Here I am, in bed with a mysterious, undiagnosed sickness. I've been sick since Saturday night, and it has caused me to do a lot of thinking about what the gospel has to say to someone in my condition.
I'm not used to being sick. I don't understand sickness. I'm the one who always bounces back right away. I'm the one who always has lots of energy. I've had minor issues (colds, flu, sinus infections, etc.) but I never could comprehend being really knocked down by something painful. Even spraining my MCL in my knee and limping for 12 weeks wasn't a big deal. I was undaunted. It would get better. I felt like my body was generally invincible, and the minor issues that did come my way would just be at a level that I could handle.
I even went so far as to think to myself, "Even if I had some kind of severe pain, why couldn't I just ignore it and carry on?" Obviously, I had a high level of naivete regarding sickness and pain and chronic illness. (I still do--but I'm just now getting a taste of what it's like to be knocked down by sickness.)
My symptoms are severe and constant abdominal pain, utter repulsion by food, dark urine, fever, fatigue, and utter uselessness. I have simply been unable to function.
So usually what I would do is just wait for it to go away. Rest, let it take its course, and be up and around again when I feel better. If I have a fever, I let it burn up the infection. If I have an upset stomach, I just stop eating for a little while and it passes.
When this fever lasted only a very short time (maybe 8 hours), I was like, "Good. It's just a minor issue. My immune system got it under control really quickly." I didn't even ask for prayer. I was expecting it to be over. Only I couldn't eat. It wasn't that I was nauseous, it was just that the pain in my upper abdomen made it forbiddingly prohibitive to eat. It wasn't a digestive issue; food I ate I kept down perfectly, but the sheer act of will that I had to exert in order to eat even a few bites was usually more than I could muster. It doesn't take years of medical school to figure out that when you don't eat for a couple of days, you won't have much strength. So I kept waiting, thinking, "I'm weak from lack of food, but when I start eating again, I'll regain my strength, and I'll be fine." Well, I'm still waiting, and the abdominal pain is continuous, and I've pretty much given up on the thought of eating anytime in the near future. It's okay. I can afford to lose the weight. And I've fasted for 5-day stretches before, so I know that the body can keep going (and function normally) despite lack of food for extended periods, so I'm not too worried about the not eating part.
But the thought does come, "Uh...if you're planning on waiting it out, this can only go on so long if you're not eating, and what if your abdominal pain doesn't go away?"
I still think my abdominal pain will go away. I still expect it to gradually diminish, and I keep thinking it'll be any time now that I get my appetite back. But so far it hasn't shown any signs of stopping.
For me to not eat, and to not find any pleasure in eating, and in fact to be so utterly repulsed by even the yummiest foods on earth that they might as well be a rotting corpse, is totally unlike me.
It's still kind of incomprehensible to me that I can't just "decide" to be better and go on to the creche and teach school. I can't really understand how I could possibly dislike food when I've always liked it, and the food didn't change, and I was never a picky eater, and even with the rare foods that were distasteful, I just resolved to have a good attitude about eating them and I did fine at clearing my whole plate.
So for the last few days, I've been lying flat on my back on my bed, enduring the misery in my abdomen, thinking, listening to sermons, and reading things about faith, and healing, and what the gospel says to someone in my condition.
Lots of questions
- What does the Bible actually say about healing? What does God promise us, and what does He not promise?
- What about people like Joni Earekson Tada who endure lifelong, constant illness and pain?
- Does living by faith mean that I just get up out of bed, no matter what my symptoms are, and carry on, no matter how I'm feeling?
- How can I look unto Jesus and have His divine power flow through me in my weakness in order to display His strength? How does that feel? What does that look like?
- What is the difference between proper faith that takes God at His word and receives real divine aid, and mere human willpower, or worse, blatant stupidity?
- Is this sickness because of my sin? If so, why didn't it go away when I confessed and repented of every sin I could think of?
- Am I giving legal ground to the enemy by succumbing to the weakness and pain and going to bed for this, instead of continuing on with the work that God has for me?
- When God's word says one thing, and I look in the natural realm and see the opposite, how do I realistically operate by God's word? Does "Fact - Faith - Experience" apply to healing as well as to spiritual victory?
While searching for the answers to these questions, and in the midst of being dragged through the symptoms and misery and pain and suffering of illness, I have employed several weapons that have been useful and effective at keeping me sharp, cheerful, and undaunted in the midst of discouraging sickness when I'm ready for it to be over. (Now, I grant that someone might be reading this who has dealt with ongoing health issues for months or years, while mine has lasted for less than a week, and you might be tempted to scoff that I know nothing about really being discouraged at sickness and ready for it to be over. Okay, I'll admit it. I know nothing. But I venture to list these weapons anyway, because they are based on truth, and their effectiveness does not diminish with time.)
The weapon of rejoicing. I purposely sing songs of praise with all the strength I can muster, whether I feel like rejoicing or not. When I don't have strength to sing, I let YouTube help me by singing to me. I choose to rejoice as an act of my will, and I do not consult my feelings to see if "I'm cheering up" or "it's working." Rather, rejoicing is a statement to the heavenly realms that I trust God to work all things together for good and to triumph through my situation for His glory. In addition to songs of praise, I make verbal declarations of rejoicing, for instance, "Lord, I rejoice that you have brought this upon me. I look forward to seeing what you will do with this situation. I trust you and place myself completely in your hands." I also meditate on some of the sublimest lyrics that have stood the test of time, and I enter into the truth of what they say. Consider the following for rejoicing:
Now shall my inward joys arise,
And burst into a song;
Almighty love inspires my heart,
And pleasure tunes my tongue.
--Isaac Watts, 1709
And let this feeble body fail,
And let it faint or die;
My soul shall quit this mournful vale,
And soar to worlds on high,
And I’ll sing hallelujah,
And you’ll sing hallelujah,
And we’ll all sing hallelujah,
When we arrive at home.
Shall join the disembodied saints,
And find its long-sought rest,
The only bliss for which it pants,
In my Redeemer’s breast.
Oh what are all my suff’rings here,
If, Lord, Thou count me meet
With that enraptured host t’appear,
And worship at Thy feet!
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again,
In that eternal day.
--Charles Wesley, 1759
The weapon of truth. The enemy likes to use unpleasant circumstances like sickness as an occasion to plant lies in our lives. When you're lying in bed, fighting with pain, it's a prime opportunity for your mind to go around and around with thoughts like "Can you believe God would do this to you?" "What kind of a Christian are you to not be able to find the faith to get well?" "You're just a wimp, and your pain tolerance is probably just lower than everyone else's, and most people would be able to keep going through this, so I don't know why you can't just get with the program and stop moaning about your stomach hurting." "Probably this is malaria, or hepatitis, or dengue fever, or something rare and incurable that you're going to have forever." And on and on it goes. So I deliberately choose to focus on the truth. I repeat what is true about the goodness of God, the power of God, the love of God, the amazing wonder of what Jesus did for us on the cross, and any other thing that is true. I fill my mind with truth so that there is no room left for the condemning, lie-based thoughts of the enemy. And when I'm feeling weak and helpless and my grasp on the truth is tenuous, I ask the people who come to check on me, "Tell me the truth. Remind me of the truth. Preach the truth to me." Truth never fails to cast out lies and set your feet on a firm foundation.
The Gospel applied to me
Here are the voices that I've been listening to as I search through what the Word of God has to offer to me in my sickness.
- Ellerslie teaching on healing: Does God Still Heal?, The Test of Faith, and other messages
- A.B. Simpson's book The Gospel of Healing
- Other stories from my memory of people like George Mueller, Hudson Taylor, Jonathan Goforth, R.A. Torrey, and C.T. Studd, which I can't quote exactly but I know follow along the same lines
In order to briefly summarize what I have gleaned from these sources, the results of my study are that I have become convinced of the following:
1) Healing is for today
2) It is the will of God and part of the very nature of God to heal
3) Healing was purchased at the cross and is freely available to every believer
4) We access healing the same way we access forgiveness, namely, by faith
5) I am invited to take this healing for myself
Do I see this taking place in the natural realm? No. Do I see the church enjoying the fruits of this truth? No. I see scattered, random examples of healing here and there, and that's it. But laying aside all preconceptions and filters and prejudices and "this-is-the-way-I've-been-trained-to-see-this-topic," I truly believe this is the clear teaching of Scripture, and therefore, whether my experience lines up with it or not, I should be able to bank on it.
One common theme among all these voices is that of the tension between the natural realm (I feel sick) and the spiritual realm (God's word says I am healed). How ought we to properly handle this dichotomy? The consensus seems to be this: We line up our thinking with the Word of God and begin to believe it, bank on it, and walk by it, before we ever see results in the natural realm, and the results in the natural realm will always follow. God's word cannot be broken, and no matter how opposite things look to the way He says they are, He will always act according to His word. Illustration: Jesus says about Lazarus, "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God." There. Word of God pronounced. It is utterly true, faithful, and trustworthy. But what immediately happens in the natural realm? Lazarus dies. Uh oh. Did Jesus lie? Did he get it wrong? Four days later, the protest is, "Lord, by this time he stinketh." Everything in the natural realm is contradicting the declaration of Jesus. But who has the final word? "Lazarus, come forth," Jesus cries, and the Resurrection and the Life vindicates his reputation, even after having allowed the situation to progress beyond the point of impossibility.
One other aspect that seems to be highlighted to more or less extent is that of our weakness being met by God's indwelling strength. It's not that our weakness goes away, it's that His power is shown through our weakness, so that He gets the glory for what is obviously otherwise an impossibility for such a weak creature as us. A. B. Simpson says,
"Do not, then, wonder if nature still will often fail you. His healing is not nature, it is grace, it is Christ, it is the bodily life of the risen Lord. It is the vital energy of the body that went up to the right hand of God; and it never faints and it never fails those who trust it. IT IS CHRIST WHO IS YOUR LIFE; Christ's body for your body as His Spirit was for your spirit. Therefore do not wonder if there should be trials. They come to show your need of Christ and throw you back upon Him. And to know this, and so to put on His strength in our weakness, and live in it moment by moment, is perfect healing."Therefore, there is an emphasis on conscious, continual dependence on Christ himself for what we are absolutely unable to do.
I ask for healing
Belief inevitably leads to action, and so for my own part, I had nothing left to do but to talk to God about it and make my trembling attempt to access what seems literally too good to be true.
So at about 6:15 this morning, my thinking went like this:
"If God has provided healing for me, and all I have to do is take it, then I might as well take it. If God has provided healing for me, then what will I do? I will get up and take a shower as if it was a normal school day where I work at the creche. I will go to our morning prayer meeting at 7:30 like I always do. And I will be willing to go to the creche if God asks me to, depending on His strength to get through the day." (So far this week I have struggled to survive standing up long enough to take a shower, and I have missed our morning prayer every day.)
I sat up in bed, looked up to heaven, and said a prayer along these lines. It was very calm and serious and matter-of-fact, as I was taking God at His word and expecting Him to fulfill what He had promised.
"Lord, I believe you have promised me in your word that I have healing. I take that as fact and thank you for the healing that you have already provided. I look to you for your strength to face this day, and I rejoice that you are training me to depend on you and access your grace for even my broken-down body."
What would happen? Would I instantly spring out of bed, magically restored to energetic wholeness? Not in my case.
My abdominal pain grew worse when I walked, and I stumbled miserably towards the shower. It cost me more energy than I thought I had to take the shower, and with a lump in my throat, I was crying out to Jesus for help to depend on Him and truly access His healing power. I didn't feel anything. I didn't feel any help, any special presence, any strength, nothing. My calves were cramping from standing up by the time I was done with the shower, and I fell back into bed, exhausted, where I lay for the next 30 minutes, trying to recover strength for the next part (taking the flight of stairs and making it through prayer meeting).
The one bright ray of joy I did experience was a flash of insight. This continual dependence is the exact same thing I need in order to fight my sin problems, I thought. Even if it was worth nothing else, it was showing me what it looked like to depend consciously on Jesus every moment. Never before had I experienced such a need to look to him for strength on a second-by-second basis. God is training me through this, so if I learn how to do it here, it will overlap perfectly in the spiritual realm, where everything is a bit more intangible and therefore I might not have gotten the message so clearly.
At 7:30, I got up and walked slowly down to Ryan and Sheena's. Sheena opened the door and told me that prayer meeting was actually going to be in the 3rd floor apartment today. Great. That means I'll have to mount to the 3rd floor. Annie joined us, and as we proceeded together up to the apartment, they asked me how I was feeling.
I explained that I was feeling about the same, but briefly explained about the prayer I had prayed that morning, and boldly stated that I was lining up with the Word of God and asking God for the healing I believed He promised me in His word. All the time I was saying this, I could scarcely keep from bursting into tears, because I felt so absolutely miserable and everything I was saying was so far from my actual experience. I admitted that I was in severe and constant pain, but that I was trusting God to live out His life through me and thus give me strength.
I had to rest and bury my head on my arm on the railing on the way up the two flights of stairs. At the prayer meeting, all I could manage was a feeble prayer, mostly focused on myself. The kids prayed for me and it was precious.
After prayer, I said to Ryan, "I'm willing to go to the creche today and work in the school." It cost me a great effort to say it, so that again I was near tears. I didn't think I could do it, but I was willing to put God to the test and discover His strength if that was what He wanted. I continued, "But, I'm also willing for you to nix that idea if you don't think it's wise." He replied, "I don't think you should go to the creche." A wave of relief washed over me. "I think you should go to bed and rest, read your Bible, and pray today," he said. "You're willing to go if that's where God's leading you, but as the leader of this organization, I'm saying that's not where God is leading you." I accepted that and went back to my room, where I lay back down on my bed and rested, flat on my back, utterly grateful that I wasn't asked to go yet.
Over the course of the day today, little by little, I have found that I have more strength. I was able to actually wash my dishes today, which had been piling up in the sink since Saturday, where, absolutely unable to face the task, I had left them with a hopeless sort of attitude. I was able to actually sit up and receive some visitors today. All my students from the creche came with Teacher James to see me and visit for a while, perhaps half an hour. That was precious. They prayed for me and I thanked them for coming and told them I missed them and hoped to see them soon. I was able to be up and about my room a little more, not flat on my back in bed all day. And while I didn't bother to try to eat anything, I didn't feel quite as repulsed by the very thought of food as I used to. My abdominal pain is still there, but I believe I have a slight measure of relief there, too, after not having any sign of letup for the past few days.
So I don't know what God is doing health-wise in my body, but I am trusting Him to do what is best, and I am willing to take Him at His word about my healing, even before my body aligns perfectly with what His Word says about it.
Do I have answers to all my questions? No.
Do I understand what I'm doing? Not exactly.
Is it working? I'm not sure yet.
But I don't have anything to lose (except perhaps reputation--looking like a fool for pressing on in this direction), so I'm going to go ahead and stick to it.
In The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence makes this enlightening comment:
"The first way in which the soul is united with God is through salvation, solely by His grace. This is followed by a period in which a saved soul comes to know God through a series of experiences, some of which bring the soul into closer union with Him and some take it further away. The soul learns which activities bring God's presence nearer and remains in His presence by practicing those activities."
If nothing else, God is training my soul. Which activities bring me nearer to Him and all that He has for me? Let me practice those activities and remain continually in His presence. And regarding healing, which activities bring me closer in line with God's will and stated purpose for my body's health? Let me discover what those activities are and practice them. This is a learning experience. I don't know how to do it right. But I trust the Master Professor to teach me, and keep me in the right way, and allow me to grow in faith and in the experience of His power.