So I recently published a book about suffering. In it I outline what I believe are reasons why God allows suffering (including physical illness). I argue that suffering is actually an essential feature of our world because it is necessary to accomplish God’s purposes for us.
This idea probably has a few people scratching their heads; isn’t God’s number one priority supposed to be for our personal happiness and well being? Isn’t it God’s will to heal absolutely every single sickness and physical ailment among us?
My friend, Brendan, recently wrote a blog article to that effect. He and I have disagreed on this subject a few times, but for the record I respect him and enjoy our conversations. I have to clarify that point because so many people default to hostility when they disagree with others, especially on the internet. That will not be the case here. Though I disagree with him, I respect him, I respect his views, and I actually envy his willingness to stick his neck out for Jesus. I openly admit to my own cowardice.
Despite respecting him, though, I disagree with his theological views. In his article he writes,
I have read through the new testament countless times and cannot find one instance where Jesus refused to heal the sick or could not heal them.
Did Jesus truly heal 100% of the people he came in contact with? Actually, no. Here’s an exception.
And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.
(Mar 6:5-6 ESV)
While the passage acknowledges that Jesus did heal a few sick people the implication is that the “mighty works” that he could not do there probably would have included even more healings, or healing even more remarkable ailments. Jesus was legitimately limited.
It must be observed that Jesus “could do no mighty works” as opposed to “didn’t feel like it” or “chose not to.” Jesus was actually limited! What a strange concept. In this case he was limited by the unbelief of others. To clarify, the Greek word used in that passage is Strong’s number 1410 – “dunamai” which means,
1) to be able, have power whether by virtue of one’s own ability and resources, or of a state of mind, or through favourable circumstances, or by permission of law or custom
2) to be able to do something
3) to be capable, strong and powerful
Thayer’s Greek Definitions
The passage clearly indicates that Jesus was not “able to do something.” He had a lack of ability, according to scripture.
It will be argued, though, that Jesus was always willing, and always effective, where sufficient faith existed on the part of the recipient. This would seem to be consistent with the rest of the New Testament; I cannot argue that point. Brendan further points out (per John 14:12) that Jesus told us we would do even more amazing things than he did. And we know (as Brendan shows) that the disciples did, in fact, heal people.
All true; I cannot refute any of those points. But like the instance where Jesus was unable to heal, the healing that took place in the early church wasn’t quite as universal as Brendan suggests. The Apostle Paul wrote about his perpetual “thorn in his flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). Commentators are widely stumped about the precise meaning but it almost certainly pertains to some limitation or ailment in his physical body (hence, “flesh”). What’s interesting is the passage that immediately follows.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
(2Co 12:8-9 ESV)
Whatever this physical ailment or limitation was, Paul asked God to get rid of it, but God declined. He just had to live with it. This is the same Paul that healed many others in the name of Jesus, as Brendan rightly documents in his article, so it cannot be said that Paul lacked faith. Of all the people in the New Testament, the sincerity of Paul’s faith almost certainly ranked in the top tier.
Some have speculated that this ailment may be related to the illness of which he speaks in Galatians 4:13. Whether it is the same ailment or not, this passage also deserves consideration.
You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.
(Gal 4:13-14 ESV)
Of that particular ailment we can deduce a couple of things.
- His illness was significant enough to impact his travel plans in some way. We’re not talking about some minor headache.
- His illness stuck around long enough to be “a trial” for the Galatians.
It seems to me that there are only two possible explanations for why Paul experienced some kind of significant physical ailment that stuck around long enough to be a trial for those around him. Possibility 1; Paul and his travel companions might not have bothered to pray for his recovery when he got sick. Maybe they forgot, or were too busy, or it simply never crossed their minds in the first place. This seems highly doubtful to me.
Possibility 2, they did pray for his recovery. If they did pray, then once again it seems as though God politely declined. Or, he declined long enough to allow the ailment to become something of a “trial’ for others.
Which of those explanations seems most likely? Personally, I’d say option 2. The early church had seen many healings, and the New Testament addresses the issue on multiple occasions, so it seems that prayer – even prayer for physical healing – was just part of their culture.
If I am right (and that’s obviously open for discussion) then why would God allow that ailment to continue even when people prayed for healing? Perhaps an answer lies in the passage itself, “it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you.” Perhaps God even uses sickness to accomplish his purposes, even allowing the sickness to stick around for a while instead of being instantly healed.
Healing was not a “one size fits all” affair
In James we find this interesting instruction about how to deal with sickness.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
(Jas 5:14-15 ESV)
Nothing here about commanding the sickness to leave in Jesus name. Also, Brendan tells us that ALL believers have this power, but this passage says to call the elders of the church to deal with it. It says nothing about “find the nearest believer…” Lastly, other passages in scripture say nothing about oil like this one does. Some passages include oil and other passages don’t.
Or how about Paul’s instructions to Timothy,
No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
(1Ti 5:23 ESV)
Here we find somebody with “frequent ailments” and the recommended treatment is not “command it to go away, in the name of Jesus.” Rather, Timothy was instructed to drink a bit of wine to help it out. That almost sounds like an ancient equivalent of today’s advice to take your vitamins and medicine.
Lastly, even Jesus himself seemed to speak against a one-size-fits-all approach to healing in Mark 9:14-29. The disciples were unable to exorcise a demon, as they had successfully done previously. When they asked Jesus about their inability to command the demon to leave he replied, “This kind can only come out by prayer.”
What was different about that kind? Why could it only come out by prayer? I’m not sure, but that’s not the key point for this discussion. I bring it up only to highlight the reality that healing is not a one-size-fits-all matter. Simply commanding illness to leave – in Jesus’ name no less – apparently doesn’t always work. At least it didn’t always work in the New Testament, by Jesus own admission to his disciples.
God either allowed, or inflicted, sickness
This is one part of God’s character that we are probably really not going to find particularly attractive, but we need to deal with nonetheless. First, in the case of Job, God clearly chose to allow Job to endure personal sickness. Obviously it was within God’s power to prevent that – Satan actually needed God’s permission – so God used his authority (the same authority Brendan rightly points out that Jesus had) to permit sickness.
Then Satan answered the LORD and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.
(Job 2:4-7 ESV)
The book of Job is probably not the part of the Bible most of us turn to when we are seeking comfort, and there’s good reason for that. But we must deal with the Biblical data – in its totality – as it presents itself. Job provides another insight into the reality (confirmed by the Apostle Paul’s personal experience with his own health) that God does, sometimes, allow suffering to occur and/or continue. But always for his purposes.
Or consider this example…
Then Nathan went to his house. And the LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died.
(2Sa 12:15-18 ESV)
With Job, God merely permitted sickness, but if this passage is to be understood as it is written, in this case God actually did the work himself.
God inflicted sickness. The devious soul I have wants me to suggest that you ask your pastor about that one!
[Insert devious laugh here.]
I would like to believe that God will always heal everybody, whenever any believer commands the illness to depart. But the Bible does not paint such a picture. Real life also confirms that many people pray for healing, but healing does not always occur. I know from personal experience that even when physical ailment is commanded to leave, in Jesus’ name, that it does not always leave.
The passages Brendan quotes are not to be dismissed or ignored. But neither are the passages I have quoted. The reality is that this is a complicated subject. A “face value” reading of some of these passages seems to show some inconsistency. We need to consider the full picture of God’s word even when that can be rather confusing.
God does heal. Often. Even miraculously. It happened with my wife. On this Brendan and I agree. Where we appear to disagree is with respect to the numbers. Brendan says 100%, I say it’s something less than 100%. The Bible goes a step further and says that sometimes God even permits or inflicts illness and suffering!
If the truth be told, I wish Brendan were right!