Scripture believe it to have involved some physical malady because of the language and description expressed by the Apostle (I hold this view). Moreover, as mentioned, Paul’s challenge bears enough similarity to Job’s trial that it seems plausible that God allowed Satan attack to Apostle with a bodily infirmity. More importantly, we know beyond doubt that Paul’s bearing of the thorn led to his bestowal of the Rose of Sharon for those to whom he ministered - "Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (II Corinthians 4:10).
I can personally testify that the physical challenge of the last week has made me much more mindful of other brothers and sisters dealing with illness, leading to far more prayers for them than I would have otherwise offered. If we never experienced illness, or if God always instantly healed when we do, those who must endure physical pain and weakness would seem as alien beings to our own sensibilities. This belies the loving identification of Christ with His people, or of Christ living in us for His people. We must hurt in order to sympathize and empathize with others, and even more, in order to minister to others the same holy balm we receive, whether in healing or in enabling grace. “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble” (II Corinthians 1:2-3).
5. Sometimes sickness leads to the bestowal of Divine healing, and the revelation of God’s power in our bodies. Or, it can reveal even greater wonder, namely, the bestowal of sufficient grace to the heart.
“But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, He said unto the sick of the palsy, I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch and go into thine house. And immediately He rose up before them and took up that thereon he lay, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. And they were all amazed, and they glorified God” (Luke 5:24-26).
The God who made our bodies can fix them. Ultimately, He will accomplish such grace by the glorification that will render us physically perfect, being “raised in glory” as was our Lord (I Corinthians 15:43). In the present, He heals in accordance with the honor of His Son and the best interests of His eternal purpose in Christ. This sometimes involves the instantaneous removal of illness and injury, a God honoring occurrence when it happens.
In our family, the subject always leads us to remember an event in our eldest daughter’s Marie’s life. She fell off a slide as a young girl, striking her head when she hit the ground. She seemed fine at first, but as brain injuries often exhibit, she progressively lost the ability to communicate and function normally. By the time we reached the hospital, things had deteriorated to the loss of consciousness and the very real possibility (which may have been an actuality) of severe brain trauma. It goes without saying that we and others whom we contacted prayed fervently for a miracle. We received it, praise the Lord. Marie woke up instantaneously and was fine. She communicated as if nothing ever happened, and has never looked back (she’s a beautiful and brilliant attorney) As the saying goes, she’s right as rain! The physician treating Marie made the statement doctors always express when such occurrences happen. He said to Frances, “Mrs. Davis, I’ve never seen anything like this in all my career!” I sometimes wonder if he remembers seeing the Great Physician take over when human efforts would likely have been to no avail. Yes, sometimes our Lord heals.
Many times, however, Scripture teaches that God allows illness to remain for a season (perhaps even for a lifetime). Consider Timothy, plagued with stomach issues, for whom Paul prescribed medicine rather than bestowing apostolic healing - “Use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and for thine often infirmities” (I Timothy 5:23). A reading of the Apostle’s letters to Timothy indicates how important he viewed his protege’s life and ministry. Thus, we cannot imagine that Paul did not pray for Timothy’s physical healing, to no avail. Paul also writes of another colleague in similar fashion: “Trophimus have I left at Miletum sick” (II Timothy 4:20). Again, we do not know details, but certainly the Paul through whom God healed so many must have prayed for his brother’s healing, without results. As in the Apostle's own experience, however, God chose to administer grace rather than healing, thus providing opportunity for His name to be glorified in a particularly beautiful expression of Divine goodness. I would go so far as to suggest that presently, God’s determination to not heal can sometimes offer even greater revelations of His grace and greatness than a restored body.
How relatively simple a matter for the God who created our bodies and knows them perfectly to repair them with merely a touch, or an utterance. When He does, we rejoice and praise Him. However, when our Heavenly Father wills that illness must linger, He purposes a far greater challenge for Himself. Rather than merely working upon our physical frame, He must work within our hearts to illuminate, encourage, and challenge us to trust and submit ourselves to Him. He cannot merely touch or speak to foster such faith. He must rather work in our hearts and minds to reveal His truth about sickness and His providential purposes - "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28). We have a say in this matter, that is, we choose either to trust God in our affliction, or not. He does not program our response, nor can He do so without violating the very definition of the relational "fellowship” to which He calls us (Greek: joint participation; association - I John 1:7). Thus, our Father must work in a far deeper way to bring glory to His Son when He defers healing. Moreover, the outcome is not certain. Some believers choose to trust and submit to God in times of sickness. Others don’t. This fosters even far greater honor to our blessed Lord, when through the Spirit, He overcomes our native human inclinations, leading to trust rather than doubt, and to praise rather than complaining.
God does not presently heal every sickness or injury. The experience of Paul, Timothy, and Trophimus confirms such plainly revealed Biblical truth. When He does heal, we rejoice and much glory flows to His Name. When He does not, if we choose to nonetheless honor our Heavenly Father by trusting and submitting to Him, we may honor Him even more as He works in our heart rather than our body (James 1:2).
6. Our Heavenly Father cares when we hurt physically, even when He must Himself escort us into the valley of pain. He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). God’s heart is “full of compassion” (Psalm 86:15). He hurts when we hurt. Moreover, as an infinite being possessed of a perfect emotional nature, He hurts more than we hurt. Our daughter Marie again provides illustration from our family’s history.
When Marie was one year old, we visited Frances’s parents’ house. As we sat in the dining room talking, we heard a bump and a scream (most parents could write a book based on that phrase!). We raced into the den where Marie had been playing. She sat bloodied and crying, with a deep gash just above her left eyelid inflicted when she fell and struck her forehead against a coffee table. Frances immediately assessed the situation. “We’re going to the hospital” she announced, and off we went as fast as the law allows. We arrived at the hospital and checked in. A nurse promptly beckoned us to bring Marie into an examination room. Well, actually not “us”. “Only one parent is allowed” she said in no uncertain terms. Such times are for Mama, of course. I returned to my chair in the waiting room, and nervously prayed and fidgeted while waiting to see what would happen with Marie.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but after awhile, a nurse called me back to the treatment area. “Mr. Davis, we’re going to need your help.” I had no idea what the nurse meant, but when I arrived into the room where Marie had been taken, I was stunned by the sight. My precious little daughter lay on a table, her entire body covered with a sterile sheet. A small hole offered the only opening, slit just in the area of Marie’s eye. I would also discover that she was bound by what one could only call a straitjacket. The nurse looked at me, and declared with no uncertainty or possibility of argument. “Mr. Davis, we’re going to need you to hold your daughter’s head while we repair her wound.”
Sometimes life changes in a moment. So much ran through my mind as tears begin to well in my eyes. “I’m going to have to hold Marie still while these people so strange to her inflict pain upon her. She doesn’t understand and she believes that I am the person who, along with her mother, loves her more than anyone in all the world. How can I do this?” All this took place in my mind, perhaps in less than a second, as my heart literally broke. I walked to the table, looked down at Marie, and attempted as brave a smile as I could muster under the circumstances. “Sweetheart, it’s going to be ok. Daddy has to help these nice people make you better, and it will all be over before you know it.” I touched her on the shoulder, feeling the restraints of the strait jacket, and the breaking of my heart yet again. I looked at the doctor. “Ok, I’m ready.” I leaned down, took Marie’s head firmly into my hands, and told her that I loved her.
Marie cried throughout the procedure. I did too. I tried to reassure her continuously that all would be well, but she didn’t understand how the person who loved her more than anyone in the world could subject her to such abject terror and grievous pain. My broken heart broke again and again, and I don’t recall whether I prayed, or even could have prayed. I do know this. At some point, when all seemed completely dark and agonizing, a thought came to me. Not a voice, not an impression, but a thought that changed my life instantaneously and became the basis for just about everything I believe about the Bible’s declaration of God’s love and compassion. “I think that if God were to speak to me audibly in this moment” came the insight, “He would tell me that for the rest of my life, every time He must take me through pain, sorrow, and bewilderment of any kind, I should remember this moment. Because what I am now feeling is what He feels, just a glimmer, in fact, of what He feels.”
The surgery went well. Marie recovered, and her beautiful brow gives no indication whatsoever of that bump and scream from so long ago. My heart recovered also, but not completely. I never share this story without an old wound bleeding again just a bit. More importantly, however, I never remember the episode without a fresh dispensation of complete amazement, the kind that happens when the realization of God’s wondrous heart graces us yet again. His trusting children in Christ will never feel a twinge of pain that does not coincide with a stab of pain in the depths of our Father’s heart. “His compassions fail not” (Lamentation 3:22). Our Father takes no pleasure, but rather much pain when He must allow or determine that we hurt. I will always believe the season Frances, Marie, and I shared in that emergency room allowed just a glimpse into the heart of One who loves us so much that He immerses Himself in our blessings and our buffetings. Yes, our Lord cares when we suffer, including the maladies that sometimes must find their way to our physical frames.
Next: Responses To Sickness
“Pray for one another, that ye may be healed.”
“He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
(II Corinthians 12:9)
Weekly Memory Verse
He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the first born from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence.”