Over the past week or so, I’ve been having a little discussion about sickness, illness, and God with Steve Wolf. While I was really sick several weeks ago, I wrote about how God met me in that sickness. Steve took issue with my attributing my sickness to the Providence and Purpose of a God seeking to mold me and shape me. I responded to him, he responded to me. And now, I am offering my own final words on this before moving on. If he responds, I will be more than happy to post his comments.
Though this is an important issue–and, as I said yesterday, one that I feel Steve’s view could hurt a lot of people–it is an issue that concerns such a small percentage of such a small percentage of people out there. I apologize that my reply here directly speaks to his points without quoting him, forcing you to go back and read his comments; but, for the sake of space and simplicity, I thought it best just to put my thoughts up. Please feel free to comment and engage. Though I will not post anymore on this, it doesn’t mean we can’t discuss further. I know this is long, but I’ve given it sub-headings for easier navigation (and skimming). With all that being said…
My Response: Steve, thanks for your response. First, to answer your questions (and give some clarifications): yes, I have received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit (as according to 1 Cor 12:13), I have received the gift of tongues, and I fully believe in the contemporary and ongoing healing ministry and gifting of the Holy Spirit. Now, some replies to some of your points:
Timothy, his illness, and the wine (1 Tim 5:23): Paul mentioned Timothy’s stomach aches and his frequent illnesses very casually, without mentioning spirits of infirmity (in fact, the verse before, he tells Timothy that he’s been too hasty in laying on of hands). Also, I could not find any biblical scholar saying that the verse meant what you said it meant about Timothy being legalistic about drinking only water. A plain reading of the text really seems like Paul’s telling him to drink the wine for those aches and illnesses, not seek to rid himself of some “spirit of infirmity”.
Satan’s Role in Illness: Even in Job, after Satan clearly is the one that inflicts Job with the sores and skin disease all over his body, Job says, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” and the Scripture responds by saying “In all this, Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:10. A similar exchange happens in Job 1). Satan does something, Job says God ultimately is the one at work behind it, and the Bible says, “Job was right in saying this was of God and not of Satan.” Satan is not some chessboard Queen that can move along the board as he pleases. He is a mere pawn whose every move against the King is not only ordained by that King, but furthers His purposes. A few years ago, I wrote up three posts in response to a sermon saying something similar to what you’re saying. I tried to helpfully and biblically unpack a theology of Satan and his role in suffering: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Illness & Wrath: Yes, the Gospel has saved us from the wrath of God, but that wrath is not simplistically defined as “illness”. The clearest proof of this is the cross of Jesus Christ. The wrath of God is what Jesus took on himself so we wouldn’t have to. There are no verses saying that Jesus endured specifically physical illness on the cross so we might not have to. Further, the true wrath of God, as explained in Romans 1, is when God “gives us over” to our sin and the sin of the world; and this is what Christ has saved us from–ultimate alienation from God–not physical illness.
Illness, Salvation, & “Blessing”: I really don’t see any biblical support, or anyone in church history (until the charismatic revival in the 60s) that saw Abraham’s “blessing” as meaning physical immunity to illness. Also, I don’t see anyone that thought that “life more abundantly” meant some sort of simplistic idea of physical health rather than looking at the rest of John 10 and seeing that Jesus is using the Shepherd metaphor to describe the rest and pasture he offers for our souls–the passage so clearly has nothing to do with physical health.
Next, I really can’t imagine 1 Peter 2:24 (“by his stripes you were healed”) meaning anything like physical health. Read the next verse: “For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the shepherd and overseer of your souls“. It does not say that this healing has enabled you to return to the Shepherd and overseer of your physical health, well-being, and body. It is a soul-healing. Our physical redemption has been purchased for us, guaranteed by the Resurrection, and will be fully consummated at Christ’s returned. Sure, we get tastes of that redemption here, but it’s not full.
Illness as a Curse?: Deuteronomy 28 indeed has illnesses in its list of curses. But it also has famine, wars, and people’s wives getting raped. Are we to say that every time there is a drought it is caused by a “spirit of drought”; every war caused by a “spirit of war”, and every rape caused by a “spirit of rape”? And if so, what about things like the drought that led the Israelites to move into Egypt in the first place? Was that thing that is later described as a “curse” in Deuteronomy 28 because of sin? Sure doesn’t sound like it. Why didn’t they pray against the “spirit of drought” instead of going and seeking aid from the Egyptians (and Joseph)? Also, how can you tell me that the way God ordained wilderness and sickness in the OT doesn’t matter because we live under the New Covenant, but then use Deuteronomy 28 to show how sickness is because of sin, curses, or spirits in the New Covenant?
“Spirits of Infirmity”: You say, “I never said all sickness was caused by a spirit of infirmity, but viruses and especially cancer are kept alive by that spirit.” On what authority can you possibly make that distinction? All viruses and cancer are “kept alive” by spirits of infirmity, but not, say, leprosy or blindness (which Jesus healed by casting out at times)? What about bacterial infections (as opposed to viral)? How does the Christian know which sicknesses are from spirits of infirmity and which aren’t? And for those illnesses that are not caused by one of these spirits, where do they come from? What possible biblical support could there be for this idea?
The Finished Work of Christ: I think it is very dangerous to think and preach that “God wishes above all things that we prosper and be in good health – any other teaching is actually anti-Christ in that it denies the finished work of Jesus.” Really? Above all things? Above evangelism, growing in love, serving the broken around us, drawing nearer to Him, seeing His redemption take root in a broken world? Also, no one–especially me–denies the finished work of Christ. His work is fully done, it just hasn’t been fully applied. This idea you have is like saying that anyone that acknowledges we aren’t living in the New Creation now is denying this finished work of Christ.
In the end, I believe the Bible is clear: all of the physical, tangible, and material aspects of this world are groaning and yearning for their full redemption–to come out from under the weight of sin. This is because they don’t yet have it. Our souls have participated in the final Resurrection–they are raised!–but our bodies still waste away, as Paul says.
Liberation or Participation?: We take communion, not to celebrate that Jesus was broken so we don’t have to be, but rather, to “share in his suffering” (Philippians 3). We commune and participate with our broken Christ in the bread and wine, not escape it. Was Peter misunderstanding all this when he was martyred by being crucified? Did Jesus already get crucified so we wouldn’t have to? Why does Jesus’ death just save us from physical illness and not others from physical death, or even the same death he went through?
Conclusion, Exhortation, & Benediction
I’m sorry that this post is less gracious than the last. In the past couple of days, I have both remembered and have talked to people that have suffered greatly and physically in their lives. This doctrine that there is a Sovereign Satan and his spirits running around making us sick and Jesus is just trying to play catch up and make us feel better and more comfortable is one that offers no one help in their times of pain, causes no worship in their times of illness, and grants no hope for the life to come.
Read 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 7 and 8. Paul’s only hope in this life, in light of the sin in his soul and in the world–the hope without which he feels he should be “pitied among all men”–is that someday the sky will split and Jesus would descend with the New Heavens and the New Earth, and all that we’ve ever known will finally experience the resurrection and redemption it’s been longing for for millennia.
We’re not there yet.
Our bodies and this world receive but mere tastes of our physical redemption but it is not yet fully realized. How many truly godly men and women must die from cancer or disease before you and those of your opinion see that it is an idea that can only cause feelings of condemnation in light of sickness? What good could possibly come from this?
My ultimate desire in this exchange isn’t simply that we learn to agree to disagree or that you might respect those of my opinion. It’s that you would actually change your opinion in this. Steve, I have (on several occasions) been faced with the reality of having to change my doctrine in greater degrees than this change would be for you. I have had to face the fact that I spent years teaching and espousing ideas that were not ultimately true.
And, ultimately, I have been comforted in the realization that God uses weak, finite, messed-up, prideful, and wrong people to build his equally messy Church–even when their doctrine is very wrong at times. God has spoken through an ass before, and I trust that he is able to speak through this one writing this blog.
I pray God is gracious to us both, and that we maintain a humble spirit, willing to cast off any doctrinal ideas that stand in the way of knowing our God more deeply, more intimately, and more accurately.
I love you, brother. May our God of Grace, stronger than us, continue to mold and shape us all the more into his Image, both in knowledge and faith. May truth remain, humility reign, and may He set our affections upon Him. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.