I am reading various sources as I work on my book, “Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Biblical Theology of Suffering and Grace.” I came across a lecture at a PCA church on suffering that included this argument.
The Christian way to be ill is always to give glory to God and self-searching. “Is God telling me something?” is I think something that we ought always to do when we find ourselves ill. What is God teaching me? What can I learn from this particular sickness?
The lecture is heavily Calvinistic, as we might expect, but there are one or two points I agree with wholeheartedly (e.g., “all suffering including illness is a consequence of Adamic sin”). The trouble is a strong point like that is followed with “all circumstances in our Christian lives are ordered by God,” citing, of course, Romans 8. At the same time, the speaker does acknowledge the inadequacy and hurtfulness of what he calls a “‘by faith’ formula,” that is, all illness can be healed by faith. So he has a nuanced view of suffering, but he ultimately views all aspects of our lives as ordained by God.
My point in citing this quote is because it exemplifies the difficulty and importance of active agency. The first self-searching question, “Is God telling me something?” assumes (and this is clear in the larger context of his lecture) that God has sent this illness. He is active in causing it to come upon us. (Later he says, “Illness may have a prospective disciplinary sanctifying purpose without bearing any relation to past sins.” He has in mind Job and the point is God sends illness to us in order to discipline or sanctify us.) I largely disagree with this view, that God actively sends suffering upon us. See point number 1, we live in a broken world.
On the other hand, I do think the other self-searching questions are vital and what enable us to move through our difficult times of suffering and pain. While God is not the agent of our suffering, he is with us in our anguish. Seeking his presence, looking for lessons and insights in our time of grief, enable us to sanctify, if you will, what is otherwise simply the vicissitudes of violence of living in a broken world. In other words, it is grace.
3 thoughts on ““The Christian way to be ill””
I agree with your last paragraph. Whatever Active Agency is, it is not, in my view, the cause of my 3-week bout of a bronchial infection. At the same time, my illness has shown itself to be an opportunity for God’s healing will to be revealed, whether I eventually live or return to dust.
Curious what you think of redemptive suffering as viewed by the Catholic Church?
That, maybe not so much a punishment but a chance to participate in Christ’s redemptive suffering on the cross.
Or, maybe it’s both corrective as well as allowing us to share in our Lord’s passion.
To willingly suffer and to offer that up to God for another person.
In my meager experiences with suffering I seemingly without fail grow a bit more. A deeper understanding, a more profound peace in my life. Not that the suffering didn’t hurt, or that the memory is solely met with smiles… But a significant shift/growth within me; that I don’t see happening in the absence of suffering.
The question is to what do we attribute our suffering. I do think the Bible teaches that some suffering can be “sent” so that we might learn and grow, to correct and in response to our own sinful actions. (The concept of redemptive suffering is more complex and I won’t address that now since your comments seem to focus on the concept of suffering as a means to improving us.) In all suffering I believe we can grow in our faith, become stronger, more resilient as individuals, and become more empathetic and compassionate towards others. This is the response after we have suffered and is a question of our response to it rather than an understand of why it came upon us. We will often have no idea why something happened. Remember, Job never knew about God’s little wager with Satan…
I do think that we can grow and become compassionate without suffering, but it is harder. I think it would be wrong then for us to seek out suffering, as some ascetics have done, driven by a concept of “redemptive suffering.” The world has enough suffering and hardship without our seeking it bringing it down upon ourselves. Instead we should help bring grace and relief to those who are suffering and be patient, our time will come, it always does.