“I refuse to create a theology that allows for sickness.” I recently came across this sentence, spoken by a pastor with increasing prominence. This statement is so unfortunate. For one thing, it doesn’t fit the Scriptures. For another thing, it doesn’t fit with the world as anyone experiences it. And finally, the pastor who spoke these words wears glasses. (Do you see the irony in a man deciding to not allow for sickness, while simultaneously looking at the world through diseased eyes?)
I hate to be the “let’s have a theology that allows for sickness!” guy, but let’s face it, we all get sick! This is a part of the world as we experience it. Does this mean that we have poor theology, or that we don’t have enough faith to have perfect bodies, or what? Does God really promise us perfect health in this life?
Here’s the question: how would the Bible have us understand the sickness we experience?
First of all, let’s note that sickness is not a part of God’s original design for this world, nor will it be a part of the world he re-creates in the future. In other words, sickness is a corruption of God’s good world. Paul says that the creation groans in its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-22), and our bodies getting sick is a testament to that reality. So every sickness we incur should remind us of the fallenness of the world.
Does that mean that my cold is a punishment for some sin in my life? It’s possible. James seems to make that connection:
“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. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:14-16)
So the next time you reach for your NyQuil, consider the potential spiritual roots of your illness. Do you have unconfessed sin? Confess it. God made us to be whole beings, and our spiritual lives affect our physical bodies, and vice versa.
But there isn’t a one for one relationship between people getting sick and people having unconfessed sin or a lack of faith. Here’s at least one example that shows us we can’t think this way:
“As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’” (John 9:1-3)
Another example of this is the reality that Timothy had “frequent ailments,” yet Paul gently pointed him to a medicinal cure rather than rebuking him for sin or lack of faith (1 Tim. 5:23).
Sickness can be the direct result of personal sin, but it isn’t always. And solid believers have been crushed by the mistaken notion—self-aggrandizing and often wielded like a sword—that if you just had enough faith or holiness you would be rich and healthy.
Someone will object: Isn’t God supposed grant us anything we ask for in faith? No. You’re thinking of a genie. Don’t worry, it’s a common mistake. James does tell us that there are some things we lack because we haven’t asked for them in faith: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). But his next words militate against the “God wants us to have everything we want” mentality: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (v. 3).
Does this mean that we are going to want things that God doesn’t want us to have. Yes! But if our overarching desire is to see God glorified, then those desires that don’t line up with God’s desires will begin to fade out, and godly desires will replace them. (I think this is the meaning of 1 John 5:14-15.)
Here’s a definition of idolatry: anything you want or desire more than God’s glory.
You should desire health. It’s a good gift of God. But what if the blind man wanted sight more than anything else? And what if God was obligated to give him sight simply because he wanted it? So much for God’s glory.
If, however, we desire everything for God’s sake; if we want God’s good gifts but not at the expense of God’s glory, then we will be able to fulfill James’ impossible directive to count it all joy when we encounter trials (1:2)—including all forms of illness.