The Bible And Sickness
It may seem strange to learn that the Bible has very little teaching regarding the maintenance of bodily health. Some understand the Levitical food laws as given to instruct us in proper nutrition and hygiene. However, those laws were given with moral and spiritual considerations in mind, the hygienic benefit there from being merely a by-product.
There are healings performed in the Bible by prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, by Jesus, and by His apostles. But these are simply narrated, with no explicit instruction being added to the accounts which would warrant us to expect or perform such healings ourselves. Their aim, too, is always spiritual, as opposed to being merely or even primarily physical. The account of the healing of the paralytic, for example, makes clear to us that the forgiveness of sins is the greater need of man and the greater work of Christ (cf. Mk. 2:1-12). Yet, as the Levitical food laws do carry a hygienic by-product, so too these accounts of spiritual restoration show physical restoration following as a fruit.
Thus we may be led to believe that all disease results from sin, and that our discovery and confession thereof will lead to good health. It is true that much disease is caused by sin. The man healed at Bethsaida clearly was sick due to his sin (cf. Jn. 5:1-9ff, especially v. 14). However, the absolute link between sin and affliction is denied by our Lord Himself in the account of the man blind from birth (cf. Jn. 9:lff, especially v. 3). In addition, the entire Book of Job militates against those who assert such an absolute causal link between sin and suffering.
This brings us to the aspect of the sanctifying use of suffering. Despite what some may want to believe and teach to the contrary, it is sometimes God’s will that we endure affliction, including sickness. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was possibly some form of bodily illness, and yet when the apostle repeatedly asked that it be removed, the Lord revealed that He would not remove it, because that thorn was performing a sanctifying service by leading Paul to discover and depend on deeper reserves of the Lord’s grace (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-10).
We should not unduly fear facing this sanctifying use of illness. Some of the sweetest and strongest saints have developed into such amidst chronic illness. Yet it is very tempting for us to fear and seek flight from this severe, yet sweetening schoolmaster, or to ignore the provision of grace while complaining under its tutelage.
I would be far from saying that we should go in search for sickness and suffering. Indeed, I contend that believers should expect and experience far better than average health. The Lord tells us to pray for relief and expect it, even in the area of sickness (cf. Jas. 5:14,15). Many sicknesses are needlessly endured because we fail to resort to such prayer.
Additionally, since we are stewards, even of our own bodies, the Lord enables us to understand and practice healthy disciplines such as maintaining a good and moderate diet, avoiding excesses in food or drink. He guides us to adopt sensible habits of exercise and rest, for a masterful treatise of which I most highly recommend Rhythms of Rest and Work, by my dear friend, William Still.
Furthermore, the Christian has psychological resources which serve to maintain good health. We can and should be free from anxiety (cf. Phil. 4:6,7), a negative emotion which puts so much stress on us. Trust, gratitude, and love should increasingly displace the self-destructive emotions of fear, bitterness, and anger. Such displacing will not fail to enhance good health.
All of the above and much more is ours in Christ. Notice, though, that such foundations for good health cannot be had in a pill or elixir. We should not despise judicious medicinal administration when it is appropriate. Paul, for example, tells Timothy to take wine for his stomach ailments (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23). However, I fear that in our day there is such an over-reliance on doctors and medicine that hospitals and medical complexes continue to arise as splendid and imposing 21st century cathedrals. This is so despite the fact that honest medics will admit that most illnesses will run their course to cure or death despite medical intervention.
Being health conscious and being obsessed with our health are two very different attitudes. The Lord blesses the former attitude, whereas with the latter it seems inevitable that that which is most feared comes repeatedly upon the obsessed. And since they have often made a god of their health, when the dreaded diseases do come, they are more or less unfamiliar with the God of grace who would enable them to endure poor health.
This brings us back to the aspect of enduring sickness for the sake of sanctification. In the final analysis, the Christian has only two options facing him respecting illness. Either he shall be healed, or the Lord will call him to endurance by abundantly sufficient divine grace. He is never called to endure illness without sustaining grace.
When sickness threatens us we should cry out to the Lord for help and healing, expecting, I dare say for most of the time, to be healed. However, when the call is for us to endure, we must seek His grace and learn to rejoice in it. Such a calling is no inferior consolation.
The Bible has so little to say directly about our bodily health because in itself ultimately it is not of major concern. Here we have no continuing city. We seek a better city above. With our health, as with all things, we go badly awry when we let it assume a paramount place in our lives. Our business is to seek first the Lord and His kingdom, trusting Him to give us all things, including sickness and health, for our good and His glory. His provision is far better, and far more extensive than we realize. This is easy to see on the good days, less so in times of disease. But the grace is there, and the sooner we discover it, the sooner we rejoice as bright testimonies to His power, not only to keep us from trial, but also to sustain us in and through it.
Pastor Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia.
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