Suffering and Healing
April 6th, 2018. We all know what happened that day just 20 minutes down the highway from here. 16 people died because one truck driver didn’t stop at the intersection.
That number—16—is shocking and has a deserved place on the news headlines. 16 lives, full of promise, ended. 16 people never coming back.
I’ll admit, though, that there’s a second number I didn’t pay that much attention to. It’s the number 13. 13 people were injured in that crash. For many months that number was a positive number to me, because it was 13 people who didn’t die.
But then back in January I was reading through a document from the trial which described each of those 13 people and the injuries they sustained and the debilitating challenges that many of them are still facing.
I was moved to tears again and again as I read about these young men who are suffering in such profound and painful ways and thought how for some of them, it might not ever get better.
We’re talking about suffering this morning. Suffering and healing. And I bring up the Broncos crash to remind us that these are not just theories or ideas we’re talking about this morning. This is real life, and real life is hard.
Many of you know some of my experiences with suffering, much of it in connection to my mom whom I stood beside as she died after five years of battling cancer. I also know that so many of you know what suffering is like. You know all about pain and disease and bodies that don’t work the way they are supposed to. We’ve all been touched by suffering in one form or another, and if we haven’t, we will.
Suffering causes us to ask some big questions. Like, if God is so good, then why are things so bad? Can’t God stop healthy cells from mutating into cancer cells?
And if so, why doesn’t He? Can’t God stop semi trucks from barreling through intersections? Why is there so much suffering in the world?
And then there’s the added questions surrounding God’s power to heal. Didn’t Jesus heal a lot of people while He was here on earth? And if He is the same today, then when why are so many sick people in the world? Why are there so many sick Christians? Does God want all of His children to be healthy or not?
Those are the very important questions we’re going to do our best at answering today.
Now please understand that suffering is a very broad topic and we’re not going to be able to address every single angle today. We’re mainly going to be speaking about physical suffering, the kind that affects our bodies, although the principles we’ll uncover certainly apply to other kinds of suffering as well.
One more word here in terms of introduction: please don’t think that if you are not suffering today, then you don’t need to pay attention to this morning’s sermon. I can say with absolute certainty that each of you will suffer in one form or another in your life. And the time to build the foundation is before the storm comes. The time to patch the roof is when it’s not raining outside. And so if you are not suffering this morning, that’s all the more reason for you to lean in and here what God’s word says about it.
And that’s what we’re going to do together now: explore what the big story of the Bible says about suffering and healing. And I think we’re going to see that this is a topic we can’t properly understand apart from really grasping the storyline of Scripture.
Suffering in Creation and the Fall
So let’s go back and begin where we need to begin: in creation. When God first created the world, there was no suffering. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
God created things and they were good. There was no suffering in the beginning. This, by the way, is why evolution doesn’t work fit with the Bible. Evolution requires there to be death and suffering all the way along. But Scripture says that there was no suffering and death until Adam and Eve bit the fruit.
But bite the fruit they did. And in response, we know that God cursed the earth. Romans 8:20 in our passage today speaks about that: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it…” (Romans 8:20). And then verse 21 speaks about the “bondage to corruption.”
These are different ways of describing what we saw in Genesis 3 back on September 30: God cursed the whole earth with futility and corruption as a way to show Adam and Eve the horror and the severity of their sin. The curse took the ugliness within their own hearts and displayed it all around them in living, breathing, painful reality.
You might think that God was overreacting to bring the whole universe crashing down over one little sin. But that’s the whole problem: we under-react to sin. We don’t think our sin is a big deal and we feel like God really owes us a pain-free life in spite of everything we’ve done.
And the whole point of the curse, the whole point of suffering and pain, is to show us that our sin is a big deal and therefore God is a very big deal. And so, like we saw back on September 30, pain and suffering are actually acts of God’s grace. God is giving us an opportunity to wake up and repent before it’s too late.
Suffering in the Old Covenant
So suffering is connected to sin. And so as we move through the story of the Bible, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that when God steps in to redeem His people from their sin, that often involves a removal of their suffering.
We see this in His covenant with Israel and all of the blessings and the curses. If Israel sinned against God, they would suffer and experience pain in more and greater ways. But if they obeyed Him, He would bless them and alleviate their suffering.
For example, in Deuteronomy 7:15, He promised that if they obeyed Him, He would take sickness and disease away from them. And this is reflected in Jabez’ now-famous prayer that God would keep him from harm and pain (1 Chronicles 4:10).
Through the blessings of that covenant, God was turning back the curse and bringing His people just a little bit closer to the garden of Eden.
Suffering in the New Creation
And we see this idea of God removing the curse, removing suffering, making everything whole again when we turn to the book of Isaiah and read about God’s promise to come and save His people once and for all.
Listen to Isaiah 35:3–6: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
When God comes to save His people, the curse will be turned back. Blind people will be able to see, lame people will be able to leap like a deer.
And these promises of God’s salvation connect up to God’s big promise to fix everything that’s broken and make a whole new creation. Isaiah 65 tells us, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress” (Isaiah 65:17–19).
This is what God’s people were waiting for the Messiah to bring as they waited in the darkness of exile for all those hundreds of years: a coming age of salvation in which suffering and the curse would be nothing more than a memory. A whole new creation.
The Ministry of Christ
I hope you know the next stop in the story. It’s Jesus. Jesus, the healer. Jesus, the one who could remove suffering and reverse the curse with a touch—or even just a word.
And I hope that you can see how Jesus’ healing ministry makes so much sense when we connect it up with the storyline of Scripture. As Jesus healed people, He was proving that He was God, coming to visit His people. And He was declaring that the Age to Come had already begun.
And this is where our passage from Luke chapter 7 fits in. The backstory is that Jesus had just raised a young man from the dead, and verse 16 says that when the people saw this, they said “God has visited his people!” And so this is what the disciples of John saw and reported back to John. And this is where John’s question came from: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20).
Are you the promised Messiah, or not? And what does Jesus say? Verse 22: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me’” (Luke 7:22–23).
Yes, He is the one they were expecting. The miracles and the healings of Jesus proved that He was the promised one, and that the Age to Come had begun. Isaiah’s prophecies were being fulfilled right before their very eyes.
So why did Jesus finish up his statement by saying, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me”? How could you be offended by someone who was doing all of this?
Well, do you remember where John the Baptist was as he asked this question? He was locked up in Herod’s prison. And didn’t Isaiah also say that the Messiah would “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1)?
And that’s where John’s question came from in the first place. Why were the prophecies coming true for some people but not others? How is it possible for Jesus to be up there raising people from the dead while John sits there languishing in Herod’s prison? John could have been really offended by Jesus if he wanted to be.
John, like Jesus’ disciples, probably expected that the kingdom of God was going to arrive all at once. If the Messiah was here, then the Age to Come was going to begin, and this present age of suffering and pain was over, and it was all going to happen at once.
But we know that it didn’t happen this way. It didn’t happen all at once. There’s this period of already-but-not-yet that we live in today. The kingdom of God is here alongside of the kingdoms of man. The Age to Come has begun and yet this present age of suffering and death continues on for a time.
And so Jesus healed and resurrected people to prove that He was God, to prove that He was the Messiah, and to show that the Age to Come had arrived. But He didn’t heal and resurrect everybody. As far as we can tell, that young man was one of only three people whom Jesus raised from the dead.
And then we see stories like John 5 where Jesus walks into the pool of Bethesda where there “lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed” (John 5:3). And He picks out one guy, heals just him, and then leaves.
Or think about the lame beggar that Peter and John heal in Acts 3. It said that he had been taken daily and laid at the entrance to the temple (Acts 3:2). That means Jesus would have walked past him countless times and didn’t heal him.
The same is true of the Apostles. They healed in Jesus’ name to prove that He was alive and that they spoke for Him. That’s why they told that lame beggar “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6).
But the Apostles didn’t heal everybody. We know that Paul told Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23). Why don’t you just heal him, Paul? Or what about 2 Timothy 4:20, where Paul said “…I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20). Healing was not for everybody.
Here’s an illustration to help us understand all of this. There’s this really nice restaurant in Regina that Aimee and I used to go to on our anniversary. And while we’d be waiting for the meal, the server would come out and give us a taste of something the chef had been working on. It was usually delicious but it was always really small. Barely a mouthful. Just enough to taste.
And that little taste could be so frustrating because it left you hungry for more. You wanted the whole meal right then and there. And that was the point. The appetizer told you that the chef was good and the meal was going to be amazing, and it made you long for that meal with intensity.
And that’s what the healing ministry of Jesus and the Apostles was like. When Jesus walked in to the pool of Bethesda and healed one guy, He proved that He’s the Messiah. When He raised three people from the dead, He showed us what the Age to Come is like and how wonderful it’s going to be.
But it’s not here in its fullness yet. This present age, full of pain and suffering, is still sticking around for a while. The curse has not been erased just yet.
And so some people get healed. And some people don’t. That young man gets raised from the dead. And John the Baptist sits in jail until his head gets chopped off by Herod and his disciples bury him in tears. We taste enough to know that the meal will be good, but we still wait for it to arrive with growling stomachs.
Suffering and Healing Today
And that’s where you and I are in the story. We’re still waiting for the meal to arrive.
Now as we wait for the meal to arrive, does God still give us a taste from time to time? I think He does. We know that God can still heal, and I have no doubt that He still does that for some people.
But we see right there in the Bible that it’s not for everybody. It wasn’t for John the Baptist. It wasn’t for Timothy. It wasn’t for Trophimus.
And when we read the rest of the New Testament, what we discover is that God’s people should expect to suffer as we wait for the New Creation to come in all of its fullness. And that’s where our passage from Romans 8 comes in this morning.
Verse 17 tells us that we will be glorified with Him, “provided we suffer with Him.” That’s the Christian life. Suffering now as we wait for glory later.
Verse 23 reminds us that we continue to suffer along with the rest of this world. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
Our bodies have not been redeemed yet. And so this verse once again tells us that we should expect to suffer in our bodies here and now.
And don’t miss that the thing we’re waiting eagerly for is so much better than just temporary healing. We were saved in the hope of something better: the redemption of our bodies. New, resurrected bodies living on a New Earth with no suffering forever.
But until then, we wait. And we groan.
And yet, don’t miss that our groaning is hopeful groaning. It is expectant groaning. Did you catch verse 22? “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22–23).
The groaning that creation experiences, and the groaning that we experience, is the groaning of a woman in labour. It is the groaning that knows there is new life coming.
Before Jesus, our groaning was a hopeless groaning that had nothing more than judgement to look forward to. But Jesus’s death and resurrection and promised return have given us hope and transformed our groaning.
John Piper gives the illustration of a palliative ward and a maternity ward. In the palliative ward, people groan in pain because they are waiting to die. In the maternity ward, people groan in pain because new life is coming.
And some of you, like me, have spent time in both of those wards. I’ve held my mom’s hand in the palliative ward as she groaned in pain awaiting her death. And I’ve held my wife’s hand as she groaned in pain and each push brought us closer to meeting our newborn child.
Both of those women were in incredible pain, but their experiences could not have been more different.
And because Jesus has saved us, we’re in the maternity ward. All of our suffering is the suffering that produces new life. Which means that even my mom’s palliative ward groaning was really maternity ward groaning. Because she’s with Jesus right now and there’s a new body waiting for her in the resurrection.
So no, we should not expect God to remove all suffering from our life, here and now. That’s still coming. But Jesus has transformed our experience of suffering. Instead of being a painful reminder of coming judgment, it becomes a painful reminder of the resurrection hope that’s in front of us.
God’s Work in Suffering
But there’s even more than that. Because God doesn’t let suffering be wasted in our life. Not only does He use suffering to remind us of what’s in store, He also uses suffering to accomplish His good work in our lives. Just listen to these words:
Romans 5:3–5: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
2 Corinthians 4:16–17: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…”
James 1:2–4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
When God allows suffering into our lives, He does so on purpose for a good reason. He’s doing something in our life that He couldn’t do any other way.
Isn’t it easy to forget passages like these? When we suffer, or the people around us suffer, what’s our knee-jerk reaction? What do we pray for right away? “God, please take this suffering away! Fix it! Heal it!”
But what if God has something better in mind? What if God wants to produce some endurance and character and hope in you? What if God wants to prepare more eternal glory for you? What if God wants you to become more steadfast and complete and lacking in nothing?
And how does He do all of that? Through suffering.
So we should be thankful that God doesn’t say “yes” to every prayer for healing. Because He so often uses pain and suffering and sickness to work in our life to do things He couldn’t do any other way.
Now please understand—this doesn’t mean that we should never ask God to heal. This doesn’t mean we should never ask God to remove suffering. But it means that as we ask for those things, we say, with Jesus, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Because we understand God may have higher plans. He may choose to use our suffering and sickness for our good and His glory.
So while we pray for God to remove our suffering if that’s His will, let’s also pray for Him to help us rejoice in our trials, to give us strength in our inner man, for His power to be made perfect in our weakness, for His grace to be sufficient for us, for our faith to be strong and our perspective to be His and our relationship with Him to grow.
Philippians 3:10 talks about knowing Jesus as we “share His sufferings,” and so we should be asking Jesus to draw us ever nearer to Him as we suffer with Him.
All of this is pointing to us needing to be active sufferers. We don’t just passively wait for God to take it away, and if He doesn’t, then oh well, we grin and bear it.
No, we suffer with eyes wide open to what God is up to. And we’re seeking to participate with Him in all the ways His sovereign love is using the suffering in our lives, working all things for our good, building our character and strengthening our inner man and fixing our hope more and more on the things we can’t see.
And so we’re going to draw things to a close here. There’s so much more I could say. I’m going to hang around the front here this morning if you want to come and talk to me or pray with me ask me anything. But first we’re going to sing together “It Is Well With My Soul.”
This song reminds us that everything we’ve talked about this morning depends on the cross of Jesus Christ. None of this good and hopeful news is true for us until we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who suffered to pay for our sins and rose from the dead to give us the hope of eternity with Him.
If you have not trusted in Jesus for your salvation, please say yes to Him now. And if you have, then let’s rejoice at how Jesus has changed everything for us, and because of what He has done, it really can be well with our souls.