A Christian Perspective on Illness

The author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to … heal” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 ESV). What Qoheleth did not say is that between the time to be born and the time to heal, there is a time to be sick.

People, Christians and non-Christians alike, deal with the problem of sickness in different ways. Many years ago I met a woman whose young son was very sick, suffering with asthma. With the desire to see her son healed, this woman went to a healing service in order to ask the visiting evangelist to cure her son.

During the healing service, the woman presented the child to the evangelist who proclaimed that all sicknesses are from the devil. The evangelist took the medicine away from the mother, threw it in a trash can and prayed for the child, declaring that the child was now cured.

I never again saw that mother and her young son. I felt sorry for her and her child because I knew that, although the evangelist was sincere in his belief, his theology was completely wrong.

All of us eventually will be concerned about sickness. Either we will be sick or a person we love will become ill and even die because of that disease. What happens to people when tragedy strikes? When tragedy strikes people will react in different ways.

When some people get sick, their illness gives way to despair and they give up on life or blame God for their illness. When sick, some people drown their sorrows in drinking, others try to alleviate their pain with drugs, while others commit suicide or turn to evil and try to atone for their tragedy by killing others. Often, people turn to God to find hope in the midst of despair and to find healing through divine intervention.

The problem of human illness raises a difficult question that will confront all of us, sooner or later: Why do people get sick? The answer to this question is not easy, but the answer is not: “It is God’s will.” God does not want people to get sick.

The story of creation in Genesis says that God created a good world: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Man and woman were created in a good world and they lived under ideal conditions. Then, they sinned against God. When they sinned, several things happened: they left God’s ideal place, death entered the world through sin and death spread to all people (Romans 5:12). Thus, from a biblical perspective, sickness is the result of sin entering into this world. Human beings live in a world that is not the ideal world God created. This is the reason there is sickness in the world.

If God does not want people to get sick, then why do people get sick? The answer must be that it is because our human nature is very weak. We, human beings, are affected by our environment.

The food we eat is preserved with chemicals, the air we breathe is filled with pollutants, the water we drink has many contaminants that affect our health. People smoke and cigarettes kill people. People breath second hand smoke and they also get sick.

Healthy people come into contact with people who are sick and their illness affects the healthy. People do not wash their hands and they transmit their diseases to others. That is how people get sick. It is not what God does. It is what we do to ourselves; it is what other people do to us.

Being sick is the lot of every human being. As Qoheleth also said: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: [There is] a time to … break down” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3). Our young and strong bodies soon become weak and old. When our bodies become weak and old they also become less resistant to illness and sooner or later they break down.

It is at times of illness that believers find two wonderful promises of healing in the Bible. The Lord said: “I am the LORD, who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). These words from the Lord provide believers with hope and comfort in times of sickness. God is the great physician and in times of illness, God is the great healer and if we are to be healed, it is he that restores us to health by using human instruments and divine intervention. The psalmist wrote: “The Lord sustains [the righteous] on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health” (Psalm 41:3).

The other promise says that “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15 NIV). The prayer of faith brings divine intervention and God brings healing. One example of divine intervention is the case of the woman whose son was very sick. The Bible says that “his illness was so severe” (1 Kings 17:17) that he died. Elijah prayed (1 Kings 17:20) and God restored the life back to the child.

Believing prayer and God’s divine intervention may bring healing, but not in every case. Elisha was a man of faith but he became sick with an illness which eventually caused him to die (2 Kings 13:14). When Paul was sick, with what he called “a thorn in the flesh,” he prayed three times for God to remove whatever ailed him. The Lord did not remove that thorn, but told him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God does not always promise healing, but if faith is exercised, God always promises to save, which is more important.

So, what must people do when sickness comes? When some people get sick, their sickness leads to panic, resentment, or resignation. To others, their sickness helps them look at their own life from a different perspective. To a small group of people, sickness leads them to faith and to dedication of their life to a higher purpose. Many people have learned that when they are on their backs, they are forced to look up.

Several years ago I met a couple whose son, a young man who had committed his life to God to be a missionary, was killed in a tragic car accident caused by a drunk driver. The father of the young man, who was a church member, became so despondent that he blamed God for the death of his son. In his despondency, he lost his faith, left the church, and became an atheist.

The mother of the young man, in her loss, looked to God for comfort. Even though God did not heal her sorrow by returning her son back to her, her sorrow became the instrument by which she found a deeper relationship with God. The death of her son helped her to develop her faith and find life’s greatest meaning: God’s peace and God’s love. She kept the pain but gained the power to endure her pain, and that in itself is a higher form of healing.

Eventually, you who are reading this post, will become sick. When you become sick, it will be at that time when you will need to have a strong faith in God. The Bible emphasizes the power of believing faith. For you to gain healing and health through faith and prayer, several things must happen:

First, you must believe that God can and will heal. The Bible says: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Second, you must believe in the combined power of medical science and religious faith. God works through physical laws and through spiritual laws. God made the physicians and God made the medicines. They are God’s special agents for the healing of sick people.

Third, you must remove spiritual hindrances to healing such as sins and wrong attitudes. Sin and wrong attitudes go together. They cause many of the illnesses that affect human lives. People who practice sexual promiscuity get sexually transmitted diseases. People who use drugs are more susceptible to various kinds of illness. Anger causes stress and stress causes heart attacks. Unforgiven sins bring guilt and guilt causes many physical and psychological illnesses.

Fourth, you must accept God’s will for your life and you must be willing to accept his answer to your prayers, whatever that answer might be.

When people get sick and pray and there is no healing, people ask: “Why is it that God brings healing to certain people and not to others?” I believe that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, but it is also possible that healing may not be God’s will every time a person prays for healing. Jesus prayed: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. But let your will be done rather than mine” (Matthew 26:39). It was not God’s will for the cup be removed, so Jesus suffered.

We have to remember that sooner or later, all of us will die: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). We have to die in order to gain eternal life. God’s will for your life is health instead of sickness, it is strength rather than weakness, pleasure instead of pain, for God does not enjoy seeing His children suffer. But sickness will come and so will death.

When we believe in Christ and pray in faith, when we do all we can within our power to use the means of health available to us, when we surrender our wrongs and open the way for his cleansing and forgiving love, and above all, when we trust his wisdom in the answer he gives us, then a marvelous peace will come to us. God’s peace eliminates our fears and our despair.

After his friend Lazarus died because of his illness, Jesus told Martha, Lazarus’s sister: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Some sickness may end in health, others in death. Martha was thinking about the healing of Lazarus’ body and a longer life for him on this earth, but Jesus was thinking about another kind of life, a life that would be everlasting.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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