About this time four years ago Caroline was unwell and losing weight and struggling just to keep going. Her normal boundless energy was boundless no more! She was prayed for in church, drove off to the Christian camp where she was to be a helper for a week (not knowing how she would manage), and that evening started feeling better. God sustained her amazingly through that week. And she continued to get better and now enjoys full health again. It was a thrilling answer to prayer for which we still thank God.
But it is not always like that. As we know only too well, in our own church family in recent months we have experienced serious illness, remarkable recovery, and death. It has been a deeply emotional time for those most closely affected, but also for all of us who know them and love them as dear brothers and sisters. How puzzling do we sometimes find the ways of God. Why are some healed and some not? How can we fathom his ways?
That is a question which (I am convinced) won’t be fully answered and understood this side of glory, but here is a passage from Scripture which I find both deeply moving and helpful:
I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. (Philippians 2:25-27)
I find it helpful, because it illustrates a number of truths:
Sickness is normal for Christians. There is no hint that something was abnormal or amiss because this wonderful servant of Christ was ill. (Compare 1 Timothy 5:23). It is part of everyone’s lot in a fallen world waiting for the renewal of all things.
Sorrow and grief is normal and right for Christians. Had Paul’s dear friend and brother died it would have caused him ‘sorrow upon sorrow’—something akin to a broken heart. Even though Paul would have rejoiced that this dear man had gone to be with Christ, ‘which is far better’, he would have wept for him. You can’t miss the deep emotions in this writing.
God does wonderfully heal people. He did for Epaphroditus, he has for some of us. We know that. And so we keep asking him to do so today, believing that he can and may. But Paul does not assume that this a right. He describes it as a ‘mercy’. And a mercy is for God to give or to withhold according to his perfect will and knowledge.
And so we are left to walk this path knowing that God can heal anyone at any time, seeing him do this sometimes in remarkable ways, and also suffering the grief of him not doing this. We strive to pray with real faith in an omnipotent God, while also acknowledging that ‘the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.’ It’s a real tension. But isn’t that what it means to walk by faith? As someone put it, I do not know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future. And so we can put our hand in his, whatever the circumstances, and know a security that no one else can give.
Your brother in Christ