When the Lord Jesus descended from the mountain after expounding the principles of God’s kingdom, He was met first by a leper (see Matt. 8: 2), then by a centurion who had come on behalf of his paralytic servant (see v5), and finally, when He had arrived at the house, He saw Peter’s “mother–in–law laid down and in a fever” (v14). Sickness met him at every turn, and His public ministry was characterised by the healing of “all that were ill” (v16). In the light of this, the presence (indeed, prevalence) of sickness ought to raise a question in the believer’s mind as to the purpose of God in allowing it, and the lessons to be gained thereby.
Sickness and the Fall
There are sicknesses of every sort and description. Who can count the ailments by which man’s bodily frame may be assailed? Furthermore, though the medical profession may continually discover new treatments and cures, the words of Scripture remain as true as ever: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if, by reason of strength, they be fourscore years, yet their pride is labour and vanity, for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90: 10). We are “fearfully, wonderfully made” (Ps. 139: 14), but despite this, we all eventually sicken and die (should the Lord not come)—even if our lives have been lived in perfect health. What are we to make of this fact? Is it possible that God created sickness and disease at the beginning? Was He who made all things “very good” (Gen. 1: 31) also the maker of needless suffering and pain? Not at all. No, something has come into the world which, like gravel thrown into some machinery, has marred the perfect order of God’s creation. As to the nature of that intrusion, the Word of God does not leave us in any doubt: “by one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death” (Rom. 5: 12). Sin, not God, is the cause of all the disease and suffering which prevail on the earth. Sickness and pain are all part of that curse which came upon creation when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and fell. There would have been no sickness, if there had been no fall, there would have been no disease, if there had been no sin. Man has sinned, and therefore man suffers. Adam fell from his original position, and therefore Adam’s children sicken and die.
Lessons for the Unbeliever
Of course, the existence of sickness is a favourite argument of the atheist: ‘Can God be a God of love and mercy when He allows suffering and pain?’ Yet there is no difficulty in reconciling the prevalence of disease with the love of God if we only look at what is going on around us. Observe the extent to which men constantly submit to present loss for the sake of future gain, present sorrow for the sake of future joy and present pain for the sake of future health. The child is sent to school in tears, but in the hope of his getting future knowledge, and the parent undergoes some fearful surgical operation with a view to future health. Apply this same principle to God’s government of the world. God allows pain, sickness, and disease, not because He loves to vex man, but because He desires to bring man into blessing for all eternity.
Sickness helps to remind men of death. Most live like they were never going to die. They follow business or pleasure as if the earth is their eternal home, and plan and scheme for the future like the rich fool in the parable (see Luke 12: 16–21). A heavy illness sometimes awakens men from their day–dreams, and reminds them that life here is not forever, but that they have to die one day.
Sickness also helps to make people think seriously of God, their souls, and the world to come. In their days of health, men do not like to think about such things, and dispel them from their minds. A severe disease has a wonderful power of mustering and rallying these thoughts, and bringing them up before the eyes of the soul.
Furthermore, sickness helps to adjust an individual’s weights and measures of earthly things. The natural heart can see no good in anything which is not of this life, and no happiness excepting in this world. A long illness sometimes goes far to correct these ideas. It exposes the emptiness and hollowness of the things that the world regards as important. Money, fashion, celebrity and politics are miserable comforters in the sick room.
Sickness also helps to level and humble people. There are not many who do not look down on someone else, and secretly flatter themselves that they are “not as the rest of men” (Luke 18: 11). The sick bed forces on them the painful truth that they are merely poor worms which “dwell in houses of clay” and are “crushed as the moth” (Job 4: 19). It brings home the solemn truth that death is no respecter of persons and that all, whether kings or subjects, rich or poor, must soon stand side by side at the judgment–seat of God (see Rom. 14: 10). In the sight of the coffin and the grave it is not easy to be proud.
Finally, sickness helps to try men’s faith, to see what sort it is. Few have a religion that will bear inspection. Most are content with traditions received from their fathers, and can give no reason for their hope of future blessing. Better to come to the conclusion on the sick–bed that I have been worshipping an “unknown God” (Acts 17: 23), than to find it out at the great white throne (see Rev. 20: 11)! Many a creed looks well on the smooth waters of health, but turns out to be useless on the rough waves of the sick bed. Just as the storms of winter often bring out the defects in a man’s house (see Matt. 7: 26, 27), so sickness often exposes the poverty of a man’s soul.
Alas, myriads are laid low by illness and restored to health, who evidently learn no lesson from their sick beds, and millions are passing through sickness to the grave, while receiving no more spiritual impression from it than the beasts that perish. While they live they have no feeling, and when they die there are “no pangs in their death” (Psalm 73: 4). Yet I believe that in many cases ill–health is one of the greatest aids to the evangelist, and that the truth and force of the Gospel is often brought home in the day of sickness when it was neglected in the day of health.
Sickness in the Believer
So much for the unbeliever: what of the believer? Sickness is no respecter of persons: Christians and non–Christians fall ill alike. The believer does not yet have his body of glory (see Phil. 3: 21), and as far as his outward frame is concerned, he still bears “the image of the [one] made of dust” (1 Cor. 15: 49). His body is weak, corruptible and mortal (see vs. 43, 53). Nowhere do we read (as some teach) that God’s children are supposed to be physically healthy, and that sickness is a sure sign of some hidden sin and a feeble faith. Attention has been drawn to Matt. 8: 17 “Himself took our infirmities and bore our diseases” as if this means that Christ’s death did away with illness for the believer, but this Scripture was fulfilled not at the Cross, but in the Lord’s public ministry.
There are many Scriptural examples of godly persons being ill. Lazarus was a child of God and a friend of Christ, and there is nothing to suggest that he had done anything to warrant divine displeasure—and yet he was sick (see John 11: 1)! This is not to say that sicknesses are never the result of sin. Certainly in the case of those at Corinth it was on account of unfaithfulness that “many among you [are] weak and infirm” (1 Cor. 11: 30), but it is also true that many a faithful saint has been laid upon a bed of sickness. Job’s integrity was such that Jehovah testified to Satan about it (see Job 1: 8), but the same Jehovah allowed His servant to be smitten “with a grievous botch from the sole of his foot unto his crown” (Job 2: 7). Lazarus’ sickness was “for the glory of God” (John 11: 4)—in much the same way as the blindness of the man of John 9 was not on account of some personal wickedness, “but that the works of God should be manifested in him” (v3).
Another prevalent idea, namely that sickness afflicts us at random, and is a matter of chance or fate, is a shameful position for a Christian to adopt. “All things”—not ‘some things’—“work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to purpose” (Rom. 8: 28). King Solomon’s wise counsel was to “despise not the instruction of Jehovah, neither be weary of his chastisement; for whom Jehovah loveth he chasteneth, even as a father the son in whom he delighted” (Prov. 3: 11, 12). This Scripture is quoted and expanded on by the writer of Hebrews 12: 5–11, demonstrating that it is normal for the Christian to have to endure trials (of which sickness is an example) in order for God to form a Christ–like character in the believer. Hence, instead of being anxious to get out of circumstances, the believer ought to be concerned to know the purpose of God in passing him through those circumstances.
Practical Lessons for the Christian
Sickness is no doubt an irksome thing to flesh and blood—it is one of the “various trials” by which we can be “put to grief” (1 Pet. 1: 6). To feel our nerves unstrung and our natural force abated, to have to sit still and be cut off from all our usual activities, to see our plans disrupted and our purposes disappointed, to endure days and nights of weariness and pain—all this puts a severe strain on bodies and minds. It is not a wonder if irritation and impatience are brought out by illness, even in the most pious of saints! How then shall we learn to bear sickness patiently, if through sickness we must pass? We need, as it were, to lay up stores in the time of plenty against the time of famine. We must seek for the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit now, when well, over our unruly tempers and dispositions. We must make a real business of our prayers from today, and ask for strength, not only to do but, to endure God’s will. Christianity does not only consist of actively serving God, but also involves the formation of Christ–like qualities in the believer. Meekness, long–suffering, and endurance are examples of these (see Gal. 5: 22; 2 Tim. 3: 10) but, being passive graces, they probably receive far less notice than they deserve. Never do these characteristics shine so brightly as they do in the sick room! They often make men think—men who despise the more active side of the Christian character—and they enable many a sick person to preach a silent but powerful sermon which God can use for the blessing of souls. Sick believers need to remember that they can honour the Lord as much by patient suffering as they can by active work. It is easy it is to be overcome by bitterness and resentment against God when one is laid aside by disease, but none of us is indispensable to Him, and we need to remember that He has far more to do in us than through us. “In pressure” said King David “thou hast enlarged me” (Ps. 4: 1).
There is almost an obsession among many Christians about healing, such that spiritual power is directly equated with the supposed ability to cure disease. Some have reacted to this by saying that God does not heal at all today, but this view has no basis in Scripture and places illogical and irreverent limits on divine omnipotence. What Scripture does reveal is that healing was quite frequent in the beginning of the book of Acts but declined thereafter, and seems to have died out completely by the time of the prison epistles. The reason for this is that miraculous healing is linked to the testimony of the kingdom and as the rejection of the kingdom increases as we pass through Acts, so the expression of the so–called sign gifts decreases. Once the kingdom had finally been rejected, there was no longer any need for the sign gifts and they vanished. Healing today (and by that I mean real healing) has nothing to do with the gift of healing, and is unusual. Paul left Trophimus at Miletus sick (see 2 Tim 4: 20)—he did not heal him. Epaphroditus was “sick close to death” (Phil. 2: 27), but it is baseless to suppose that he was healed miraculously. Timothy was exhorted, not to look for a miracle, but to “use a little wine on account of thy stomach and thy frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5: 23).
James 5: 14, 15 is often quoted in the context of healing: “Is any sick among you? let him call to [him] the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of [the] Lord; and the prayer of faith shall heal the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be one who has committed sins, it shall be forgiven him”. Several things need to be said about this Scripture. Firstly, if any think themselves to be the “elders of the assembly” then they are being very presumptuous in the current state of things. Secondly, there is nothing intrinsically miraculous about the anointing with oil. Rather it is medicinal, to be used in conjunction with faith. Timothy was to use a little wine (1 Tim. 5: 23), Hezekiah was treated with “a cake of figs” (2 Kings 20: 7; Is. 38: 21), while oil is the means used here. The key thing is the prayer of faith. Thirdly, if the sick person had committed sins, James says it shall be forgiven him. However it needs to borne in mind that there is a character of sin and associated illness that leads inevitably to death. John calls that “a sin to death” and remarks that “I do not say of that that he should make a request” (1 John 5: 16).
Care for Others
One duty which the prevalence of sickness entails on the believer is that of a habitual readiness to feel with and help our fellow–saints: “and if one member suffer, all the members suffer with [it]” (1 Cor. 12: 26). Sickness is never very far from us. There are not many families who have not some sick relative, and few are the Christian gatherings where you will not find someone ill. But wherever there is sickness, there is a call to duty. A little timely assistance, a kindly visit, a friendly inquiry, an expression of sympathy—any of these may do much good. Every professing Christian should be ready to do such works (see Titus 3: 1). In a world full of sickness and disease we ought to “bear one another’s burdens” and to be “to one another kind” (Gal. 6: 2; Eph. 4: 32). The Lord Himself was ever going about “doing good” to the sick and sorrowful (Acts 10: 38), and in the day of judgment He attaches great importance to such acts: “I was ill, and ye visited me” (Matt. 25: 36). Beware then, of that unfeeling selfishness which is manifested in a neglect of your sick brethren. Search them out, assist them if they need aid, show your sympathy with them and try to lighten their burdens. Most important of all, strive to do good to their souls. It will do you good even if it does no good to them.
Above all, we need to bring the suffering of our brethren to Christ. This is what Mary and Martha did when Lazarus fell sick. Mark the childlike faith of these holy women: “The sisters therefore sent to him” (John 11: 3). As the frightened infant turns to its mother, so they turned to the Lord Jesus in their hour of need. Different as they were in natural temperament, the two sisters in this matter were entirely agreed: Christ’s help was their first thought in the day of trouble. Note also the simple humility of their language about Lazarus. They do not say, ‘He who loves Thee, or serves Thee’, but “He whom thou lovest” (v3, my emphasis). Martha and Mary had learned that Christ’s love towards us, and not our love towards Christ, is the real foundation of hope. To look inward to our love towards Christ is painfully unsatisfying; to look outward to Christ’s love towards us brings peace in trouble.
I believe that the want of whole–hearted committal to Christ is the secret of our lack of comfort, both in health and sickness. If you and I want “grace for seasonable help” (Heb. 4: 16) in our time of need, then we must seek to cultivate real communion with Christ day by day. The time may come when, after a long fight with disease, we shall feel that medicine can do no more and that nothing remains but to die. Friends will be standing by, unable to help us. Hearing, eyesight, memory, and even our minds, will be fast failing us. The world and its shadows will be melting beneath our feet. Eternity, with its realities, will be looming large before our minds. What shall support us in that trying hour? What shall enable us to say, “I will fear no evil” (Ps. 23: 4)? Nothing can do it but close communion with Christ.
The time is short. We travel towards a world where there is no more sickness and crying, and where parting and pain are done with forever. The cloud of witnesses ahead is becoming more numerous than the friends astern. “For yet a very little while and he that comes will come, and will not delay” (Heb. 10: 37.) In His presence shall be fullness of joy (see Ps. 16: 11), for God shall wipe away all tears from His people’s eyes (see Rev. 21: 4). In the meantime let us lean all our weight on Christ, and rejoice in the thought that He lives for evermore—the Blessed One who will one day change our body of humiliation into conformity to His glorious body (see Phil. 3: 21).