POOR HEALTH - MAYBE THE BEST REMEDY
Poor Health May
Be the Best Remedy
Why Illness Does Not Necessarily Signal a Lack of Faith
by James 1. Packer
Bad health - that is, bodily malfunctioning and pain, with
lowered efficiency, tending towards death - has been a fact of
life since the Fall. Had there been no sin, there would have been
no sickness. As it is, however, both are universal, the latter
being a penal result of the former. So, at least, implies
Scripture. So, too, did yesterday's Christians view the matter,
and therefore they did not find bad health and chronic
discomforts an obstacle to faith in God's goodness. Rather, they
expected illness, and they endured it as they looked forward to
the health of heaven.
But today, dazzled by the marvels of modern medicine, the
Western world dreams of abolishing ill health entirely, here and
now. We have grown health conscious in a way that is itself
rather sick, and certainly has no precedent - not even in ancient
Why do we diet and jog and do all the other health-raising
and healthsustaining things so passionately? Why are we so
absorbed in pursuing bodily health? We are chasing a dream, the
dream of never having to be ill. We are coming to regard a
pain-free, disability-free existence as one of man's natural
It is no wonder, then, that Christians nowadays are so
interested in divine healing. As Christians, they long for the
touch of God, as direct and powerful as possible, on their lives
(and so they should). As modern men, they are preoccupied with
physical health, to which they feel they have a right. (How much
there is of worldliness in this preoccupation is a question worth
asking, but it is not one with which we will deal here.) With
these two concerns meeting in Christian minds, it was predictable
that today many would arise to claim that all sick believers may
find bodily healing through faith, whether through doctors or
apart from them. And exactly that has happened. A cynic would say
the wish has been father to the thought.
But is that fair? That it was natural for this teaching to
emerge in our times does not make it either true or false. It
presents itself as a rediscovery of what the church once knew,
and never should have forgotten, about the power of faith to
channel the power of Christ. It claims to be biblical, and we
must take that claim seriously.
Arguments for Healing Through Faith
To support itself from Scripture, this teaching uses three
First, Jesus Christ, who healed so abundantly in the days of
His flesh, has not changed. He has not lost His power; whatever
He did then He can do now.
Second, salvation in Scripture is a wholistic reality,
embracing both soul and body. Thoughts of salvation for the soul
only without, or apart from, the body are unbiblical.
Third, blessing is missed where faith is lacking, and where
God's gifts are not sought and expected. "You do not have,
because you do not ask," says James. "Ask and it will be given
you," says Jesus. But Matthew tells us in Nazareth, where Jesus
was brought up, He could not do many mighty works because of
All of this is true, So, then, does Jesus still heal
miraculously? Yes, I think that on occasion He does. I hold no
brief for blanket denials of healing miracles today. I believe I
have known one such case - not more than one, but equally, not
less. There is much contemporary evidence of healing events in
faith contexts that have baffled the doctors. B.B. Warfield,
whose wife was an invalid throughout their marriage, testily
denied that supernatural healing ever occurs today. But I think
he was wrong.
What is being claimed, however, is that healing through
prayer, plus perhaps the ministrations of someone with a healing
gift, is always available for all sick believers, and that if
Christian invalids fail to find it, something is thereby shown to
be lacking in their faith.
Problems With the Arguments
It is here that I gently but firmly object. This reasoning
is wrong - cruelly and destructively wrong - as anyone who has
sought miraculous healing on this basis and failed to find it, or
who has been called on to pick up the pieces in the lives of
others who have had such an experience, knows all too well. To be
told that longed-for healing was denied you because of some
defect in your faith, when you had labored and strained every way
you knew to devote yourself to God and to "believe for a
blessing," is to be pitchforked into distress, despair, and a
sense of abandonment by God. That is as bitter a feeling as any
this side of hell - particularly if, like most invalids, your
sensitivity is already up and your spirits down. Nor does
Scripture everrequire orpermit us to break anyone in pieces with
words (Job's phrase: it fits) in this way.
What, then, of those three arguments?
Look at them again; there is more to be said about each one.
It is true: Christ's power is still what it was. However, we
must remember that the healings He performed when He was on earth
had a special significance. Besides being works of mercy, they
were signs of His messianic identity. This comes out in the
message He sent to John the Baptist: "Go and tell John what you
hear and see ... blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Matt.
11:2-6). In other words, let John match up My miracles with what
God promised for the day of salvation (see Isa. 35:5ff.). He
should be left in no doubt that I am the Messiah, whatever there
is about Me that he does not yet understand.
Anyone today who asks for miracles as an aid to faith should
be referred to Matthew 11:2-6, and told that if he will not
believe in face of the miracles recorded in the Gospels, then he
would not believe if he saw a miracle in his own back yard.
Jesus' miracles are decisive evidence for all time of who He is
and what power He has.
But in that case, supernatural healings in equal abundance
to those worked in the days of Jesus' flesh may not be His will
today. The question concerns not His power but His purpose. We
cannot guarantee that, because He was pleased to heal all the
sick brought to Him then, He will act in the same way now.
Again it is true: salvation embraces both body and soul. And
there is indeed, as some put it, healing for the body in the
Atonement. But, we must observe that perfect physical health is
promised not for this life, but as part of the resurrection glory
that awaits us in the day when Christ "will change our lowly body
to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even
to subject all things to himself." Full bodily well-being is set
forth as a future blessing of salvation rather than a present
one. What God has promised, and when He will give it, are
Further, it is true that blessing is missed where faith is
lacking. But, even in New Testament times, among leaders who
cannot be accused of lacking faith, healing was never universal.
We know from Acts that the apostle Paul was sometimes Christ's
agent in miraculous healing, and he was himself once miraculously
healed of a snakebite. Yet he advises Timothy to "use a little
wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments,"
and informs him that he left Trophimus "ill at Miletus." He also
tells the Philippians how their messenger Epaphroditus was so
sick that he "nearly died for the work of Christ," and how
grieved Paul himself had been at the prospect of losing him.
Plainly, had Paul, or anyone else, sought power to heal these
cases miraculously, he would have been disappointed.
Paul's "Thorn In the Flesh"
Moreover, Paul himself lived with "a thorn in the flesh"
that went unhealed. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, he tells us that in
three solemn seasons of prayer he had asked Christ, the Lord and
the Healer, to make it go away. But the hoped-for healing did not
occur. The passage merits close attention.
"Thorn" pictures a source of pain, and "flesh" locates it in
Paul's physical or psychological system, thus ruling out the idea
that he might be referring to an awkward colleague. But beyond
this, Paul is unspecific, and probably deliberately. Guesses
about his thorn range from recurring painful illnesses, such as
inflamed eyes (see Gal.4:13-15), migraine, or malaria, to chronic
shameful temptation. The former view seems more natural, but
nobody can be sure. All we can say is that it was a distressing
disability from which, had Christ so willed, He could have
delivered Paul on the spot.
So Paul lived with pain. And the thorn, given him under
God's providence, operated as "a messenger of Satan, to harass
me," because it tempted him to think hard thoughts about the God
who let him suffer, and in resentment to cut back his ministry.
How could he be expected to go on traveling, preaching, working
day and night, praying, caring, weeping over folk with this pain
constantly dragging him down? He had to contend with such
"flaming darts of the evil one" all the time, for the thorn
Some Christians today live with epilepsy, homosexual
cravings, ulcers, and cyclical depressions that plunge them into
no less deep waters. Indeed, Philip Hughes is surely correct when
he writes: "Is there a single servant of Christ who cannot point
to some 'thorn in the flesh,' visible or private, physical or
psychological, from which he has prayed to be released, but which
has been given him by God to keep him humble, and therefore
fruitful? ... Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' is, by its very lack of
definition, a type of every Christian's 'thorn in the flesh.'"
Paul perceived, however, that the thorn was given him, not
for punishment, but for protection. Physical weakness guarded him
against spiritual sickness. The worst diseases are those of the
spirit; pride, conceit, arrogance, bitterness, self-confidence
are far worse, and they damage us far more than any
malfunctionirig of our bodies. The thorn was a prophylactic
against pride, says Paul, "to keep me from being too elated by
the abundance of revelations." Seeing that was so, he could
accept it as a wise provision on the part of his Lord.
It was not for want of prayer, then, that the thorn went
unhealed. Paul tells the Corinthians what came through from
Christ as he prayed about it. "He said to me, 'My grace is
sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'"
It was as if to say, I can use My power better than by making
your trouble go. It is better for you, Paul, and for My glory in
your life, that I do something else instead: that I show My
strength by keeping you going though the thorn remains.
So Paul embraced his continuing disability as a kind of
privilege. "I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses,
that the power of Christ may rest upon me." The Corinthians, in
typical Greek fashion, already despised him as a weakling. They
did not consider him an elegant speaker or an impressive
personality. I am weaker than you thought, says Paul, for I live
with my thorn in the flesh. But I have learned to glory in my
weakness, "for when I am weak, then I am strong." Now you
Corinthians learn to praise God for my weakness, too!
One virtuous commentary doubts whether the thorn can have
been illness in view of Paul's "extraordinary stamina" throughout
his ministry. How obtuse! Extraordinary stamina was precisely
what Paul was promised. Similarly obtuse was the reviewer who
described Joni Eareckson's books as a testimony to "human
courage." The age of miraculous blessing is not past, thank God,
though such blessing does not always take the form of healing.
But then, neither did it in Paul's day.
Three conclusions issue from what we have seen.
The first concerns miraculous healing. Christ and the
apostles only healed miraculously when they were specifically
prompted to do so, so that they knew that to attempt to heal was
the Father's will. That is why all the attempted healings
recorded in the New Testament succeeded. As we noted, miraculous
healing for Christians was not universal even then, so there is
no warrant for maintaining that it should be so now.
The second conclusion concerns sanctifying providence. God
uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other sorts of
affliction, as His chisel for sculpting our souls. Felt weakness
deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we
feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we
grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with
your complaint uncomplainingly, being kept sweet, patient, and
free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you
feel less than good, is true sanctification. It is true healing
for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace in your life.
The third conclusion concerns behavior when ill. We should
certainly go to the doctor and use medication, and thank God for
both. But equally certainly we should go to the Lord (Doctor
Jesus, as some call Him) and ask what message of challenge,
rebuke, or encouragement He might have for us regarding our
sickness. Maybe we shall receive healing in the form in which
Paul asked for it. Maybe. however. we shall receive it in the
form in which Paul was given it. We have to be open to either.
I thank God that I have known almost 40 years of excellent
health, and I feel well as I write this. But it will not always
be that way. My body is wearing out; Ecclesiastes 12, if nothing
worse, awaits me. May I be given grace to recall, and apply to
myself, the things I have written here when my own day of felt
weakness comes, whether in the form of pain, paralysis,
prostration, or whatever. And may the same blessing be yours in
your hour of need, too - "under the Protection," as Charles
Williams used to say.
Reprinted from the May 21, 1982 edition of "Christianity Today."
And printed with permission in The Bible Advocate - December
1989 - a publication of the Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver,