Biblical Perspective Towards Illness
Recently a number of us have been ill. Some of our children have been sick for weeks. Many of us have been afflicted with cold and flu. My wife has been coughing for almost a month now. One night she coughed so badly that I thought she was going to rupture her lungs, and I was prepared to send her to the hospital.
What should our attitude be towards sicknesses? Years ago, I knew a young lady who had just joined a Charismatic Church. She told me that she had just learned some new and wonderful doctrine that her frequent headaches was probably due to the sin of one of her ancestors, perhaps her grandmother. Other Charismatic preachers have declared that all sicknesses are from Satan, and so we must rebuke our sicknesses just as we should rebuke Satan! And if you do so in faith, you must have faith to believe that you are already healed, though sometimes Satan would not allow the symptoms to go away! Are these indeed discoveries of scriptural truth? One conservative local author, who is much respected by many, taught that our illnesses are because of our personal sin and that if we do not sin, we will not fall sick. Is that correct? What are the causes of sin? A respected Christian doctor surmised whether we should pray with regards to healing when we fall ill. Does God answer such prayer? What should our response be when we fall ill?
There is no doubt that God does sometimes chastise His people with sicknesses on account of their disobedience. Prior to his death, Moses pronounced blessings and curses upon Israel which would be occasioned by the obedience or disobedience to the Word of God. Part of the curses involved physical illnesses: "The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, … with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed … with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart …" (Deut 28:22, 27–28). Notice how these curses were given with the singular second person pronouns (‘thee’ and ‘thou’). This suggests that chastisement will come upon individuals for their individual sins. Numerous instances in the Scripture testify to this truth. Numbers chapter 16 records a tragic event in which 14,700 persons were struck dead by a plague because they were part of an assembly of people who had protested against Moses and Aaron for the divine execution of the sons and supporters of Korah who had rebelled against their authority. Gehazi was struck with leprosy for his covetousness (2 Kgs 5:27); King Uzziah similarly, for his pride (2 Chr 26:16–19). King David certainly believed this principle to be true. Psalm 38 was written under inspiration by him at a time of illness: "For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: and there is no soundness in my flesh" (Ps 38:7). It is clear that he believed the illness was part of God’s chastisement for his sin, for he prayed: "O Lord, rebuke me not in thy wrath: neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure. … I will declare mine iniquity; I will be sorry for my sin" (Ps 38:1, 18).
The principle is the same in the New Testament. Herod Agrippa was eaten by worms and died because "he gave not God the glory" (Acts 12:21–23). The Apostle Paul speaks of illness in the church on account of unworthy partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:29–30). James recognises that sin could be a cause of sickness (Jas 5:14).
However, we must be careful to realise that personal actual sin (in distinction to original sin) is not always the cause of our illness.
Firstly, God sometimes inflicts illness upon the whole congregation of people for the sins of individuals. 70,000 men from Dan to Beersheba died of a plague on account of David’s sin of counting the number of fighting men he could draft for his army (2 Sam 24; 1 Chr 21).
Secondly, the Scriptures tell us clearly that in certain cases, illnesses may not be due to personal sin at all. The case of Job is a clear example. One after another, his friends insinuated that it must be sin that has brought about all his troubles. Job did not deny that it could be sin that God was chastising him for, but searching his heart with all integrity, he simply could not identify any possible sin which might have brought him the afflictions. He asked the Lord: "How many are mine iniquities and sins? make me to know my transgression and my sin" (Job 13:23). We note that when the Lord finally responded to Job, He did not indict Job with any particular sin. In the New Testament, we again have the same doctrine that not all illnesses are due to sin. Lazarus was sick unto death that the Son of God might be glorified (Jn 11:4) when he was raised from the dead. When the disciples of the Lord asked him whose sin was the case of the blindness of the man born blind, He replied: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (Jn 9:3).
Thirdly, it is true that some illnesses are demonically induced. Job’s woes were certainly induced by Satan (Job 1:12). The Lord described the hunched back woman whom He healed on the Sabbath as one "whom Satan hath bound" (Lk 13:16). The Apostle Paul appears to be talking about some physical infirmity when he referred to the "thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet" him (2 Cor 12:7).
In view of all these, what should our response be when a fellow believer or we fall ill?
Firstly, I believe, we must begin by viewing our illness in the proper perspective. Noting that sin is the original cause of illnesses, and that personal, particular sin could also bring about God’s chastisement in the form of illness, we should begin like Job (see v. 13:23) to search our hearts and to ask the Lord to remind us or to bring to our consciousness any particular sins which we may not have repented of. If the Lord should convict us of any sin, we should seek His forgiveness as David did, before asking for deliverance (Ps 38:22). Now, I say this as a personal guideline, let us bear in mind that not all illnesses is due to particular sin, and therefore, let us not commit the same sin as Job’s friends by discouraging or tormenting a brother or sister in Christ by insisting that it is some particular sin that has brought about the illness.
Secondly, we should not be afraid to ask the church to pray with us especially if the illness is a prolonged or debilitating one. James instructs us "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (Jas 5:14). We must be careful not to misapply this verse. One way of misapplying it is to telephone our elders the minute we detect a sniffle or a cough coming up. But this is not what James teaches us. In the first place, we must note that James uses a very specific Greek word which is translated ‘sick’ in our version. The word is (astheneô) which means, "to be weak, feeble or powerless." In John 5, the word is translated ‘impotent’ (vv. 3, 7). James would not have describe someone who could have a flu with this word. He would probably have used (kakôs; e.g., Matt 9:12) instead. In the second place, the word translated ‘call’ (proskaleoma) means "summon or call for." In the third place, that the elders are to pray "over him" suggests that the sick is lying down on the bed. In other words, this instruction of James has to do with those who are very ill or bedridden, and cannot come to church. In which case they should call for the elders to visit that they may pray for them. Another way of misapplying James 5:14 is to have elders bringing flasks of olive oil when doing hospital visitation. This leads us to our thirdguideline, and that is: we should avail ourselves to practical and medical help and not just to prayer. You see, the James is very specific when he says "anointing … with oil." In the first place, there are two common Greek verbs that can be used to describe the application of oil. The first word is (chriô; e.g., Heb 1:9). This word refers to a religious anointing and the word from which ‘Christ’ is derived. The second word is (aleiphô). This word does not usually have a religious connotation. In fact, it can be translated with a simple ‘rub.’ We would use this word to speak about the application of ‘tiger balm’ on our tummy for stomach ache. The word that James uses is the second word: (aleiphô). He is not instituting a new ordinance as practised by some evangelists. A further confirmation of this interpretation is that the word rendered ‘oil,’ literally means ‘olive oil’. Olive oil was used as a common household remedy in those days. In the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan pour olive oil and wine upon the wound of the man who was robbed. We must not despise use of ordinary means for healing, though we ought to pray. Not only does James command it, the Lord practised it (Mk 6:13). Certainly, the Lord healed supernaturally, and He needed not the help of ointments, but I believe He used them nevertheless to teach us that we should avail ourselves to the means. So, beloved, by all means see a doctor and take the medicine faithfully.
However, fourthly, we must not swing to the other extreme by thinking that God will only heal through natural means. After James instructs us to pray and to use the means, he continues: "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up" (Jas 5:15a). In other words, pray believing (Jas 1:6). Believe that God can heal and that He can heal with or without the ordinary means. Indeed, the fact that James went on to talk about the prayer of Elijah (v. 17 ff) suggests that he would have us pray, believing that God can intervene supernaturally. We may learn from here that we must not restrict ourselves to praying that the doctor will have wisdom, that the surgeon’s hands will be guided, that the medicine will be effective, etc. We should rather pray that the Lord will heal and restore (Ps 103:3), bearing in mind that nothing is impossible with Him (Matt 19:26; cf. Matt 17:20). Yes, it is right and proper to pray "Thy will be done" even at this stage, but we must never pray in this way because of a fatalistic attitude that our prayer does not matter at all. We are commanded to pray and we are to pray, believing that God does hear and answers our prayers.
But what if God chooses not to answer our prayers according to our desire? What if we have been praying earnestly for someone who has been afflicted with cancer that the Lord will heal, but a time comes when it becomes quite certain from all appearance that death is inevitable? What if we have been praying for a young baby who has been afflicted by high fever that the Lord would heal, but the Lord does not answer according to our hearts desire, and eventually the doctors pronounced that her brain is permanently damaged? Then, fifthly, I believe we should submit to the Lord’s will and change the focus of our prayers. The Apostle Paul prayed three times that the Lord would remove the thorn in his flesh, but when it became clear that the Lord would not answer as he desired, we do not hear of him persisting to pray for healing. David persisted to pray for his new-born child until the Lord would not answer as he desired (2 Sam 12:22–23). Of course, in David’s case, the Lord’s will was very clear; and in Paul’s case the Lord’s will was made known to him (2 Cor 12:9); so they ceased to pray. In the two cases we cited, however, we know that despite medical pronouncement, the Lord could still work a miracle. So, my suggestion is that we do not cease to pray, but that our focus should now be different. For the man suffering from cancer, we may, for example, pray: "Lord, we have prayed that Thou heal Tom, but it does appear to us that it is not Thy will to restore him until the Resurrection, so Lord, while we know and desire that Thou may work a miracle, we pray now that Thou may prepare Tom to meet Thee his Creator. May Thou ease his discomfort and grant him faith and peace in Christ. May thou also comfort his dear wife with Thy everlasting arms …." We may pray similarly for the child: "Lord, we are sadden to hear from the doctors that little Jane has suffered permanent brain damage. We know that nothing is impossible with Thee, and we do plead that Thou may heal. Yet, if it be Thy will that she should remain in this condition, we do pray that Thou may grant her Thy grace of salvation; and that Thou may comfort her parents and grant them strength and wisdom to look after her in the days ahead …."
Sixthly, God has His purpose in every illness which He brings us through. It may be to chastise us for our sin; it may be to cause us to learn to depend on Him more; it may be that we may rest our weary bodies; it may be to bring glory to the Name of God in one way or another. Naaman the Syrian general was inflicted with leprosy, no doubt to bring him to the foot of the Cross; Paul was afflicted that He might be kept humble and that he know the sufficiency of Christ (2 Cor 12:7, 9); Lazarus and the man born blind were afflicted that the power of God might be manifested. Such being the case, it would also be needful for us to ask the Lord for wisdom (Jas 1:5) that we may understand the purpose of our illness, that we may best benefit from it for the sanctification of our soul. Also, knowing that all things work together for good to them that love Christ, we must not forget to thank God for the trials He brings us through (1 Thes 5:18; Jas 1:2).
Finally, we must note that although Scripture does speak about satanically induced illnesses, the cases are exceedingly rare; and moreover, we are not given an instruction or warrant for special treatment or rituals even if we can determine that the cause of our illness is indeed demonically induced. Job was blissfully ignorant about the cause of his troubles, and simply committed himself to the Lord. This must also be our attitude.
The Word of God has given us clear guidelines on what our attitude and response to illnesses should be. Let us not take a fatalistic attitude towards our illnesses. God is not only concerned with our souls, but our bodies as well (Ps 103:3). On the other hand, we must not adopt an unbiblical attitude towards illnesses, such as those of the Charismatic faith healers and those who ascribe all illnesses to particular personal sins. Let us manage our illnesses biblically—with prayer and using the available medical means.