Originally published in Pulpit Helps, January 2008.
Sickness happens. We're sure of that. The question is, "At whose hand does it happen?"
Is sickness merely part of the human condition in which all of us are potential victims? Is my sickness from sin, present or past, and a consequence for what I've done or failed to do? Is it Satan whose diabolic cursing brings us into physical ruin and weakness, or is sickness from God, in whose sovereign purpose and plan it is brought for my good and His glory?
The answer is, "Yes." Of course, that requires an explanation. Truth is, I've been working on this question for quite a while. When I was a six-year-old boy, I contracted rheumatic fever, and in the midst of that had a chemical reaction that resulted in a fever reversal-and inner ear nerve damage. I've had profound deafness in both ears since that day. At whose hand did that happen, and why?
As a pastor, I'm acquainted with many who face critical and debilitating illness. I've seen cancer in far too many people, horrible automobile accidents that bring permanent injury or death, and children born with severe defects. Recently I spoke with a young mother who lost the baby she'd only been carrying for a few weeks. At whose hand does all this take place?
There are several truths that guide me as I seek an answer to this. The first is simply that God is sovereign. He is the Supreme Ruler of the universe, and according to Scripture "…upholds all things by the word of His power" (Heb. 1:3). My answer must take this into account, but I'm also aware that how God exercises that sovereignty is beyond our ability to comprehend. I'm left to simply ponder His revelation and allow my answer to fall within what He tells me there.
Other truths are indisputable. Sin is present in the world, and from the very first day of the sin in the Garden of Eden, death made its presence known. The serpent was there in that garden, and from that day forward has been known as one who is able to exercise his ability to rob, kill, and destroy. Free will is plainly present alongside all these things. Man's free will is limited to the boundaries a sovereign God allows, but is there nonetheless and undoubtedly complicates the picture of human events.
One of the ways I am able to picture all these elements operating in our world is to envision a huge umbrella overshadowing every created thing. That umbrella would represent God's sovereignty, and beneath His sovereignty are all the above-mentioned elements. God is assuredly in control and there is no question that "…God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God…" (Rom. 8:28).
This means that all those factors that are present in the world we live in aren't randomly running amok, hurting and maiming all those in their path. God has not allowed the universe to simply move in whichever way it will, and He, in response, does not have to scurry about fixing things that get broken because of sin, Satan, and natural calamity.
And yet, at the same time, the Bible steers us away from believing that God directly sends all sickness, directly commissions Satan to create havoc, and directly crashes two cars into one another resulting in tragic consequence. There are those whose view of God's sovereignty causes them to struggle with this. "How can God be in control if He did not directly decree something?" they say. In my view, God's sovereignty is even more amazing in that He is able to take all He has allowed to be freely active and cause it all to work toward His purpose.
There are times when God directly declares and decrees what we would consider to be bad. Moses protested God's call on his life to be a spokesman for Israel by saying, "Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent…for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." God's response? "Who has made man's mouth? Or who make him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (Ex. 4:10-11). Here, God sends both the stuttering and the purpose for it-so that Moses will depend more upon the Lord.
In Genesis, Joseph is sold as a boy into slavery by the hatred and selfishness of his brothers. God, however, works so powerfully in his life that the curse of sinful brothers becomes the catalyst for an amazing set of events that would provide rescue of God's people from famine. At the end of the astounding story, Joseph affirms to his wicked brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Gen. 50:20).
We're left to marvel at the hideously wicked nature of man (selling a younger brother into slavery!) and the amazingly redemptive purpose of God. The evil may have been sent from men, but the purpose comes from God.
Another incredible event is the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Having lied to the Holy Spirit, they dropped dead when confronted by the Apostle Peter. Clearly, their death was brought on because of sin, yet God brought a ripple effect out of that event, as we're told, "…great fear came over the whole church" (Acts 5:11). Sin brings the death, God brings the purpose.
When Paul speaks of his "thorn in the flesh" he calls it a "messenger from Satan to torment me…" (2 Cor. 12:7). However, in the same verse he affirms that it was sent for a very God-like reason, "…to keep me from exalting myself." The messenger may be from Satan, but the purpose is from God. When Paul prayed for relief, God in His goodness actually gave him something better than healing-His grace!
So the answer is, "Yes." Sickness, pain, and heartbreak come from all directions, but are ultimately resting with the purpose and the plan of God. They sit under that great umbrella of sovereignty, whether we can see it or not. I've learned over the years to look at two things, in order to see both the immediate source of events, as well as the Ultimate Source for those same events. I should have an eye on earth and an eye in the heavenly places. It is that perspective that is echoed in the life of Joseph and others. "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." And it is that perspective that guides me through life's issues.
In the end, I can rest assured that God's purpose is brought about in every single thing that occurs in my life. Without doubt, many good things are brought to us through hardship, yet the gift is not in the hardship, but in that God meets me there to bring about something glorious for His name.
John Meador is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Euless, Texas.
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