This is one of the most pressing questions when it comes to healing, and it must be answered by using the Scriptures. Opinions and abuses abound, so the only way to address this question is to cement ourselves in the truth of God’s unchanging Word.
I’ve seen it time and time again and I’m sure you have too. A world-renowned faith healer hits the news after promising to heal people … but only if they pay up first. Some even go so far as to say that God is going to pour down judgment upon people if they don’t give a certain amount of money. These “healers” would appear to have all the answers for sickness. Years ago, I sat through many services where a faith healer would explain to people why they were sick. Some people were told that they weren’t giving enough money, others were apparently not forgiving people, and others had been spending time with negative people. Not only that, but some were said to be sick because they just didn’t have enough faith. This sort of guesswork breaks hearts, leads lives astray, and spiritually abuses desperate people.
Thankfully, the Bible breaks such deceptive bondage. If you’ve ever been confused about why people get sick or you know someone who needs answers, these truths will be a soothing balm to a weary soul.
Truth #1: Sickness and death entered the world through original sin
On the sixth day of creation, the Bible tells us that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Notice it doesn’t say “some of what he had made was very good.” It says all. There was no sin in the world, sickness did not exist, and Adam and Eve were set to enjoy a flawless life complete with a perfect relationship with God.
Instead, they were deceived by the serpent and disobeyed the one command God had given them to follow. This is what is called “original sin” because it was the first sin the world had ever known, and it resulted in a fractured relationship between God and His creation (Genesis 3:1–19).
Because of sin, shame came upon humanity (3:10), marital relationships would experience conflict (3:16), women would experience pain in childbirth (3:16), and work would become incredibly difficult (3:17–18). Worst of all, death entered the scene and humankind would return to dust (3:19). Sickness and death are the results of sin and the fallen world we live in. Because of sin, we need a Savior. And while true Christianity looks forward to that day when Jesus will return and restore all things, until then we must realize that sickness and death are a part of this temporary life. Thankfully, eternal life knows nothing of such things!
Truth #2: Sickness and death can strike us because of our own sin
Let’s face this truth by using the Bible again. In 1 Corinthians 11:27–30, Paul says that taking communion in an unworthy manner is the reason that some people are weak, sick, or “asleep” (which is a biblical expression for death). This is a statement made directly to the New Testament church. Taking communion unworthily includes not taking it seriously, not examining oneself as Paul instructs (11:28), having impure motives, having unconfessed deliberate sin, and being embittered and unforgiving toward others (the very opposite of what communion represents since we’ve been forgiven!).
Another reason that sickness and death can result from sin is based on the law of consequences, the idea that “a man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). If you do drugs, drink and drive, act foolishly and belligerently, take poor care of your body, engage in rampant and casual sex outside of marriage, might you not at some point experience sickness or death (often prematurely)? Sin often does lead to these things. Therefore, when we examine our own lives and the reason for some unfortunate experiences, we must be sure to know the difference between what is self-inflicted sickness or death, and what is a genuine trial or tribulation that we did nothing to cause (James 1:2–4; Romans 5:3–5). Should you find yourself convicted by the Holy Spirit concerning sin that is causing your sickness, take hold of the beautiful grace that Jesus provides. Confess your sin and he will forgive you of your sin and cleanse you (1 John 1:9), and then based on James 5:13–16 you should go to the elders of your church and be prayed for, as well as confess sin and be honest with them about your situation. God’s Word says that in this context, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (5:16).
Truth #3: Sickness and death are not always the result of our own sin
It’s impossible to diagnose the reason for everyone’s sickness, but we could certainly say that most, if not all, of God-loving, sin-confessing, Jesus-believing Christians who are sick fall into this category. If “original sin” isn’t the only culprit, then a certain situation in Jesus’ ministry can shed some light on why some are sick. The Gospel of John recounts the story:
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. (John 9:1–7)
This story is an incredible lesson to all of us that what we might think is the reason for sickness isn’t always the reason. Our finite human wisdom only gets us so far. Jesus makes it clear that God’s purposes and ways are far above our paygrade and that we do not control His plan and schedule. Sometimes God allows certain things or determines how long a circumstance will last so that He can showcase His infinite power and wisdom and reveal more of Himself to us. For example, we wouldn’t praise Him for His mercy if we weren’t aware of His wrath. We wouldn’t appreciate His love for sinners if we didn’t first realize His hatred of sin. In the same way, we couldn’t even begin to glorify Him for His healing hand if we didn’t first experience (or see) sickness.
This leads to the fourth and final truth in this section. Buckle up. You may not like it—at first.
Truth #4: Sickness and death can be used by God for His glory and the good of others
Just because God is not the cruel originator of sickness does not mean He can’t use it. He is God, and nothing is outside of His scope of authority. Sin may have brought sickness into this world, but God gets the final word.
I know your first response might be to think I’ve lost my mind to ever think that God could somehow bring something good out of sickness, but before you abandon ship, let’s dig deeper. For starters, nowhere in Scripture do we find God to be a cosmic abuser who gets joy out of striking His children with sickness in the name of growth and glory. That is not what this point means. However, the Bible does give us a hopeful perspective about sickness, suffering, trials, and even death that helps us sift through the broken pieces it often leaves at our feet.
The truth is, God is strong enough, wise enough, and powerful enough to bring purpose out of our pain, even if He doesn’t take us out of the pain right away.
You and I experience this more often than we realize. Whenever someone we know dies, it can either lead to bitterness toward God, or to our own appreciation of the gift of relationships and the life we’ve been given. Of course, the grieving process may be arduous, but He never leaves us there alone. Furthermore, our own grief often grows and matures us to a place where we are then able to encourage and support others when they go through what we have gone through.
Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This passage is often thrown around as a broad-brush promise that everything is going to turn out the way we want it to. But God wants us to understand important truths from it before we jump to conclusions He never promised. First, “all things,” means the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think sometimes we miss that fact and jump right to thinking, “God is going to make everything perfect!” The fact of the matter is, God doesn’t promise that nothing bad will happen to us, but He does promise all those things “work together for good.” And remember, whose definition of good are we talking about here? His! Which means, however God chooses to define good is what is ultimately best, even if we don’t always understand it at the time. In other words, “all things” includes a cancer diagnosis, and “good” could mean that you are going to pray more than ever before and be closer to Jesus than you’ve ever been. “All things” includes losing a loved one, and “good” could be the opportunity you have to share the hope and saving love of Jesus Christ at the funeral. “All things” includes the loss of a child, and “good” could mean the beginning of a ministry to parents who are grieving the loss of children.
My friend Nancy Guthrie is the author of numerous resources on grief, suffering, and God’s character. She recently wrote God Does His Best Work with Empty and has experienced exactly what this fourth truth is all about.
She and her husband David endured two “all things” that included a doctor report stating that their newborn daughter Hope had a rare metabolic disorder and would not live past her first birthday. Then they faced it again with their newborn son, Gabriel, who lived 183 days. As for God’s bringing about “good” through all of this? He chose to bring purpose to their pain by using Nancy and David to speak to hundreds of thousands of grieving parents who needed hope in the midst of their own tragedies and loss. Does anyone ever pray that they would lose a daughter and a son in order to gain a life-changing ministry? Never. But Nancy’s own perspective on why she wrote her first book about their family’s story shows us what God can do in the midst of—even, through—our deepest pain: “I wrote the book not to exploit our babies’ lives but to use our experience, like Job, to address the question of suffering: ‘To what purpose? What is it God wants to do in you and through you that could possibly cost you this much?’”
The ability to surrender our lives to Jesus is the mark of spiritual maturity. The right perspective on who Jesus is will cause us to raise our hands in surrender, saying, “Jesus, this situation hurts and I don’t know all the answers, but I know that You can take pain and turn it into purpose. So, have Your way. Thy will be done. You are the potter. I am the clay. Turn this situation around so that it brings blessing to others and glory to Your name. Whatever that looks like is fine with me.”
In other words, we need to pray for the greatest good, a practice endorsed by the legendary Harvard graduate, theologian, and pastor James Montgomery Boice. On Sunday, May 7, 2000, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boice took to the pulpit to address his congregation. Countless members of Tenth Presbyterian Church had been asking how they might serve and pray for him during his battle with terminal cancer. What Boice said that particular Sunday captures the perspective that can only come from spending time with Jesus and cultivating a life that emulates the humility and surrender of the Healer Himself. He explained,
A number of you have asked what you can do, and it strikes me that what you can do, you are doing. This is a good congregation, and you do the right things. You are praying certainly, and I’ve been assured of that by many people. And I know of many meetings that have been going on. A relevant question, I guess, when you pray is, pray for what? Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you’re free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to do miracles—and he certainly can—is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place. So although miracles do happen, they’re rare by definition. A miracle has to be an unusual thing. I think it’s far more profitable to pray for wisdom for the doctors. Doctors have a great deal of experience, of course, in their expertise, but they’re not omniscient—they do make mistakes—and then also for the effectiveness of the treatment. Sometimes it does very well and sometimes not so well, and that’s certainly a legitimate thing to pray for. Above all, I would say pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying himself in history and you say, where in all of history has God most glorified himself? He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross, though he could have. Jesus said, “Don’t you think I could call down from my Father ten legions of angels for my defense?” But he didn’t do that. And yet that’s where God is most glorified.
These biblical truths are helpful, but they are also extremely humbling. In the end, we won’t always have the answers, but we can certainly have The Answer. Jesus can and will cause anything and everything to work out for good. We must remember what that means.
 Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Mother Faces God through Her Grief,” USA Today (July 16, 2002). I highly commend Nancy Guthrie’s work and ministry to you. Her books, videos, and small-group material are a must-have for anyone enduring suffering or loss.
 The rest of James Montgomery Boice’s remarks can be found at http://math.bd.psu.edu/~jpp4/boice.html.