Healing and Suffering

While in prison, John the Baptist had a question for Jesus: "Are you really the Messiah we've been waiting for, or should we keep looking for someone else?" (Matt. 11:3). Jesus had not brought about the Kingdom as John had expected, and John was having doubts about who Jesus really was. John wonders: If Jesus is the Messiah, why am I still in prison, under the world's oppressive powers? Wouldn't Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah do something to set me free? Is he really the One who fulfills biblical prophecy of God's promised Deliverer, given that my suffering continues?

Jesus replies directly: "Go back to John and tell him about what you have heard and seen — the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the Good News is being preached to the poor" (Matt. 11:4-5). Jesus's reply draws from the prophet Isaiah to identify the signs of the coming Messiah (Isa. 35:4-6, 42:7, 61:1). Given these signs, John should draw his own conclusions about who Jesus is. Deliverance and healing are indeed central to God's plan for saving the world. Everywhere Jesus went, he delivered and healed people of afflictions (see, for example, Matt. 4:24-25; Lk. 6:18-19). Jesus has the power to deliver, to heal, and even to bring the dead back to life (see Matt. 9:23-25; Mk. 5:39-42; Lk. 7:12-15, 8:52-55; Jn. 11:43-44). Jesus is indeed the promised Deliverer, the long-awaited Messiah. John should have known. We should know too.

Even so, human beings ache in pain, suffering, sickness, and death. Jesus has not healed us all, not fully anyway. Even people who have committed their hearts and lives to him can still experience prolonged and intense physical and emotional suffering. How are we to understand this? We may find ourselves asking, with John the Baptist: If Jesus is the Messiah, why aren't we healed? Why does Jesus allow suffering to continue? Like John, we may find ourselves doubting who Jesus and his Father really are. If God loves me, why doesn't He heal my suffering? Is God really loving after all? How can I love a God who would allow me, and others, to suffer intensely?

Our questions of lament are honest and urgent. They reflect a genuine plea for comfort and relief from suffering. They also reflect, however, the misguided human tendency to place our own demands on God, with the expectation that He act according to our terms. Sometimes we say: If God truly loved me, He would heal me. In addition, we might say, I'll love Him if He heals me. We thus expect God to treat us according to our preferred terms rather than on His terms. We place demands on how God should relate to us. If I am to love God aright, however, I must love Him on His terms, because as perfectly loving He Himself exemplifies the true standard of unselfish, unconditional love. To love God aright, I must first receive and then return His self-giving love, a love free of human deficiencies. God's unconditional love endures despite pain, tragedy, suffering, death, and it cannot and need not be earned by us. God first loves all of us despite our selfish and rebellious ways. My response, therefore, should always be to love Him, even when things are not going as I want, including when my circumstances involve great pain. My love for Him is to be expressed in my eager obedience to Him, regardless of any pain and suffering I undergo. This may seem to ask too much of me, but the demand of constant love makes good sense in response to the amazing Good News of God's love in Jesus.

Talk is cheap and easy, but our actually living out the demand of constant love is anything but cheap and easy. Naturally we do not like to live with pain and suffering; nor should we. Even so, through our weakness God works most powerfully, just as He worked powerfully in the weakness of the cross of Jesus (see 2 Cor. 13:4; cf. 1 Cor. 1:22-25). Our weakness becomes our greatest strength when it becomes a setting (despite our weakness) for the powerful work of God's Spirit of self-giving love. We then should readily give the credit for any good to God, because in our obvious weakness, we will not be able to boast as if the power comes from us (1 Cor. 1:28-31). The apostle Paul learned this first hand through his suffering.

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12: 7-10, NIV).

Paul was not healed of his "thorn in the flesh" during his earthly life; nor are we always healed in this life. Even so, God's power can be perfected in our weakness. We thus should not let healing and health become idols that we value in such a way that interferes with our love and trust of God, the giver of all good gifts. We must love the Healer more than the healing, even when the healing does not come in this life.

The grace sufficient for Paul (and us too) to endure hardships and suffering is the divine forgiveness and reconciliation offered in the unearned gift of friendship with Jesus as Lord. Only in this friendship do we find the strength, comfort, peace, and hope we need to persevere, even joyfully, despite pain and suffering. When we are at our weakest, we perceive God's grace most powerfully. We become vividly aware of our total dependence on Him for His gracious, unearned gift of life. Our pain and suffering can then become an occasion for rejoicing in God as our faithful friend. God uses us as wounded healers (after the model of Jesus himself), as we venture out into the world with compassion for others who suffer. God has used the suffering of the obedient, crucified Jesus to bring about His redemptive plan for humanity, and He can use our suffering to bring further healing into the world. Paul thus states: "I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church" (see Col. 1:24, NIV) .

We should firmly reject any suggestion that all human pain and suffering are a blameworthy result of human deficiency of faith. Some televangelists have promoted such a suggestion to the detriment of many followers of Jesus. We find a needed corrective from Jesus himself:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish (Lk. 13:1-5, NIV).

Jesus could easily have given an answer that blames the people who suffered for their lack of faith in God, but he clearly does not. He has no patience with simplistic approaches to human pain and suffering. Instead, he puts the focus on our need of repentance, a crucial feature of our relationship with his Father. We should follow Jesus here by focusing on our relationship with his Father even when we lack (as we often do) explanations of human pain and suffering.

The apostle Paul portrayed this troubled, rebellious world as being under God's hopeful judgment. He writes: "The creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but by the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-21). God subjected the rebellious creation to futility on its own for a hopeful purpose: that it would turn from its futility of rebellion to receive adoption into the glorious family of God. The rebellious world undergoes fractures and fissures as a result of meriting and receiving God's judgment. Some human pain and suffering is included in these fractures and fissures. God seeks to use the world's futility on its own to call us all to a faithful relationship with Himself. He seeks to bring life out of death. He literally raises the dead, as the resurrection of Jesus shows.

God is masterly at using suffering to bring about healing and reconciliation. Jesus carried out the perfect mission of redemption in his life and his death on the cross. His anguished struggle in Gethsemane shows how Jesus willingly faced tremendous suffering in order to obey His Father's will. Jesus's work of obedience on the cross has focused and intensified the mission of God to heal us spiritually. By receiving God's offer of forgiveness and friendship in Jesus, we can have our deepest wounds healed. Our deepest wounds are spiritual in that they concern our fractured relationship with God. Our full healing, physical and spiritual, is not yet realized in this fallen world. One obstacle is that our wounds at times obstruct our fully receiving God's gifts of forgiveness and friendship. We let frustration, anger, sorrow, jealousy, and despair cloud the overwhelming wonders of God's friendship in Jesus.

When we feel overwhelmed by pain and suffering, we should remember that Jesus endured, for us as our friend, far greater pain than we could ever imagine, particularly in his felt isolation from his Father (Mark 15:34). As a result of his self-giving sacrifice, we never have to be altogether isolated from his Father. Jesus has compassion for us in our pain and suffering. In our pain, we should turn to Jesus for comfort and support, and for the joy of life, come what may. Will we?