I once ministered to a woman suffering from chronic pain. As she shared her story, it became apparent that she had lived a fairly promiscuous life in her late teens and twenties and ended up having an abortion. The procedure didn’t go as planned and she ended up with some internal scarring that made intimacy with her husband difficult, if not impossible, and also left her with bouts of severe pain. This faithful woman had lived for years embracing her pain, believing it was God’s desire for her to suffer in this way as punishment for her sin. How happy I was to share with her the Good News of Jesus Christ!
At the start of his ministry, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 as his ministry mission statement: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, because the LORD anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…” Jesus came to free both captives and prisoners. Captives are those who have been sinned against. They are in prison because of someone else’s actions against them. Prisoners, on the other hand, are in prison because of their own choices. The just verdict over their lives is that they need to pay for their crimes. But Jesus came to free them both.
Moralism versus Christianity
Christians have a fantastic ability to apply the Gospel to everyone but themselves. It is so easy to speak words of grace and forgiveness over others and so hard to receive those same words for ourselves. And that really makes us Moralists, not Christians.
Moralists know they have sinned, fallen short and deserve to be punished. They know their rebellious behavior has incurred a debt they are obligated to repay. These truths are abundantly clear to them, so they willingly embrace the negative consequences of their behavior (pain, sickness, broken relationships) as their means of repaying their debt. Ken Blue calls this behavior “sanctification through sickness,” trying to get right with God by swallowing whatever hardships may come without complaint and accepting them as “the will of the Lord.”
That sounds so spiritual, doesn’t it? It just warms the cockles of our Puritanical, works-righteousness, pseudo-Gospel loving hearts. Yuck.
Moralists have only apprehended one piece of the Truth. They remind me of the disciples Paul finds in Ephesus in Acts 19. These disciples had bought into John the Baptizer’s ministry of repentance, good works and the hope of a future Messiah, but they didn’t know about Jesus and what his life, death and resurrection had secured for them. They had not received the Spirit and, therefore, could not be transformed. They were trying so hard to be good little boys and girls, and it was killing them. They had to submit to the fact that Jesus did for them what they couldn’t do for themselves. He was the one who was perfectly obedient. He was the one who took up their sicknesses and infirmities and carried them in his body to the cross.
Moralists do not have wrong knowledge, but they do have wrong experience. What catapults us from Moralistic works righteousness (God accepts me because of what I’ve done) into Christian imputed righteousness (God accepts me because of what Jesus did) is an experience of saving grace. Somehow, in some way we can’t describe, Holy Spirit makes real to us the sacrifice of Jesus. The Gospel drops from our minds into our hearts and we are reborn.
Becoming a Christian is a fairly straightforward procedure – submit to Jesus as your King, your ultimate authority, and trust that his substitutionary atonement (his sacrifice on your behalf) is enough to save you on the Day of Judgement. The outworking of that decision is fairly complex however.
Being a Christian means that I give up my blasphemous need to be punished in order to “make it up to God.” Jesus has already paid it all, every last cent. To accept as God’s will any additional suffering in the form of sickness is to imply that Jesus’s sacrifice was inadequate and that you, oh holy one, need to do what Christ could not. The arrogance that underlies this kind of thinking is astounding and we rarely realize we embrace it until we bring it into God’s light and truth. Lies sound so convincing in our minds, but when we speak them out they lose their power and we see how pathetic they really are.
The Difference Between Sickness and Suffering
Before we continue on, I’d like to clarify a major point. There is a huge difference in the New Testament between sickness and suffering. The two are not interchangeable in Greek as they are in English.
“Suffering” in the New Testament always implies persecution. Jesus promises us that we will suffer persecution on account of his name and our obedience to him. It is part of the package.
“Sickness,” on the other hand, is the word “evil,” the kind of thing we ask God to protect us from in the Lord’s Prayer. Sickness in the New Testament is never seen as a positive thing. Jesus healed every person who came to him. He even sought out people to heal. Never once did Jesus say, “I’m not going to heal you because Father is teaching you something through this.” No! Father taught them about his true nature by healing them, not making them sick to begin with.
The differences between sickness and suffering in the New Testament is profound. Suffering (persecution) is never desirable, but it is acknowledged to have profound beneficial effects on us. Suffering purifies our hearts and motives, it makes us increasingly reliant on God’s saving power as our own resources and strength are drained away, it makes our conformation to Christ’s character far more rapid and far reaching than we could possibly imagine. So while suffering is sometimes presented positively, sickness never is.
When we look at Jesus’s theology, we never see him ascribing pain, sickness or demonization to God. Jesus came to reveal what God is really like – a Good Father who cares about the smallest details of our lives. The Jews of Jesus’s day had a very Moralistic mindset – they assumed sickness and disability were God’s judgement on sin, not a tragic result of living in Satan’s pseudo-kingdom. That is why, when the Disciples encountered a man born blind in John 9 they asked Jesus, “‘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.'” This man’s blindness was not indicative of God’s judgement, his healing was. God sat in judgement on that man’s disability and declared it to be illegal in his Kingdom because it did not represent the truth of his rule and reign. Blindness was a result of the Rebellion (Genesis 3). When Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and obey Satan, not only did they hand over their power and authority to the Devil, they allowed sin to enter the human race, and it corrupted us entirely, even at the level of our DNA. Therefore, every birth defect and disease is a product of sin – not the sin of the child or its biological parents, but the byproduct of living in a sin infested world. I believe God wants to work through the Church to do what Jesus did in John 9 – to heal those born diseased and deformed so that they might more fully express the facet of the image of God they bear.
The Truth About God
God is a Good Father. He is compassionate and kind, slow to anger and abounding in love. He is generous, lavishly so, and delights in giving good gifts to his children. To imply that God makes us sick in order to teach us a lesson is revolting. Jesus, talking about the superiority of the Heavenly Father says in Matthew 7, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask of him!”
No earthly father would choose to inflict his daughter with cancer in order to curb her selfish tendencies or teach her to share. And even if one did, that would only prove his moral corruption, not his closeness to God. Parents, broken and imperfect as we are, never want to see our children suffer. Why do we believe God is different?
Part of the answer to that question is historical, part of it is demonic.
The Origins of “Sanctification Through Sickness”
Up until Constantine made Christianity an official religion within the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. Christians were persecuted. After the Edict of Milan, Christianity enjoyed a respite from tyranny. Many Christians in the era believed that the Millennial Kingdom of God had come, that “the kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our God,” Revelation 11:15. Thus, Christianity and Roman culture and government began to merge until, in 380 A.D. under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now, being Christian and being Roman were the same thing and being a good citizen was synonymous with being a good Christian – a line of thought that continues on today in the remnants of Christendom.
Naturally, there were some who objected to this merging of Church and State. These became the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Fleeing the corruption and moral decline of the Christian State, these zealous monastics moved en masse to the desert. Free from the sufferings of religious persecution, the Desert Fathers and Mothers found ways to persecute themselves. They observed extreme forms of asceticism whose practices owed more to Stoic philosophy than Biblical orthodoxy. This influence of Greek philosophy (spirit = good and body = evil) caused the Desert Fathers and Mothers to embrace material poverty and bodily sickness as means of purifying their souls. Anything they could do to “mortify their flesh” was seen as a good thing, a way to salvation and acceptance by God. Because of these monastic’s intense zeal and indisputable holiness, this way of seeing ourselves (spirit and body divided and at war) became the standard view lasting all the way through the Reformation. Only within the last four hundred years have we reclaimed a view of the body that is true to God’s word. We will return to this theme at a later time.
So, part of the reason we believe God inflicts sickness on his children for their benefit is due to the historical influence of Stoic philosophy on Christian theology. Another factor is the influence of demons and the lies they tell, which go all but undetected through our minds because we have embraced a worldview that says demons don’t exist.
Satan, the Accuser, the Adversary, the Father of Lies, is at war with God for the hearts, souls and worship of men. His chosen battleground is our minds.
Look back at Genesis 3. Satan does not force Eve to eat the fruit. Instead, he strikes at her fear and appeals to her greed. “God isn’t really good,” says the Serpent, “He is holding out on you. He knows that if you eat the fruit then you will be like him. Don’t you want to be like God? Don’t you want to be the one in charge, knowing all things?” Satan lies and tempts, it is what he is best at. And history has shown that he is tremendously successful at getting the sons and daughters of God to believe his lies by first getting them to doubt God’s character, especially his Goodness. Satan has perfected and refined his attacks over time, even distorting Scripture to get us to buy into his lies, just like he tried to do with Jesus. We often forget that Satan knows the Bible far better than we do. That is why we need the Holy Spirit to lead us into all Truth.
Probably the most common Scriptural distortion I see Christians by into is the “thorn in the flesh” Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 12:7, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan, to torment me.”
The distortion goes like this: Paul was becoming conceited, therefore God, in his mercy, inflicted Paul with some sort of disease to keep him humble. This was to preserve Paul’s soul and was to be received as a gift.
There are a couple of problems here. First of all, the phrase “thorn in the flesh” (or its rough approximation in Hebrew) appears several times in the Bible (Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13, and Ezekiel 28:24) and it always refers to people. “Thorn in the flesh” was an idiomatic ways of expressing persecution and interpersonal conflict, not sickness. It would be equivalent to the English phrase, “pain in my neck.” Now, you could have literal pain in your neck, but most likely when you use that phrase you are talking about someone you have a difficult time interacting with, someone who elicits a visceral negative response from you when you see them.
Secondly, Paul acknowledges that it was “Satan’s messenger,” not God’s. That is convincing for Paul’s case, but what about the Old Testament stories of Job and King Saul? Both are troubling stories, yet I am unconvinced of their importance in the New Covenant. The reason is found in the idea of progressive revelation.
The Progressive Revelation of the Bible
The Bible is a magnificent picture of progressive revelation. A Holy God, totally beyond human comprehension, wants to be known, wants to have relationship with us. The Bible is the written account of his interactions with humanity. We can only know for certain what he tells us about himself or what we experience him to be like. When we start extrapolating beyond those boundaries we run into trouble.
Job is the oldest book in the Bible and his story predates Abraham. He lived in the time before God’s covenant with Abraham but after God’s covenant with Noah. His story is representative of the Patriarchs and the revelation knowledge they had.
In this period of redemptive history, not much was known about God. He had not yet revealed his Name, nor had he revealed his plans to create a people for himself through Abraham. God was known to have created the earth and man and to have destroyed the earth and man. He was known as a God who hated wickedness and wicked people, preserving only the righteous.
Job’s story was almost certainly part of Semitic oral tradition until an Israelite wrote it down. Job doesn’t use the covenant Name of God except when the narrator is setting up the story, but the narrator uses God’s Name frequently. Interestingly, it is this later narrator who received the revelation that it was Satan afflicting Job, not God himself, though God ultimately allowed it. This means that Job knew nothing of Satan and his pseudo-kingdom when he went through his ordeal. So when Job says, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away, may the name of the LORD be praised,” he is operating from his current base of knowledge – that God was the only one capable of orchestrating such a disaster.
Digging still further into the story of Job, it becomes apparent that the story’s purpose is to show us that the Patriarch’s knowledge of God was incomplete and insufficient. Job and each of his friends carried a common understanding that God blessed the righteous abundantly and cursed the wicked terribly. It isn’t until calamity falls upon Job that he begins to question this understanding. Job is the turning point of the Wisdom Literature. It lets us know that there is more going on than meets the eye. Sometimes the righteous suffer terribly while the wicked prosper, which goes against everything the Patriarchs believed. The driving force behind the book of Job is the question “Why?”
It is true that Job himself lays both his good fortune and his disaster at the feet of God, but the narrator, the one recording this story for the benefit of God’s people, does not. The narrator introduces us to The Adversary, Satan, a figure who will play an increasingly important role in human history and who already shows his disdain for those blessed by God. Satan is pictured as an angel, subservient to God (which remains true), but who is testing the limits of his authority.
This does bring up a point about God’s Sovereignty and free will. Is God ultimately responsible for the death of Job’s children because he put them under Satan’s power? That is a meaty question for sure.
The U.S. Constitution protects and empowers the rights and liberties of U.S. citizens. When one of those citizens uses their liberty poorly, do we prosecute the Constitution or the citizen? One could argue that the Constitution is what made their crime possible, but we all know that the responsibility for that crime lies with the individual. They were also free to not make that choice.
The same holds true with the story of Job. Yes, God allowed Satan to exercise his free will, power and authority over Job’s family, but Satan didn’t have to kill them. Satan’s premise was that if God removed his high level of protection from Job’s life and family, then Job would curse God to his face. Satan could have afflicted Job’s family with terrible diseases to accomplish this effect but, as we see in the New Testament, Satan’s primary goal is to “steal, kill and destroy.” Satan did all but the last with Job. Satan couldn’t bring about Job’s ultimate destruction because Job refused to agree with Satan and curse God. So no, God was not responsible for Satan’s actions, free will is free will. But did God know what would happen? Undoubtedly, but punishment can only come after the crime.
Progressive Revelation of Spiritual Realities
Fast forward to 1 Samuel 16 and we see a much more developed understanding of the spiritual complexities of the world. The Jews are now aware of evil spirits and their ability to influence human beings, however they still attribute the cause of these spirits’s attacks to God, as they have not yet received revelation of Satan’s pseudo-kingdom. They are, however, right on the cusp of receiving revelation about the Messiah, God’s perfect king. They think they have found it in David, but they will soon understand that the King they so desperately crave is still yet to come.
I believe it is sufficient to say that the Jews had a growing understanding of spiritual realities that continues to develop and expand throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. They have learned that evil spirits exist and that they have some measure of authority to drive them out. In time, they will learn about the significant territorial influence these demons posses (through Daniel) and their knowledge will culminate with the revelation of spiritual dynamics in the New Testament. The New Testament writers make it abundantly clear that Satan is “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), that he has his own pseudo-kingdom (Luke 11:18), and that he is at war with the Saints of God (Revelation 12:17). We must always remember that the New Testament understanding of Scripture interprets and illuminates the Old.
The progressive revelation of God in Scripture is a precious thing and we cannot allow undisciplined scholarship to cloud our vision of God and who he has revealed himself to be. The truest revelation of God’s character in the Bible is seen in Jesus himself. God is the one who has compassion and longs to heal. God is the one who reconciles all people to himself through the forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the dead. God is the one who is constantly at work, destroying the work of the Devil and establishing his own Kingdom on the earth.
God is the One who has come to set wrong things right, to preach Good News, to heal, redeem, restore and set free. God is the One who loves us, who likes us, who delights in us. God is the One who longs to see us crush Satan underneath our feet as we walk in partnership with Him.
God did not make you sick in order to teach you a lesson – He is far too Good for that, not to mention more creative. If you are sick it is because you are suffering the repercussions of the Fall, but God’s Kingdom has come and his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven. It is God’s will – even his desire! – to heal you, for in his Kingdom “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” (Revelation 21:4). Does that mean you will be always be miraculously healed whenever someone prays for you? Sadly, it does not. Not yet at least. We will cover the reasons why in the next entry. For now, I will simply say that the Kingdom of God is not yet here in its fullness but it is here in part. Many times God does heal when we stand on his authority and minister to the sick, so I always encourage people to pursue healing.
Going back to Paul’s thorn… Paul did not passively accept his thorn, whoever or whatever it was, as the will of God. He actively fought against it for a long time before the Lord made it clear to him that he was to stop. I encourage you to take up Paul’s example and to never accept sickness or disease as God’s will for your life. It isn’t. So keep fighting, keep asking, keep knocking. Jesus taught us that prayer is a battle and that persistence wins the day. Keep going for it my friends.
Next time we will look at some skewed ways the truths presented in this post have been taught. We will examine the “name it and claim it” camp as well as the idea of Triumphalism. I hope you enjoyed this post. See you next time.