Our church lost two heroes recently. Chad Wescher was a deacon and a 34-year-old father of three small children. Long-term disease took his life. Dot Tropiano’s three children are a bit older. Her brave struggle required wrestling against cancer. To have known either of these warriors was to know a hero.
Does disease win? The answer would seem to be, “Yes, always—sooner or later.”
What then does David mean when he speaks of “the Lord … who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3)? Since disease eventually results in death, we need to wrestle with that question.
Here, to begin are several truths. Each can be proven from Scripture and from experience.
1. The Lord is powerful; He is Lord of all things, including disease. All of Scripture makes clear what Psalm 103:19 affirms: “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.” That declaration calls forth the paean of verses 20-22: “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”
2. The Lord is loving toward His people. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” His love is expressed in healing His people from sins. Isaiah 53:5 looks forward to Jesus: “But he was pierced for our transgressions … and by his wounds we are healed.” That “healing” is from sin and its effects.
3. The Lord “heals all your diseases.” How do we know that to be true? Scripture says so. On the face of it, God seems to be a panacea, a remedy that cures all diseases. (Panacea was the Greek goddess of healing, daughter of Aesclepius—god of medicine, and sister of Hygieia—goddess of disease prevention). “Disease” may refer to all adversities, afflictions. But the focus is on illness. In biblical times this would have included leprosy, plagues, severe bodily weakness and failure, and other mysterious diseases.
But this last truth creates the problem. Clearly, not all of us are experiencing healing. And none of us is forever blessed with good health. Something seems wrong. Is God not great (#1)? Is God not good (#2)? Shouldn’t those facts result in #3, that He heals all our diseases? How can we understand this apparent contradiction?
Lies about Health and Healing
We start by looking at several things that are not true. We must recognize these lies, and not, under any circumstances, believe them.
Here’s the first lie: Faithful people don’t get sick. If a person has been faithful, God never allows an affliction. If a person is “full of faith,” God will guard him or her against illness. All a lie!
Pain, suffering, disease, and death are experiences of all who are Adam’s descendants. In this regard, as in many others, there is no distinction between believers and unbelievers, faithful and unfaithful. Everyone is subject to accidents, failure of heart and body, disease, sickness, pain, and death.
The point of the book of Job is that he was a righteous man and suffered greatly, in all kinds of ways, including severe physical affliction. The New Testament includes examples of faithful people who suffered. Epaphroditus was ill and almost died (Philippians 2:25-30); Timothy had stomach problems and frequent illnesses (1 Timothy 5:23); Trophimus was sick (2 Timothy 4:20). Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was not a minor irritation (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), perhaps a painful eye affliction (Galations 4:13).
Another lie: Faithful people don’t stay sick; they always get better. If a person is faithful, God will take away any affliction. If I am not healed, and I’m trying to be faithful, I must have some “secret sin.” Also a lie!
Epaphroditus was healed, Timothy apparently continued to suffer with “frequent illnesses,” Paul never was relieved of the thorn in the flesh. Consider the opposite—unfaithful people never get healed. The crippled man healed in John 5 didn’t even know who Jesus was. Your faithfulness doesn’t determine whether or not you are healed. And the fact is, Christians do not always get better: Fanny Crosby, Joni Eareckson Tada, and many people we have known come to mind. A recent issue of byFaith examined the faith of people suffering from chronic pain and illness, such as crippling accidents, multiple sclerosis, or autoimmune disorders.
A third lie: if a person prays hard enough—prays “in faith”—God will always remove an affliction.
David, who may have written, “The Lord heals all your diseases,” had an infant son who became ill. “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the night lying on the ground. … On the seventh day the child died” (2 Samuel 12:13ff). Poor prayer was not the issue.
One of the children in the church where I served as a youth minister was Jeanette Sherman; she became a missionary to Japan. In Joni Eareckson Tada’s book A Step Further, Joni recorded the death of Jeanette’s 3-year-old son, Bradley. Since then, Jeanette has also died. Poor prayer was not the issue in either of these cases.
In her book, Joni wrote about a meeting for prayer for her healing (pastors, elders, and others were present). Weeks and months went by with no healing. She was immersed in disappointment and thought, “God didn’t heal me because there is something wrong with me. I must not have believed hard enough.” Then she observed, “You can easily see how this can produce a vicious cycle.” Pray. Be more faithful. Pray harder. Work harder. A repeated hope for healing—whether prayer, or something else—that is not fulfilled can be increasingly self-defeating and depressing.
The apostle Paul is a helpful example (read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He prayed for healing, and the only positive answer he received was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul saw his illness as a source for spiritual growth. Incidentally, it seems that he may have prayed just three times for removal of the affliction—and then simply left the matter with the Lord.
Jesus prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The pain and suffering were not taken away. With absolute assurance we can know that poor prayer was not the issue. With Jesus, and with us, it may be wrong—even self-destructive—to say, “I simply need to pray harder.”
And here’s a fourth lie: If I think God has abandoned me, He has.
In God’s new covenant relationship with you—the new covenant sealed in the blood of Jesus—He’s the One who continues to be faithful, no matter what you feel or think. In your relationship with God, your faithfulness is not the important factor. His is.
You may forget His benefits (Psalm 103:2), but He does not forget you—your pain and your frailty. Psalm 103:13-14 describe constants: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”
God has proven His love to us in the cross. Romans 5:8 makes clear that He has “pledged, proven, demonstrated” His love, “no matter what.”
How to Pray for Healing
So how are we to deal with disease? First, keep in mind the great promise of Psalm 103:3.
Pray for healing now. Pray that the affliction might be removed. This can happen in various ways: through the body’s healing processes, through the intervention of medicines and medical skill, through surprising, unexpected means (a miracle), or by a combination of means. We might say that all healing is from the Lord. Pray with knowledge that “God can heal me.”
Some pray with the assumption that God will heal them. Perhaps it is wise not to pray with that expectation. The clay doesn’t determine what shape it will take; rather, that authority belongs to the Potter. He is sovereign.
Therefore, we may better pray this way: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God; that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). So, pray in hope. No one can say with any assurance that God can not, or will not, bring healing, even to desperate situations. Pray in hope that the God who has proven His love to you—finally, clearly in the cross—can heal you, can relieve the emotional anguish and physical pain.
Then, secondly, at least recognize that there may be spiritual benefits for us in our suffering. In Where Is God When It Hurts? Philip Yancy explores this subject. He writes: “For example, suffering can:
1) Refine our faith (1 Peter 1:5-7)
2) Make us mature (James 1:2-4)
3) Allow us opportunity to display the works of God (John 9:1-3)
4) Conform us to Christ’s image (Romans 8:28,29)
5) Produce in us perseverance and character (Rom. 5:3-5).”
The writer of Hebrews said of Jesus: “He learned obedience from what he suffered” (5:8). If Jesus could benefit from suffering, surely that possibility exists for us also.
In Human Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote that “the Perfect Man brought to Gethsemane a will, and a strong will, to escape suffering and death, if such escape were compatible with the Father’s will, combined with a perfect readiness for obedience if it were not.” His book concludes with these words by another author: “Pain provides an opportunity for heroism; the opportunity is seized with surprising frequency.”
Very often pain and grief understandably prohibit us from seeing any good in suffering, and we may never see anything of worth in our experience. But God may indeed bring good out of it. John Perkins, a Christian civil rights proponent in Mendenhall, Miss., said, “What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.”
Peter gave these words of challenge: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).
Also know that we live in a time of partial fulfillment of God’s promises. Not every sick person in Israel or in the early church was healed. Those who were eventually died. Elisha, who raised the dead, eventually got sick and died: “Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died” (2 Kings 13:14). Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he died years later.
The time of full healing of all diseases—permanently—is still future. Read Isaiah 35:5-6; Revelation 21:3-4; 2 Corinthians 4:17-18; and Romans 8:18.
Jesus healed many people. And the disciples and apostles possessed unique power or, better, could call on God’s unique power, to heal (Acts 3:16, Acts 9:33-35). But recognize that not every Christian was healed of every disease, that every Christian died from something eventually, and that those powers may have been reserved for that very special age in which the Father honored the Son (His healings were called “signs” pointing to Jesus), giving His church a firm—but not repeated—foundation. Jesus healed and gave the 70 and the 12, His disciples and His apostles, power to heal, but that may have been for that critical time in His plan.
The last page in Joni Eareckson Tada’s A Step Further ends with these words: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 21:4; 22:20-21).” Then at the bottom of the page there is a drawing done by Joni, with the pen held in her mouth, of a wheelchair, empty, having a “for sale” sign attached. It’s no longer needed. Remember that picture. Buy the book, just so you can be reminded of the Lord’s, and our, final victory.
Trusting God in Sickness
This suggestion applies to life at all times, under all conditions: Trust the Lord. Do not rely on your limited understanding (Proverbs 3:5). Remember, however hard it may be, that “God is love.” “Jesus loves me, this I know … .” The cross is the pledge of His love. He is indeed a God of power and of love, who can and does work all things in accord with His will.
Even in the midst of our suffering, believe it or not, the Lord is in control. Job told his wife, in effect, “When we receive nice, pleasant things, we say they came from the Lord. Shouldn’t we also believe that God is in control when things are not going well?” Paul wrote to the Philippians (1:29-30) that the God who so graciously grants us faith, also grants suffering; He is a God of grace, even in our affliction.
When you cannot understand you can still trust. Paul said about difficulties he was facing: I am “perplexed, but not in despair.” That’s when and where trust works.
But in all things we must praise the Lord! This may appear to be foolish, useless advice. And it may seem impossible. It may have been difficult for David. He had apparently experienced pain and sickness before, perhaps many times. In Psalm 103, he does not say, “Praise the Lord! He has kept me without any suffering, without any disease.” He says, “The Lord has healed all my diseases,” A suggestion, at the least, that he may have suffered often.
But always, every time, to this point, he affirms, “Whether I have suffered much, or am suffering now … the Lord has delivered my soul from death” (verse 4). Each one of us has been delivered from death. How hard it may have been for David to praise the Lord during times of affliction.
The repeated exhortation of the Psalm is to “Praise the Lord!” Our text calls us to “praise the Lord, as long as the Lord gives us breath, as long as he gives us life,” whether in fact we have enjoyed life remarkably free from disease, or whether we have suffered much, or whether we are suffering at present.
Weighed down with sometimes severe disease, pain, anguish, and suffering, we may find it to be extremely difficult, close to impossible, to praise the Lord. But all of us need to be reminded of the importance of praising Him.
Recall the importance of remembering His benefits. Look at the second verse of Psalm 103: “Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, and redeems your life from the pit.”
George Fuller served as president and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and as pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Cherry Hill, N.J., before his retirement in 1999.