Why Am I Still Sick? Back to all sermons

Date: April 25, 2014

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Category: Tough Questions

Scripture: Romans 8:1–8:39

Tags: Healing, health, atonement, Miracles, prayer, faith, hope, illness, disabilities

Synopsis: In this message, Pastor Cam tackles the tough questions of Christian faith and how it relates to the issue of physical health, prayer and the claim that “that there is healing in the atonement.” As the sermon title (Why Am I Still Sick?) indicates, Christians still experience the usual list of human illnesses, including those that end in death. Do we need more faith? Or do we need a better understanding of the Scriptures? Using passages from Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 4-5, we explore the distinction between the “now” and the “not yet” of the Christian faith and learn to live by faith in the “now” of the Christian life, while we live in hope for the “not yet” of our coming resurrection.

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I am going to address a very important and often troubling and confusing question this morning. It is one that, I believe, every one of us has wrestled with very personally, either in relationship to ourselves or on behalf of people we love. It is the question of Christian faith and physical health and healing.

This is a message that has been brewing in my mind for some time, but it’s always been on a back burner. This week I have decided to move the pot to the front burner and bring it to a boil.

I have chosen to take up this subject on the week after Good Friday/Easter for a reason. The great underlying truth for all that we celebrated last week on Good Friday was the truth of the atonement. “Christ died for our sins.” But there is another claim that is sometimes made with reference to the atonement. It is the claim that is made and stated in different ways, but the simplest and most common way of saying it is this: “There is healing in the atonement.” This statement is based on Isaiah 53:5which reads, “By his stripes (or wounds) we are healed”and the quotation in Matthew 8:17 in which Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4 with these words: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

The reasoning then goes something like this: Since there is healing in the atonement, since we are healed by his stripes and Jesus bore our diseases, then as followers of Christ, we should no longer experience physical disease. Physical disease is a work of the devil against us and an attack on our faith. We are called on to exercise our faith and claim healing as a spiritual birthright as a follower of Christ.

But will such teaching and such claims stand up to the light of day and to the light of Scripture? Very bluntly, my question is this: If there is healing in the atonement, why are we still sick?

Let’s begin with the first part of that question. Is there healing in the atonement? The brief and simple answer to that question is: Or course there is! The Bible says so. “By his stripes we are healed.” These words are not only found in Isaiah 53, but they are quoted in the New Testament in Matthew 8:17 and in 1 Peter 2:24.

But that answer does not take us very far. It does not address some very important, underlying questions. What kind of healing is in view, and when can we expect to experience it?

So let me phrase the question a little differently. Based on the words of Isaiah 53, has God promised healing and good physical health to every believer who has the faith to claim it? One book that came out on this subject some years ago bore this title: Jesus Wants You Well. So I am asking, is that true? And if Jesus wants us well, why are so many of us still sick?

One common and obvious answer to that question, of course, is that we lack faith. “We have not because we ask not.” Based on this answer, we are exhorted to ask and to ask in faith. And when healing doesn’t come, our faith is called into question. Herein lies the dilemma. This doctrine, which seems to offer so much hope to the suffering, becomes a two-edged sword for those experiencing chronic or life-threatening illnesses and disabilities. Because when healing doesn’t come, they are left with the conclusion that it is their fault. They are sick because they lack faith. And so, to their physical suffering we add the emotions of guilt and failure.

So this is an important question that affects us all. Does God promise good health and healing to us as a spiritual birthright growing out of Christ’s atoning death on the cross?

I asked the question earlier. Will this doctrine stand up to the light of day and the light of Scripture? I deliberately posed the question that way. I want to first look at it in the light of day. By that, I mean the light of real life and every day experience of Christ’s followers. I am painting broadly on a very large canvas, not focusing on individual stories or cases. Let us take the questions of physical health and illness, and relate it to the larger question of life and death.

Follow my reasoning as I pose a series of questions. Since the first century and the atoning death of Christ, how many of Christ’s followers have died? I mean, physical death. Their physical bodies stopped breathing and their soul left their bodies. How many? All of them. Except for those of us still living within our normal life spans today, every Christian in every generation for nearly 2000 years has died. The death rate for Christians is identical to the death rate for non-believers.

Now I ask this. What did these Christians die of? What was the cause of death? If there was a death certificate, what was written there? The causes vary. Some died in accidents or from injuries sustained in natural disasters. Some died in wars. Some died as martyrs, killed for their faithfulness to the name and cause of Christ. A happy few lived long lives, and died in their sleep in their own beds. But many, probably most Christians died from some form of physical illness; the same illnesses that non-believers died of: things like Spanish flu, bubonic plague, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, cholera, malaria: an almost endless list. With the advance of modern medicine, many illnesses have been overcome in the developed world, but the death rate remains the same as people continue to die of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and again the list goes on. We Christians are not immune. If there is healing in the atonement and “Jesus wants us well” why are we still dying of physical diseases? As we walk among the grave stones of these Christians, are we to conclude that they all died because of a lack of faith and believing prayer? What kind of comfort is that to offer the loved ones who weep beside those graves?

I do not think this doctrine stands up in the light of day and the realities of life and death that surround us. But of course, the real question for us is whether it will stand up in the light of Scripture. That is where I want to turn now. Let me explain my approach. I am not going to go to the particular Scriptures I quoted earlier in Isaiah 53 and the occasions when it is quoted in the New Testament. The reason I am not going to do that is that these verses alone will not answer our questions. I did a quick internet search on this question and found numerous articles and sermons on the subject on both sides of the issue, and they all went to these passages and made their points from them – only they reached different conclusions. It all boils down to a simple question of interpretation – whether you take the reference to healing as being physical healing of our bodies, or whether you take it to be spiritual healing from the dilemma of our sins. At the end of the day, the interpreter makes his call.

I want to step back from these Scriptures and consider the question of healing and physical health against the backdrop of a much broader issue. It is the issue of our possessions, expectations and spiritual birthright as members of the kingdom of God. As we consider this question, I believe it is vitally important that we understand the differences between what has been called the “now” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of heaven.

There are many Scriptures we can go to, but I want to focus primarily on two, both found in the writings of the Apostle Paul. The first is found in Romans 8:18-25. As I read it, I have inserted the distinctions between the “now” and the “not yet” of our inheritance.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time (NOW)are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us(NOT YET)19 For the creation waits with eager longing(NOW) for the revealing of the sons of God (NOT YET)20 For the creation was subjected to futility(NOW), not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God(NOT YET)22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.(NOW) 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit(NOW), groan inwardly (NOW) as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.(NOT YET) 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?25 But if we hope for what we do not see(NOT YET), we wait for it with patience(NOW).

We see throughout this passage an important distinction of our faith. There is a present reality and there is a future hope. The present reality is described with such word as “suffering” and “groaning” and “pains of childbirth” while the future (not yet) is described with words like “glory” and “freedom”. This glory and freedom is tied to something yet future that is described as “the redemption of our bodies.” That tells us that our bodies are not yet fully redeemed or in their eternal state. These present bodies are still subject to suffering and decay and, yes, illness and disabilities. Yes, Christ’s death has purchased our salvation. That salvation includes our physical bodies. But the full experience of that redemption is yet future. For now we have the firstfruits of the Spirit dwelling within us. But the fullness of our salvation is yet future and we are called on to “wait for it with patience.”

The other passage I want to turn to is found in 2 Corinthians 4:7.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.

The treasure Paul is talking about is the new life in Christ – that we have the Spirit of God who is transforming us into the image of Christ. But for now, we hold this treasure in “jars of clay” which is a graphic image and metaphor for these present human bodies; frail, often cracked and easily broken.

This thought continues if we skip down to verse 16:  So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 

The “outer self” is a clear reference to our physical bodies. The distinction here is not between the now and the not yet, but between our physical bodies and our inner spirit. The one wastes away and grows increasingly weak, but our inner self can still thrive and be renewed. And the relative significance of these two realities is addressed in the next verse:

17 Forthis light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

So, living in the body, this “jar of clay” is described as “affliction” and a “wasting away”. There is no attempt to sugar coat that reality. But we are promised that this will be “light” and “momentary” compared to the eternal glory that awaits us.

That Paul is talking about the trials of living in our physical bodies is made clear in the next chapter beginning in verse 1:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

Our physical body is described as a “tent”. Once again there is a contrast between the “now” and the “not yet” of our inheritance. “Now” we live in a tent; we groan and we are burdened, longing for the “not yet”; that day when we shall put on our heavenly dwelling, a permanent building, our new body which we will receive when this life is over. We have the Spirit now as a guarantee, but the completeness of our inheritance is yet future.

The description of that future reality is truly glorious. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15 as “this perishable body” putting on the “imperishable” and “this mortal body” putting on “immortality”. Revelation 21:3-4 describes it this way:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

“No more mourning, crying or pain”: That will be our new reality when the “former things have passed away.” But that is future. That is “not yet”. “Now” these realities are still with us, and physical illness and pain and death are part of that reality.

So how do we live now? How do we respond when illness comes and we experience the reality of physical pain and suffering in our bodies? How do we live “now” in light of the “not yet” of our inheritance. Let me make 5 points.

1. We can accept the reality of the present age.

We should not be surprised, or react as though something strange or unexpected has come upon us. We live in a fallen world that is under the curse of sin, and we live in mortal bodies that are wasting away and will one day be torn down.

There is a great opening paragraph in a book that came out some years ago. The name of the book is The Road Less Traveled written by a psychologist named Scott Peck. I don’t agree with all that is in the book, but I like the first paragraph:

“Life is difficult.

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

One of the reasons life is difficult is that we live in these decaying “jars of clay”. Accepting that as our present reality prepares us to face it and cope with it, rather than rail against it as something unexpected or unusual.

2. We can groan.

Did you ever see a child fall and skin his knee? If there are people around, he may be embarrassed and get up quickly, saying “Didn’t hurt!” But you can see from his trembling lip and welling tears that it really does hurt. Sometimes as Christians we feel that we have to deny the hurt or keep it inside, hidden away. We don’t need to do that. Life hurts! Sometimes our bodies hurt. We should not be afraid to groan. After all, groaning is Biblical! That’s what we saw in 2 Corinthians 5:4: For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened.We don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt. (By the way, there’s a difference between groaning and whining – but that’s a tangent for another day!)

3. We can pray.

Sickness and pain should drive us to our knees. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul talks about an experience he had in Asia when he despaired of life itself. We don’t know if this was illness or not, but his response is important. He says: that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. And the way that we show our reliance on God is by praying. When you are sick, pray. When people you love are sick, pray. All the commands and instructions for prayer are applicable when we are sick. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And what is our request? I don’t know about you, but when I am sick, my request is that I will feel better; that I will be healed.

We can pray ourselves. We can also enlist others to pray. The Bible tells us to “pray for one another.” And most wonderfully of all, we are promised the divine help of the Holy Spirit in our praying. In Romans 8, immediately following the passage we looked at a little while ago about “groaning along with the whole creation as we await the redemption of our bodies”, we are offered this encouragement when we come to the end of our own praying. Let’s read, starting in verse 26:

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.

By the way, in the original language, the word that is translated “weakness” is the very same word that is used in James 5, which is translated there as “Is anyone among you sick?” So we could translate this “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our sickness.” Let’s continue:

For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

This is an important passage for us to consider. Not only are we promised the Holy Spirit’s help in our praying, but we are also told that true and effective prayer is prayer “according to the will of God.” That is why we need the Spirit’s help. We don’t always know what God’s will is when we pray. But the Holy Spirit does. That introduces the understanding that healing may not always be God’s will in every instance. That doesn’t mean we stop praying. It means we pray differently. We pray, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Praying “according to the will of God” is laid upon the strong foundation of the verse that follows:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

That leads me to the next point.

4. We can trust.

We pray urgently and fervently. We pray according to the will of God. And we trust God for the outcome. There are those who tell us that to pray “God’s will be done” demonstrates a lack of faith. I would argue just the opposite. Praying for God’s will to be done demonstrates great faith, because it does not just demonstrate faith in God’s power to heal, but it demonstrates faith in his wisdom and his love and his sovereign plan should he choose not to heal. God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about a “thorn in the flesh” that was given to him to keep him from becoming conceited. We don’t know if this thorn in the flesh was a physical illness or disability, but it certainly could have been. Whatever it was, Paul prayed for it to be taken away: Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.”

Do you know what the Lord told him? The Lord told him “No.” And he told him why: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is that word “weakness” again. It’s the same word that is often translated “sickness.” Can we really wrap our heads around this and hear God’s words to us when healing doesn’t come? My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in sickness.

Paul could. He goes on to say: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness (sickness) so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

That is trust in God’s power, love, wisdom and his all sufficient grace.

Finally,

5. We can live in hope.

For the followers of Jesus Christ, our response to illness and physical suffering is not that of fatalistic

Stoicism and despair. It is built in the strong and certain belief in the “not yet” of our faith. Now we groan, but it is both a groan of pain and a groan of anticipation. We are waiting eagerly for our adoption ceremony, the redemption of our bodies.You see, our ultimate hope does not lie in physical healing and the atonement. It lies in the return of Christ and the coming resurrection of our bodies.

It is the hope that Paul expresses in Philippians 3:20-21 when he says: But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

It is “not yet” but it is coming. As Paul told us in Romans 8:24-25: For in this hope we were saved. For who hopes for what he sees. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

And so we are called to live in the “now”, in mortal bodies, living by faith in God’s power, his love and his wisdom, while relying on his sufficient grace and strength for each new day.

And each new day, may our sense of anticipation and hope grow as we look forward to that day when our faith shall be sight and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more groaning, no more crying and no more pain.

That day is “not yet” but it is coming.

Disussion Questions

  1. What do you think people (preachers) mean when they say “there is healing in the atonement”? (See Isaiah 53:4-5, Matthew 8:17)
  2. Have you ever prayed for and experienced God’s healing (your own or someone else’s)?
  3. Have you ever prayed for healing (your own or someone else’s) and there has been no healing? If so, what impact did it have on your faith and walk with God?
  4. Has anyone ever told you that your illness (or a family member’s illness) was evidence of a lack of faith? How did you feel?
  5. Read Romans 8:18-25.  Assign the words “now” or “not yet” to each verse or phrase.
  6. How does the distinction between the “now” and the “not yet” of the Christian faith relate to the issue of healing and physical health? What does the “redemption of our bodies” (verse 23) refer to?
  7. Read 2 Corinthians 4:7. Why is the phrase “jars of clay” an apt description of the human body?
  8. Read 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Our outer self is wasting away.” (v. 16). What are the implications of this phrase for our physical health?
  9. Read 2 Corinthians 5:1-5. How does this passage help us understand the “now” and “not yet” as it relates to our bodies and physical health?
  10. Pastor Cam concluded with 5 applications as follows. Discuss each one and how it helps (or doesn’t help) us deal with our own illnesses or those of our loved ones:
  • We can accept the reality of the present age.
  • We can groan.
  • We can pray.
  • We can trust.
  • We can live in hope.