What we would call child abuse in a human family, some have labeled a blessing in the family of God. Francis MacNutt explains:
When we say that God sends sickness or asks us to endure it, we are creating for many people an image of God they must eventually reject. What human mother or father would choose cancer for their daughter in order to tame her pride?... Those preachers and chaplains who try to comfort the sick by telling them to accept their illness as a blessing sent from God are giving an immediate consolation, but at what an ultimate cost!... In a sense, we unwittingly treat God as something like a pagan deity, placated by human sacrifice.
One of the greatest hindrances to a vital healing ministry in the church today is the notion that sickness is essentially good for us, that it is sent to us to purify the soul and build character. For this reason, many believers consider it better to endure illness than to be healed. Accepting the "cross of sickness" is seen as Christlike; seeking healing is seen as selfish. And so, many who could be healed are not, simply because they think they shouldn't be.
The roots of this kind of thinking can be traced back to the Roman persecution of the church during the second and third centuries. These first bloody persecutions precipitated a crisis of faith within the early church. Theologians and lay people alike struggled to make sense of what they regarded as a contradiction. Christ, they believed, should be victor over his enemies, yet now his enemies appeared to be winning the battles.
They resolved the tension of this apparent contradiction by finding dignity and purpose in their suffering. Second- and third-century Christians began to see that, though Jesus really had ascended to his kingly throne, false rulers of this world continued to resist his authority by persecuting his true followers. Their suffering showed that they were faithful to their king.
So the early church learned to value suffering. They also began to observe its practical benefits. The Roman persecution seemed to purify and multiply the church's membership. Any among them who were insincere or halfhearted fell away, and yet the church grew in number. Thus Tertullian declared, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." I observed these same positive effects of persecution to the body of Christ while serving as a missionary in Communist East Europe.
Persecution became so highly valued in the early church that, according to New Testament scholar Peter Davids, a virtual cult of martyrdom developed between A.D. 100 and 300. Suffering, and especially dying, for the faith brought the sufferer higher status. The church had three classes during this period: (1) the outcasts who compromised to avoid suffering, (2) the majority who did not suffer much persecution or who fled persecution, and (3) the "confessors" who were imprisoned or martyred for their faith.
Roman persecution of the church (which was always sporadic) officially stopped during the time of Constantine. As Christians made alliances with the state and eventually became the privileged class, some believers became concerned. First, they noted that as Christianity became the official religion of Rome, its moral and spiritual standards dropped. Second, apart from persecution they lacked the means to attain the status of a martyr.
In response to this dual concern, many fled to the desert to practice asceticism. Without state-sponsored persecution, the true "confessors" would have to persecute themselves. The self-persecution of the ascetics was inflicted through prolonged fastings, exposure to the elements, sleep deprivation and the neglect of basic hygiene. Naturally enough, sickness often resulted. So in the minds of some, sickness became synonymous with the suffering of the true "confessors" and therefore was viewed positively.
The belief that it is spiritually profitable to degrade the body was spuriously validated and promoted by Greek philosophy. Greek thinking maintains a dichotomy between spirit and matter—the former seen as good; the latter, as evil. Under Greek influence in the third and fourth centuries A.D., the church began to view the body more and more with contempt. It was taught that anything which curbed the body's pleasures and comfort, such as sickness, was good for the soul. Thus Greek thinking provided fertilizer for the ascetic notion of "sanctification through sickness."
In summary, the early church first came to terms with and then embraced suffering under persecution. When state-sponsored persecution ceased, suffering continued in the form of self-persecution which often resulted in sickness, which in turn became associated with the sanctifying effects of the initial persecution. With Greek philosophy validating these erroneous attitudes, the notion of "sanctification through sickness" became firmly rooted in the church. With sickness viewed as a possible benefit to spiritual formation, praying for healing became less frequent.
The church's shift away from the ministry of physical healing was reflected in the way the church began to interpret Scripture. The healing passages in the New Testament were interpreted in terms of the soul. For instance, James 5:13-18, which clearly refers to physical healing, was used to support the notion of "last rites" or "extreme unction." Here the prayer offered in faith to "make the sick person well" (Jas 5:15) was reinterpreted to say "make the sick soul well from sin" in preparation for the death of the body. Contrary to the clear meaning of the text, there was no expectation or even desire that the sick person should be physically healed.
Firmly rooted in church doctrine, "sanctification through sickness" survived the Reformation intact. The Reformation put aside "extreme unction" because of its sacramental trappings, but a basic ambivalence toward the body remained. Sickness was still valued for its spiritual benefits. Life was viewed as a preparation for the afterlife. Sickness was regarded as a help in this preparation.
In the sixteenth century, for instance, the Church of England included these words in the office for the visitation of the sick: "Wherefore, whatsoever your sickness is, know you certainly that it is God's visitation." And the reason for this visitation is that "your faith may be found in the day of the Lord laudable, glorious and honorable... or else it be sent unto you to correct and amend in you whatsoever doth offend the eyes of your heavenly Father."
The wedding of the European Protestant church to sickness seemed so strong to Friedrich Nietzsche that he spitefully asserted: "Christianity needs sickness." And "making sick is the true hidden objective of the church's whole system of salvation procedures."Inevitably, where illness is valued for the spiritual good it is supposed to bring, prayer to heal the sick will be weak or nonexistent.
Many in the church today still believe that sickness should be embraced and healing should not be sought. I recently debated an eminent theologian on the issue of praying for the sick. At one point he was asked if he didn't think "a healing emphasis was a good thing, especially in some churches where it is virtually nonexistent?" He responded:
I'm not at all sure. I think it was much healthier in the old days when people didn't expect healing but emphasized the spiritual value, the maturing effect of the discipline of suffering.... I think that you end up poorer, not richer, less mature rather than more spiritual when you expect healing.
Such an attitude obviously inhibits healing prayer.
I recently met a seminary student I will call Richard, who had suffered a stroke that left the right side of his body virtually paralyzed. When I offered to pray for him, he thanked me for my concern but declined. He then explained how, in his affliction, he had grown close to God and therefore regarded partial paralysis as a good thing. I agreed with him on what seemed to be a significant positive benefit and then suggested that if the stroke had been of value, how much more the healing of it would be of value! He thought over what I said but still declined my praying for him because, as he said, "I don't want to miss out on anything God wants to teach me through this." I suggested that some of what God wished to teach him might come through healing.
I then asked Richard if he took physical therapy to improve his condition. He said yes, of course he did. I then asked why he would accept improvement for his condition through therapy but not through prayer. After a long pause, he shrugged his one good shoulder and said, "I don't know."
When we get sick or hurt, we go to the doctor and expect him to help us. We never question whether or not it is God's will for us to go. We presume that it is proper to get medical help and for that help to be effective. Why then are we reluctant to seek help through spiritual means?
When pressed to justify the "sanctification through sickness" theory, its exponents often cite the educational or remedial value of sickness. The Bible offers some support for this. God does occasionally send physical affliction to correct the behavior of his people. But when God afflicts his people, he tells them what behavior he wants to correct. People are not long in doubt about what to do to be healed.
Paul, for instance, was struck blind (Acts 9:1-9). This divinely inflicted ailment proved essential to his conversion from persecuting Christ to serving Christ; it was therefore educational and remedial. Following the appropriate change in Paul's attitude and behavior, he was healed (Acts 9:17-18).
When God sends sanctifying sickness, it is sent to modify bad behavior. When the behavior is remedied, the sickness is healed. In the case of the sickness and death visited upon the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:27-31), Paul made it abundantly clear that this was punishment for sin and thus it was educational. But the Corinthians were not to passively accept this sickness, but rather they were to stop sinning against the Lord's Supper and be healed. They were not to view this sickness as anything other than a strong encouragement to stop sinning.
This approach makes perfect sense. A parent's discipline is only fair and helpful if the child knows what it is for. If a parent repeatedly strikes a child without explanation, there is no educational value in it. Such "discipline" might even teach the child that the parent is unpredictably cruel. Sickness is rarely seen in Scripture as a divine means of educating God's people. But when sickness is used to educate, it lasts only as long as the sin continues and not interminably without explanation, as chronic illness often does.
Other defenders of "sanctification through sickness" suggest that sickness is often given to us as a cross which God expects us to bear bravely. This notion carries a pious ring, but when we examine it in light of the biblical teaching on cross-bearing we spot its error. The New Testament clearly teaches that cross-bearing is voluntary. It was for Jesus, and it is for us (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23). And not only is cross-bearing voluntary, it is active and not passive. On the other hand, getting sick or disabled is rarely voluntary, nor is it actively sought by mentally healthy people.
Akin to cross-bearing as a justification for illness is the idea that sickness is a "test" sent by God. A person in the midst of such a test may be temporarily consoled with the words "God must trust you to send you such a test." But on reflection such a person might wish to have been less trusted by God and therefore less tested. And like the idea that sickness is educational, so the idea that sickness is a test is valid only if one learns the reason for the test and whether the test has been passed or failed. Rarely is such information provided to the chronically ill person.
It is manifestly true that some people are sanctified through sickness, as people may be through any and all of life's painful experiences, "because we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom 8:28). Nothing I have said thus far has in any way been meant to deny this. However, we are not to receive sickness passively as if it were good in and of itself. We are instead to fight it with all we have, and the church has Christ's ministry of healing with which to fight it.
But someone may object at this point, saying that the New Testament teaches that suffering is inevitable, that it may be good for us, and that on occasion we are to accept it. I would respond with a qualified yes. In the New Testament, suffering is sometimes presented positively but sickness never is. This distinction is vitally important. Let me explain. Modern English usage collapses sickness into the concept of suffering, but the New Testament clearly distinguishes sickness from suffering. In the New Testament, sickness is sickness and suffering always refers to the pain of persecution inflicted by persons or demons.
The pascho word group in the New Testament is translated "suffering" in our English Bibles. Of the sixty-five appearances of words from this group in the New Testament, only one has to do with physical sickness, and in that case (Mt 17:15) the illness (epilepsy?) is ascribed to a demon! In Mark 5:26, the term suffer applies not to the woman's illness but to her treatment by the physicians! The New Testament consistently defines suffering as some sort of persecution and not as physical sickness. We are told that persecution has value and merit. We are never told this about sickness.
The New Testament is also clear about the distinctly different ways we are to respond to suffering under persecution as opposed to sickness. Suffering persecution is inevitable for the true disciple, and there are a variety of ways to respond to it. We may resist it on one occasion, flee from it on another, and accept it on yet another. Sickness on the other hand is not in this same way an effect of true discipleship. It is not inevitable, and we are always to fight it.
In the book of Acts for instance, suffering due to persecution is the result of boldness in proclaiming Christ (Acts 4:1-22; 5:40-42; 7:54-8:3; 14:19-20; and so forth). Consequently, suffering may have to be endured bravely or even joyfully. "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace [flogging] for the Name" (Acts 5:41). On the other hand, the early church sometimes prayed to be delivered from persecution (Acts 12:5). Occasionally they were delivered; other times not.
But the ambiguity surrounding persecution is not present with regard to sickness. Never do we find New Testament Christians reconciled to sickness, enduring it patiently or rejoicing in it as they sometimes did with persecution. And while some of the prayers in Acts for deliverance from persecution were not answered positively, the prayers for healing always were.
One of the clearest biblical distinctions between suffering and sickness is found in the book of James. James says, "Consider it pure joy... whenever you face trials of many kinds" (Jas 1:2), but in 5:14-15 we hear James ask, "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray.... And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well." The New Testament teaches us sometimes to endure suffering but always to pray to heal sickness.
English-speaking Christians need to remember that our term suffer has a semantic field which includes sickness. In the New Testament, however, suffering and sickness are distinct and different from each other. So the values of suffering in the New Testament should not be ascribed to sickness.
Throughout this book, I seek to steer clear of abstractions and speculations about sickness and God's will regarding it. My method in getting at these questions whenever possible is to discuss what Jesus said and did about them, because in Jesus Christ the will of God is truly spoken and done.
Jesus' teaching on the proper response to suffering under persecution is ambiguous. On one occasion he said flee if persecuted (Mt 10:23). On another occasion he said actively submit to it (Mt 5:39). But no such ambiguity can be found in Jesus' teaching regarding sickness. Sickness is never viewed by him as anything but bad, and he never dealt with sickness in any way but to heal it. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus sanction sickness for anyone for any reason. He never counseled anyone to accept sickness as inevitable or profitable. More to the point, Jesus never inflicted sickness on anyone to accomplish some higher good, although he often healed existing illness for that very reason (Jn 9). Jesus made it clear that sickness is an enemy not a friend. When possible, it is to be healed and not accepted. The New Testament scholar Ulrich Mueller asserts:
Sickness contradicts the salvation will of the creator God, who wants life and not death. That is why Jesus wanted to save the concrete person in his life, i.e., strengthen and maintain him.... This religious aspect does not give Jesus occasion to preach surrender to sickness, but rather provokes his resistance to it.... Nowhere do we find the admonition to tolerate sickness, and to come to terms with it.
Jesus' response to sickness was to heal it. He said, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10). Sickness is not a blessing—the One who came to defeat it is a blessing.
If there is an exception to the New Testament's explicit hostility towards sickness, it is to be found in 2 Corinthians 12:7, where Paul tells about his "thorn in the flesh." The thorn was given to Paul to keep him from becoming conceited. Some Christians suggest that this thorn is a physical sickness or affliction which was given in order to accomplish some higher spiritual good. If the "sanctification through sickness" theory has any biblical sanction, it is here. The problems in finding justification for it even here, however, are formidable.
One of the many reasons for doubting that Paul's thorn was a physical affliction is the background of the phrase in the Old Testament. In Numbers 33:55, "thorns in the sides" of God's people refers to the harassment and persecution which Israel's neighbors inflict on them. These nations are referred to again as thorns in Joshua 23:13 and in Ezekiel 28:24. The Old Testament concept of a "thorn in the flesh" refers to persecution and harassment, not sickness.
Now notice the context of Paul's thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. In the previous two chapters, Paul speaks of his being persecuted and harassed by false prophets and political and religious authorities. This discussion of his suffering at their hands leads directly into his discussion of his "thorn in the flesh." In Paul's Hebrew mind, a "thorn in the flesh" carried an idiomatic meaning much like "pain in the neck" does to us. It connoted personal persecution, and this is the very context of his mention of it in 2 Corinthians 12. While it is impossible to state with certainty what Paul's thorn was precisely, it is much more likely the painful opposition of personal enemies than physical affliction.
But even if someone yet holds to the theory that Paul's thorn refers to physical sickness, we would still have great difficulty in saying that this supports the idea of "sanctification through sickness." We are often rightly warned not to base any doctrine on one passage of Scripture even if that passage is clear and unambiguous. How then could we be justified in sanctioning the value of sickness on one highly problematic and obscure passage?
Even if we should go to the extreme of basing a doctrine on one obscure passage, we must contend with the fact that Paul vigorously rejected his thorn at first. Three times he earnestly "pleaded with the Lord to take it away" (2 Cor 12:8). Whatever his thorn was, Paul fought it and repeatedly pleaded with God to remove it. Paul came to accept his thorn only after a bitter spiritual battle against it, and even then he accepted it only after the Lord told him specifically to do so. It seems to me that this comports with the testimony of someone like Joni Eareckson Tada, who initially sought healing for her paralysis. She fully believed God could heal her, and she aggressively went after it. She did not passively accept her condition. Only after a long spiritual battle did she feel that she must finally be reconciled to her weakness and find God's strength sufficient in it.
Jesus never preached surrender to sickness and neither should we. There are many among us who could be healed if only we would pray for them. I am someone who for years suffered chronic back pain, having accepted it as a divine means of taming my pride. Only after I was delivered of this erroneous notion was I effectively prayed for and completely healed. Our theology must sometimes be healed before our bodies can be.