If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. Luke 9:23-24
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Romans 8:28-29
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14
Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:14
Sally was a typical young lady who out of curiosity began to attend our church. She confidently introduced herself as someone interested in Christianity and its claims, but first she had a few questions. The number one question she raised was, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
She was not alone in wanting an answer to that question. In chapter one we discussed the cause of the ills of life on this planet and the need of the world for the healing that only Christ can give. Yet some questions still linger in our minds and, if we are honest, we would have to admit that we would all like to know why innocent people suffer. The entire answer to Sally’s question we will not receive until we are with God in heaven. He has promised that heaven shall more than compensate for the difficulties we experience here – that it shall be an enduring city, a painless place full of beauty and holiness. Ultimately we have to leave these questions with God and trust that He is good and holy and just. But we would still like to know: Are the sorrows and difficulties we face on this earth merely meaningless empty exercises in reaping the results of human irresponsibility?
What is happening in the Christian’s life when he endures difficulties? Surely God loves us and desires our good, but is God’s sole desire to make us comfortable or does He have a nobler goal for us in mind? Does God want to just make us happy or make us holy? To a non-believer like Sally it only seems natural to judge religions in the same way she would judge grocery stores – you want to get more for your money than from competing stores – but eternal, timeless truths cannot be evaluated on such a scale. Too often believers forget that holiness is God’s primary concern in our lives and He is quite willing to substitute other things in our lives to achieve His goal.
Is health and wealth the way to go?
Many churches and preachers have focused on a “prosperity gospel” filled with half-truths and based on selected passages of Scripture, but greatly ignoring many of the teachings of the Bible. I confess that I am amazed at these teachings and surprised at the gullibility of people who flock to these meetings. Someone correctly observed that people who attend these health and wealth churches are not really any healthier or wealthier than other believers – except perhaps for the pastors.
The truth is most believers will be successful in their careers because of the way the Lord transforms personalities when they are placed in His hands. As I have studied the New Testament and pastored people over the years, I have almost always observed that people are more successful in what they do after they become Christians than before. This is entirely understandable, since, following their salvation, they are functioning as God had originally intended for them to function. A person who is a Spirit-filled Christian will be more successful than he would have been had he not been saved. He has a new hope, a new reason for confidence, a new capacity for personal discipline, a new basis for patience and kindness, a new sense of responsibility, a motivation to provide for his family. As God works within our lives we realize that He created us and gifted us and we want to fully develop our potential in life. A believer in Christ is a new creation and as such he will do his job better than he had before. But, be careful, because there is still danger about. Money has within it the capacity to always compete with God in our hearts.
God providentially acts for the believer. One of the dangers of the prosperity teaching is that in many ways it is a close counterfeit to the doctrine of the providential care of God for His people. God does act independently and in His sovereignty for the good of His people. As a minister of the Gospel I am dependent on God’s supply for my “daily bread” to support myself and my family and my ministry. More times than I can count He has miraculously supplied the need I had with precision, both in the amount needed and in the timing of the provision. Every believer should have such a testimony. God supplies not just our material needs but His providential care is demonstrated in a variety of ways: words of encouragement come at just the right moment, an opportunity arrives just in time, a new friend comes when we are lonely, and when we feel our back is against the wall His hand of deliverance extends from above. The teaching of the providential care of God keeps the focus of life God-centered. God providentially supplies our needs in ways that keep us focused on Him and His will.
One of the dangers of prosperity theology is that it misinterprets faith until it becomes a force all its own, rather than our response to the revelation of God. Prosperity theology tends to reduce the doctrine of the providential care of God to a formula and reduces Almighty God to a mere puppet to fulfill the wishes of men. Those most keen to preach its claims exalt man over God and virtually all of them neglect the teaching of the cross and the crucified life.
The Bible has a great deal to say about the spiritual danger that money affords. Jesus, in particular, spoke more about this subject than anyone else in the Bible. He did not condemn the man who made his money honestly and honored God first in his heart, but Christ recognized that money could always be competing in our hearts for our loyalty to God. “No one,” Christ said, “can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). This is one of the major dangers of a “prosperity gospel”: it puts two masters up for service. A Christian does not measure his success by how much he has but by how much he can give. The Spirit also said through Paul,
People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root to all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. 1 Timothy 6:9-12
Money is not only dangerous in that it competes with our devotion to God, it also has its limitations. Money can buy a house but not a home. Money can buy a bed but not sleep. Money can buy food but not appetite. Money can buy clothes but not style. Money can buy entertainment but not peace of mind, purpose in life, nor inner joy. The man or woman who is trapped in serving the god of money, lusting after possessions is someone who has adopted an empty and meaningless lifestyle.
In teachings and parables Jesus spoke often on the spiritual danger of being obsessed with money. By way of introducing the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) He warned us, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Then he told a story about a wealthy farmer who, after an unusually good crop did not know what to do with the surplus. He did not think about helping the poor or sharing with his neighbor or even throwing a great party for his friends. Instead he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones where he could store his grain. “You have good things laid up for many years,” he said to himself. “Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry.”
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Christ gave us a sobering reminder of how fragile and fleeting life on this earth is. We long to be a part of something that lasts beyond this earthly existence and wealth does not measure up to this standard. Jesus summed up the meaning of the parable by saying, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
Let me say a word to my fellow pastors. Our main concern must be to help people become rich toward God! That is not to say that we should not help someone in his professional career, we have already pointed out our obligation to the poor, but our first concern must always be for their spiritual development. God’s plan for our lives is that we know Him personally and grow in that relationship and in that knowledge. All along life’s journeys we will have difficult moments and some times great burdens to bear, but it is in the bearing of these burdens we learn about the sustaining power and grace of God.
Is Good Health a Mark of a Good Christian?
When people become Christians they ordinarily become healthier than people who are not. Why is this so? Several reasons. First, a Christian is called to put aside his vices and empowered by the Spirit to have a more disciplined life style. Many lost people are involved in many addictive activities that damage the human body – smoking, over-eating, drinking, poor sleep patterns, lack of exercise, etc. Some Christians are more disciplined than others but for the most part Christians have a healthier lifestyle than those who are lost.
Secondly, Christians are learning to put aside bitterness, hidden anger, duplicity, secret sins, and lasciviousness that can harm someone physically. Thirdly, Christians have more hope for the future and optimism and hope in the human heart have medicinal values. None of this means, however, that Christians will not fall sick.
Sam was an active healthy young man whom God called into Third World missions. He worked in remote areas with tribal people and contracted typhoid. The first time the disease hit him he was mildly ill and a doctor diagnosed it quickly. The doctor warned Sam, however, that if he continued to go up into the mountains and work with the tribal people he would probably contract it again and it might take his life. Sam went back up into the mountains and after a few weeks he came down with typhoid again. The doctor’s warnings were appropriate and Sam was so violently ill that he actually lost consciousness and to this day he does not remember how he got down from the mountains and to his home. The diarrhea was so strong that he lost approximately fifteen percent of his body weight in two days’ time. When he was well enough to work again, he headed back up into the mountains to continue to evangelize the tribal people.
Are we to look at someone like Sam and say he was sick because he lacked faith, or are we to admire his faith and say that he was sick because he followed the will of God? I believe the latter is the correct interpretation.
Looking into the expanse of missionary activity around the world we can notice many times when disease was a serious threat to missionaries and their families. For example (and I could cite many other examples), in the nineteenth century Africa was known among missionaries as “the white man’s graveyard” because the average life expectancy of a missionary was only eight years. One early missionary wrote, “Our God bids us first build a cemetery before we build a church or dwelling-house showing us that the resurrection of … Africa must be effected by our own destruction.” The London Missionary Society’s African station, twenty missionaries had died before the twentieth convert was baptized! We have to ask ourselves, would I be willing to give my life for just one person to hear the gospel and become a Christian? These were people of great faith and dedication and any suggestion that their faith was inadequate or misguided or that they failed to use the right formula when they prayed is an affront to their character and the compassion of God.
A missionary named William Hotchkiss, one of those early pioneers, wrote these words:
I have dwelt four years practically alone in Africa. I have been thirty times stricken with the fever, three times attacked by lions, and several times by rhinoceri; but let me say to you, I would gladly go through the whole thing again, if I could have the joy of again bringing that word “Savior” and flashing it into the darkness that envelops another tribe in central Africa.
What about those diseases caused by Satanic binding. The Bible tells us that believers in Christ are indwelt, baptized, sealed, and empowered with the Spirit of God. Ephesians 1:13-14 says it clearly, “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…” Christ’s Spirit’s presence in our hearts protects us against Satanic or demonic possession. Paul mentioned that his thorn in the flesh was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7), and Job’s suffering in the Old Testament was also at the hand of the devil. Yet in both instances we see that God limited what Satan could do. This is the promise of Scripture that God always provides protection and a way out of temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). God, when it best suits His purposes, may allow a Christian or Christians to undergo Satanic attacks, but only under His Loving Hands that limit the power Satan may have.
The Contest of Wills
Throughout the story of the Bible people were continually confronted with attitudes toward possessions and comforts that competed with their love for and devotion to God. Virtually everything that someone could treasure more than God, someone in the Bible was commanded to give up.
Abraham, for example, was commanded to sacrifice Isaac on the altar – Isaac his only son of his beloved wife Sarah, his pride and joy. But others were also faced with difficult decisions, personally sacrificing possessions that either stood between them and God or had the potential to do so. Joseph gave up his freedom and his revenge. The rich, young, ruler was commanded to give up his riches. Paul gave up his life’s work as a Pharisee. David gave up his friend Jonathan. Jonah gave up his prejudices. Daniel gave up his country. Peter gave up his use of his physical strength. Elisha gave up his business.
Again the words of Christ direct our attention to the truth that nothing should stand in the way of our pure devotion to God. Christ spoke these words during the days when He enjoyed great popularity with the people, yet it was dangerous popularity and He demanded that people count the cost of being His disciple.
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:25-27
Christ spoke, as He often did, in hyperbole, using strong language and overstatement for the sake of emphasis. We believers need these strong words today to keep us from promoting a gospel of comfort and popularity, laughter and luxury, for in promoting such a worldly gospel we will neglect the doctrine of the selfish sinfulness of the human heart.
The experience at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) revealed how easy it is for human life to place itself and its own achievements on the pedestal of worship in the place of God. Human life had been commanded to subdue the world, to watch over nature. Instead they desired to build an important name for themselves and God confused their language and forcibly spread them throughout the lands. Without hearts placed in God’s hands we will use our God given talents and abilities to do our will for our sake and not His will for His sake. It is the difference between grasping glory for our selves and giving glory to God.
Throughout our lives as believers we will continually be faced with temptations to pull away from God and worship our possessions or our selves. In love God will sometimes, when His wisdom chooses, demand from us or remove from us that thing that either we treasure in our hearts more than Him or has the serious potential of competing in our hearts with Him. Walking the way of the cross cannot merely be done in theory and must be done in a real way in this real world. That is the time and place where we need to be converted from desiring our comfort and glory to desiring His will and glory.
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
In Paul’s case, he had some physical affliction and desired to be freed from that affliction. When faced with difficult and unpleasant situations we should ask for them to be removed. Christ Himself prayed, “Let this cup pass from me,” and we should not hesitate to ask for these burdens to be removed. God does want to bless His children. Our Heavenly Father knows our needs and wants to provide for us and bless us (Matt. 6:32-33).
For men are not cast off by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
So great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
Or grief to the children of men.
But, some times, in love, He lets us experience the difficulty and drink the cup of suffering and in those moments we must understand the significance of affliction.
The Bible does not tell us the precise nature of Paul’s affliction, although perhaps we have a hint that it was some sort of eye problem since this was mentioned twice in Galatians (Gal. 4:12-15 and 6:11), but the evidence from Scripture is inconclusive. Other maladies that have been nominated as Paul’s “thorn” are numerous, among which are malarial fever, rheumatoid arthritis, and recurring digestive problems. But the fact that we don’t really know what it was has allowed believers through the centuries to identify with Paul and his “thorn”.
In Second Corinthians Paul made some of his greatest statements about sufferings and difficulties, all inspired by the Spirit of God. In the first chapter he spoke about the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted it is for your comfort, which produces in your patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. 2 Cor. 1:5-7
Paul’s concern was the people knew their troubles were not wasted, meaningless exercises in affliction, but that in the midst of difficulties they were learning about the comfort of God. God had called them to come out of spiritual darkness and to bear witness to the light of God before a dark and lost world, yet they were to do this while still residing in this world ransacked and shaken by sin. As Christ said of His followers, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it …As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:16-18). We are, as Christ’s followers, in the world but not of the world, that is, we live in this world and experience its physical limitations but we have a new birth and a new citizenship in heaven and a new calling to be His people. Our hearts are set in heaven with Christ and the pains and sorrows we experience in this life have a vastly different impact upon our souls than upon the souls of those who do not know Christ.
Paul continued in Second Corinthians to explain that although outwardly, that is in our bodies, we are wasting away, “yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). He explained, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). He was not saying that our troubles are earning heaven for us but that in the midst of our difficulties we are learning to loosen our grip on the things of this earth and receive the real spiritual blessings of joy, peace, and God’s amazing love that are eternal in nature and do not waste away. “For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
As Paul shared about his own troubles he admitted that his troubles were such that he did not appear impressive or attractive to the people of the world. In First Corinthians Paul admitted that the world with its focus on power, possessions, and earthly positions – all that would enable someone to “fulfill” his lusts (of course, lusts are never really fulfilled) – and those looking only for more earthly things thought the preaching of the cross was foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23). But this did not deter him. He preached Christ crucified! There is no other true gospel. In Second Corinthians he again admitted that to the world at large he had the aroma of death about him, although to the believers it was the aroma of life (2 Cor. 2:15-16).
From time to time I hear people say, “But, pastor, if the people in the world don’t think that Christians are healthier and wealthier than others they won’t come to church.” But again Paul expounded on this brilliantly in chapter four of Second Corinthians. Our message is not validated by our comfort and luxury in this world, but by our holiness in personal behavior and by our sacrificial service to others in the Name of Christ. “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). Some whom Satan has blinded will not hear the gospel – they are only looking for health and wealth – but there is not another gospel that we may give them (2 Cor. 4:3-4).
But Paul mentioned another source of witness to the world about the validity of the gospel and that is the very inadequacies of the messengers and believers. We have this treasure we call the gospel that results in lives experiencing the transforming power of God in fragile human hearts and bodies – “jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7-15). The surpassing power to triumphantly endure hardship and affliction can only come from God and we witness to a hopeless world through showing our hope in the face of discouraging situations. We, as Christ’s followers, can live confidently today with faith that if our “earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven” (2 Cor. 5:1). Paul emphasized the contrast between our current corruptible bodies, by likening them to tents, and our resurrected incorruptible bodies that await us, by likening them to eternal houses built by God.
In our life here on this earth, we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). We cannot see Christ with our eyes and must believe Him in our hearts. Nothing will happen that will entirely remove our need for faith in God. We do not know the future but we know Him who does and we must trust Him. When Paul faced his thorn in the flesh, he prayed three times that it be removed (2 Cor. 12:8). I believe he meant that three separate times he entered into seasons of prayer for this to be removed. It would only seem natural for Paul to have urged his companions and other believers to join him in prayer for the removal of this affliction. He had confidence in the power of God and believed that, in His time, “The one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14), but he longed for deliverance from this affliction in the “here and now”.
God’s answer was to deepen Paul’s spiritual life and give him insights into the walk of faith he would not have had otherwise. God said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This was a moment in Paul’s life where he had to make a choice, whether he would go the way of the cross or the way of self. The way of self would not have brought physical healing either and would have been characterized by bitterness – inner anger directed toward God and others – or fear – inner insecurity that would lead to panic. He chose the way of the cross and self-surrender to the plan of God. He chose to trust the character of God even though he did not experience immediate release from his physical suffering.
Following the Path of the Cross
The path of the cross is the path of self-denial and submission to the will of God for the glory of God regardless of the personal cost. This path is never easy to walk, except in the power of the Spirit, but it is the only way of victory and true spiritual growth. In our times of physical infirmities we are challenged to choose either to walk the way of the flesh or the way of the cross, but in the path of the cross we find the very life of God. The world, of course, finds such thoughts about the path of suffering as the way of victory as pure nonsense. They do not have the inner principle of Christ at work in their lives, but we do! Christ is our very life! (John 14:19) Self-denial can only be really experienced when we are willing to give up something that we really do sincerely want if it brings glory to God. Until this moment comes, all thoughts of self-denial are just theoretical.
Take a Christian, for example, who has given himself to the study of the Bible and prayer, but has never faced injustices and afflictions. He would have some level of spiritual maturity but the deeper levels of faith he would not have experienced. But when we have our own Gethsemane experiences, when we come to the end of ourselves and our will and say, “Lord, not my will but yours be done,” then we experience depths of knowledge of Jesus Christ and His sustaining power and serenity that we would never discover otherwise.
The path of the cross will always lead us into conflict between the will of God and our sinful nature, our stubborn will, and our desire for our own glory. This brings a time of personal crisis as I must choose to go God’s way or my way. Like Jesus, I must decide that even if all others forsake me, ridicule me, and reject me, though I face difficulty and sacrifice, if by my obedience something that is God’s will can be accomplished, something of God’s glory may be seen, then I would go that path of the cross.
A little church drama I saw as a young person spoke eloquently to this. The drama was mostly a series of monologues about bearing our cross and following Jesus. The stage was strewn with various kinds of crosses, some small and shiny, some larger, and one in the background large enough for someone to really be crucified on. One by one the characters came forward and chose a cross to bear, but their choices reflected their own sinful pride and desire for glory. One wanted to bear a bejeweled cross that would compliment her appearance, another wanted to bear a cross that made him look like a martyr, but their motives were all impure. Finally someone came forward to bear the cross of self-denial for the glory of God.
This simple drama described what can and often does happen in churches. Some people like to be in the limelight and are quite willing to “bear the cross” so long as others notice them. But that is precisely the attitude that shows that they have not denied themselves. Someone with the gift of communication wrote this poem about sacrifice and service.
God said, “Who will go for me?”
And my love flowed warm and free
“Here I am,” said I, “Send me.”
“Here,” said God, “Tend that for me.”
“No. Not there,” said I.
“Why, no one would ever see
No matter how great my work,
Not that little plot for me.”
When God spoke He answered tenderly.
“Tell me, dear child of mine,
Are you working for them or for me?
Remember, Nazareth was a little place
And so was Galilee.”
Having spent most of my ministry overseas in Southeast Asia, I have seen many new missionaries come to the mission field full of enthusiasm. As young believers they had surrendered their lives to the foreign mission field. But after the initial thrill wears off and they are faced with the fact of serving their entire careers in the shadows, virtually unknown of back in their nation of origin, many leave the field to go get that big church where their name will be on the sign outside and they can get more respect for their ministry. Or they long to be recognized for their service with administrative positions where they work overseeing other missionaries and liaising with the people back home. Of course, God may lead someone off the foreign field to minister back in their home nation or to go into mission administration – He has done so many times – but the real focus and desire should always be for the glory of God regardless of the personal cost. And even those who do return home to ministry will find another cross to bear. We cannot run away from this principle. This is the way God works for our good! In the path of God’s will for every life is raised a cross where self must die.
The way of the cross is the way of victory for us today. Paul wrote:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal. 2:20
The way of victory today is through self-denial and the end of the self-life. Paul saw in the cross a new approach to life, a new way to live. As Jesus taught, by hanging on to his life he would lose it, but by letting go of his life he would gain it (Matt. 10:39; John 12:23). This is possible because Christ died for our sins, in our place, and now we have the power, through His death, to leave our past life of moral failure, to consider it dead, and go forward with Christ into a new, glorious, victorious future, sustained by His resurrection power (Eph. 1:18-20; Col 1:29).
This is the most wonderful and wonderfully simple truth in the Bible, yet often people struggle with it and stumble over it. When we speak of the way of the cross as the way of victory it simply means that we put aside our desires and even the claim on our own life and take His life as our life and His will as our will. The only ones who carried crosses in Bible days were condemned criminals forced to carry their crosses to their own executions, to entirely discourage them of life. Christ is telling us to despair of our own life and will and take His life and His will as ours. Amazingly, in spite of everything our sinful nature and the devil will tell us, we experience tremendous personal freedom, joy, and the life of Christ flows within us to fill us and fulfill us. “Less of me and more of Him” should be the goal of the Christian life.
What Is Happening When Healing Doesn’t Come? Has God failed? Have we failed?
Sometimes it is simply not God’s will to offer physical healing for the sick person. We each have our rendezvous with death. God described our bodies like seeds planted that spring up with the newness of resurrection power after death.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown [planted] is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. 1 Cor. 15:42-44
Paul confidently said, “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). In that passage he expressed confidence that he would be released from his imprisonment but he admitted that his release may come through death. When God allows a believer to die, He does so that the believer may be released from pain and suffering and enter into eternal life with God in heaven. For a believer in Christ, to die is gain!
Sometimes healing does not come immediately so that God may use the event and bring healing at an opportune time. This is what happened with Lazarus when Christ raised him from the dead. Jesus delayed in coming to Bethany when Lazarus had been sick and waited until he had actually died, so that He could raise him from the dead and that the disciples may believe in Him (John 11:1-15).
Sometimes healing is delayed so that the individual may learn some important spiritual lesson. This is what happened with Job. Whatever lessons we learn during illnesses, some central lessons always come through: physical life is temporary, we are vulnerable, and God is sovereign. Many key biblical passages are helpful for us to understand what God is accomplishing in our lives during illnesses. Romans 8:28-29, God promises to use all things to accomplish His purpose in our lives, to build us into the spiritual image of Christ Jesus.
James, the pastor of the church at Jerusalem and one of the pillars of the church, wrote his short epistle during a time of famine. It was perhaps the first book of the New Testament written. As a pastor, he knew the difficulties his people were facing and longed to strengthen them as they faced daunting trials. His God-inspired advice also speaks to us today. He challenged his people to consider it all joy when they fell into various trials knowing that the trial of their faith developed patience in their lives (James 1:2-8). He went on to explain that trials perfect us in our faith. Those trials that we had naturally put in the loss column of our experience we need to transfer to the gain column. “And if any of you lack wisdom,” he wrote, “he should ask God, who gives generously to all…” The wisdom he was referring to was the capacity to see trials as something to rejoice over.
The essential element to receive the blessings that trials bring is the attitude of faith. Faith is trust in God’s character and love and surrender to His plan. Again James wrote that the man who asks must believe and not doubt, not be double minded, “unstable in all that he does” (James 1:6-8). We may endure suffering and not be any wiser for it if we endure it with a spirit of bitterness. But if we endure it with faith, then God opens windows of spiritual blessings, inner peace and joy, and every step of life which we take in affliction is a step where we learn more about God and His power to sustain our spirits.
Sometimes healing does not come at all so that the Christian may learn that in his weakness is God’s strength made perfect. This is what happened with Paul. But throughout the history of the church there have been men and women greatly used of God who had severe physical limitations. They persevered without bitterness and complaining but accepting that their limitations were allowed by a loving Heavenly Father and that these same limitations could be platforms for people to see His sustaining strength in their lives.
Throughout the centuries men and women with outward physical weaknesses have been God’s instruments through which He has accomplished amazing things. They have learned not to become embittered by the situation but to learn to trust God in the midst of it. They have learned that in their weakness is God’s strength made perfect. Allow me to just share with you two brief life stories.
Henrietta Mears was one of those people whom God used greatly. She was diagnosed with very weak eyes as a young lady. Doctors said she would be blind by the time she was thirty. To make matters worse, she accidentally injured one eye further with a needle. Although she never completely lost her vision she did have weak vision all her life.
She initially began a career as a high school chemistry teacher in the United States, but God had other plans for her. After seeing her young people’s Sunday School class experience tremendous growth, in 1928, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California asked her to come and lead their Christian Education. Within three years of her coming, the Sunday School enrollment increased from 500 to 4,000. She passed away in 1963, but not before she had seen 400 of her young people surrender to full-time Christian service, one of those young people was Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ.
Billy Graham as a young man came out to California and later commented that apart from his mother and wife, Henrietta Mears had the greatest impact on his life of any other woman. In those years he was struggling with the issue of the inspiration of the Scriptures. He had been influenced by liberal theology and philosophy that rejected the Bible as infallible. It was Henrietta Mears who helped him trust the Bible as God’s Word. More than any other single phrase that has come from Billy Graham’s mouth, “The Bible says” is the most common and his confidence in God’s Word is a large reason why God has blessed his ministry so greatly.
Henrietta Mears founded Gospel Light Publications and pioneered in the area of youth camps and conferences. Only God knows the number of lives that were touched by her and that are being touched through her continued influence. All that from a woman with a thorn in the flesh! In fact, just this past week as I am writing I shared from the pulpit among Henrietta Mears and a young lady in our church informed me that she became a Christian at a camp in southern California that Miss Mears helped found. The influence goes on and on.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was another such “great one” for God. Spurgeon pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London and at age twenty-one he was the most popular preacher in London in the 19th Century. A prolific writer his writings still speak to us today. He preached to crowds of ten thousand at Exeter Hall and the Surrey Music Hall before the Metropolitan Tabernacle was built. Thereafter, thousands gathered every Sunday for over forty years to hear him proclaim the Word of God.
In addition, he organized Sunday Schools, started other churches, founded an orphanage and the Pastor’s College. He edited a monthly church magazine and wrote numerous books and articles. He was known for his ardent faith, clear and simple preaching, and he maintained a delightful sense of humor. Yet Spurgeon never enjoyed very good health. His wife was an invalid and he suffered from gout and rheumatism. He died at the relatively young age of fifty-seven.
Spurgeon once wrote a devotional on the verse, “For my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
A primary qualification for serving God with any amount of success, and for doing God’s work well and triumphantly, is a sense of our own weakness. When God’s warrior marches forth to battle, strong in his own might, when he boasts, “I know that I shall conquer, my own right arm and my conquering sword shall get me the victory,” defeat is not far distant. God will not go forth with that man who marches in his own strength. He who reckoneth on victory thus has reckoned wrongly, for “it is not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” They who go forth to fight, boasting their prowess, shall return with their gay banners trailed in the dust, and their armour stained with disgrace. Those who serve God must serve Him in His own way, and in His strength, or He will never accept their service. That which man doth, unaided by divine strength, God can never own. The mere fruits of the earth He casteth away; He will only reap that corn, the seed of which was sown from heaven, watered by grace, and ripened by the sun of divine love. God will empty out all that thou hast before He will put His own into thee; He will first clean out thy granaries before He will fill them with the finest of the wheat. The river of God is full of water; but not a drop of it flows from earthly springs. God will have no strength used in His battles but the strength which He Himself imparts. Are you mourning over your own weakness? Take courage, for there must be a consciousness of weakness before the Lord will give thee victory. Your emptiness is but the preparation for your being filled, and your casting down is but the making ready for your lifting up.
“When I am weak then am I strong,
Grace is my shield and Christ my song”
A young man came with his father into Spurgeon’s church one Sunday. Following the service he indicated to his father that he would like to trust in Christ and his father prayed with him. That young man was Oswald Chambers who went on to be so effectively used of God but who also died at an early age – merely forty-three. His devotional book My Utmost for His Highest, a compilation of his writings edited by his wife, is one of the most popular devotional books in the English-speaking world. Still being used today!
These lives and others like them have been instruments of God to bless so many because these individuals learned to take up their cross and follow Christ. They learned that when they were weak then His strength could be made perfect.
Taking Up Your Cross
Taking up your cross means tendering your resignation as the one in charge of your life and recognizing that only God deserves that office. Your situation in life may be difficult but when your weakness is admitted and surrendered into His hands, His strength then can come through.
Surrendering to Him means to forgo bitterness and fear and to place your life and each situation in His hands. While, as we have already mentioned, it is always the right thing to do to pray that difficulties and afflictions be removed, there must come a time in our lives where, when God chooses to leave a burden with us, like Paul we submit our hearts to His will. Like Paul we may pray thrice, perhaps more, but eventually we must accept these weaknesses as opportunities to discover His sustaining grace. If God can receive glory through this difficulty then the heart of His disciple must say, “Your will be done.”
It is not unusual when the lesson is learned and the will is submitted that the burden is lifted, but not always. And any false submission just so the burden will be lifted will be detected by the Omniscient God. He is looking for brokenness that says, “Lord, Your will, not mine; Your glory, not mine; Your way, not mine; Your strength, not mine.”
The great American poet, Sidney Lanier, passed through many trials. Possessed of a deep faith in God, with enormous talents in languages, literature, and music, he was stricken with tuberculosis as a teenager and died at a young age after years of painful suffering. He passed on his faith in his poetry and wrote:
As the marsh hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God.
This is the attitude of faith that in the midst of difficulty trusts that victory will come one day, that God will sustain us in the meantime, and that somehow Christ will be glorified through this event.
Healing for Today