Nobody likes to be sick. Whether it’s as basic as coughing and sneezing or as severe as an aggressive cancer, we hate sickness. And naturally, whenever we hate something, but it exists, we wonder how it relates to God. A good God always leaves us with questions about bad stuff. So what about sickness? What does God have to do with illness and disease?
I think this is a very relevant question, because these problems affect millions and millions of people every day. It is not as though this question is about some far off speculative matter, but about a basic struggle of human existence. Therefore I say we search the Scriptures for how God relates to sickness.
As I see it, there are a few valuable case studies in Scripture about God and sickness. The first one is Job.
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
Job 1:1-3, 2:1-8
Before I elaborate on what happens here, I will go ahead and bring up the second case. This one is a blind man Jesus met.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
And I finally would like to mention the story of Miriam and Aaron’s opposition towards Moses.
Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.
“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this.
(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)
At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.” So the three of them went out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words:
“When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them.
When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned toward her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease, and he said to Moses, “Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.”
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “Please, God, heal her!”
From these three examples I think we can get a general idea of the different ways God relates to sickness. I will make a particular point from each one.
Miriam: Sickness from Judgment
This appears frequently in the Old Testament. It is quite clear that sometimes God sends sickness on people as judgment for their sins. In this case, because Miriam and Aaron pridefully challenged the position God gave Moses, Miriam was struck with leprosy. Fortunately, Moses prayed for her, and in the end God healed her. So how does this relate to sickness as we experience it? Well, it goes to show that God may send disease into someone’s life because of sin. The point of this generally seems to be to lead them to repentance, but sometimes it may simply be punishment. Examples of this in the nation of Israel and their history abound. God sent plagues when His people were rebellious and healed them afterwards. I should also point out that in this case, God’s people were always healed. Everyone who was not healed, as far as my memory goes, was someone outside of or cut off from Israel.
So should we, when sick, expect that God is punishing us for some sin? Most of the time, I would say “no.” Why? Because there was a shift in how God relates to His people with the coming of the New Covenant. In this age, in this covenant, God does not work so explicitly to communicate spiritual reality with physical happenings. The only examples I can think of in the New Testament in which God physically judged people were with Ananias and Sapphira, and with the messed up people taking the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian church. Besides these, we have no other examples of sin being judged physically in the now. This, I believe, is because we are now living in view of Christ’s sacrifice, which is the sufficient atonement for sin. We no longer need to see God execute judgment visibly on sin, because the full expression of His wrath has already been revealed. Moreover, we are clothed in Christ now, and so I do not expect we should generally receive punishments in the same way that Israel did. We currently live in an age of mercy and pardon. There will be a time again for physical, visible judgment, but this will be at Christ’s return, when the final order of things will all be set right. Now, might God still on occasion punish and send sickness as judgment? Quite possibly. But this is not, I would think both by theology and experience, to be the norm.
Job: Sickness for Growth
Next up: Job. Job’s story is quite interesting. Satan is roaming the earth, presumably looking for someone to devour, and approaches God. So what does God do? He actually suggests to Satan that he go after Job, though forbids him from taking Job’s life. Why? It seems that there are two reasons in view. In the original dialogue, it seems as though God is seeking to prove something to Satan, namely that in Job He has a truly devout follower. Yet by the end of the story, we also see that Job has grown from this ordeal. His faith has been both vindicated before Satan and deepened before God. At this point he has learned to trust in God and His justice no matter what happens. His questions are not answered, but He learns that God is truly there, even in his pain. He comes to understand that God is just even when He doesn’t simply bless the righteous and punish the wicked in this life.
From this I derive that God had two purposes in mind for giving Job into Satan’s hand. One was to show to Satan than he cannot break the faith of those who truly love God, and another was to strengthen and mature Job himself. By the end of this ordeal, Job has a stronger connection with God than he did before, and that is truly the sweetest thing that anyone can acquire. He became more wise and more content.
These purposes, I believe, also apply to many of the sicknesses and troubles in the life of the believer. As with Job, it seems Biblical to say that God gives Satan the permission to afflict us within certain limits. The reason for many of these trials are to refine us, to make our faith better and stronger, and to prepare us for greater reward (as Job received everything back double plus better knowledge of God). We see this kind of thing in James 1:2-4, 1:12, Heb. 12:11, and Rom. 5:3-5 among many other places. When we endure suffering, God works it to our good, and sometimes what we need is suffering to reach certain good.
I should also point out in this case that God doesn’t seem to usually be the active agent of our suffering in these cases. Unlike in punishment, assuming Job is a rather normal case we would find instead that God permits secondary causes and agents to be the cause of our sickness, not directly afflicting us Himself.
The Blind Man: Sickness for Healing
The most interesting case of the three I chose to analyze is that of the blind man Jesus healed, because Jesus’ disciples in this case actually asked Jesus why this man was born blind. After all, most of the Jews of the time believed that, with very few exceptions, sin brought all kinds of suffering and righteousness brought all kinds of blessings. So in the case of a man born blind, most people would assume that either he himself sinned in the womb somehow or that he is cursed by his parents’ sin. Since we know that God does sometimes send afflictions as punishment for sin, this doesn’t seem unreasonable. But this is not what Jesus says. Instead, He tells them this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
This is quite a response. Jesus said that this man was born blind basically just so God could heal him through Jesus. Why would God choose this? Well, while we are not told explicitly, I gather from the usual themes of Scripture three possibilities, all of which probably have something to do with it:
- This was to bring glory to God. This man was born blind so that in healing him, God would exalt His Son and Himself. Since Scripture often speaks of God doing great acts of mercy for His glory, this certainly seems plausible.
- This was to bring about the man’s salvation. It may also be the case that God intended from the beginning that this blind man’s healing would be the means by which he came to faith in Jesus Christ.
- This was to give the man a testimony for others. It is probably also true that God intended this event to be a way that the blind man could come to tell others of what God has done and so further glorify God and procure the salvation of others.
Also, in this case we see no indication of who/what was the immediate cause of this man’s blindness. While God’s purpose is shown in it, we are left not knowing if God sent the blindness Himself, if it came through Satan’s works, or if it was perhaps entirely natural means under the control of God’s providence. All we know for sure is that God had a plan for this man’s suffering, and in the end it brought great joy.
In application to us, we should also look in our own suffering and sickness for opportunities to advance the glory of God and salvation of people. Your illness may very well be a piece of God’s plan to save someone else, or to strengthen someone’s faith through a miracle. All sorts of things are possible, so keep an eye on Jesus no matter what happens.
There are other cases in Scripture, I am sure, that could bring out even more useful points about God’s relation to sickness and disease, but I think most of what we need to know has been covered in these. We see that sometimes God sends sickness directly, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes naturally. It may be for judgment, growth, healing, or another purpose. But I think we can say rather confidently that there is also some purpose, even if it is nothing that we could so easily comprehend. We have a strong and wise God, a God who will not permit us to suffer a moment needlessly. Rest assured that if you or a loved one is suffering that God knows what He is doing. Yet also know, just like in these texts, that we will probably never know all the answers. Job never knew why he suffered, after all, and his trouble was probably the worst here. Sometimes even if we were told the reasons we probably wouldn’t be able to actually follow along and get it all. The only time I am confident we will know is if God sends punishment, in which case He will almost certainly make the sin plain. Yet this also seems to be the least likely reason for sickness. So trust God, and know He’s got us in His hands.