I was visiting a church member in the hospital pediatric section. He was struggling spiritually because his young daughter was suffering terribly with a physical illness. I had every confidence that my friend was a person of deep faith, and that made it all the more distressing when he said, “What did she ever do to deserve this? Why is God doing this to my little girl?”
In times of pain and suffering, this is often one of the first questions of a spiritual nature that is asked. In my friend’s case, it reflected the frustration of a father who saw his child suffering and knew that he could do nothing about it. It also reflected the deep disappointment he felt because, though God could do something about it, the Lord of heaven seemed deaf to my friend’s prayers for his daughter.
It’s times like these when we struggle for answers. It’s not much help to offer empty platitudes. There’s no room in that place of pain and suffering for clever clichés or trite expressions. How do you honestly deal with a person’s legitimate pain, stay true to the Bible, and say something that has substance to match the moment? It’s a difficult task.
A part of that difficulty, however, can be addressed by making sure that we clearly understand what the Scriptures say—and what they do not say— about human sickness and suffering in general. Only when we have a clear picture of the teaching of the Bible can we begin to embrace a meaningful response to human pain.
THE BIBLE’S APPROACH TO DISEASE
Our first assumption about the disease of HIV/AIDS is often an inappropriate one. Too often we assume it is the direct byproduct of a specific act of sin—and that assumes far too much.
Looking at what the Bible says about suffering and disease will shed some light on this misunderstanding.
The Root Of Disease. Much of the suffering we see in the world around us is due simply to the reality that we live in a fallen world. God’s original creation was a place of innocence, unspoiled by the presence of danger, disease, virus, violence, anger, and anxiety. That flawless environment was the home in which humanity was intended to dwell.
With the first act of sin, however, that environment was radically changed. The book of Genesis records that change this way:
To the woman [God] said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:16-19).
The first mention of human suffering came as a consequence of human disobedience. God had commanded our “first parents” and they rebelled against that command. The result was “paradise lost”— and the human race began to fight its way through life in a world now tainted by the results of human rebellion.
It appears that this loss of innocence for the first man and woman was also mirrored by a loss of safety in the world. The environment they had enjoyed now changed. In the visible realm, animals that had been created for their enjoyment were now a threat. Work and responsibility became labor. The joy of childbirth would be accompanied by anguish.
Likewise, in the unseen realm, a world without disease lost its purity. Mankind, now vulnerable to so many visible dangers, would also be susceptible to the invisible dangers of disease, germs, viruses, and physical pain.
At the root of this loss was the first sin. The consequences of that act of sin polluted an environment that had previously been safe. An innocent humanity became fallen, and the physical world around them became fallen as well.
The Causes Of Disease. At this point, however, it is critical that a distinction be made and stressed. Although all sickness and disease find their ultimate root in humanity’s vulnerability that resulted from that original act of sin, nowhere does the Bible teach that every instance of sickness is connected to a specific act of sin. The Scriptures make it clear that there are a number of reasons why particular incidents of sickness may take place.
Consequences For Acts Of Sin. This is not a contradiction. There are times when illness is a direct result of sin. The danger is when we assume that this is always the case.
Someone who is sexually promiscuous is more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease. Someone who is addicted to alcohol has a much higher chance of contracting debilitating liver disease. In each case, those destructive activities can produce real consequences in a person’s health.
Accordingly, for example, the book of Proverbs warns us that there are dire physical and emotional consequences to a life of drunkenness (Prov. 23:29- 35). Sometimes specific kinds of sinful behavior can produce specific kinds of health problems.
Natural Results For Life’s Choices. This can be either good choices or bad choices. A famous movie actor made a choice to go horseback riding. It was not a sinful thing, nor was it a bad thing. It was simply a choice he made. The results of that choice became devastating, however, when the horse threw him off. The actor’s neck was broken—resulting in total paralysis. That actor continues to struggle with a variety of health problems that have resulted from that fall. The impact on his health was not the result of sinful behavior or even a foolish choice. It was the result of a choice—pure and simple.
In the New Testament, one of Paul’s associates, Epaphroditus, “was sick almost unto death” (Phil. 2:27). The cause for that sickness? He was literally working himself to death in the process of serving people. Paul said of Epaphroditus that “for the work of Christ he came close to death” (v.30). Few would question the nobility of such commitment or the rightness of Christian service. Yet Epaphroditus’ choices in ministry had impacted his health to the point where his very life was threatened.
Opportunities For Spiritual Growth. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul described some kind of physical condition that was afflicting him as a “thorn in the flesh” (v.7). He did not specify the exact nature of this ailment, but his wording seems to point to a health problem.
In that passage, the apostle said he prayed three times that God would rescue him from this affliction (v.8). God’s response?
My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness (v.9).
Whatever the illness Paul struggled with, it was now clear to him that God allowed it for the purpose of bringing him to a point of greater dependence on Christ. We may struggle with whether that seems right or fair to us, but Paul responded to this physical “thorn” with rejoicing that through this experience “the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v.9). In his mind, it was an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Expressions Of God’s Glory. In John 9, Jesus and His disciples encountered a man who had been born blind. The disciples, apparently ignoring the man’s plight, turned him into a theology lesson and asked of Christ, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v.2). Their question made assumptions that are all too familiar to us— disease, illness, or suffering must be due to a specific act of sin. They even went so far as to assume that the man himself could have committed sin before he was born, resulting in his blindness!
The answer Christ gave was pointed: “Neither this man, nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (v.3). This physical condition existed for no other reason than that God would be glorified in healing him.
So at the very least, we must acknowledge that the teachings of the Bible do not allow for a blanket condemnation of those who are ill. Again, to assume that physical illness is always the expression of divine judgment against particular acts of sin is to assume far too much.
This reminder, perhaps, has never been more needed than in relation to the AIDS crisis. For too long, segments of the Christian community have had a tendency to view all HIV/AIDS sufferers as deserving of this condition— a result of sinful activity. This is not biblically accurate, nor is it a faithful expression of the heart of God. There are millions of cases in which people have contracted this disease for reasons other than sin.
Certainly there are many cases in which wrong behavior is at the root of the disease, yet even in those cases the Bible calls us to respond in a manner that mirrors the heart of God, who is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9). The saving mission of Christ Himself is evidence of God’s desire to rescue us from the effects of our sin—not to leave us condemned to its consequences. There is no biblical reason to view those suffering from AIDS any differently—regardless of how the disease may have been contracted.
THE BIBLE’S APPROACH TO TREATMENT
Some in the religious community tell us that treatment for sickness or disease is unnecessary. All that is needed is an unyielding faith in God’s power, and healing will definitely come.
The Bible, however, takes a very different view. In fact, Scripture validates the legitimacy of doctors and medical treatment, as well as the priority of praying to the Great Physician.
The Validity Of Doctors. In Matthew 9:12, Christ expressed the value of those who are doctors. He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
In the context of that statement, Jesus was affirming that in the same way a person who is physically ill needs a doctor, a person who is spiritually sick needs Christ. The spiritual application, however, does not nullify the simple statement of the value of physicians. It is very simple, and equally clear.
Luke, who wrote his own gospel record and the book of Acts, was referred to by Paul as the “beloved physician”—an associate whom the apostle trusted and relied upon.
In fact, anyone who has struggled with health issues is grateful for the men and women who serve in the healthcare community. Their skills become instruments in the hands of God to accomplish His work in repairing broken bodies. I believe these abilities are one expression of what James referred to when he wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17).
Author and pastor Dick Mayhue wrote:
Medical practitioners, in their training, participate in the inexhaustible study of God’s created processes. They make God’s creative genius available for the physical healing of the human race through sound medical practice. Hospitals, the latest in medical technology, and sophisticated pharmaceuticals involve God’s provision to restore a sick person to health.10
God has graciously provided people with talent, ability, and intellect to pursue medical solutions to medical issues. Not surprisingly, the history of the Christian church shows that for the last 2,000 years the family of Christ has been significantly involved in medical service—still seen today in missionary hospital outposts around the world.
The Validity Of Medication. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan came upon a man who had been beaten and left for dead. His response? To pour wine and oil (common medicinal applications of the day) to the man’s wounds, and take him to an inn (Lk. 10:30-37).
When Timothy, Paul’s young protégé, suffered from periodic stomach problems, Paul encouraged him to take a little wine for his problem (1 Tim. 5:23). Some scholars speculate that Timothy’s problem was the result of drinking from a tainted water supply, and that the alcohol would kill the germs or microbes he had ingested.
Mayhue even sees a connection between the validity of healthcare in general and the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament. In those laws, there were references to sanitation (Ex. 29:14; Dt. 23:12-14), sterilization (Lev. 11:32,39- 40), quarantine (Lev. 13:1– 14:57), and hygiene and diet (Lev. 11:47)—all of which point to various elements of the use of medical means to secure good health for the community.11
The Validity Of Prayer. There is still the reality, however, that regardless of the means involved, it is God who heals. When the medical community is at the end of its resources, God is not. When there are no more medications or surgical procedures available, the Great Physician is fully able to heal in response to the prayers of His people.
At the same time, prayer is not a guarantee of healing, any more than surgery or medicine is. We do not know God’s final purposes in every one of life’s circumstances.
Remember Paul’s desire for healing? God reminded him of a higher purpose in his life—even in his suffering (2 Cor. 12). That is why it is so important that as we pray for physical healing, we leave the disposition of the matter to the wisdom of God, whose compassions never fail and whose mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). How do we pray in such times of need?
This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him (1 Jn. 5:14-15).
We come to the living God confident in His ability but resting in His wisdom—praying that He will work “according to His will.” In this, we are challenged to believe in the trustworthiness of our God—and then to actually trust Him.
When a person is hurting and feeling hopeless, this may seem difficult, even impossible. But beyond the longing for relief from pain or healing from sickness is the significance of the issues that go beyond the physical and temporal, and begin to touch the eternal.
THE BIBLE’S APPROACH TO MORTALITY
Bob Dylan, the folksinger/ prophet of the 1960s counterculture, sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
The Bible affirms this certainty in Hebrews 9:27, which reads, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” The key there is the phrase “after this.” The Bible’s approach to mortality is that all of us live under the sentence of death.
Yet, there is something after this. Though we are all mortal, there is a life and a world beyond this one. Though we wrestle with the mortality of our humanness, there is within each of us the true person (the soul), which will live forever somewhere. Paul expressed his own longing for an eternal home free from the shackles of mortality when he wrote:
We know that if our earthly house, this tent [the physical body], is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven (2 Cor. 5:1-2).
In the midst of physical suffering, few things bring more encouragement to the suffering heart than the promise of eternal life. This eternal life is not earned or achieved. It is not the product of religious effort or of human philanthropy. The book of Ephesians says it like this:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (2:8-9).
Eternal life is the gift of God, freely offered to all who will accept His love. How is it accepted? By recognizing that God sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sins and failures, and by believing that Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection offer us forgiveness of sin and everlasting life. This is the good news behind all the bad news, and it is news you can trust:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16).
Does that automatically translate into physical healing in the here and now? No, it does not—but it does offer something better and more lasting. God’s promise secures for you eternal life and an eternal home in a place the Bible describes this way:
God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:4).