At the beginning of my second year of seminary, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I remember trying to study advanced Greek grammar in an isolation room at the hospital while undergoing radioactive iodine therapy. Was this cancer in contradiction to the Lord’s plans for my ministry? Or was He using it somehow to complement my ministry?
Fast forward 10 years. I’m now cancer-free and serving as a professor at a Bible college in Senegal, West Africa. Pastor Alaindé, a student at the Bible college, is staying with us while doing medical tests to determine the cause of his persistent fatigue. This is 3 years into his blossoming ministry overseeing three churches in neighbouring sandy suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. Is his fatigue in contradiction of the Lord’s plans for Alaindé’s ministry or in complement to it?
Although I was Alaindé’s professor, we had become friends, good friends. One evening after dinner, we went for a walk together during which I shared my own burden. Due to my persistent struggle with fatigue related to my thyroid cancer, I had been unable to accomplish all I wanted in ministry. Alaindé and I were both wrestling with the tension between persistent weakness and ministry faithfulness.
How are we to understand the relationship between persistent sickness and the Christian life of service to God and others? Are these in contradiction or complementary?
Sickness Reminds Us of the Fall’s Consequences which Affects Our Physical Bodies
First of all, sickness of any kind (punctiliar or persistent) reminds us of the Fall and its very real consequences in our spiritual and physical lives. Sickness in this sense is an echo of what happened that day in the Garden. And it is thus a healthy reminder of our need to be united to Christ.
Sickness Keeps Us at the End of Ourselves and Ready for God to Show His Strength
During my days at Dallas Seminary, one of my pastors, Pastor Tim Tinsley, taught that God tends to keep us at the end of ourselves. And, he added, this is the best place to be, because it is only then that we know that the only way forward is if God shows up. Sickness keeps us at the end of our own strength – and this is the best place to be.
It’s the best place to be because sickness reminds us of our own weakness and that anything that matters in ministry is accomplished by the Lord’s grace and not our own strength or ingenuity.
Consequently, sickness keeps spiritual pride from taking root in our hearts.
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul states that the Lord gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him from exalting himself. We can speculate what this thorn was, but Scripture does not tell us explicitly. But that it is “in the flesh” indicates bodily ailment that did not go away even after passionate petition. The Lord’s response reveals his calibrated grace in Paul’s life and ministry – “My grace is sufficient for you, because the power is perfected in weakness.” And Paul comes to delight in his weakness, seeing it as giving more opportunity for the Lord’s strength to shine forth in his life.
In this way, we can see that physical weakness gives way to the Lord’s gracious strength. Human weakness is a foil for divine strength.
Paul’s ministry was strengthened by His physical weakness. Paul’s ministry in Galatia was evidence of this Galatians 4:13-14: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” Paul’s physical infirmity was not in contradiction to his ministry in Galatia but a providential complement to it.
Sickness Is Part of the Christian’s Life (for Some more than Others) until We Are in Heaven
Sickness is not in contradiction to the gospel. If it were, how would we explain the apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh and consequent “weakness”? Timothy’s abdominal sickness? Trophimus being left sick in Miletus?
In 1533 John Calvin converted to Christ at the age of 23. But he was not a healthy man. It is the opinion of biographers that he suffered a list of persistent ailments such as anemia, gout, painful renal colic, and possibly had trigeminal neuralgia. Sometimes he needed to preach sitting down. He died at the age of 55 likely of tuberculosis.
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Paul states that “though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” To Paul, as his physical suffering increased, he found another reality at work, that of Spiritual renewal on a daily basis. Physical infirmity was not in contradiction to Paul’s faith but a complement to it.
The prosperity Gospel claims that you can live your best life now — health and wealth, they claim, is promised us in the gospel. We call this an over-realized eschatology. But the Bible often combines Christian life with present physical suffering.
Sickness Helps Us in Our Sanctification
The promise of future hope is irrelevant if our priorities are not aligned with this hope. In fact, biblical faith is defined by the confident expectation of that which is yet to come.
Sickness enables us to shift our priorities from earthly focus to heavenly focus. Sickness is a gracious reminder that the American dream is untenable for many and short-sighted for all.
Tim Keller recently shared that his recent diagnosis with pancreatic cancer has led him and his wife Kathy “to seek God’s face as never before. He is giving us more of his sensed presence, more freedom from our besetting sins, more dependence on his Word — things that we had sought for years, but only under these circumstances are we finding them.”
So, in conclusion, what was Alaindé’s response to my dilemma. It was simple but unforgettable. “I couldn’t have made it without you,” he said, and then added, “you were like an angel to me when I was going through such a hard time in ministry.”
Well, that obviously was not my own doing, but the Lord working through my weakness.
Alaindé has gone on to become one of the most influential pastors in the country. He is now the president of his church association, all while shepherding his own congregation and overseeing other church plants.
Persistent health problems are not in contradiction to ministry faithfulness but a complement to ministry effectiveness.
Whether consciously, or subconsciously, we tend to think that sickness is somehow in contradiction to God’s purpose for our lives. If you live with persistent health problems, do not lose sight of the fact that the Lord’s strength shines brighter against the shadowy backdrop of our own weakness and limitations. Take heart in knowing that he uses us best, at times, when we are weak and sick.
How will you walk by faith when sickness comes into your life? How will you be faithful in your present sickness? Yes, you’ll have to manage your time more carefully, but the Spirit will lift you up and use you in ways you never imagined.
For the French version of this article, see here.