Last night a friend and I had a pretty intense conversation about something. We often have deep theological discussions, but last night was a bit of a special conversation. It was difficult to discuss for me, because it hit very close to home in something that I have had to personally work through. So to my friend, I apologize if I spoke out of emotion at any point in our conversation. I want to show you respect in answering your question in the most complete way I know how.
For those of you who are just joining our discussion, the subject is Divine healing for physical sickness and how God chooses to respond to illness.
Just a background on why this is such a personal subject for me: I have struggled with a very painful illness for over 8 years. (An update for those who are wondering: the prognosis is very good. Treatment is going well, and I truly believe I am on the other side of the storm now.) Throughout this journey I have wrestled with a lot of these questions about God: Does God like to see His children suffer? If not, then why does He allow it? Am I not healed because I have a lack of faith? Or maybe even the most common question: Why? For a long time, I thought it was wrong to question God. One of the biggest lessons I have learned through this is how to be completely honest with God. Until last year, I hardly told anyone about my illness. The last thing I wanted to be in the world was weak. I hated the thought of people feeling sorry for me or giving me special treatment because I “wasn’t like the other kids.” I was so sick of thinking about it, and was tired of talking about it. I got enough questions from doctors. I hated the attention. I just wanted to be normal. There’s so much more I could share, but I wanted to include this because it’s important to understand that many people who are sick do not want to be this way. (Some people do, and that is a completely different matter.)
So let’s tackle the tough questions. I hate dancing around the real questions and being the good Sunday School kid by saying, “There’s always a reason for everything that happens.” Maybe that’s true, but there is FAR MORE TO IT than a simplistic answer like that. I believe it places blame in the wrong place, and I am about to dive into some really big things, so please take a deep breath before continuing.
Does God like to see His children suffer? My answer is: NO. Now for the explanation, at least in part and it will continue throughout the rest of this essay. One verse that has given me considerable comfort is Psalm 56:8. The New Living Translation says it best: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” In fact, a lot of the Psalms deal with David (or one of the other authors) crying out for comfort, relief, and salvation from enemies. Sometimes the song ends and there is no response from heaven. If God is aware and He cares enough to capture and see as precious every tear that falls from our eyes, then why is He silent, often for years on end? Why do some die without seeing relief when they have trusted God so deeply?
The question of God’s silence and permission for pain to linger is a difficult one to face and wrestle with. Everyone who has faced any kind of suffering, not just illness, has to deal with these questions personally and in their own context. I have never known an exception. Now, in order to deal with this subject, we need to switch gears and discuss something else and work our way back to this point.
Here is the age old question: What is the meaning of life? My simplistic answer: to worship God and bring Him glory. If we look back in Genesis when God created man, chapter 1 verse 27 says that He created humans in His image. In the beginning, before sin came into the world, Adam and Eve enjoyed walking and talking with God Himself in the garden. Think about being able to stand in the presence of God Himself. I get shivers down my spine just trying to imagine what that would be like. It took humans only 2 chapters (who knows how much time) to fall for the appeal of being as great as God, knowing and understanding all things. They chose to disobey God and eat from the one tree that He had told them not to eat from. This is when sin came, and God had to enforce consequences. This is the first time pain is mentioned and when death came into the world: 3:19c: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” God put man in his proper place and reminded him that God is Creator; man is creation. God is sovereign; man is dust.
Then comes Abraham, when God delivers His first covenant: He will bring forth His chosen nation from Abraham, and God takes the responsibility for the sin of humans and promises a Savior to come and make all things right. For the rest of the Old Testament, God established with Moses a law for the Hebrew nation to follow, to give them protective guidelines for life. They notoriously rebelled against this law, and God through His love and justice allowed them to experience the consequences of their actions. They were even taken into exile by the Babylonians for many years and the silence of God seemed to echo off the mountains. However, He sent prophet after prophet, reminding the people that He had not forgotten them and if they would learn to follow Him, He would restore them once again.
Eventually, Jesus comes and just about the time the Teachers of the Law have the way to live down to a science (and I mean a science), Jesus turns their world upside down with talk of a new covenant (which seemed completely opposite from the old, but really was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham). Jesus walks around healing a ton of people and talking about a Kingdom of God, which was a familiar term to them, but they had come to misunderstand what it was all about. They expected a national revolution. Instead, they got the Son of God on a donkey, and that ticked them off to say the least.
It is because the idea of the Kingdom of God was so familiar to the Hebrew people that He never flat out says what the Kingdom of God really is. He instead spent His 3 years in ministry describing through His stories, His life, and ultimately His death what the Kingdom of God is like. He compared it to a mustard seed, a little bit of yeast, and a pearl. He was trying to set the record straight: the Kingdom of God isn’t about trying to be the greatest; it is about being the least. It is not about being strong; it is about being weak. It is not about being equal to God; it is seeing God in His proper place and us in ours: at His feet, the creation worshiping the Creator. Everything we are and everything we have is because God is and He gave.
This idea of free will is a hard one to reconcile. If God created us to worship Him and give Him glory, then why did He even give us the option to reject Him? That is where love comes in. 1 John 4:8b says that “God is love.” It does not say that love is something God does; it is who He is. True love is recognized when someone else could walk another path but they choose to love you instead. True love is faithfulness even when the other party does not always return the favor, like God and the Israelites when they disobeyed Him time and again. Finally, love is true when sacrifice is offered. John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
So how does this relate to the subject of suffering and healing? First of all, we need to understand everything within the greater picture of both the purpose of life: to worship God and bring Him glory and also the Kingdom of God: Jesus’ principle purpose in coming and the greatest message He wanted to get across. If we as Christians are a part of this “Kingdom of God” and have been born again into this “upside-down reality”, where the least is the greatest, the faith of a child is required, and God is Sovereign, then we must understand what it means to capture the “mind of the Kingdom.” In all of this, we MUST REMEMBER: it is not about US. It is ALL about GOD.
We as humans are not very good judges of what is GOOD. We think that chocolate and ice cream are GOOD (and indeed, I fall into this category). However, our bodies can’t handle a whole lot of these delicious desserts, and eating them often will cause our bodies to deteriorate and not function well. We see exercising and holding a job as tiresome and a drag. However, without doing these things, our lives would be at about the same level as if we ate chocolate and ice cream all the time.
On a much more serious level, we see pain and suffering as bad things, and it is true when we look at Genesis, we see that God created the world without these things and did not intend for them to come into the world. Pain was never in the plan. Pain was a result of man’s decision to disobey God. Here is where actions and consequences were set into place. Consequences are meant to teach us what to do and what not to do again. Truth (at least in our minds) only makes sense when we see the action and the response (for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction). Therefore, lest we fall into the trap of believing that God causes pain and suffering, we must understand that this came about from our decision to put ourselves in a place we do not belong: as equals to God. God is Creator; we are creation. We are and we have because God is and He gave.
So what are you saying, Chelsea? People get sick and they suffer because they rejected God? Our illnesses are a consequence of what we have done? So our suffering is our fault? Here is where we need to discuss what the Kingdom of God is all about, and we need to handle some issues very carefully.
First of all, we need to understand that God does not give us “special treatment” because we are Christians. Matthew 5:45b says, “He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The idea of partiality is a misuse of God’s love. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that WHOEVER believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (emphasis added).” Just like the Good Shepherd will leave the 99 sheep that are found and search for the ONE that is lost, so His love is passionate about the unrighteous like it is for the righteous. The driving purpose of the Kingdom of God is to bring all those who do not know God into a saving relationship with Him, that they might experience His relentless love for them. God is about restoring things to the way they should be and the way He created them all the way back in Genesis when a holy and Almighty God walked openly in the garden with man, and man felt no shame. God does not cause pain nor did He create it. Rather, through the suffering Romans 8:28 says, “God works for the GOOD of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose (emphasis added).” There’s that word GOOD again. What is GOOD? To be in relationship with God. Who is called? According to John 3:16, the invitation is made to everyone, and “whoever believes in Him.”
To be a part of the Kingdom means that we no longer live for our individual desires, but for the purposes of God. We know the purpose of God is to bring everyone into a relationship with Him and restore the brokenness of the world. Therefore, the things that we suffer are not only the result of being part of a broken world, and they not only grow in us personal qualities like Paul talks about in Romans 5:3-4: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope.” Our suffering has the possibility of growing us into Christlikeness, and therefore making us witnesses to others of the faithfulness and love of God. Paul says in Romans 12:1 to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” He also says, “this is your spiritual act of worship.’ When we gain the “mind of the Kingdom”, we understand the value of the eternal over the temporary. Our bodies are temporary. We will all die. Our life here on earth is but a breath in light of eternity spent in the presence of God. We are therefore called to, “store up…treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:20)” As we trust God with the things we do not understand and serve Him though the road is painful, we store up eternal treasures in heaven that do not fade away when our bodies die and all that we possess and accumulate on earth are no longer ours. This “mind of the Kingdom” is the kind of witness God desires from His Creation. Paul calls it the “mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).” We value the eternal over the temporary. We live for the bigger picture and the greater purpose: the Kingdom of God.
Therefore we can hold onto this promise from God in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
I rejoice in God: my Savior and my Healer. I now understand that my salvation and my healing run much deeper than the pain or comfort I feel from day to day. I rejoice in the opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom of God. I rejoice in my sufferings, because they have eternal worth and value. I rejoice in the love of God that covers all.