Monday, March 5, 2012

Sickness and Healing in a Believer's Life


To say one thing very clearly in the beginning: God is able to heal any disease, any sickness and any kind of pain at any given time. In Psalm 103 David says: "Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits - who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases"! Every true Christian believes that God forgives all our sin, so it is only appropriate to believe that he heals all our diseases as well. When Jesus walked the earth the Bible reports that he healed “every disease and sickness” (e.g. Matthew 9:35). Jesus gave this same authority to his 12 disciples (Matthew 10:1) and to everybody who follows Him (Mark 16:18). In addition to that, some people have a special gift of healing (see 1. Corinthians 12:9). God is the same yesterday, today and forever, so there is no doubt that He can heal and is still doing just that all over the world to this day. By Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, God has provided for healing of our physical bodies, because “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

A realistic look at causes of sickness 

However, experience of Christians throughout the centuries, ever since the early church, shows that many times Christians are sick and are not miraculously healed (e.g. 2 Ti 4:20, where Paul himself, though plenty of people were healed through/by him, left behind his co-worker Trophimus sick in Miletus). It seems that more often than not God chooses not to heal people through prayer and a miraculous intervention. It is certainly wrong to base our believes and our doctrines upon experience - they have to be based upon the word of God. But it is nothing short of denial if we ignore the experience of many faithful believers who have struggled or who are currently struggling with sickness, be it a common cold or more serious illnesses like cancer. A simple “You just have to believe”, or “You just need to claim the promises of God” might not always do justice to the one who is suffering, even though it is no doubt well-intentioned advice. God seems to be bigger than that, and at times might have other things in mind, rather than an instantaneous healing. It is absolutely not my goal here to make people (or myself) feel comfortable with their sickness and to stop pursuing God for healing. On the contrary: As Psalm 103 says that the LORD heals all our diseases, it only makes sense if at times we do have diseases - otherwise God wouldn't have to heal us from them... It is therefore my goal to bring a balance and hopefully some understanding about why at times we are sick. God is God, and we are not - thus there will always be things that we will not be able to figure out before we get to see Him face to face, and once we see Him like that all our questions about “why” and “how” might cease to be important. But as long as we journey on this side of heaven, I think it's worthwhile to fight for understanding. God is after being glorified, and a people who understand His ways glorify Him! But there is a “but” here…: A people who do not understand all His ways but worship Him anyways, might glorify Him even more!
Besides having been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2007, there have been 6 times so far in my life when I was no longer able to walk because of back pain. Every one of these 6 times (plus many more times with minor issues) has been completely different. Causes and cure were not always the same. So, I am far from making general statements. But I want to suggest 7 different categories of causes for sickness. There might be more, but I find these categories helpful to consider:
  • Bad care 
  • Emotional problems affecting the body 
  • Spiritual Attack 
  • Simply for God's glory 
  • Sin 
  • Accidents, Natural Disasters and Terrorism 
  • Other Purposes of God 
Let's take a closer look at these 7 areas. Each point in these areas deserves consideration and I could go into great detail with further explanation, personal and biblical examples, but this is not the right place for doing that. Ideally, this material is presented in a half-day seminar, so I can just highlight the main points here.

1. Bad care 

  • Food (insufficient nutrition) 
  • Dirtiness (e.g. not brushing teeth, no soap, no showers) 
  • Lack of exercise 
  • Lack of sleep 
  • Long hours of sitting in front of the computer (!) 
  • Environmental influences (e.g. bad air in industrial areas and big cities) 
  • Sexually transmitted diseases and some forms of cancer fall into this category as well 
In all these cases we (or, for children: parents/guardians) are responsible. As much as God can heal and give strength, normally He would not have us pray, but He wants us to step up to our responsibility of being good stewards of our bodies (and/or of the ones entrusted to us, e.g. in a family or ministry situation like at a children's home). In case of a medically incurable disease like AIDS or lung cancer, we can certainly ask for healing, but we might have to come to grasp with the fact that we simply received what we sowed and live with it.

2. Emotional problems affecting the body 

  • Homesickness 
  • Loneliness 
  • Stress 
Both Christian as well as secular scientists and doctors point out a relationship between emotional and physical health. The difference is how we approach them, and as Christians we trust that God can give us a peace beyond our understanding even in the midst of loneliness or potentially stressful situations. He is our counselor, and we can look to Him to guard our hearts, so that our bodies will not be affected negatively.

3. Spiritual Attack 

  • e.g. Luke 13:11ff, where Jesus heals a woman that was crippled by a spirit for 18 years 
I experienced this several times, e.g. before an outreach to France (I had back pain and was forced to stay in bed, until I proclaimed that I would go on this outreach, even if people had to carry me onto the plane; within half hour all pain was gone), in India (fever, stomach pain, throwing up, feeling completely miserable for two days or so until I realized that it was Halloween and then broke the power of curses put on missionaries by Satanists by claiming the power of the blood of Jesus; I claimed Proverbs 26:2 which states that an undeserved curse will not come to pass and within an hour I was completely back to normal), in Thailand while driving car (chest pains, I could hardly breathe and an enormous fear came over me that I would become sick and never be healed; when we realized that all three of us in the car felt exactly the same we stood against it in Jesus' name and were immediately set free from pain and fear)
In cases like this we have to use the authority that has been given to us (Luke 10:19) and resist the enemy (James 4:7), rather than praying that God would heal us

4. Simply for God's glory

  • e.g. John 9:1ff, where a blind person is healed after Jesus points out that he was not blind because of his or his parents' sin, but so that the glory of God would be revealed in him
  • Lazarus had died for the same reason (see John 11:4) 
In those cases God will bring healing, without a lot of questions to be asked.

5. Sin 

This should be an obvious factor. In most contemporary evangelical and Pentecostal mainstream churches, however, it is often overlooked, because of simplified teachings like “God loves us, He would never punish us with sickness” and “Jesus bore our sickness, so every sickness comes from Satan”. Those teachings certainly contain some truth: God loves us, and, yes, Jesus bore our sickness. However, they ignore other parts of scripture that teach differently. I cannot look at all of these scriptures here, but want to mention a few: 
  • Psalm 32:3-5 "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Selah. Then I acknowledged my sin and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD" - and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah." ("Selah" is a Hebrew word and is sometimes translated as "Pause and think of this!")
I had a similar experience while on outreach in Hungary 1989: I felt weak with fever, sleeplessness, blisters on my lips and stomach pain for 2 days until I read this Psalm, and immediately knew that this was the solution for my pain; I took a few minutes to confess my sins in prayer and then thanked the Lord that I would sleep well and wake up completely healed; I slept like a rock the rest of the night and awoke healed and refreshed.
  • Blessings and curses set before Israel (Deuteronomy 28)
It is noteworthy that these blessings and curses are given to God's people at that time (Old Testament, after the exodus from Egypt). Under the new covenant, depicted in the New Testament, Christians are heirs to the promise of the blessings (as most Christians believe), and even though Jesus became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), sickness might come because of sin, until we confess our sin, claim the promise and are healed because Jesus bore our punishment. I cannot, however, see an automatic protection from sickness no matter how sinful our lives are: if we live in sin, we loose part of the protection of God on our lives. I see an example of that given in the popular passage in 1. Corinthians 9 that is often read during a communion service. Here it says that
  • "many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep" because "anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1. Corinthians 11:29-30)
Even though this is said in context of the Lord's supper, I wonder whether it could also have to do with how we treat the church (e.g. the local church from another denomination across town), as this is the body of Christ in this world at this time in redemptive history. As God wants us to be close to Him and live holy lives, He might very well bring sickness as a result of our sin. However, I want to stress that I am convinced that the Holy Spirit will reveal very clearly if this is so, and that we do not have to wonder for days and weeks or even years whether there is sin in our lives. A good rule of thumb is that the Holy Spirit will bring precise conviction of sin, while the enemy will bring a vague feeling of condemnation. Don't heed the enemy's voice, God is more than able to communicate clearly with you! This, in fact, is one of the most amazing things for me about Christianity, because as true children of God, as his sheep, we will hear his voice (see John 10:27)!
  • We might have brought the sickness on us because of things we have said (see Proverbs 18:21), or negative confessions that we might have made (even jokingly)
  • James 5:16 says that we should confess our sins to one another and pray for each other, so that we might be healed 
But having said all this, I also want to say loudly and clearly: God does not treat us as our sins deserve! When I experienced back pain the first time in 1991 and was forced to stay in bed, a thought came up that this was because of sin. I grabbed my Bible and opened it randomly (the way they teach you not to read the Bible, smile...)  where my eyes fell on verse 10 of Psalm 103, and I was immediately 100% assured that this was not the reason for my back pain at that time.

6. Accidents, Natural Disasters and Terrorism

These are obvious causes for suffering and sickness. However, as Christians we know that the Lord is almighty and that He is more than able to protect us from any of these. The enemy would like for us to live in fear, but our God reigns, and we do not have to be afraid. If Christians are victims of any of these kind of events, it was not that God didn't pay attention for a second, and it's also not that “things just happen”. He watches over all our steps and He holds the universe in his hands. We are not prey to falling trees, lightning flashes, tsunamis, reckless drivers or Osama Bin Ladins! Therefore, if Christians get injured or die in catastrophic events like this, we have to accept it as a part of God's plan.

7. Other Purposes of God

  • He might simply want for us to take time to think and learn about suffering
I sure did that one of the times I was bed-ridden with back pain when I devoured the book of Job: What if this condition lasted my entire life-time? Would I still praise Him? I determined to be like Job, who said that even though God slay him, he would yet hope in Him (Job 13:15), and I pray for the same grace now as I am battling Parkinson's disease. “Should we accept good from God and not trouble” (Job 2:10)? “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21).
  • God might us want to learn about healing, obedience, faith: should we have somebody pray for us in a healing service? Call our elders like scripture tells us to (James 5:14)? 
  • It might be God's way of getting our attention to examine our hearts and to spend more time with Him 
  • God might want to give us a time of rest (!), like he did with me when I tore a ligament while playing volleyball as a young believer; I had ignored Isaiah 30:15 several times, by witch the Holy Spirit had prompted me to slow down from a very busy schedule of doing good things like studying, working 2 jobs, taking care of an older woman, evangelism, prayer groups, etc., etc.; the moment I tore the ligament I was able to say “Thank you, Lord” because I knew that I would have to stay in bed for a couple of weeks… 

Summary and Conclusion

It is my conviction that God is able to and wants to use all sickness to draw us closer to Himself, no matter what the cause is. Therefore we should thank him in and for our sickness (according to Ephesians 5:20). We might not understand, but we can always trust, because God is good and He loves us. He is faithful. Even if we died - we would just be closer to Him! It is very important to realize, that there is not certain buttons to push in the Kingdom of God, as if God would always have to have the same reasons for letting us experience problems and we just have to push button “A” or “B” as the correct response. As our God is a relational God, he always wants us to seek him and hear from him, what the possible causes are and what steps we should take. If he doesn't seem to be saying anything, it is still up to us to trust Him, and to use common sense and wisdom (including medication and the help of doctors). After all, nobody in his right mind would risk bleeding for hours if he could close the wound with a simple band-aid. God is certainly able to stop a wound from bleeding, like Jesus did when he made an ear grow back within seconds after one of his disciples had cut it off from a soldier who had come to arrest Jesus. It seems to me, however, that God more often than not chooses to heal in very normal ways rather than supernaturally. There is a balance, however, and we should not just take a Tylenol every time we have some kind of pain. We might miss out on some important lessons that would help us to draw closer to God and to grow in our faith. I want to stress again that God is able and willing to send sickness and disaster at times (Isaiah 45:7). Not only does He allow it (everything that happens under the sun somehow has His permission), but sometimes he intentionally causes sickness. We might not always understand His purposes, but God is to be feared. It is still a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). Because we fear Him, we have to trust in His love to save us, even from His very own wrath. Everything we have received from Him or we dare to ask of Him, we ask in Jesus' name, because the Father is totally satisfied with the Son, and with him only. All God's promises are “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus (2. Corinthians 1:20). So let us fight and pray for each other that we would receive everything that God has intended for us, and that Satan will not steal anything from us, or we would put up with something that he puts on us to destroy our joy in Jesus Christ.
Bonus Feature: Where does faith come from?
I am sure you have heard it said many times, and you might have said it to others before, too: “You just need to have faith for your healing”! Meaning, that if somebody is not healed, it is because of a lack of faith on the sick person's part. Of course there is scripture to support this, as many times Jesus told a healed person that he or she was healed because of his/her faith (e.g. Matthew 9:22, Mark 19:20). And I agree with that: If you have faith, you will be healed! The problem is that a lot of people feel condemnation if they are told in one way or another that they don't have enough faith. Well, I, for my part, cannot go into my basement and produce some faith. Faith in itself is a gift from God! Scripture teaches that clearly, e.g. in Romans 12:3. We can certainly ask for more faith, but we should never feel condemnation for not having ‘enough' faith. If we ask in faith it will be given to us, that is clearly stated in scripture (e.g. James 1:6), and the Word cannot be wrong and it is never wrong. So if we ask for something that we don't receive, why should it be so hard to admit that we didn't ask in faith in the first place? To be honest, probably most of the time I am not quite sure whether God will really do the things I ask for in prayer, but I think it's okay to let Him know what we desire Him to do. Mature faith and worship in spirit and truth does not depend on having all our prayers/wishes answered. But there have been times when I knew in the moment I asked (or even before I asked) that God would do what I asked, without a shadow of a doubt. I think that most of the times when we pray for sick people, we sincerely desire for them to be healed, but do we really pray in faith? Thank God that our faith grows over the years, though, and that we can stretch out for more. Faith still comes from hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17), so let's expose ourselves to godly preaching of the Word (which seems rather rare these days), and for those of us who are serving in teaching and preaching: may the Lord grant that we would be found proclaiming His Word faithfully, so that our hearers' faith would grow. Because it is when we go and bear fruit that the Father is glorified (see John 15:8+16). And that's what our lives should all be about: to glorify Him! Because of His mercy: All for His glory!