I live with chronic illness. Day in and day out, pain. Exhaustion. So I’m very familiar with the idea, one that never seems to go away, that those who are ill will experience healing if we “pray hard enough.” I’m familiar with the thinking that illness comes only to those who have sinned in some way. There is so much wrong here. So much wrong theologically. So much wrong with an attitude this arrogant, this lacking in compassion. And so, I wrote the following letter.
Thanks for telling me that I should pray and ask God to heal me. For telling me that I don’t need medical treatment. For telling me that I just need greater faith. For telling me that I need to repent of whatever. Maybe this advice comes from a place of genuine concern and love. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. But here’s what you need to understand: your advice is hurtful and possibly dangerous, not to mention theologically unsound.
Do you honestly think that I don’t pray constantly for God to take this from me? Of course I do! I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy, and I certainly don’t want it for myself. Do you think that I haven’t asked Him to reveal any sin that might be related to this? Do you think that I wouldn’t do whatever He asked of me if it meant getting rid of this suffering? Do you think that I haven’t spent hours crying, pleading, even shouting?
Don’t make assumptions about my faith. What you may not realize is that people with chronic illness and pain very often have a deep, fierce relationship with Christ. We have to. We are the embodiment of 2 Corinthians 12:9a (NKJV): “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’” We can’t rely on our own bodies. We don’t take a single breath, a day outside of the house, a moment of fun for granted. We know that it is God who holds us up.
And this whole idea that sickness is always associated with sin? Well, you’re partly right. We live in a broken, fallen, sinful world. Things aren’t as they are supposed to be. So, in a general way, this connection is sound. But I direct you to John 9:1-3:
“Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.’” (NKJV)
Did you catch that? Neither the blind man nor his parents had done anything to cause the problem. There was no personal sin at play. There was no repentance needed. His blindness just…was. It was just a result of living in a world where genetic mutations are basically never good. Furthermore, Jesus chose this man as an avenue for His glory.
Now, of course, sometimes people make stupid decisions. Drug or alcohol abuse, eating poorly all the time. Sometimes illness flows out of the wrong choices we make. But did you catch that? Sometimes. People who are stricken with migraines, Autism, cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Cystic Fibrosis…well, you tell me what whopper of a thing they must’ve done.
I doubt you can come up with one.
Furthermore, tell me why many people who commit grievous sin are never struck with any kind of illness.
So, if you’ve given this advice of “pray the sick away” to me and it really does come from love, here’s what you should know:
You are ignorant. We are never guaranteed perfect health in this life. Never. In fact, we’re guaranteed to have trouble (John 16:33). Happily that same verse also guarantees the peace of Christ as we walk through trouble. He never promises to take that trouble away, though. Look at the Apostle Paul. Let’s place the words from the 2 Corinthians passage I referenced above in context:
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NKJV)
We don’t know if this affliction ever left Paul, or what the affliction was, but we do know that at the point this was written healing was denied. God said no.
God can do that. God can say no. It doesn’t matter how sincere the prayer or how righteous the person praying. God can say no. He has the whole picture in front of Him while we only have pieces. Little snippets. We don’t understand how it can be in His will that we live with illness, but it is somehow.
If you’ve given this advice of “pray the sick away” to me and it comes from a place other than real concern, here’s what you should know:
You are arrogant. Take a look at your own life. Are you going to honestly tell me that you have no problems? You may not be sick, but is your marriage perfect? Do you never have issues with your kids? Is your job just fantastic? Are all of your relationships in harmony?
Actually, I hope that your life is good. I hope that it is wonderful. But I’m scared for you if you think that smooth sailing is directly connected to your faith in God. I’m scared of what will happen to you when the day comes (and it will come) when something doesn’t go your way. Is your faith strong enough to stand testing? Do you have eyes to see the Lord in the midst of the storm?
The health-and-wealth, God-as-vending-machine, put-positive-energy-out-there garbage that passes for the Gospel these days is absolutely revolting. It’s not the truth and it helps no one, especially those who suffer.
To both the ignorant and the arrogant: Please stop shaming the ill. We didn’t ask for this. God isn’t punishing us. More often than not we didn’t do anything to bring it on. And even if we did, do you really think you’ve got the right to comment on it? Do you really think that you’ve got the right to assume that we never repented? And do you realize that in heaping condemnation upon a person, you’re actually doing the work of Satan, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1)?
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking that I don’t believe in divine healing. Oh, I do. God can do whatever He wants. Just recently He lifted breast cancer off of a woman I go to church with. But He would have been no less God, and she no less a true Christian, if she’d had to go through a mastectomy and chemotherapy.
All of us, the ignorant, the arrogant and the sick, would do well to mediate on these words from James:
“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” James 1:2-4 (MSG)
The sick need your support. We need you to pray with and for us; for strength, for peace, for wisdom in making treatment decisions. We need you to check in on us. We need you to take us to appointments, hold our hands. We need you to bring over a silly movie. In short, we need you to be a friend.