In Matters of Health, Trusting God Means Using What He Provides

When God brought judgment on Ahab and Israel in the form of drought and famine, he sent Elijah to a secluded retreat somewhere along the Brook Cherith (1 Kings 17). During this period, God’s care for Elijah reveals an interesting pattern. The details are memorable and exceptional, but the pattern is not.

And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. (ESV, 1 Ki 17:6)

Here in 2022, we need to look closely at how Elijah responded to God’s provision. The record is clear that Elijah ate what these ceremonially unclean ravens (Lev 11:13-15) brought. In Elijah’s mind, he was not choosing between trusting God and trusting ravens.

To put it another way: Elijah saw no conflict between trusting in God and trusting in the means God used to preserve his life and health.

Elijah’s story doesn’t end there.

And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land. 8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, 9 “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” (1 Ki 17:7–9)

Here we see a second feature of Elijah’s thinking that is important in our day. Elijah didn’t reason that since brooks tend to dry up in droughts, he should reject brooks as a water source. Instead, he chose to make the most of what God had made available, limited though it was.

In other words, Elijah saw no conflict between trusting God and trusting in God’s means, even when the means were clearly flawed.

As Elijah walked away from dried-up Cherith, I’m pretty sure his thoughts didn’t go like this: “Well that was a big mistake. I never should have thought birds and brooks would be good enough. How many times have I seen or heard of brooks drying up?! And birds are generally useless as a food delivery service! I should have trusted God instead!

The context shows that Elijah would have been wrong if he’d thought that way. So what about us? As we look at the means available to us today for taking care of our life and health, should we reject options on the grounds that they often fail? Should we think that their imperfect success rate proves they aren’t from God?

Elijah also rejected the idea that trusting God means being passive. When brook dried up he moved on. He didn’t reason, “My life is in God’s hands. Whether I live or die is up to Him. So it doesn’t matter what I do.”

I’ve often heard Christians reason this way, selectively. They take action to improve their health in lots of ways, then—when faced with a decision that is unattractive for some reason—they embrace passivity as an act of trusting God. “My life is in God’s hands, so I don’t need to take action—especially inconvenient or risky action—to protect my health.” Elijah was directed to travel, mostly likely on foot, more than 80 miles into unfriendly territory to the Phoenician (and Baal-worshipping) city of Zarephath to receive aid from:

  • a mere human being
  • a widow
  • a gentile.

The prophet had every reason to view Zarephath as the religious and political enemy. Ahab’s Israel was full of the same sort of Baalism and syncretism that dominated Phoenicia. The parallel with today’s secularism and religious fusionism is almost exact.

But Elijah didn’t reject the resources of Zarephath as an unchristian alternative to trusting in God. The record of 1 Kings reveals that Zarephath and the widow were the means God provided for Elijah’s benefit—as well as their own.

So far, the principles we need grasp from Elijah’s experience of God’s providence are these:

  • The means God provides are never at odds with trusting God.
  • The means God provides for our benefit may well be flawed.
  • The means God provides for our benefit may be found among those who don’t share our faith, values, and politics.
  • God’s sovereignty doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility to use the means He has provided.

But we’re not done learning from Elijah.

In our times, we need to wrestle with a related question on the tension between ordinary means and supernatural means. Should we normally expect that trusting God for health and life means shunning natural means in favor supernatural ones? Should we see medicine and explainable remedies as trusting in man and view only miracles and extraordinary events as trusting in God? Should we, as many seem inclined to do, see medical science as trusting in man and home remedies/alternative medicine as trusting in God?

If so, why?

We need to apply biblical principles to these questions, and applying biblical principles always requires two things:

  • that we correctly understand the Scriptures we’re trying to apply;
  • that we correctly understand the thing we’re applying the Scriptures to.

Elijah’s experience includes both natural and supernatural events, both ordinary providence and extraordinary providence. While the ravens’ behavior doesn’t seem natural, the water flowing in Cherith was. Though the Zarephath widow’s continued supply of food wasn’t natural, the bit of bread she thought was going to be her last meal was (1 Kings 17:11-13).

Applying this to our health choices faces some barriers. Many see medical science as unnatural, and alternative medicine as natural. But this is too simple. The biology, chemistry, and physiology medical scientists draw on in their work relies completely on natural processes they can observe and measure. They’re dependent on the orderliness and predictability of the natural world God created. Bodie Hodge, of Answers in Genesis, put it this way:

… science comes out of a Christian worldview. Only the God described in the Bible can account for a logical and orderly universe. God upholds the universe in a particular way, such that we can study it by observational and repeatable experimentation (see Genesis 8:22). (“Is Science Secular?”)

Home remedies, anecdotal cures, and folk medicine are not more “natural” than the therapies developed through observation, tests, data, and laboratories. They’re just natural in a different way.

It’s true that Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism are man-made philosophies—so we don’t idolize science. But the philosophical traditions of romanticism, sentimentalism, and anti-intellectualism aren’t from the Bible either.

In any understanding of “natural,” a truth remains: there is no biblical reason to believe God’s providence is exclusive to miracles or unexplainable, extraordinary events. In Scripture, we find food-delivery-ravens, self-filling flour jars and self-refreshing oil jugs (1 Kings 17:14-16), but we also find the ordinary, flowing brooks. God uses both, and making use of both is not at odds with trusting Him.

Trusting God by making use of His means is also not unique to Elijah’s experience. Noah leaned on the disciplines of carpentry and animal husbandry in the days of the flood. Israel relied on the government (the government!) in the days of famine under Joseph. Esther used the laws of a pagan land (and her own wits!) against Haman. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus relied on Egypt for safety when Herod threatened.

God uses means, often perfectly ordinary, rational and explainable ones. Trusting Him never means rejecting those means. It means seeing Him in those means. If we only see God in the unexplainable and extraordinary and never in the ordinary, we’re going to see a lot less of him in our daily lives.

But “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:36)

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There are 6 Comments

T Howard's picture

The OT records times when the nation of Israel trusted in the "ordinary means" of Egypt and other foreign nations to protect itself from aggressive enemies. God always castigated Israel for doing so instead of trusting in his supernatural provision.

How would you respond to this objection? How do we know when to use / trust in "ordinary means" versus not?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It would be an interesting study, but I think in each case there were instructions from God, via a prophet, not to make a deal with Egypt or Assyria or whoever it was at the time. But even in the absence of that, I think it's similar to numbering the people. Counting the population was obviously OK in the book of Numbers, but wasn't OK when David did it many years later. Why? It apparently has to do with how David was thinking at the time or some other contextual factor.

So I think the problem with "trusting Egypt" was often that, if we're not thinking right, we really do trust the means instead of the God behind the means, rather than trusting the God behind the means by trusting (in a secondary way) the means.

So, human nature tends to turn God and His means upside down, and sometimes God's remedy for that is to instruct His people to reject certain means for a time.

Another way to look at is this: just because the means are available and likely to work, that doesn't mean they're means God wants us to use. They can be off limits for other reasons. But the error I'm trying to go after here is the reasoning that means are not from God if they aren't perfect or are from people we distrust (usually for political or psychological reasons) etc.... and then it's articulated as though using means is inherently failing to trust God: a principle nobody consistently lives by.

These 'principles' that we invoke extremely selectively like that are effectively just cliches and offputting to those looking for principles to live by.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Ed Vasicek's picture

I think it is amazing how people apply the "what will be will be" argument so selectively. People don't travel 90 MPH on an icy road, thinking, "If it's my time, it's my time."

The same is true with herbal vs. modern medicine.  Yet, we people get desperate, where do they go, usually?  To a hospital.  

 

"The Midrash Detective"

dgszweda's picture

God created man in His image.  One of those aspects is a creative nature inherent in man.  God provided an ordered universe so that science could be a discipline obtained by man.  Man doesn't invent science, he discovers science.  And through his creative nature he leverages science to have dominion over nature and this planet.  That is a common grace given by God to His creation.  Sickness is a result of the fall, but God's common grace doesn't leave man in utter despair.  That to me is the great aspect of medicine.  While we shouldn't live in fear and no rely on the Providence of God, we should leverage the common grace that is given to us.  That is equally relying on the Providence of God and what he has provided us.

Bert Perry's picture

...while (divine sovereignty and all) God has always allowed something to be available to me, there is still a question for me about whether God intends for me to use it.  To draw a picture, imagine we had a wonderful therapy for cancer that required a child to be aborted for each dose.  Do we take it?  We don't have such a therapy, to my knowledge, but the furor over fetal stem cell research reminds me of it.  (side note is that that didn't pan out....it's almost like Someone is trying to tell us that there are places we ought not go)

On a more real line of thinking, there are any number of bits of important medical research that came from the Vernichtungslager (concentration camps) of Nazi Germany, especially in the area of the human body's response to cold.  And then you've got the (likely) use of the remains of an abortion victim to supply key cell lines for drug development. I can certainly understand unease at using the benefits of this.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

The bioethics can definitely get difficult, often with no answer that can be in the 100% confidence file--at least, for me--because while "party A did evil to provide the world with information B," are party A's victims any less victimized if we ignore that information now that it's out? It kind of reminds me of a "let's keep so and so's death from being for nothing" argument I've seen in other contexts.

A major factor, as I see it, is the present dynamic: Though this therapy may have been unethically developed, am I helping a present evil continue or increase or recur in the future? Sometimes the answer is yes. Sometimes no. Sometimes it's not clear.

Everything has multiple contributors, so at some point we all have to draw lines and say, "I just can't be a part of something that X contributed to in this way." But we want to be people of integrity and that means our line-drawing needs to be principle-driven and as consistent as we can make it.

So, as a starting point, we have to get past reasoning that it's about trusting or not trusting God. What it's about is wise stewardship of our lives and health (and everything else) through ethical use of means. We don't have direct communication from God saying "Go use this," so it has to be derived from our theology and our principles.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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