Where is God in sickness and death?

In the first year of our church plant, I had the honour of officiating a funeral for one of our members. According to the Scriptures, Janet is not lost. Her family and her church family know precisely where she is. She enjoying the presence of God in a way that words could never convey.

For Christians, thinking about our mortality is not morbid, but  reassuring. To be sure, we have deep sorrow in death – but we don’t have sorrow without hope. At the core of our worldview, we do not believe that this life is all there is. 

The overarching theme of the bible – in summary – is this: The God who created all things will restore all things, and will raise those who trust in Christ from death to enjoy all things. We don’t cease to exist and “heaven” is not spending eternity in some ethereal form. Just as Christ was raised to life as Himself, we will be raised to life as ourselves

I’ve both attended and officiated many funerals. Teenagers. Infants. Elderly people who lived full lives. Tragic accidents involving young adults. Or as in Janet’s case, a lovely lady who battled cancer for years.

WHY PRAY?

Perhaps you are reading this and you aren’t a person of faith and you wonder why us Christians bother praying at all, when in the end – everyone dies.

Perhaps you are reading this and you are a Christian who’s in a crisis of faith because you’re sick or someone you love is, and you were told that God’s will is always healing for those who have enough faith. Yet, after much prayer, you’r still sick, confused about God’s nature or even His very existence. 

So if you’re sick and you pray and you’re still sick – why bother??

The scriptures reveal that the primary reason we are given the gift prayer is not to get things – but to get God.

The Psalms is the inspired prayer book of the bible. While there are different genres of Psalms, yet they all circle around two large themes:

  1. A desire for increased communion with God
  2. A desire for the kingdom of God to come

This pattern of prayer in the Psalms gives us the purpose for our prayers today: the place we go for increased communion with God, express our desire for His kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven and to find comfort in remembering that’s precisely what Jesus said will happen.

Jesus prayed from the Psalms and was comforted by them because ultimately, the Psalms speak prophetically of Christ’s life, death, resurrection. The Psalms reminded Jesus that His suffering and humiliation would end in resurrection and exaltation.  United to Christ, the Psalms remind us the same is true of us. We have an eternal hope made possible because of Him.

Christians live our lives in a state of “already and not yet“, so to speak.

The promise of total restoration is already ours because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The fulfillment of that restoration is not yet fully enjoyed because total restoration is coming with Christ’s return and not before.

Life – regardless of whether you are person of faith or non faith –  is filled with both joy and pain, blessing and suffering, the miracle of life and the tragedy of death. This world is a paradox of beautiful generosity and self serving greed, it is home to both admirable self sacrifice and unfathomable violence and oppression. In short, mankind has divine dignity, but is fallen and this world is incredible and broken. We need renewal, creation needs renewal and the good news of the gospel is that the resurrection of Christ was God’s way of extending His offer for renewal.

Life from death.

In order to handle the sorrows that come with life in this state of ‘already but not yet‘, Christians need God’s empowering grace. We find this grace in the gift of prayer. Through prayer, God lifts our heads and rescues our hearts from our darkest tragedies.


“…we can always be thankful when we go to prayer, not because we can assume to know what God’s will is, but because in His infinite wisdom and love, His answer to that prayer is precisely what we would have asked for if we knew everything He knew.” ~ Timothy Keller, Prayer


If you compare the apostle Paul’s prayers for the church [1] , you’ll see a clear, consistent emphasis in how he prayed for the church.

Amazingly, he does not pray for a change in their circumstances, though the churches faced grave circumstances. Instead, he consistently prayed that they would know God more deeply and find rest in His grace for their circumstances.

Make no mistake about it, the scriptures invite us to ask God for things, and sometimes our prayers are answered in the same manner we ask them. In 1 Timothy 2 for example, Paul directs his readers to pray for a host of things. The scriptures invite us to petition God in prayer and this is clear in the model that Christ gives us for prayer. [2]

The insight we receive from reading all of the apostle Paul’s prayers is that what he prayed for the church most often is what he believed the church most needed.

What the early church needed most was not more favourable circumstances, but a deep assurance that God was with them, strengthen them and saving them through their circumstances.

The early church suffered from economic burdens, sickness and disease, political oppression, cultural isolation and persecution. Globally speaking, so does the church today. Paul’s primary concern for the church was that their hearts would grasp what they had already received in Christ. He wanted them to find rest in the implications that the gospel had on their suffering.

We do not suffer because God is a cosmic ogre, vindictive and sick, doling out hardship and death. We suffer because original sin brought death. Our bodies and this earth have been in slow decay since.

God created everything in perfection and the sin of Adam brought damnation. In response to this treason, God graciously offers redemption  In the end, everyone united to Christ by grace and through faith are assured total restoration. [3]

Thus, the end of the bible ends with this restorative, poetic imagery …


Revelation 21:3-5
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then He said, “Write this down, for these words are faithful and true.”


 

WHAT ABOUT HEALING?  ISN’T HEALING ALWAYS GOD’S WILL?

God has done miracles throughout history. He did them in the 1st century church and He can still do miracles today –  sovereignly.

There is however, a false, presumptuous teaching that can burden those in our congregations who suffer from sickness. This false teaching takes all the healings and miracles Jesus did – which the gospel writers very intentionally call “signs” (GRK: σημεῖον,)  and then fail to lead the suffering Christian to where those signs point. The word “signs” could also be translated “an indication”.

For the one who is sick, reading about Jesus bringing total healing with a word or a touch is an indication that He has come to restore what God always intended. A life of fulfillment and joy without suffering with Him at the centre. The signs of Jesus point to the trajectory of our eternal lives in Jesus.

Instead of inviting families to rest in this gospel promise, the idea that God’s will is to always heal us now, burdens people, making them feel like second-class Christians who wouldn’t be suffering if they had enough faith to heal themselves or their loved ones. 

Healing and miracles are the Spirit’s work, not our work. The bible explicitly says this in 1 Corinthians 12, stating that all the spiritual gifts are “as the Spirit wills”.

DOESN’T THE BIBLE SAY ‘BY HIS STRIPES WE ARE HEALED’?

Thank God, it does.

But the healing mentioned in Isaiah 53 is infinitely greater than the way the “faith healers” present it. Let’s examine this text thoughtfully and carefully.

“Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
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.
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.”
Isaiah 53:4-6

This passage is often referred to by theologians as the “fifth gospel” because even though these words were written 700 years before Christ, they give us two incredible prophetic details about Christ. The reveal (1) that He would be crucified and (2) why He would be crucified.

Notice that in this passage, God is not making a promise that you secure with faithful action. This passage is a promise that God has secured for you, by Christ’s faithful action.

In this passage, Christ is the one doing all the action and we are on the receiving end of Christ’s perfect, gracious action. If we interpret this passage to be a promise of physical healing available for all Christians, then that promise is thwarted by the inevitable death of all Christians.

The promise in this passage has no expiry date.

Being healed by the stripes of Jesus is not a promise that decreases in its relevance as you get older. If we downplay the mission of the Saviour, we lose the wonder of the Saviour.

A promise by it’s own definition is kept by the promise maker. If healing depends on one’s level of faith, then the onus is on the promise receiver – which is no promise. The One making the promise is able to keep the promise – hence the gospel is what we call “good news”.

This passage says we need to be healed from sickness, transgression and iniquity. Our sickness is then described as “grief, being stricken, smitten and afflicted.”

That language is common in Leviticus, Numbers, Kings & Chronicles. The terms “grief, being stricken, smitten and afflicted” consistently described people who were under God’s judgement and many of the passages using those terms are actually describing people who had leprosy. Leprosy was a death sentence unless God intervened.

These terms paint a vivid picture that the original audience would recognize immediately from their own history. Sin has made us all like lepers who are all living with a death sentence unless God intervenes. This passage foreshadows the gospel: God is going to intervene.

Christ took our death sentence.

The “sickness” we need to be healed from in this passage is our sin. In the apostle Peter’s 1st letter,  he interpreted this passage that way:

“He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” ~ I Peter 2:22-24

Healed of what?
Healed of “our sins that Christ bore on the tree“, by His grace.

Why are we healed?
“So that we would die to sin and live to righteousness“, by His grace.

Neither Isaiah nor Peter were referring to being healed of our physical condition but our spiritual one. Our problem is not premature death – our problem is death. Christ did not come to lessen our symptoms but remedy our problem.

There are people in our churches who grieve the loss of loved ones, who are battling persistent health issues or someone they love is. Those who wrestle daily in these tiring battles can feel burdened if this passage is handed to them as if it is a promise that they must secure for themselves as opposed a promise that Christ has already secured for them.

We do not have a stingy God who surveys His church, healing this one but not that one on the basis of their strong faith. We have a gracious God who heals everyone – even those of us with little faith.

The strong in faith and the weak in faith get the same, strong, Christ.

While the scriptures do not promise that God keeps us from suffering, they promise He is with us in suffering, saves us through suffering and in the end, will eradicate all our suffering.

We gather on Sundays to rest and remember that our lives are in the hands of a death-proof Saviour who is holding the world together with a word of His power, and by His stripes, has already healed us from the finality of death itself.

Press on,

Paul


[1] Ephesians 1, Philippians 1, Colossians 1, Ephesians 3
[2] Matthew 6:9-13
[3] Genesis 3:6, 3:15 ,John 3:16

One Comment on “Where is God in sickness and death?

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