Illness and the Personal Relationship to God
How often it is a profound experience for us when we become ill — to a lesser or a greater degree. No doubt there are many people who have had recent experiences with it, either for a short time or for a longer duration. Perhaps they are still struggling with their health.
Obviously it makes a difference whether you have to stay home for a few days on account of bronchitis, or whether you will have to undergo heart surgery. And yet there are similarities. You suddenly discover that you are a vulnerable person, someone to whom all sorts of things can be happening. It may throw a wrench in all your planning, for you are no longer able to do your job as usual. And there was as yet so much to be done! But then all of a sudden you find yourself going from “Drive” to “Park”. And while the people around you keep rushing to and from — for that is often how life has become — you are watching from the sideline.
Inadvertently it raises questions for you; complicated questions. For it is hidden deep inside of us: to search for the meaning of things. If you have been raised in a Christian manner or — and no doubt, this goes much deeper — if you have become a believing person, undoubtedly the question arises: how is God connected to this? What does he want to teach me through this experience? This question will gain much more in significance when it becomes clear that things will not improve and you will not get well again. What about that?
The question about illness and our personal relationship to God is also important for those who surround the sick person: relatives, members of the congregation and certainly also the minister who guides the patient.
In order to bring about some structure in the scope of this topic, where admittedly also many questions will remain unanswered, we will be looking at three subparts. First we will consider the question: what is God’s purpose with sickness in our life?
1. God’s Intention with Illness in Our Life
Obviously this question already contains a presupposition that has been dealt with in several other chapters as well, i.e., the fact that God is somehow connected with illness. For now, I can leave this matter.
But when we believe that illness is not coincidence but that it is connected in one way or another with God, we cannot ignore the question: what intention does the Lord have with this sickness in my life?
A believer may know God as an almighty God and as a faithful Father, for Christ’s sake. Nothing happens by chance. Even though the confession concerning God’s Providence is not undisputed (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10), theologically or as a child of God, yet a child of God continues to confess that also health and sickness do not happen by chance, but come to us by God’s fatherly hand.
The Bible gives different responses to the question of what may be the intention of the Lord in regard to suffering in our lives.
- An illness can be a call to faith. You were living like there was no tomorrow, you progressed in your career and earned money, you enjoyed your happiness and fortune, yet there was not really a personal bond with God. And all at once the brakes were applied. You became ill. The whole world was turned on its head.
The well-known author C.S. Lewis called suffering “God’s megaphone”: a necessary amplifier to waken a deaf world. In this way through illness the Lord can arrest someone, stop him in his tracks, in order to hear his voice calling for repentance, as it had sounded forth from his Word for so long already, but was only noticed now. You can meet them in pastoral care: people who admit that they had to go through an experience such as this, otherwise they would have missed his call. It is a great blessing when it gets this far and you hear someone confess on his sickbed: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me” (Isa. 12:1).
- Subsequently, an illness can be a test of faith. This means: through an illness God throws the gold of the faith of his child into the crucible, the way gold is melted and purified in order to remove the dross and retain only the pure gold. Faith is much more valuable than gold, says the apostle Peter (1 Peter 1:7). That is why the test goes so much deeper.
How deep this can go we find for example in the history of Genesis 22, where Abraham is called to sacrifice his own son Isaac. Through this entire experience it proves that God’s work in his life can stand the test, shaming the devil and resulting in honour to God – and also to strengthening the faith of God’s child. Psalm 94 (rhymed version) phrases it like this:
“Blest is the man by you instructed
and by your discipline corrected —
the one to whom you teach your ways,
to grant relief in troubled days.”
- A third intent can be: training in faith. An illness can be used by God to shape his child and to make him progress in the school of faith. It is training in discipleship.
In this connection the Bible speaks of “discipline”, for instance in Hebrews 12:5-11. A believer can so easily lose courage in his struggle with sin. That causes him to lag behind in the race of faith. With the Hebrews there was a tangible reason for this weakening in the difficulties they encountered and the opposition they experienced. They failed to see God’s intention with it, namely that God was active in this way to nurture them to a life of following him in his tracks.
No, that is not punishment in the sense of retaliation for sin. A believer may know that Christ at one time has fully paid for our sins. Yet the Lord uses chastisement or discipline in order to shape his children in the image of Christ, in order to share also his holiness (see v. 10). That is to their benefit and unto God’s honour.
This does not make the exercise as such an easy thing to go through. The author admits this as well: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (v. 11). Therefore the question may be asked amidst all the difficulties of being ill: “As long as I am assured that everything here brings me closer to you.” And I may add, “when it makes me bear fruit for you”.
Only in the experience of a relationship to the Lord can someone discover which of these aspects are playing a role in his or her life.
Up until this point we have mostly looked at our topic from the side of God toward man. But there is also another side: looking at it from a human perspective, toward God. That is our focus in the next part.
2. “You won’t get well again...”
Imagine having to hear such a message: “There is nothing else we can do for you. We can only attempt to keep the pain down so that the last stretch of your life will be somewhat manageable.” We can well imagine that someone who receives such news will be totally devastated. Perhaps you are experiencing this at the moment, within your family circle. Or it concerns you yourself... “Can it get any worse?” is sometimes our first reaction. You may have to make preparations for your funeral, you have to let go of everything, say good-bye to all those who are dear to you...
It may also be that the message was, “You won’t get well again, but you can get quite old with this condition.” That is having a “chronically illness.” At such a moment you are relegated to a certain category of people. With all the turmoil you will experience, that is something you may find difficult to categorize... With news of this kind the question of your personal relationship to God comes again to the surface.
Through a few keywords I will try to represent different reactions in man’s relationship to God. It is not true that each “incurable patient” will experience such a reaction. Neither are these meant as stages that each sick person will have to go through. Each person is unique. The manner in which a serious illness is experienced can differ completely from one person to another. Therefore, please do not take what I am about to mention as a schematic to process one’s illness, but merely as moments of experience that can play a role.
If we do not see improvement from illness, who will not know sadness? Sometimes the sick person has traveled a long road already; there have been many visits to the doctor, with all the tensions and emotions that come along with it, until he or she is told: “We are at the end of what we can do.” Does that not cut you to the heart?
We may put all our sadness into God’s hand. The Lord knows our sorrow and sadness, so that we may give it into his hand, as we can read in Psalm 10.
There can be resistance against the illness, but also rebellion against God. The person who is ill may be angry with the Lord. “Why me? What have I done?”
It does make a world of difference as to how the question is asked. Is it the question of modern man who has absolutely no desire to connect with God, but who will yet call him to account when he gets in trouble? In that case it is a question of unbelief.
But it can also be the burning question of someone who had learned to surrender his life in faith to the Lord, an attitude you can find also with many of the composers of the Psalms. Then it is a “why” with folded hands, coming from a heart that desperately seeks God’s love. The comfort of faith is that the Lord Jesus took up all these “whys” on the cross and incorporated these in his own: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was forsaken by God so that we would never more be forsaken by him.
In general, cases of illness confront us with the cause of all misery in this world, i.e., with the fall into sin. “If there were no sins there would be no wounds” goes an expression. And that is true.
This does not mean that there must be a very personal sin as the root of someone’s illness. The histories of Job and of the man born blind (John 9) warn us for such black-and-white assumptions. Humility about sin in general is certainly needed in times of illness.
Sometimes there can be a definite personal aspect to it, as Psalm 38 teaches us. In that case the illness aims to bring us to a sincere confession of our sins in order to receive forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ.
In the difficulties of being ill the believer needs perseverance in looking at Christ. For the glory that was awaiting him, he endured the cross and his suffering (Heb. 12:1, 2). In this way he is the founder and perfecter of our faith. When the way is long and burdensome the eye of faith may look up to him.
In that way there may also be joy on a sickbed. I am thinking of someone who was seriously ill, who told me with sparkling eyes how she experienced Psalm 33. “In our greatest hurts (not “after” but “in”!) our hearts rest secure in him.” And then a little later—you would be inclined to say “How is it possible”—it continues: “Our soul awaits the great Redeemer; our help and shield, him we acclaim. In him alone our heart rejoices for we trust in his holy name.” There lies the secret: the confidence and trust in that wonderful Name of God, who is our faithful Father in Jesus Christ.
It is not always easy to achieve joy and assurance. The Bible gives us many examples of how the way to the heights often leads through the depths first. But also then the Holy Spirit works it in us that we glory in God, in the midst of suffering (Rom. 5:3).
In this manner there is also a deepening of faith taking place. In my mind I can still hear him say it, even at the brink of death: “I would not want to have missed out on this for the Lord has used it to draw me close to himself. In my trouble I have learned to appreciate and to know him so much more.”
On a sickbed the longing can be strong to depart and to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). The risen Saviour assures us that all who are his will be delivered from difficulties and pain in order to make his Name great; with a perfect body.
Is there then no more anxiety, no more fear of death? Certainly, there are also children of God who have to go through a deep struggle with the last enemy. But the Lord will not let go of what he has accomplished. Through death he brings all his children Home.
It may happen at times that it appears as if something from heaven descends into the hospital room. A silence fills the room, and those who stand around the sickbed hardly dare to say anything. Together you sense it: the Lord is present in our midst. Sometimes that is a stillness after the storm in our heart. Then our song of praise ascends to God in silence. Then there is peace.
It is simply glorious when there is evidence of the assurance of salvation in Christ. When people may confess, “For I am sure that neither death nor life...will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). No, these are not heroic sick people who try to drown out other voices in themselves. But they are people who may know that their entire salvation, for body and soul, is anchored in Christ.
When a patient in all his or her trouble holds on to the Lord, then such an illness is even to the glory and praise of God. Then healing is no longer the most important goal, but the honour of God’s Name and the importance of his kingdom. A life aimed in that direction starts to overflow with the praises of God.
3. How do you Practise Pastoral Care with the Sick?
It is important that the pastor or “comforter of the sick” (it can also be another member of the church) knows himself in his relationship toward God. You will need to confess before him that you are a difficult comforter, unable in yourself to ever carry the burden of suffering and to process it in the right way. You yourself are totally dependent on God’s care, on his help and grace. That will make you modest, humble and careful in your approach.
It is essential that the visitor realizes that he too is a mortal human being. A Scottish preacher characterized himself as someone who spoke “as one who is dying to those who are dying”. Like the patient, he too is on his way to the judgment seat of Christ. Let there be much prayer on the part of the pastor or of others who visit a sick person, for an empathic ability, and for true concern with the patient and his eternal destination. Only with this foundation will a visit be fruitful.
Some general principles could emerge from this:
- Being there is important. At the start, would not the presence of Job’s friends have meant a lot to him, simply by being there? When they opened their mouths things started to go wrong...
We should strive for certain regularity in visiting the sick. There has to be time and opportunity to build up a relationship of trust, under the blessings of God.
- Obviously attention needs to be paid to whether anything needs to be done in a practical sense. That is not always the case. More than once a literal cup of cold water can do much good, or the promise to fix this or that situation.
- Listening to a sick person cannot be stressed enough. Here the saying certainly holds true: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13).
- Let us be modest and honest in our conversations. The heart of the gospel, sin and grace, may not be lacking. What could be richer than to be able to point to the Saviour who provides comfort for the heart? Not in the sense of cheap generalities or removed from the situation, but applied to it. Especially under these circumstances we should not only know what we are saying, but also how, when and where we say it. “The tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov. 12:18).
- In a short and heartfelt way we pray with and for the sick person. Personally I experience this more than once as a highlight: to be able to bring everything before the Lord. How often does the Lord not give strength to the sick person in prayer, and where needed, also the strength to die.
It is such a rich blessing when both of you are comforted in the Lord, when both experience God’s blessing. Not only can a healthy person be meaningful to someone who is ill, but also a sick person can mean as much or more for someone who is healthy. Both are dependent on the same grace!