A few weeks ago I had an interesting encounter with an older religious lady on our university campus. She noticed that my eyes and skin were discoloured by jaundice, and once I had explained the cause (a rare genetic condition that I’ve had from birth), she was filled with pity and told me that she would pray to her God for my healing.
How was I to respond? I hadn’t asked for her prayers, I hadn’t asked for her sympathy, and I hadn’t expressed to her any discontentment in the current status of my health.
I explained to her that Christians had prayed for me, and that in many ways God had answered their prayers. I told her that my health was much better than it had been when I was younger, but that more importantly people had prayed that I would grow to know Jesus more, and God had answered that prayer even in the midst of sickness.
By this point I think she was more troubled by my view of Jesus than by my view of sickness, and we didn’t return to the subject of my health. But the conversation reminded me again of the importance of having a robust theology of health, sickness and prayer. There are many who fervently pray for health, but they are not all praying to the true and living God who has brought salvation for his people through his Son.
When I was a baby—and the cause and consequences of my sickness were completely unknown—I did have a whole church praying for me. I’m thankful that they didn’t just pray for my physical health. I had 17 years of sickness and treatment before I was physically ‘healed’ (at least temporarily) by medication. Contrary to what some may believe, these were not 17 years of unanswered prayers, where God was withholding his kindness because of my lack of faith. These were 17 years where faithful prayers for God to shape and grow me as a disciple of his were answered, slowly but surely, day by day. God was healing my sin-sick soul, and softening my heart to trust him in faith through seasons of suffering and seasons of joy.
During those years, my appearance was much more jaundiced than it is now, and I sat under phototherapy lights for up to an hour each day. It could have been far worse—and I am thankful that it wasn’t—but it also could have been far better, as the medication I am on now (which frees me from needing any other treatment) was available when I was born.
But as much as I love my current health, and as much as I’m thankful for my medication, I’m also thankful that I wasn’t always this healthy. It’s so easy, when we enjoy good health, to develop a sense of entitlement, expecting this world to always be wonderful, and forgetting that heaven is to come. How easy is it to pray, “Let your kingdom come… but let me enjoy a few things first”.
Yet God tells us in the Bible that this world will be frustrating, but that heaven will be worth the wait:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)
The frustrations of sickness can be helpful in refocusing our identity from how we look to who we are in Christ. As they strip away the control we crave (over time and lifestyle), they can remind us that we’re not ultimately here on this earth to have a good time. Our time is not our own, to do as we please… we belong to our great king.
Furthermore, our experience of sickness may not be all about us. An older, godly woman gave this verse to my parents just after I was born… in the months when the doctors had no idea whether I would even survive:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)
I have seen my parents use their experience of suffering to comfort other parents of sick children through periods of uncertainty and hardship. In my own life, my small taste of sickness has been of great help in relating to other people as they go through trials.
Don’t get me wrong. I am still selfish, vain, and frequently distracted by the fleeting joys of worldly things. I still have so much to learn as I battle to find my identity in Christ, to see my time as belonging to him, and to love other people through their hardships. And there have still been plenty of times in my life where sickness has made me selfish, bitter and resentful.
But I am writing this in the hope that you might think seriously and theologically about health, sickness and prayer, whatever state of health you might be in. Because it’s essential that we “separate biblical truth from myth”, and pray for the sick in a way that is soaked in the glorious truths of the gospel.
Healed at Last is a great book to start you in your thinking. It’s written by a man whose experience of sickness and knowledge of the Bible far outweigh my own, and it is a moving, rigorous and Christ-focused exploration of healing, health and the gospel. If you’re not sure how to get started healing your thinking about sickness, it’s a good place to start.