Learning Things I've Preached, Part 3

Previous Posts: Part 1 Part 2

Spiritual Though Sick

It’s not normal to be spiritual when we are hurting. And when we read, “Trouble and anguish have taken hold on me: yet thy commandments are my delights” (Ps. 119:143), we wonder where this guy came from. But there is a way to be spiritual in spite of affliction in whatever form. Cancer has provided an ideal venue for me to test this idea. My life has had some normal “trouble,” but heretofore “anguish” has been the experience of those for whom I have prayed. Certainly sickness is not the only time we are tested by the Lord. There are issues of relationships, employment, accidents, finances, bereavements, etc. No doubt “man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7b). But to “be of good cheer” while encountering the “tribulation” common in the world (John 16:33) is not a given.

Generally we give those who are suffering a pass. We don’t expect them to be spiritual until they feel better. We certainly don’t expect ourselves to exhibit joy and peace when we are hurting. I know personally that a fleshly response to pain is my default reaction. And those who “consider it all joy … when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2, NASB), are placed in a category of super saints beyond our possible realm. The flesh is just as viable when we are sick as when we are well, and Satan will certainly not give us a pass.

Authors of some of our greatest hymns like “It Is Well With My Soul” written those songs during times of agony. Fanny Crosby and Richard Baxter were productive for God in spite of their difficulties.

Pain of body or soul can suggest mental thoughts that, if retained and rehearsed, can demean reality, as in the truth of the Word. It’s easy to assume that God has rejected me, that God is not in control of this, or that Romans 8:28 certainly cannot include this! If my home-going is through the door of lingering suffering, can I honor the Lord whom I will soon see? Is it necessary to face Him just after blaming Him for my pain?

Some of us have struggled with this. All of us have been with those who are suffering and have not known what to say. Our sympathies seem so shallow for such a time, and we hardly know for what to pray. If the sick person does not “glory in tribulations” (Rom. 5:3), he might have a bad attitude. Then we really don’t know how to respond and are glad when the visit is over.

I am convinced that life doesn’t have to be this way for the believer. I believe that “affliction” and delighting in the Lord are not mutually exclusive (Ps 119:92). If you are suffering, here are some facts you might consider.

Controlled Circumstances

No circumstances in the life of a believer are beyond the Lord’s control. Our God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11b). If you will not believe this truth concerning your condition, you cannot “rejoice evermore,” “pray without ceasing,” or “in every thing give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

Please don’t listen to the “health and wealth” gurus on TV who want you to be rich by sending them your money and who limit healing to “the word of faith.” It is better to listen to the Word of God, as in Psalm 119. It is God Who afflicts His children (v. 75). Affliction is good (v. 71). It remedies our going astray (v. 67). The Word gives us life in affliction (v. 50). “Think on these things” (Phil. 4:8b).

Even if your present condition is the result of your sin (cf. Heb. 12:5-13, James 5:13-20) or stupidity, God’s plan for you has not been diminished. He Who “did predestinate [you] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29) will not be thwarted. Your condition is within the scope of verse 28, and you can rejoice for the “good” He has in mind. Commented on Isaiah 63:17, Calvin wrote, “Believers always look at the goodness of God, even when they acknowledge that they suffer justly.” Or as someone put it, “There is great joy in God’s provision for sorrow.”

The Lord controls the parameters of our afflictions. He suits the testing to our boundaries (1 Cor. 10:13), and He limits the effects of our trial (Isaiah 43:2).

If Christianity works best in the worst of circumstances, this would be a good opportunity to let it shine!

God’s Purposes

The Bible provides many possible purposes God may have through our tribulation. In an earlier article we covered some of these. I will briefly list a few here.

Trouble is an ideal classroom to learn from God (Psalm 119:71). It may be God’s plan to miraculously heal (John 9:3). Some will only search for God when they are flat on their backs (Jer. 29:13), and the hurting is worth the search. During times of weakness God demonstrates His grace ( II Cor. 12). Endurance can only be learned during prolonged hardship (James 1:2-4). God comforts us so we can comfort others (II Cor. 3:1-7). If we have sinned, confession may be God’s purpose (I Cor. 11:20-34). Or it may be God’s plan through this sickness to take us home. And home is a good thought!

This, of course, is not a complete list. You might consider David’s Psalms for other options the Lord has. The point is, the Lord is not waiting for you to be trouble-free to bless you. In fact, if you will not acknowledge that “the Lord is good” (Nahum 1:7) now, you probably will not when this crisis is over. And He may well have another dilemma on the way to give you one more opportunity!

Particularly when we are sick or when we are praying for someone who is sick, we only consider and pray for healing, when that may not be God’s purpose. The natural mind thinks that ease and health are the highest goals, but God has demonstrated His willingness to sacrifice the physical for the spiritual. It would be a wonderful ministry to help people discover God’s purpose for their dilemma!

One who has been in chronic pain for twelve years and counting wrote, “Pain offers release from the tyranny of self-gratifying expectations and allows us to purify our passion for Him alone… Pain and the joyful presence of God are not mutually exclusive. Often our greatest realization of His presence falls on the heels of our greatest pain.”

Independent Spirit

That part of us that has fellowship with the Lord is not dependent on our body. The reason we can be sick and respond spiritually instead of fleshly, is because the body does not determine our spiritual condition or response to circumstances. Pain does not have to control all of our being.

I am using “spirit” here as that part of us that responds to the Lord. I am not as interested with the label as I am with the function.

We are particularly vulnerable when we are sick. Our body almost demands that we think only about its dilemma. And the normal response is a pity-party and questions of why, how long, and where did God go. Laziness has been an issue with me. Certainly God does not expect me to be productive when I don’t feel well! And well-meaning friends assume that sympathy for the body will somehow give solace to the soul.

It’s not the disease that fills my mind as much as my response to it. In fact, I try not to think about my disease. Sleepless nights can either be positively spent in prayer for the church family and/or reading or can be long, boring, and negative. The body should not trump the real us.

The spirit can attach itself to Someone above the pain. In spite of “trouble and anguish” there can be “delight” (Psalm 119:143, 92). There is “comfort in affliction” (Psalm 119:50, II Cor. 1:5). We can “count it all joy” when our faith is tested (James 1:2).

How?

The verse with which we started provides the key to spiritual success while sick or in other forms of tribulation. The Word of God is the catalyst for spiritual life. The truth of the Word is the face of Jesus, Who is truth (John 14:6). We establish fellowship with Christ as we respond to Him as per the truth we read. And we maintain that fellowship with Him as we meditate on truth/Him “day and night” (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2). Spiritual life flows from the practice of fellowship with Christ through the Word. When we neglect the Word, we have abandoned Christ.

We need to replace our thoughts with His. “To be spiritually minded” (Romans 8:6) is to think the thoughts of the Spirit (v. 5). His thoughts are the Word. The results of thinking this way are “life and peace” even in tough circumstances. “To be carnally minded” is to think our own thoughts. “We…have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). “Flesh signifies the entire nature of man, sense and reason, without the Holy Spirit” (Melanchthon). It’s easy to abandon the Holy Spirit’s thoughts with impunity when we are hurting, but we must not.

If you are hurting now, may I suggest that you take the first phrase of Psalm 23:1, believe it, memorize it, ponder the many effects of that truth, and respond to Him with each idea. Then move to the second phrase of the verse, and with that promise worship Him. The pain will not go away. But the thick presence of the Lord may render your trial a blessing. Though I would not have chosen my cancer, I can honestly say that now I am thankful for it. And these are some of the reasons. First, God has exposed His heart to me. It was not enough for Him to state His purposes in the Word for me to find or not. He loved me enough to take the time to force the issues. Second, I now look at people enduring chemo differently than before. There is a camaraderie of bald heads! And I no longer wonder what I should say to a chemo patient or anyone in serious trouble. I can offer comfort to them from where I got it. Third, I no longer consider my body to be significant. That “Christ shall be magnified in my body” (Phil. 1:20), does not require health and beauty.

If you are not facing a difficulty presently, you will (I Peter 2:21). It has been my experience and observation that believers unprepared for tests respond poorly. The habit of daily responding to the Lord of our circumstances as per the Word prepares us for the inevitable crucible. In fact, the most important thing in our life is daily fellowship with Christ in the Word.

I have preached for years about the manifest presence of the Lord (John 14:21). I am learning how wonderful it really is. And then…heaven!

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