Is God ever glorified in our suffering?

An acquaintance of mine posted this on her facebook feed this morning:

The fact of the matter is we have come to accept sickness and illness as a normal part of life. The truth is Jesus Christ took every sickness and disease on His body so that yours could be whole….ALL DISEASE… That includes, colds, flus, allergies, arthritis, MS, cancer, measles, mumps, asthma, lupus… ALL. No exceptions, no exclusions. God wants you whole. Suffering with illness does not glorify God, equally, dying suffering does not bring glory to God or have people lining up to be a Christian. The Christian life must look different every way to the world. Time to get your current reality to line up with God’s truth….By His stripes you were healed.

I was tempted — sorely — to reply on facebook itself, but I’ve recently given that up. It’s just a bad venue for serious conversation, and I had a feeling that my response was going to be a lot longer than would have been reasonable for a comment. Good thing I have a blog.

Dear R,

I saw your post this morning about God’s desire that we should be whole and healed. I love how passionate you are about praying for healing for the sick (and I thank you for praying for me as you have done in the past). I love your desire to encourage the body of Christ to seek God’s healing. Those are wonderful things.

Your post also left me with some nagging questions. I offer the following points for discussion:

1) I agree with you on principle that God desires our healing and wholeness. I firmly believe that God will heal his people. But I don’t believe that all of that healing will happen in this life — in fact, most of it won’t. Our final (physical / mental / emotional / spiritual / psychological) healing will not take place until we are united with Christ after our deaths (*and/or his return, should that happen first). In the holy city God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4) … but those things have not passed away yet. Christians live — somewhat uncomfortably — in what we call “the already-but-not-yet”. The victory is won, but the mop-up battles continue. The kingdom is here, but it’s not here fully. I acknowledge that there is a serious tension here! But to deny the “not yet” is as bad as denying the “already” — to leave out either half is to deny the reality in which we live. How do we deal with the fact that some  of our healing is already, but some of it is not yet?

2) If God promises healing with “no exemptions, no exclusions” what do you say to those (many) who are not healed? I am exceedingly leery of a theology that proclaims, for example, that some are not healed because of a defect in their faith. Shall we tell our brothers and sisters who suffer with cancer or MS or what-have-you that they are simply not working hard enough? believing enough? praying enough? What will make them good enough to be healed? When Jesus was on earth he healed many, but he by no means healed all — consider John 5, the account of the healing at the pool at Bethesda. The Gospel account tells us that there was “a multitude of invalids [there]—blind, lame, and paralyzed” (John 5:3). Christ saw the multitude, and he healed… one. Was this one so worthy, or the others so unworthy? Or are the plans and purposes of God simply more inscrutable than we wish they were? Does saying “no exemptions, no exclusions” make our healing a matter of Law, rather than Grace?

3) You quote Isaiah 53:5 at the end of your post: “by his stripes we are healed”. Are we sure that this text refers to physical healing? Here is the verse in context, with some emphasis of my own:

4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
 we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
 so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
 he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
 he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

I see a lot in there about our unrighteousness. I do not see anything about our physical healing. The context of 53:5 shows that the healing bought by Jesus’ stripes is spiritual. (Again, I have no quarrel with the premise that God heals; I just don’t think that this is the verse on which to hang your hat.)

4) One day, something is going to kill me. Ideally, I would like to die from simply being too old to live, expiring gracefully and peacefully in a well-appointed bedroom while a soft lavender-scented breeze blows through the window and my thirty-seven grandchildren sing Abide With Me in five-part harmony. That sounds pretty good (and pretty unlikely). More realistically, I might die quickly: have a heart attack, or get hit by a bus. Or I might die slowly: skin cancer, maybe, or Alzheimer’s. I don’t know what it will be (nor do I want to), but someday, somehow, I am going to shuffle off this mortal coil, and there is nothing — save Christ’s return — that can prevent that. Christians die. Christians die suddenly and too young. Christians die by inches for years. Sin has broken us, the universe is entropic, and it’s going to happen. Does a proclamation that all diseases and illnesses will be healed square with the reality and inevitability of death?

5) It’s true that the Christian life is supposed to look different. But that difference is not found in the fact that we don’t suffer, but in what we choose to do with that suffering — and in that, absolutely, God is glorified. I will give you an example: This past winter, a (faithful, believing, Christian) professor at our school died of leukaemia. It was quick, as these things go: there was only about a year between her diagnosis and her death. And she absolutely glorified Christ in both her suffering and her death. Her steadfast faith — even in and through her very real suffering — was a testimony to her doctors and nurses, as well as to the many who knew her before her illness struck. Her life and death proclaimed that God is faithful to us in the midst of trial; that though trouble may come we are never abandoned. She praised God until the end, and reposed to be with him in glory. This is what it means to die with dignity. This is what it means for our suffering and death to glorify God. This is what it means for the Christian life to look different in every respect. To deny such a witness would be the grossest of errors. Can we really look at the Christians we know who have died, and died well, and say that there was nothing there? No redemption, no grace? Is there really no way for our suffering to bring glory to God?

R, I am so glad that you have known Jesus’ healing power in your own life and that you are so eager to share that with others. I would suggest, however, that the issue of our earthly healing is more nuanced than your facebook post would suggest. I hope that this post will bring an opportunity for further reflection on healing, and not offence.



[also see follow-up post here]

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