Ever since I have been sharing about what I have learned from God’s word, there are certain questions that keep being asked or being uncovered through conversations that seem to begin with unrelated issues. The answers to these questions are actually at the core of who God is and who we understand Him to be. When faced with the idea that God is in control of all circumstances in space and time (known as God’s sovereignty Lamentations 3:37), a lot of people have at least one of these 3 questions:Does God ever cause sickness? Does God ever choose not to heal? What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
Does God Ever Cause Sickness?
Many Christians perpetuate the idea that “You can only give away what you have”, which is based on an idea popularised by professor and motivation speaker Leo Buscaglia in relation to being able to love. Despite its acontextual use, many people often conclude that God cannot give away sickness because He is not sick. However, the idea that “You can only give away what you have,” though it may apply to us as humans in relationships, is not true of God in the Scriptures. So the question is, does God ever cause sickness? According to the bible, He does:
“If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting.” (Deuteronomy 28:58-59)
“Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the Lord will bring upon you, until you are destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 28:61)
“And the next generation, your children who rise up after you, and the foreigner who comes from a far land, will say, when they see the afflictions of that land and the sicknesses with which the Lord has made it sick…” (Deuteronomy 29:22)
“And a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father, ‘Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father, or in the ways of Asa king of Judah, but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel and have enticed Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem into whoredom, as the house of Ahab led Israel into whoredom, and also you have killed your brothers, of your father's house, who were better than you, behold, the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions, and you yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out because of the disease, day by day.’” (2 Chronicles 21:12-15)
From all those verses, it would seem that God causes sickness as a consequence of not following Him. However, we should not be so quick to jump to conclusions about a sick person’s illness being the result of their rebellion against what He has asked them to do:
“As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “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.” (John 9:2)
According to Jesus, some impairments and sickness are brought about by God because through these people, He intends to show Himself at work. Paul talks about this being so that He will get all the Glory, because God Himself says: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God,” (Exodus 20:5) and “I will not share my glory with anyone else” (Isaiah 42:9)
God does all this for His glory. He justly hands people over to the consequences of “exchanging the truth for a lie, and worshipping and serving the creature rather than their Creator” God (Romans 1:23-24) He brings about impairment or sickness so that through those circumstances, He is glorified. In the case of the blind man, Jesus heals him and he cannot help but give Christ all the credit. That idea often leads to a question people genuinely ask, often in difficult circumstances is “Does God always heal?”
Does God Ever Choose Not To Heal?
Many Christians will say automatically that God always heals, and that He would never choose to not heal a person. Now, from what we have just seen, God does bring sickness for a variety of reason. Many Christians will take this story of the blind man as normative and say that Jesus does not decide not to heal people today because the decision two thousand years ago was to heal. Now, to be fair, there is the promise of healing in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
When Jesus, who is both fully God and fully man, died on a cross, in our place for our sin, it was not only to take on Himself the punishment for that sin, but also to provide the promise of healing. Theologians called this expiation, as it is the idea of a cleansing and a restoring. Look carefully though at why he was pierced and abused; it was for our transgressions, not our physical illnesses. In fact the fulfilment of this is talked about in the past tense in the New Testament:
“This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:17)
There are promises that God will restore those years that we have lost to poverty and hardship that he has brought upon people, but for His praise and glory:
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” (Joel 2:25-26)
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.…And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:13-14,29)
It is true that Peter notes that the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples was a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29. We, as Gods people have been grafted into the family of Abraham according to the bible, and so these promises are for us as spiritual children of Abraham. However, even that prophecy has yet to be fully fulfilled. Its fulfilment is contingent on the people of Israel coming to belief in Christ as their Messiah (Romans 11:17–36). So while healing is promised, many of us may not see it this side of eternity with Christ, when we will get a new, perfect body in place of our broken one.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
Despite those scriptural ideas, many still Christians believe that it is always God’s will to heal, citing that we must look to the New Testament for guidance for the new covenant. However, many passages in the New Testament demonstrate otherwise. For instance, Paul wrote to Timothy saying:
“No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23)
Obviously Timothy had frequent infirmities that God chose not heal. Paul also wrote: “Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus.” (2 Timothy 4:20)
Paul would have prayed for Trophimus, but apparently it was not God’s will to heal him. It was not that, through Paul, people had not been healed by the power of the Holy Spirit:
“And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:11-12),
Paul’s close friends Timothy and Trophimus were not healed in the same way. Despite his prayer to God three times for his own healing, Paul eventually discovered that God’s grace was sufficient for his sickness:
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
We see again the reason for God not healing Paul, which is the same reason we saw earlier for God bringing about the blind man’s condition: to glorify Himself. Paul gives testimony to the fact that at his weakest, God is his strength, and even greater strength than he could ever have. He is able to boast about what Christ has done, just like the man who was born blind and healed by Jesus. So, out of curiosity what was it that Paul struggled with?
What Was Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh?
Given all we have looked at, it seems to be clear that Paul’s thorn was some kind of physical infirmity, but there are many Christians who will say things like “I don’t know. It was obviously annoying . . . but I don’t think it was sickness.” Even on first reading, the passage outlines that this messenger of Satan was an infirmities or sickness. Paul boasted in his infirmity which God allowed so that the power of Christ would rest upon him. The real issue at the heart of this misunderstanding is an assumption that the power of God is always demonstrated in the miraculous. We need a paradigm shift in order to understand that the power of God rests upon us in sicknesses, in the midst of accusations, when we are in physical need, and when we are being persecuted and miserable for Christ’s sake. The life of Christ, displayed in the Kingdom of God, in the way of the cross is described by Paul in this way:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
The power of God is often demonstrated most powerfully by transforming us into the image of Christ through trials rather than healing us or delivering us out of them. God is sovereign, and is able to heal. As children of God, we should be asking our all-powerful father to heal us, our friends and family. However, we should address our Father the way Christ did when He was presented with God’s will for His life; to suffer agony and shame on a cross and die for the salvation of the world:
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22: 42).
One of the hardest things to get our minds around is that God may have a greater purpose in not healing us, so that the life of Christ might be manifested in us through a death pleasing and glorifying to God. We all have to die one day and many of us will die of sickness. Paul was well aware of this when his brothers in Christ prayed for him:
“Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” (Philippians 1:18-24)
As Christians we need to be loving and kind and be a soft place to land, but as Ephesians 4:15 reminds us, we need to be “speaking the truth in love”, instead of giving a false hope to those who desperately want answers, and ultimately a false representation of God’s character. God can and does heal the sick and even raise the dead, but even in the bible, amongst the disciples of Jesus, these miracles are rare occurrences. Let’s be empowered by the Holy Spirit to encourage people with the testimony of the things that Christ has done in our lives, and the lives of our friends (Acts 1:8), so that those we are sharing with can be cleansed and healed, and get back into right relationship with God and others.
“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)