When we have a friend or loved one who is unwell and going through a real trial with their health, it’s difficult, isn’t it, to see the purpose behind it or to understand why our God doesn’t seem to intervene immediately despite all our heartfelt prayers? Of course, the simple answer is to say that it’s because of the fall. From the point when Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, all of humanity have been subject to sickness, disease, and death. Certainly, being a child of God doesn’t insulate us in any way from the corrupting physical influence of sin in the world. However, in some circumstances we can discern the will of God moving through the circumstance for His own purposes.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 30, the Apostle Paul brings before us a sobering and challenging example of this when he says, ‘For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep’. As Paul recounts the institution of the Lord’s supper, he warns the church at Corinth that it’s not something that should be done lightly, or carelessly, especially by those with unconfessed sin in their lives. Those who do shall be ‘guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ and face divine discipline – ‘he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body’. This damnation is not the eternal damnation of lost sinners, but the disciplining hand of God, resulting in sickness, and even death. How solemn to think that our behaviour at the Lord’s supper could result in God’s chastening and discipline, by means of sickness.
However, when we turn to John chapter 11, we see a very different aspect of the purpose of suffering. Lazarus is sick, and is at the point of death. His sisters, recognizing that Jesus is the only one who can help, turn to Him in their distress. Despite this, He waits another four days until, in human terms at least, it’s too late. But in the midst of the circumstances, He says these lovely words, ‘This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby’, John 11. 4. How is it possible that a believer’s sickness could result in bringing glory to God?
May I suggest at least three ways in which it could be so? In the context of the passage, the Lord Jesus reveals one of these.
He says to the disciples in verse 15, ‘And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe’. The thought is that their faith would be strengthened. The ultimate purpose was undoubtedly God’s glory, as stated, but this was accomplished, in part at least, by the strengthening of the disciples’ faith. There is a similar thought in Romans chapter 4 verse 20. When speaking about Abraham, Paul says he ‘was strong in faith, giving glory to God’. Our dependency and complete reliance upon God, our faith in His ability to meet our needs despite any external circumstances, brings glory to Him. The word of Job in chapter 13 verse 15, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’, is the highwater mark of such faith, the faith that glorifies God.
The second possibility is that glory is brought to God as we are conformed to the image of His Son through our suffering. Again, think of Job’s words in chapter 23 verse 10, when he states, ‘when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold’. In the New Testament, we see this same principle of trial and suffering perfecting us running through Peter’s First Epistle. In chapter 5 verse 10, this is highlighted, ‘But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you’. As the trial of our sickness and suffering makes us more like Christ, this glorifies God.
Finally, could it be that as the unsaved look on at the believer in their trial, they are convicted and won for Christ? As they watch the storm rage and sickness ravage a child of God, they perceive a calm assurance of heart. They see the Christian living out what they profess when they sing, ‘the worst that can come but shortens our journey and hastens us home’. As a result, they desire the peace and certainty of heaven that alone is found by faith in Jesus Christ. Such a wonderful outcome could certainly be described as ‘sickness … for the glory of God’.