I am writing this while I recover from shingles. I don’t recommend shingles. It’s painful. I have been taking anti-viral pills and some strong pain killers, for which I am thankful.
Illness can strike any one of us of course, but how should we think about illness?
Christians get ill
We are guaranteed perfect health in the life to come, but we are not guaranteed it now. This world is fallen and imperfect. Sin has affected us totally — spiritually, morally and physically. Christians, although redeemed, are still part of this fallen world. So we get sick. ‘Epaphroditus … was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him’ (Colossians 2:27). Timothy, we are told, suffered from ‘frequent ailments’ (1 Timothy 5:23). Then, in 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul writes: ‘Trophimus I left ill at Miletus’. So Christians are not immune from illness. Illness is not something we want, but it is something we should expect from time to time.
Christians are encouraged to view whatever happens to them as coming from the hand of God himself — including days of sickness — for God rules the universe by his providence. This providence is all-embracing: ‘God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions’ (Shorter Catechism).
If we believe in the God revealed in the Bible, we will believe that nothing happens ‘by chance’, but that everything has been prearranged according to God’s perfect plan. ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things’ (Romans 11:36). Who are we to tell the Almighty how he should govern our lives? ‘Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?’ (Job 2:10).
Most Christians are familiar with the words of Romans 8:28, but they take on a new reality during a time of difficulty and trial: ‘We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’. The ‘everything’ here is all-encompassing. It includes sickness and health. Nothing lies outside of God’s sovereignty. ‘The Lord has established his throne in the heavens and his kingdom rules over all’ (Psalm 103:19).
Blessing from buffeting?
Whilst we don’t welcome illness, with Romans 8:28 in mind, we can surely expect blessing from times of illness. Psalm 119:71 reads: ‘It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statues’. But what are the blessings of illness?
Illness forces us to slow down or even to stop completely. In Psalm 46:10 God says, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. It is easy to get carried along on the merry-go-round of day to day living — working, commuting, shopping, leisure, emails and texts — that the temporal drowns the eternal.
Illness forces us to be quiet. Illness brings us to a halt. It can be a time to regain an eternal perspective and seek the presence of the God who is the fount of every blessing.
Illness teaches us lessons in human sympathy. If we were never ill, we would be in danger of thinking that everyone else should be as fit and strong as we are, and able to cope with our schedule! The Lord Jesus was characterised by sympathy and compassion for others. Illness may help us to grow in these graces.
Illness reminds us of our human weakness and total dependence on God. We are not self-sufficient. Only God is. He is ‘the God in whose hand is your breath’ (Daniel 5:23). ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). It is good, if not always pleasant, to have the pride knocked out of us, and to humble ourselves before God, telling him of our dependence on both his saving and sustaining grace.
The best is yet to be
Times of illness wean us off the passing things of earth, which can clutter up our lives and hinder our walk with God. Illness prevents us getting too comfortable in this world, and makes us long for the age to come promised in God’s Word. ‘The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Romans 8:18).
Illness is a reminder that there is a ‘not yet’ part of our salvation! Christ’s work of redemption is finished but it is not yet finished in us. Illness, one day, will certainly be ended for the believer, but this completed salvation will not be known until Jesus comes again. He will bring in the new heavens and the new earth, and raise his people to immortality, in glorified, resurrection bodies. Perfect blessing and bliss will be known only then.
Then only will we be able to serve God free from all that hinders and handicaps us now. Then Isaiah 33:24 will be fulfilled: ‘No inhabitant will say “I am sick”; the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.’
So Christian, in sickness or in health, take heart! Whatever your circumstances, God is in control. His grace is sufficient, and will prove to be all sufficient for every one of his children.
The author has written many Christian books and articles and has an honorary doctorate from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC