For about two and half years now, I’ve had something wrong with my joints and muscles. It started with tendon pain in my knees, then later I had abdominal/hip issues, which then shifted to a shoulder condition, eventually leading to chest muscle pain, and recently to pelvic alignment problems. I’m not quite 27 yet, but the running joke among my college students is that I’m a broken old man. I’ve had five different physical therapists and chiropractors over the last two years and a number of other doctors treat me. Fun stuff.
Now, I’ve prayed, I’ve gone to doctors, changed up my practices, and for some reason it just seems like one thing after another keeps coming up. I know this isn’t the greatest tragedy in the world; we have members in our congregation and friend in our lives who have struggled through much worse. Still, there have been times when I’ve wondered, “God, what are you doing? Why haven’t you healed me yet? I know you can.” For some reason I have hope and confidence that this is not a permanent thing (even though for many it is), but there have been times that I’ve just struggled with the question of why God continues to leave me unhealed–or, for as long as he has, at least.*
That’s why I was particularly interested in reading Sam Storm’s chapter “Why Doesn’t God Always Heal the Sick?” in his new book Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions. I had my own range of responses to the issue, but I wanted to see what someone who had actually devoted some research to the question had to say.
7 (Possible) Reasons
Storms is quick to recognize that there is some level of mystery involved in the issue of healing, and certainly with respect to God’s will for individual lives. He makes a point of saying that not every case where you know who remains unhealed can be quickly chalked up to one of these reasons. That said, Storms gives 7 possible reasons someone might not be healed.
- Faith – As much as this reason has been abused, “we must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith God delights to honor.” (pg. 304) Faith as small as a mustard-seed can be sufficient, but there are a number of cases in the NT seem to suggest that lack of faith can be a factor. (Matthew 9:22, 28-29; 15:28; Mark 2:5, 11; Luke 17:19; Acts 3:16)
- Sin - Again, not everyone who isn’t healed is being punished for some specific sin. Jesus rebuts too simple a one-to-one relationship between particular sickness and particular sin (John 9). And yet, as Storms notes, “James 5:15-16 clearly instructs us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed.” (pg. 305) Sometimes it is the case that unconfessed sin might be holding back God’s hand of healing.
- Desire - This is an odd one, but Storms notes that sometimes people actually don’t want to be healed. They have lived with their illness and the lifestyle associated with it for so long, it’s terrifying to think of life without it. A person’s identity can be so wrapped up in it, fearful that the love and care they receive as someone who is ill will suddenly disappear, that healing actually sounds threatening. (pg. 305)
- Ask Not – James 4:2 says, “you do not have, because you do not ask.” Storms writes, “The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray.” (pg. 306) Sometimes we really just don’t ask and so God doesn’t give.
- Oppression - Healing is often-times blocked because “the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed.” (pg. 306) Though not every sickness is attributable to demonic influence, according to the NT some is (Luke 13:16), and when that cause is not attended to, healing may be prevented.
- Providence – It would be a serious oversight not to consider the fact that God has plans for history, many of which we simply have no access to, nor could we understand if we did. Storms reminds us that we shouldn’t think healing and sickness is only area where God’s will for our lives must be utterly transparent. To claim that we know what God always does in a particular type of situation, like sickness, is arrogantly claiming knowledge we couldn’t possibly have.
- Something Better – “…healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can be attained only by means of physical weakness.” (pg. 307) In our health-obsessed culture, this might sound ridiculous, but God is often more concerned with healing our spiritual infirmities than our physical ones. Sometimes he does so through illnesses which humble us, force us to rely on him, and conform us to the image of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:16-18) For those who think it contrary to God’s goodness to let any of his children suffer in sickness, they ought to consider their response to the fact that God’s goodness allows his saints to suffer persecution, and indeed, ordained the suffering of his own Son for the salvation of the world. (1 Peter 4)
Again, all of these points can be expanded upon and nuanced–as they were in the book. It also might be noted that all of these reasons could only extend for a certain amount of time. Oppression need not last and spiritual lessons might eventually be learned. None of these reasons should be taken as an excuse for prayerlessness, or used to insensitively condemn those already suffering; they should be used (with wisdom) to encourage and comfort.
For myself, I have been challenged and comforted by a number of those reasons in my own walk–or lack of walking, at times–through illness. Few things have led me to embrace God’s Fatherly hand as the source of all things, working them for my good and his glory, than my illnesses. I have never had to rely on him, pray to him, and see him as my deepest strength as I did during those times when it hurt to stand, walk, or even sit for more than 5 minutes. I don’t know when this will “end”, if it ever will, how much it has to do with spiritual attack, spiritual formation, or just a providence beyond my ken. I know I’ll keep praying, asking him to grow me through this, increase my strength, cleanse my heart, protect me from attack, and (imperfectly) trusting that God has his good reasons. I pray that for those of you suffering with illnesses, these meditations would encourage you to the same.
Soli Deo Gloria
*Just to make it clear, there has been some improvement of late with certain treatments, but no radical healing. I’m not languishing here, immobilized for those who might be concerned. Prayers are appreciated, though!