February 7, 2010

In recent weeks, my good friend Nikki O’Baire – the subject of my most recent book – learned she had skin cancer. By the time she learned it was cancer, it had already become quite dark, grown larger and started seeping. Nikki, however, has already recovered from three other malignant cancers. Although she was eager for surgery to get rid of the painful mass on her hip and some lesions on her face, she felt peace. She knew God was in control, and had no doubt that He had her best in mind – whatever that was.

As it turned out, the doctor was surprised that he was able to remove the entire cancer from her hip with the first surgery. He’d anticipated a much worse invasion since this had been growing for some time (many years). God has been at work to accomplish His will in Nikki’s life. Many prayed, and Nikki is grateful. She has not needed pain medicine, although she has multiple stitches in the 6-inch incision.

But what of prayer? Was it because so many prayed that God didn’t allow Nikki to die of this? Is His mercy contingent on the prayers we finite humans beg of Him? Does God actually heal people because of the amount of faith they or their friends display?

Denominations have been formed out of the answers to these questions. I hope I don’t start a new one today. Bear with me as I explore this question and hopefully raise others in your mind that will send you running to the Bible for answers. God’s own Word will never lead you wrong.

Part of the confusion about these things comes from a person’s theological bent. If one sees humankind as totally sinful and God as angry with sin, it is reasonable to think that God sends or allows illness in order to punish people for sin. In other words, all illness is a consequence of personal sin.* Therefore, the remedy for the illness is to get rid of the sin and plead with this angry God for mercy. If one does enough pleading, repenting or praying, perhaps God’s anger will be appeased and He will heal the person.

There are some valid points in that line of thinking. First, man is totally sinful. And God, being holy,  is so angry about sin that He required death to pay for it: Jesus died to appease God’s anger (wrath). But there is where the logic in the above paragraph gets twisted. God doesn’t send illness or allow it as “punishment” for sin. We don’t have to pay for our own sin; in fact – we can’t  pay for our own sin! Illness is not a consequence of personal sin. We don’t make “deals” with God through pleading, praying, repenting or demanding that He do something. God’s mercy doesn’t depend on our level of spirituality, and we can’t manipulate Him to heal someone with enough prayers or the “right kinds” of prayers.

For example, look at John 9: 1-11, the story of a man who was born blind. In Jesus’ day, people evidently ascribed to the theology that God punishes people with illness. But Jesus answered the disciples’ questions with, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (New Living Translation). God sometimes allows illness, blindness, crippling, etc., for the glory of God. Consider Joni Eareckson Tada, who became a quadriplegic through an accident. God has chosen not to heal her physically, but look how God has used her limitations for His glory!  Each of us can think of people we know who have, through physical illness, been given opportunities to spotlight God’s character through their response to their situations.

Jesus’ response at Lazarus’ tomb offers a glimpse of God’s heart with regard to illness. Jesus let Lazarus die so that He could show how God would deal with death. But when He got to the tomb and saw Mary and her friends weeping, John 11:33 says (and this is the best translation of the intent of the passage in Greek): “When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled” (NLT). I believe Jesus was angry because He saw the misery and pain that sin causes. He knew life shouldn’t have had to include death. He was angry because his friends were hurting. They didn’t understand the end from the beginning like He did. So He raised Lazarus to show them: “See?” he could have said, “I’ve won this contest. I love you! Death isn’t the worst enemy you can have.”

When someone is sick, I try to avoid the temptation to tell God what He should do about it. I realize that He thinks differently that I do and that He sees the end from the very beginning. For God and those of us who love Him, death is not scary or final: it is a rite of passage into something deeper, longer and far better. When I pray for someone who is sick, I usually ask God to help me understand His heart for that person. I seek to agree with Him. Sometimes I cry because I can’t understand why He’d allow a young man to have serious cancer when his wife just learned she’s carrying their first child. I weep when my friend goes in the hospital for his second kidney transplant after the first failed. He spends almost a year there and almost dies several times from serious infections – only to return to life still on dialysis. And what about how it hurts to face the mom whose heart aches for her bipolar son? Or the teen who has terminal cancer? 

But none of these things change the goodness or mercy of God. He knows the end from the beginning, and walks with us through the interim. As I pray for a hurting friend, I can picture Jesus standing beside that hospital bed with a tear-stained face, just as He did at Lazarus’ tomb. He hurts with us. He’s not waiting for someone to beg Him to fix the problem; He’s already fixed it. He just wishes we could understand it as He does.

Sometimes it is God’s will to heal physically. He is totally capable of doing that; He’s still in the miracle business. But as Nikki O. told me once, “No healing on this earth is permanent. Lazarus still died after Jesus raised him!” Jesus will continue to heal us of our minor and major illnesses until His assignment for each of us is finished. As we intercede for others, seeking His will, we will learn to know Him better and trust Him more. And the best is yet to come!


*Some illnesses are caused by personal sin. For example, a person’s choice to drink in excess could cause liver failure. Sexual promiscuity may lead to venereal disease. An explosive temper could cause high blood pressure, etc. Sickness came into human experience because we live in a fallen world; Jesus’ death paid the consequences for that and will finally free us from its inevitable result: mortality.


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