Sickness for the Glory of God

Our culture has made an idol out of many things, and one of these things is good health. Now there is a fine line between avoiding bad health and despising it. We all should live responsible lives, caring for our body, eating a balanced diet, and avoiding sinful behavior which may cause physical problems and disease. This is being a good steward of the life and the body that God has given you. But be careful that by avoiding bad health you do not also despise it.

Our culture has made an idol out of many things, and one of these things is good health.

You probably know this already, but there is no fountain of youth. According to some calculations provided by Our World in Data, the average life expectancy for people living in the United States was 49 years in 1901. One-hundred and ten years later, in 2011, it had risen to 79 years. I’m not sure what it is today. That’s an increase of 30 years. If that trend continues, perhaps we would see another increase of 30 years in the next one-hundred and ten years, making that an average life expectancy of 109 years in 3021.

No matter what you do and how you live, you inevitably will encounter sickness and illness in your life, and that may include serious or terminal illness. Do what you can to avoid it, but as a Christian and someone who loves Jesus, do not despise it. Why? Because serious illness provides a special opportunity to learn the truth about Jesus. We learn this from John 11:1-16, which introduces to us account of when Jesus resurrected Lazarus.

Serious illness provides a special opportunity to learn the truth about Jesus.

If you look carefully, you will see that John 11:1-16 introduce the story of Lazarus to us, focusing on the twelve disciples. The next section of verses (John 11:17-37) focuses on Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. With this in mind, pause to consider specifically how to respond when you encounter sickness in the life of another person or a family that you know, as the disciples experienced in these verses.

Sickness touches the lives of those whom Jesus loves. (John 11:1-3, 5)

This chapter opens in a special way, introducing us to three people: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It tells us about their names, their residence, their testimony, and their close relationship with Jesus. We learn from these verses that Jesus loved this family in an endearing way, using two different words for love: 1) agapao, which describes a deep, personal commitment and 2) phileo, which describes a close friendship. So, Jesus loved this dear family with the full range of love that exists in an earthly friendship.

Knowing this, pause to consider that sickness described in this chapter (the sickness of Lazarus) touched the lives of people whom Jesus loved. We learn from this that a close relationship with Jesus – no matter how close and how special – is no guarantee that you will not experience sickness. People who know Jesus get sick. It happens, and that’s okay. Are you willing to accept that?

Jesus may permit a sickness to progress. (John 11:6-7)

Not only do people whom Jesus loves get sick, but Jesus may permit this sickness to progress. Notice what happens in John 11:6-7. Mary and Martha sent a messenger to inform Jesus that Lazarus was sick. What did Jesus do? Did he pack up his bags and rush to their home? No. He stayed where he was for two more days, and after that he went.

When you read John 11:3, 5 you are surprised by John 11:6. You are surprised because you would expect that since Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he would have done all he could to visit them as quickly as possible. But John says clearly that Jesus loved them and that he waited two days to go to them. Seeing this, you need to accept that Jesus – no matter how much he loves you, and perhaps because he loves you – may permit a sickness to progress.

Modern medical jargon calls this progressive disease or illness. Sometimes these conditions are called a degenerative disease. This describes a disease or physical ailment that gradually worsens or spreads over time, leading to death, serious disability, or failure of certain bodily functions. Sometimes these conditions progress rapidly (days or weeks), and other times they progress over long periods of time (months or years). Diseases like this include: 1) Alzheimer’s in the brain, 2) cataracts in the eyes, 3) emphysema in the lungs, 4) diabetes in the pancreas, and 5) arthritis in the joints.  In this discussion, we should also consider two other types of disease: 1) chronic disease, which is a physical condition that continues without getting progressively worse and is therefore static, and 2) permanent disability, which is a physical condition that also continues and prevents a person from performing basic life functions.

Of course, there are so many other forms of illness and disease that progress over time, like cancer, heart disease, etc. And the biggest problem of all is old age itself. In the end, it always wins. Some medical opinion concludes that girls stop growing by age 16 and boys by age 18. Some estimates are higher. But whatever the case, once that moment happens for you, old age sets in and your long, slow march towards death begins in earnest. This is the most persistent degenerative disease of all, if you want to call it that.

Progressive illness happens to those whom Jesus loves and those who have developed a close relationship with him.

But here is the point of all this. Progressive, degenerative, and chronic illness happens to those whom Jesus loves, those who are his children, and those who have developed a close relationship with him. It happens to those who may even be called his friends. Have you noticed this? Have you noticed that people who have walked with God, have served God, and who love God, people in your family and church who love Jesus and serve Jesus – even they get sick, and sometimes in a serious way? Sickness, illness, and disease – even the chronic and degenerative kind – is not reserved for the most notorious sinners. It happens to all of us, and theology, doctrine, or preaching that does not account for this reality is bad and irresponsible at the very least.

You may misunderstand what he intends to teach you. (John 11:8-14)

When you see a serious illness touch the life of someone who loves Jesus (and someone you love), it is important to keep your focus on what God is teaching you. I say this because physical illness, especially the serious kind, teaches important lessons to all of us, not just to the person who is ill and his family. The disciples had trouble seeing this.

First, notice that the disciples failed to properly diagnose why Jesus would go to visit Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at all (John 11:8-10).

Why? Because it would bring them back to the western side of the Jordan River and closer to Jerusalem, where the religious leaders wanted to kill him. Remember from the end of John 10 that the religious leaders were encircling Jesus and preparing to stone him to death? With this foreboding scene in the backdrop, the disciples were more concerned about their personal safety and future prospects than they were about ministering to the suffering family of Lazarus.

How does Jesus reply to this wrong thinking? He gives his disciples some very simple advice. Long before Thomas Edison discovered electricity, natural sunlight generally governed when people could work and travel easily and safely. For the Jews at this time, that period would have been approximately 12 hours, from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. So, Jesus is saying here that regardless of what the Jews are threatening to do to him, the best time to get important things done is during the daylight, and the best time to travel to the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha was then, during the daylight, not in the darkness of night.

By making this common-sense observation, he is making it clear to the disciples that he is entirely unconcerned about the death threats looming over him. As he said before in John 10:17-18, no one can take away his life. When he dies, he will lay his own life down and when he chooses, he will take it up again. He may also be reminding them that, as the sun is the physical light for people of this world, so he is the spiritual light of the world. After all, that is the most important truth of all, isn’t it? The truth about Jesus who came into the world to save us from our sin?

Second, notice that the disciples failed to diagnose the situation properly because they did not pay attention to the words of Jesus (John 11:11-13).

Jesus said that their good friend Lazarus was “sleeping.” He also said he wanted to go to Lazarus to “wake him up from sleeping.” The disciples failed to understand what he was saying. They said, “Why would you want to wake him up? If he’s sleeping, that’s a good thing. Let him get some rest. Maybe that will help him feel better.” But that’s not what Jesus was talking about. He was using “sleep” as a euphemism. Do you know what that is? It is a nice, gentle way of saying something that is difficult and hard to accept.

So, Jesus told them the same thing again, but this time in straightforward language. He said, “Lazarus is dead.” Friend, be sure that when disease and sickness strikes, you turn to the Bible and make sure that you know clearly what Jesus says there.

Observing God’s response to illness reveals truth about Jesus. (John 11:4, 15)

Now please tell me something. If you’re looking for the truth about Jesus in this story, you see something very amazing here. How did Jesus know that Lazarus was dead? Two days ago, a messenger had told him that Lazarus was ill. Now Jesus, all by himself, says that Lazarus is dead, having received no further messages or communication. First of all, this indicates that Jesus has a kind of knowledge that only God can have. He is omniscient. He knows all things, not only what people tell him. But second, if he knows all things, then why did he wait two days before he went to see Lazarus? Knowing everything about this situation, he waited to go there because he had a bigger, better purpose for this sickness and death.

If Jesus knows all things, then why did he wait two days before he went to see Lazarus?

Here is a very important lesson. As nice and important as physical health may be, you must never elevate this as a higher concern than Jesus Christ himself. All things, even a healthy life, are nothing compared to Christ. And when physical illness and disease, even the kind that is progressive or chronic, comes into the life of someone you love, especially someone who is also a disciples and friend of Jesus, the most important thing you can focus on is what you can learn about Jesus from the experience.

That’s what John 11:4 indicates near the beginning of this episode, and that’s what John 11:15 tells us near the end. John 11:4 tells us that this sickness happened so that “the Son of God might be glorified through it.” And John 11:15 tells us that Jesus was glad that he was not there to prevent Lazarus from dying. Why? So that they “might believe” the truth about Jesus.

Seeing all of this in this story reminds me about the testimony of the Apostle Paul. You see, Paul was afflicted with a chronic problem. We read about this and his attitude towards his suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:

There was given to me a thorn in the flesh … For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

This also reminds me of what Paul said in Philippians 3:7-11:

What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.

Paul believed that no other thing in life, and that includes physical health and comfort, was more important than knowing the truth about Jesus. Do you agree? Many of us agree with this in a head-knowledge sort of way. We agree in our minds? But do we agree in our emotions? Do we agree in our hearts?

If you were faced with a choice between a healthy, long life and an average relationship with Christ or a life wracked by pain and physical suffering coupled with a deep, close relationship with Christ, which would you chose? Now that’s a hard question, isn’t it? Can you see how we’ve made a god out of good health, one that casts a shadow over our commitment to Jesus? So, what should we do?

Learn to respond the right way. (John 11:16)

Notice in John 11:16 how one disciple responds to what Jesus is teaching them. He says something very interesting. “Let us go with Jesus and die with him!” He is saying, “Well guys, Jesus made up his mind. He knows the Jews will try to kill him, and he’s going anyway. Let’s be good disciples and go with him, even if we end up dying with him.”

Now that is a courageous decision, isn’t it? I agree that it is. But it also misses the point. Jesus said, “Lazarus is dead.” So, putting that together with how the Jews were plotting to make Jesus dead, too, Thomas looked at the whole situation and concluded this way: “Well, first of all, Lazarus is dead. Second of all, Jesus is going to visit the grieving family there, and the Jews are probably going to kill him. So, if that’s what’s going on, then we might as well go with Jesus and die, too.”

But Thomas failed to realize that Jesus was not necessarily testing the loyalty of his disciples here. He was teaching them a different lesson. He was teaching them the truth about himself through the death of Lazarus. And what he was about to teach them was intended to bring them to a deeper, confident faith in who he was – the Son of God who came to give eternal life and to take away the sins of those who would believe on him. Thomas failed to see this because he failed to listen to the words of Jesus. He heard some of the things that Jesus was saying, but not all of them.

So, what about you? When a fellow believer, a close friend, a member of your church, or a member of your family is diagnosed with a serious illness, how do you respond?

  • Do you ask all kinds of why questions?
  • Do you doubt the goodness of God?
  • Do you jump to the conclusion that this person has serious sin issues?
  • Do you latch onto the illness as a drama to distract you from life?
  • Do you immediately begin firing off emails of alternative medicine options, etc.
  • Or do you pause and ask the question, “Lord, what are you teaching me? What are you teaching all of us? What are you teaching this person and their family about you? How can we know you better through this suffering?”

I can tell you as a pastor that physical illness makes it possible for people to learn the truth about Jesus in very important ways. Just by making hospital visits to church members that are ill, here’s what I’ve experienced in this regard:

  • Sometimes I get to meet unsaved relatives for the first time and I get to read Scripture with them and pray with them.
  • Sometimes I get to witness to unsaved relatives.
  • Sometimes the hospital staff learns the truth about Jesus when they hear me pray or see the way church members conduct themselves as they visit the room.

And with this in mind, let me share with you some helpful advice to “equip you to do the work of the ministry” when those among us are ill. When you make a phone call, pay a hospital visit, and so on, do more than just engage in small talk. Ask the friend how they are feeling and how they are thinking. I like to ask the question, “So what did you think and how did you feel when you first heard your diagnosis?”

As you listen to what they say, consider asking them what they are learning about Jesus through it all. Read then some encouraging Scripture that points them to Jesus. Sing a hymn with them or prayer a prayer that points them to Jesus. You don’t have to do this in a “preachy” or forceful way. You can do this in a friendly, loving, natural way. Doing this keeps the right thing in focus, learning all that we can about Jesus through our physical illness and suffering.

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