I’m sitting in bed, off sick from work with a cough and cold on my chest (no need for sympathy – I wrote this a couple of months back now). And it’s making me think about illness. Some of us have a continuous struggle with illness every day of our lives. Most of us are ill at some time or another, although you occasionally meet hardy specimens who haven’t missed a day’s work in 20 years.
Yet, even for those folk, the day may well come when they are struck down with flu, or are hit by a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer’s. Illness is part of life in this world and will be the cause of most of our deaths. Since God has put illness into our lives, we need to think about it and understand why he sends it. Especially if we are privileged with good health most of the time and rarely have to consider the subject first hand; otherwise how will we prepared on the day when illness comes?
Why do we get ill?
The first reason is plain: the Fall. God created Adam and Eve with amazing and wonderful bodies which reflected his own being. Since God himself is perfectly whole and complete, then a good creation which reflects him must also be whole and complete. Adam and Eve would never have experienced sickness or death. But when sin came, the whole creation was subjected to the curse; our lives became subject to decay and death, including the misery and pain of illness.
Sickness should remind us that we are fallen creatures – that our sinfulness is the root cause of the misery, pain and frustration of our own and other people’s diseases. And it should make us amazed if we are ever well – health is an astounding gift from God that we must not take lightly when we have it, in any measure. We don’t deserve a moment’s health, yet God gives some of us a lifetime of health!
The second reason I’d give is this: we get ill in order to recover. What do I mean by that? Imagine if you caught a fatal disease and didn’t feel ill. What would happen to you? Eventually the germs that had invaded your body would kill you – you’d drop dead without warning. So many of the symptoms of disease are actually caused not by the germs, but by our own bodies fighting the invading germs. Stuffed up noses, high temperatures, swellings and coughs are the defence systems of our body in action. You feel the need to lie down and do nothing? That’s no surprise – your body needs all your energy and strength to fight off the germs. There’s none to waste on doing the housework or being at school. At those times when we are feeling miserable and sorry for ourselves, let’s also be grateful that God has given us such a complex and thorough bodily defence system.
A third reason we need to recognise is this: that God sends illness. Why does one man remain fighting fit all his life while another lives every day with constant pain? Why does one baby die from a hole in the heart whilst another survives the operation and lives a normal life? We can’t answer these questions except to see that God has decided who becomes ill and when and to what extent. He really is sovereign in this area as in all others. This may not be easy to accept when you are struggling to get through each day but it’s surely better to know that God has put you into this situation for his own wise and perfect reasons than to be a pawn in the hands of chance.
What are the dangers of illness?
Times of sickness are time of danger spiritually. Perhaps the greatest danger is self. When I’m in pain I get wrapped up in my own problems, my own needs, my own wants – especially the desire to be well and pain-free again. In itself that’s a right desire – we’ve seen already that God created us to be well and healthy. But when I stop looking at others and look only at me then I become prone to self-pity, selfishness, self-centredness. I want other people to serve me and meet my needs.
Fears can become overwhelming during illness, especially serious illness. Fear of death, of incapacity, of the effects on family can cripple people spiritually and emotionally. We can lose our trust and confidence in God. We can stop thinking clearly. Fear can inhibit and slow down recovery.
Another danger for ill people is the danger of laziness. Obviously, there are times when you are ill when you need to lie down and rest, when you aren’t capable of doing anything, when you need to put aside all tasks and responsibilities. But that can become a habit. When you start to recover your health to some extent, perhaps you’re no longer inclined to pray, to be self-disciplined, to think about others. It’s nice to be looked after by others – do I need to start carry out those tasks myself yet, or can I wait a few more days?
A tremendous problem, especially for people who are ill for a prolonged period, is boredom. How quickly it becomes dull to lie in bed. You’re fed up with reading, there are few visitors. If in hospital, this can be particularly acute since you have none of your usual activities and interests around you. So what happens? You’ll watch anything on the television – no matter what the quality of the content. You’ll listen to self-opinionated people on the radio for hours – who start to make you think like they do. You start to gossip with and complain to the lady in the next bed. You read the whole paper, even the doubtful articles you’d normally skip. You start to daydream and fantasise. Boredom is dangerous to our souls.
Paul tells us we must be content in every situation. But how easily we become discontented and dissatisfied when we’re poorly. We grumble, we moan, life isn’t fair. We start to forget so quickly how much God has done for us and how kind he is to us. And then there is doubt. Why has God put me in this situation? How can he expect me to put up with such pain? Does he really love me – can’t he see how much it hurts my wife to see my like this, to have to look after me?
So how should we respond to illness?
The first response the Bible commands is unexpected: Rejoice!
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.
It’s not that the illness itself is a cause for rejoicing, but that illness – like all the other trials God brings into our lives – is designed to help us mature and learn spiritual lessons we couldn’t learn any other way. So, painful and difficult as it might be, we need to learn to count illness as an opportunity to grow – and to be glad that God is giving that opportunity.
A second command the Bible gives is ‘Pray’:
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” James 5:13. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Phil 4:6-7.
You have a loving Father ready to help in exactly the way you need – so ask him for that help, whether it comes as healing or as grace to persevere.
Some Christians are unwilling to use practical means – to go to the doctor or to take medicines. Don’t be. Going to the doctor doesn’t mean you don’t trust in God – his usual methods of healing people are through the body’s ‘natural’ defences and through medicines and medical care. We also need to give ourselves time to rest and recover.
Normally illness is a sign that we need to stop from normal activities and allow our bodies to get well again. We needn’t be embarrassed or unwilling to take time off work, or to go to bed early, or to ask someone else to take our Sunday School lesson this week. Some of us find that harder than others – some of us tend to think our presence at work is vital. Sometimes we are worried about the burden of the work falling onto someone else. Sometimes we have duties that are impossible to lay down – care for children or an elderly relative.
If at all possible we should seek to recover our strength before returning to normal life. This is often not an easy area to be wise in and generates lots of questions. At what point do I return to work if I’m recovering very slowly? What if I have long-term symptoms that I have to live with day by day? The answers aren’t always obvious but sometimes there are practical things we can do. If you’ve been looking after children all day, then go to bed early. If you are living with long-term symptoms then perhaps you need to consider part-time work rather than full-time.
As well as resting, there is a sense in which we must keep going. We must keep praying and nurturing our spiritual lives. We must persevere in not being grumpy and complaining. We must continue to think about Christ and meditate on his word. These things are even more necessary to our well-being than medicine and rest.
A final response is to use the time well whilst you are laid low. Yes, there are times during illness where all you can do is lie still and not do anything. But at other times your mind needs distracting from how you are feeling. You need antidotes against fears, boredom and time-wasting. How can we use the time? Maybe you can listen to the God’s Glory Our Joy sessions you never had time to catch up with. Perhaps enjoy listening to music you’ve not heard for a long time. If you have enough concentration then it may be a time to pray – perhaps longer than you usually have time for, or for different situations. If concentration is difficult then choose 5 minute slots throughout the day to pray for something specific.
I’ve often found that illness is a good time to read books. I usually have a pile that I haven’t had time to read yet. Very often I can’t cope with thick chewy books so often I’ll choose children’s books instead; old favourites or discovering new authors. Some of the best story-tellers have been children’s authors – anyone who wants to communicate with other people can learn from reading children’s literature. It may be a time to think and reflect on your life and your priorities. So many of us are so busy so much of the time that to be forced to stop and have time to think can be a precious luxury. Or you may be able to do some work – you may not be up to painting the walls of the lounge, but perhaps you can write an article for the church bulletin. Maybe you’ll have time to write letters to folk you’ve not been in touch with for a while.
What other lessons can illness teach us?
1. Many of us need to learn that we are not indispensable. We think that without us the workplace / church / home cannot continue to function. But, however important our role, we have to learn that God can do without us. His Kingdom continues to grow even when we are laid up in bed. His work will be done even when we are dead and buried. Illness humbles us and teaches us about our own insignificance.
2. Many of us forget that good health is a gift from God for which we must give thanks. A week’s pain and weakness often refocuses our minds to be thankful for the kindness we don’t even notice so much of the time.
3. Sickness ought to increase our sympathy and care for people who are suffering. Very often strong and healthy people are impatient with and find it hard to understand people who are constantly struggling with ill-health. It’s amazing how a bout of illness can help us to realise what other people are going through. That should then show itself in sympathy, prayer and practical help for others in similar situations.
4. Patience. Being ill is a situation which we can rarely do anything about except to wait for recovery. So we need patience. And for those of us with impatient natures, always wanting to do the next thing, illness may be the way God uses to teach us the lesson of patience – both for our own situations and with other people.
5. Illness now can help us prepare for the future, especially old age with its physical weakness. The day may come when I am bed-bound, unable to care for myself, having to live with pain every day. Illness now is an opportunity to make myself ready for that day. To learn to fight irritability. To learn to trust God in weakness. To practice rejoicing in trials. If I don’t learn those lessons now, there’s no reason to expect that I’ll be able to do these things when the days of trouble come.
6. Illness must help us to look forward to heaven – when all pain will be gone and every tear will be dried. Whilst we live happy and healthy lives in this world we so easily become contented with this world. The struggles of poor health are sometimes the medicine we need to wean us off the pleasures of a passing, fallen world and to set our hearts on the world to come.
Many of God’s people have lived with suffering and set examples for us.
Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles Spurgeon suffered with chronic illness and was bed-ridden for most of their married life together. Yet she supported her husband with prayer, advice and love from her sick-bed and ran a Book Fund raising money for and supplying pastors with much-needed books. Spurgeon himself for much of his life suffered with agonising gout and depression yet continued to preach and pray.
Timothy, Paul’s trusted assistant, lived with constant illness: “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” 1 Tim 5:23. Many of you will be familiar with the story of Joni and her paralysis from the neck down from the age of 17. There are many accounts of Christians and their faithfulness through illness to encourage and help us when we are struggling ourselves. The Psalms are full of the prayers of sufferers, including men suffering with illness – words which we can take and use for ourselves.
And of course, there is the example of the Lord Jesus. Some people suggest that the Lord Jesus never experienced illness because he never sinned. But when Jesus came into the world he took on a body made from the cursed dust of the earth. So we have no reason to suppose he miraculously escaped from the childhood illnesses we all experience, or from the coughs and colds which are part of every day experience in a cursed world. It’s true that the Bible doesn’t tell us about Jesus suffering from illness – but it does tell us about his acute hunger, desperate tiredness, mental anguish, rejection by men and of course the black pain and horror of the cross. And it tells us:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are— yet was without sin.” Hebrews 4:15.
The Lord Jesus knows how we feel in illness and knows the help we need to live through illness without sinning. That’s our greatest encouragement of all.