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We have already seen that degeneration of God’s creation in every direction began as a result of sin, and sickness is a part of that degeneration that causes a lot of suffering. We have understood some of the philosophical and theological problems related to suffering and also how we should address them. What we want to do here is to examine the theological aspects related specifically to sickness and healing.
There are some Christians who insist that when Jesus died on the cross, it not only dealt with salvation from sin but also healing from sickness and a guarantee of perfect health. There are three problems with this. The Bible, on the whole, does not teach it, the experience of early Christians as reported in the New Testament does not agree with it, and the general experience in the present day does not validate it.
But let us start from the fact that God is almighty, and there is nothing He cannot do. He can heal any sickness miraculously and it is not difficult for Him even to raise people from the dead. Let us also accept the fact that God does miraculously heal and raise people from the dead occasionally even today. But what we are examining is whether there is any promise from God for complete health for all of His children on this earth or even for healing every time a child of God becomes sick.
“With His stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5 KJV) is the famous part of a verse that most people quote to teach that when Jesus was scourged and then died on the cross, that paid the requirement for our healing just as His death paid for our forgiveness. To understand the correct meaning of this sentence, we need to see its meaning, its context within the passage it occurs in and its support in terms of other passages in the Bible.
The word ‘healed’ can refer to any type of healing including physical and spiritual healing. What God meant here needs to be understood in the context of the rest of the passage. It is very clear that rest of the passage is referring to spiritual healing, i.e., salvation from sin because of the death of the Messiah on behalf of people. The root of all the problems on this earth was man’s sin, and the Son of God had come to set man free from sin. His death for the punishment of our sins sets us free from punishment and gives us blessings, the greatest of which is to become like Jesus in our character. But could we say that perhaps God meant physical healing in this verse as an additional factor? In order to verify this, we can look at what the rest of the Bible, especially the New Testament, teaches about physical healing.
Jesus healed many people and raised a few from the dead, and the apostles also did similar things. When Jesus did these miracles, it was said that He did it out of compassion for the people (Matt.14:14), or as a sign of who He was (Jn.2:11). But there is no record of Jesus teaching that because of His death everyone could be healed. Considering that the epistles were written as instructions to the churches, and especially that the Book of Romans describes the doctrines of salvation, there is no teaching on healing or a promise that all who believed would be healed.
There are two special references to be examined. The first is where Matthew notes after saying how Jesus healed people and cast out demons, that this was the fulfilment of what Isaiah had said, “He took our weaknesses and carried our diseases” (Matt.8:17). This is quoted from Isaiah 53:4 where the text is, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried.” There is a difference in meaning between the two. Compare this also with the quotation Peter makes, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1Pet.2:24). Here the healing is related to sin, as we have seen from Isaiah 53 earlier. In view of this, as well the rest of the corroboration that we shall see, it looks as if Matthew was only saying that the acts of physical healing were one instance of fulfilling what Isaiah said. We cannot take it to mean that all who believe in Jesus will be healed.
The second instance is what James tells us to do if we become sick. We are to go to the elders of the church, and request them to anoint us with oil and pray for us, confessing our sins (in case it was our sins that led to the sickness). James says that the prayer of faith will heal the sickness (Jas.5:14-16). We would have thought this was a promise for healing for all time, except that there are several cases in the New Testament where it did not happen.
Timothy had a problem with his stomach for which his mentor Paul advised him to take some wine (1Tim.5:23). Knowing how radical Paul was with regards to doctrine, this is not what he would have said if he believed that because Jesus was wounded for us we had a claim to be always healed. There was Trophimus whom Paul left behind sick as he travelled (2Tim.4:20). Epaphroditus, Paul’s co-worker, was at one time almost at the point of death (Php.2:25-27), which would have been unbelievable if health was our right. We do not know what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, whether it referred to a physical problem, but God’s solution was to help Paul to bear it rather than to remove it (2Cor.12:7-9). What this shows us is that there are times when God allows us to suffer, and He has not promised to take away all our pain and suffering until we are in eternity (Rev.21:4).
We are all aware that even in our days, even most godly people die of sickness and with suffering in spite of all the prayers that are offered on their behalf. It is not possible to write these off as lack of faith, presence of unconfessed sins, ancestral curses, etc. It is not right to think that if someone does not get healed it must be because of a lack of faith or sin in his life. If someone asks for prayer for healing, it shows he has faith, and even a mustard seed size of prayer should be enough for God to heal (Matt.17:20), if that was what was needed. What about sin? It is possible that sometimes sickness is a discipline for sin that is not dealt with (1Cor.11:28-32). Then it should be confessed and forsaken before asking for healing. But it often happens that even when people have confessed all known sin they remain sick! When Jesus went around healing everyone who came to Him, can we think that all of them had great faith and no sin? There are things we do not understand now about God’s wisdom, and we do not know why some are healed and others are not. But facts go to show that healing is not a guarantee for all.
Some people quote the promise of freedom from sickness that God gave to the people of Israel as they left for the Promised Land (Exo.15:26). We have to recognise that this was conditional on their obedience. Possibly this was also related to that period in history as a special protection for those people on their way. Another special thing was that they had food dropping from the sky and water coming out of rock, and their shoes did not wear out! It is not right for us to take such as promises for us.
So, what can we conclude? Sickness is a part of the curse that is on the earth as a result of the original sin. Just as in the case of other effects of the curse what we have to bear on the earth, this is also something that will be removed only in the new heavens and the new earth. Even the last part of our salvation, namely glorification, is kept waiting for us till that time. If we become ill, we have a right to go to our Father and ask for a healing believing that He is able to heal us. But we will have to accept it as an inscrutable part of His wisdom if He chooses not to heal miraculously. Then we have to go for the second best, which is to go to the doctors. We will have to wait till we stand before Him before we can understand all His reasons. But let us not forget that even sickness can become a means by which we partake a little more of His glory (2Cor.4:16).
There are those who refuse to take medicines trusting in Isa.53:5, and there are those who have died as a result. There are also others who have experienced miraculous healing as a result of prayer. What we can conclude is that God does heal miraculously sometimes, but He has not given a blanket promise of healing for everyone. If God gives someone the gift of faith (as we discussed in the chapter on faith) to believe that he would be healed miraculously, only then can one be sure that it will certainly happen. It appears that there are some people like that, but then it is not right for them to teach that everyone must have the same type of faith because it is a special gift!
When it comes to mental illnesses, many Christians are confused about how to deal with them. Some insist God has given them a ‘sound mind’ (2Tim.1:7) and refuse to accept the possibility of any mental disorder. But the verse refers to ‘discipline’ rather than to an healthy mind, as modern translations bring out. Some others are quick to call all of them demonic manifestations. Some severe mental disorders do have symptoms similar to demonic oppression or possession, such as hallucinations, violent behaviour, or epileptic attacks. But it is necessary to understand that there are many types of biological malfunctions that affect the brain that need to be treated with medicines. There are also mental disorders that are triggered by traumatic experiences in life or a combination of biological and environmental factors that need to be addressed through psychotherapy. Just as we would go to doctors for medical problems there should be no hesitation to prayerfully address mental disorders through psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors depending on the type of the problem. If we suspect demonic causes it will be good to look at possible reasons for them as described in the chapter on Christians and demons.
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