Many people would have us believe that religion was invented to make our passage through life a little easier; to give us comfort, or to provide us with a ‘crutch’ to lean on. If this really were the case, then Christianity would not be a very attractive religion! For God never guarantees our physical safety (Mark 13:8; John 16:33). Jesus made this fact plain to Paul at the time of his conversion (Acts 9:16), and Paul made sure that all his own converts were aware of what they were signing up to: “We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) There is a spiritual war on; and those who join the fight against Satan must expect to get attacked and injured. “This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.” (Revelation 13:10) The idea that belonging to God somehow entitles us to a problem-free life would have been utterly foreign to the first generation of Christians. But in our modern world we expect God to solve all our problems and relieve all our pains, just for the asking! No wonder so many believers end up disappointed and disillusioned.
One widespread teaching within the Church today is that God promises His people healing from every sickness and disease. The ‘proof-text’ that is usually quoted is Isaiah 53:5 – “by his wounds we are healed.” Matthew quotes the same passage, saying that it was fulfilled in Jesus’ healing ministry (Matthew 8:16,17). Yet not even the first-century church experienced 100% healing – and that was in the age of the apostles! We do find many instances of healing recorded in Acts (e.g Acts 3:1-10; 5:12-14; 8:5-7; 14:8-10); but it is worth noting that they are virtually all in the context of evangelism. Miraculous healing is one of the ‘signs’ by which God confirms the truth of the Gospel message (Hebrews 2:4); but the New Testament does not encourage us to claim it as the ongoing birthright of every believer. Tabitha was resurrected (Acts 9:40) – but not Stephen (Acts 8:2). Paul was on one occasion obliged to change his mission plans because of illness (Galatians 4:13,14) – and his comment that this illness was “a trial to you” does not suggest that any swift miraculous healing had taken place. Some years later, when his colleague Epaphroditus was seriously ill, it appears that Paul was expecting him to die (Philippians 2:27). Finally, his advice to Timothy concerning his stomach complaints was not ‘pray for healing’ but ‘drink a little wine’ (I Timothy 5:23)!
Christians in the affluent (and relatively safe) West often feel somewhat jealous of churches in poorer countries, where healings and other miracles seem to be far more frequent than they are here. There may be reasons for this, and I don’t think that it is any lack of faith on our part. If it is necessary for Christians to pass through hardships to enter God’s Kingdom, and if sickness is one of the few ‘hardships’ left in our rich and comfortable society, then we must expect God to use it frequently as a means of refining and disciplining us.
Being a Christian does not make us immune to problems and difficulties – it may even increase them (because persecution is added to all the normal evils that everyone suffers). But it should make a difference to how we respond to them. It even enables us to rejoice – not in the bad things themselves but because we can look through them to see what lies beyond. There is no situation so desperate or hopeless that God cannot transform it and turn it to good (Psalm 30:11).