Making Sense of Sickness and Terminal Illness
If you or your loved one is in the midst of a severe illness there are probably many questions that are going through your mind. These questions need to be answered thoughtfully and biblically. Questions such as: Why would God allow this sickness? How can I make any sense out of this suffering? As a Christian, how should I react to sickness? Answering some of these hard questions can be very difficult. Hopefully as you read through this article it will help clarify your beliefs and motivate you to make wise decisions in the days ahead.
Why would God allow you or your loved one to get sick?
Frankly, this is a very difficult question to answer because Scripture gives many reasons for the sicknesses that occur in our lives. Therefore, it can be very challenging to determine exactly which cause fits your case or that of your loved one. Here are some of the major reasons given in the Scripture.
1. Sickness and death naturally come to all because we are fallen people living in a fallen world. We get sick and die because we are imperfect human beings living in a world filled with bacteria and viruses that attack our bodies. Paul declared that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). This death refers to spiritual death but also to the eventual physical death that comes to all mankind. To stop all sickness and death would require God to stop the world as we know it today. One day Jesus said that He would come again and set up His kingdom here upon the earth and remove all things that offend out of this world (Matt. 13:41).
2. God sometimes allows sickness so that His purposes might be fulfilled. Jesus said that one man was born blind so that, “the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Other times Jesus said that it was to bring glory to God when He healed the person (John 11:4). Therefore, you can be assured of one thing, that God is working out His purpose in your life through this sickness.
3. God has also used sickness as a judgment against people who were in rebellion against Him. King Jehoram was an example of this cause of sickness (2 Chron. 21:1-19). His illness was allowed so that he would hopefully humble himself and turn to God for help. Scripture teaches that God never afflicts someone willingly, but allows it, hoping that they will turn from their sin. Jeremiah declared concerning God: “The Lord will not cast off forever. Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:31-33). King Hezekiah is an excellent example of a man who turned to God, was healed, and recovered from his illness (2 Kings 20:1-5). If you are a Christian in right standing with God this potential cause of your sickness is not one that God would use, simply because you already have a right relationship with the Father. Many sicknesses have nothing to do with a person’s sin or turning them from rebellion. Jesus made this clear when the disciples questioned Him concerning a man who had been born blind. The disciples asked Him, “ ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him’ ” (John 9:2-3). Notice that Jesus was emphatic that neither this man nor his parents had anything to do with this birth defect. God had a single purpose of revealing His own glory in the man’s healing.
However, if you don’t have a personal relationship with Christ, God may have allowed this sickness to get your attention. To resolve this potential cause of your sickness you should consider surrendering your life to God. Invite Jesus into your heart and ask Him to forgive you of your sin. God’s Word promises, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God has great delight in showing mercy (Micah 7:18-19). Once you have surrendered your life to Christ you can take this issue off the table as a potential cause of your sickness.
4. Sometimes God doesn’t provide a clear reason for illness. God has allowed some individuals who have had great faith and whom He has used greatly to get sick. In some cases, they didn’t recover and God gave no explanation for His reasons. Elisha the prophet is a good example. He got sick and died after he had healed many others in his own ministry (2 Kings 13:14). God didn’t explain why He allowed this man to be taken from his service in this manner. Whenever God does anything without explaining it you must trust in His sovereign wisdom and love. There are purposes beyond your understanding that He is working out for all concerned. Unless God specifically reveals His plan Paul said, “His ways are past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). God didn’t tell Paul the apostle why he received his “thorn in the flesh” but only encouraged him to trust His sovereign and sufficient grace. Paul said concerning this thorn, “I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:8-10). Therefore, ask God to reveal His grace and strength to you in this time of weakness.
5. Sometimes God allows sickness for a testimony of His power and glory. One of the best examples of this truth is when a deadly snake bit Paul after He had been shipwrecked on an island. While Paul was gathering wood for the fire a viper fastened itself on his hand. He shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. The natives of the island saw this and thought that He must have been a murderer because he escaped death in the sea and now justice has not allowed him to live. But, when Paul did not die the people changed their minds thinking him to be a god. Therefore, God used this situation to have the people ask Paul to pray for a magistrate of the island who was sick. God healed this man and then many who were sick on the island came and were also healed. What a testimony this was all because Paul was bitten by a viper (Acts 28:1-10).
6. One of the most comforting principles that God declares is that when a person gets sick He promises to sustain this person on their sickbed. David taught, “The LORD will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed” (Ps. 41:3). Therefore, allow the Lord to strengthen you spiritually by drawing close to Him during this time of sickness. If you seek Him you will find Him and His grace for whatever is ahead (Matt. 7:7-8). Strengthening yourself spiritually is essential because Solomon also said, “The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, but who can bear a broken spirit” (Prov. 18:14)? Therefore, whether you are healed or end up receiving the ultimate healing (death and your new body), the Lord will be with you and sustain you by His grace. David declared concerning the Lord that: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). The Lord also promises: “He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him” (Ps. 91:15). I encourage you at this time of sickness in your life that you seek the Lord to be your strength and refuge. He wants to be with you and help you if you will only call upon Him.
Why does God allow suffering?
The question of why God allows suffering is directly related to the question of why God allows sickness, since suffering results when you are sick. If you or your loved one are battling a difficult or terminal illness this subject of suffering has surely been brought up. Therefore, you need to have a biblical understanding of why God allows suffering. Here are several reasons the Scripture gives for why suffering is allowed in our lives.
1. God always has a reason and a purpose for any suffering that He allows.
God has clearly stated that He has an eternal purpose, which He is accomplishing in every believer’s life. Paul declared that in Christ “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). Therefore, be assured that God is working out His eternal purposes in and through your life during this time of suffering. He is working through all the things that are occurring in your life to fulfill the counsel of His will.
It is important to remember that even Jesus was allowed to suffer, “to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known … according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10-11). God had an eternal purpose in allowing His own Son to suffer. Paul taught that this purpose was that we might understand and know God’s wisdom and love through His plan to redeem us through the death of His Son. Therefore, if God has allowed even His own Son to suffer to fulfill His eternal purpose, then you must also trust that He is working out His eternal purpose in you in the midst of your suffering. God may use your suffering to redeem someone else’s life by your testimony and example. But, how can you be sure that something good will come of your suffering? Paul taught, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Note that Paul does not say that all things that happen to us are good, but that God takes all things and works them together for good in order to fulfill His eternal purpose.
2. God allows suffering so that you might know that He is God.
God also allows trials and suffering so that you might realize that, through it all, He is God. Moses explained to the Children of Israel that this would be the result from all that they would suffer. He taught them: “When you are in distress, and all these things come upon you… when you turn to the LORD your God and obey His voice … He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them… To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD Himself is God; there is none other besides Him” (Deut. 4:30-35). Moses explained to the people that through all of the trials that they would experience, they would come to realize that the Lord is God and that there was no other God beside Him. They would see His gracious hand helping them, providing for them, and strengthening them. Notice that God didn’t tell them that He would never allow distress in their lives, but that He would not forsake them or forget them while in the midst of their suffering. However, the key to getting this personal revelation that He is a sovereign God and that He will sustain you is only found when you obey His voice and believe that God has not forsaken you or His promises. Be confident that He loves you and will not forsake you! Remember that God promised: “ ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear’ “ (Heb. 13:5-6). Ask the Lord for this boldness and assurance in your heart.
3. God allows suffering to test you.
Suffering tests how you will respond to God and others. Will you blame and curse God or trust Him to fulfill His plan even if you don’t understand it? God told the Jews: “I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10). No one enjoys the tests and trials that suffering brings to our lives, but they surely refine our character and help us to see what is truly important in life. God tested Joseph through all the suffering he went through when he was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery. David declared that the Lord, “sent a man before them – Joseph – who was sold as a slave. They hurt his feet with fetters, He was laid in irons. Until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him” (Ps. 105:17-19). Joseph knew that God allowed all this suffering to happen because He was working out a greater plan, which ultimately would bring forth good to him and his entire family. When Joseph spoke to his brothers after he had saved them from the famine, he said: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph passed his test by trusting that God loved him and was working out His eternal plan. You need to trust God’s sovereign plan too. Remember, God does not promise that the righteous are exempt from suffering. He promises that, “the righteous will come through trouble” (Prov. 12:13). Trust that the Lord will bring you through this testing of your faith.
4. God allows suffering to perfect and change you.
Part of God’s eternal plan in allowing suffering in your life is to mature and strengthen you. Peter told the Christians of his day: “But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (1 Peter 5:10). The word perfect in this verse means to mature. How does suffering mature and strengthen you? Suffering brings you to the end of your own resources and motivates you to seek the Lord for His help. As you come and seek His help the Lord fills you with His Holy Spirit, which enables you to persevere. As you persevere it naturally builds character and hope in your heart. Notice how Paul described this process: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). Therefore, rest in the assurance that God loves you and His Spirit will be poured out into your heart to help and strengthen you in the midst of your trial. Ask Him to mature you through this suffering.
Suffering is often allowed in someone’s life when they have fallen away in their faith. God uses the illness or suffering to reveal a person’s weakness and need so that He or she might come back to the Lord. God used affliction in King Manasseh’s life when he was taken captive into Babylon and removed from being king. Notice what the king did: “Now when he was in affliction, he implored the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed to Him; and He received his entreaty, heard his supplication, and brought him back to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God” (2 Chron. 33:12-13). The same thing happened during the prophet Hosea’s ministry when the people rebelled against the Lord. God said: “I will return again to My place till they acknowledge their offense. Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me” (Hos. 5:15). Therefore, if you have never received Christ or have turned away from Him, do as King Manasseh did. Humble yourself before God, ask His forgiveness, and your heavenly Father will hear your cry and answer.
5. God allows suffering so you can be a testimony to others.
Paul declared concerning suffering: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:3-5). Therefore when you suffer in any way the God of all comfort will minister His comfort to you. He does this for two reasons. First, so that you will be strengthened and encouraged so you can persevere and endure the suffering. Second, God comforts you so you may be able to comfort others who are experiencing the same suffering you have experienced.
One of the best examples of men and women of faith who suffered is recorded in the epistle to the Hebrews. In that letter the apostle lists for you the great men and women of faith. In his summary in Hebrews 11:33-35 he reveals an important insight concerning the reason suffering is allowed. First, Paul lists those who, “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.” But then Paul listed others who had just as much faith but they “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise” (Heb. 11:35-39). Note what Paul said about why all this suffering came to these men and women of faith. It was so they might have a testimony to us. They didn’t get to see the fulfilled “promise” of seeing the Messiah come, nor did they get delivered from their suffering, but they are listed right along with the greatest men and women of faith. Therefore, trust that His sovereign plan will be accomplished through you and let God use you as a testimony in the midst of your suffering.
6. God allows suffering to continue to fulfill a plan that is beyond your understanding.
I’ve explained several reasons for suffering and affliction in the previous points. However, you will never have a complete understanding or obtain an answer to all of your questions. “Why has this sickness and suffering come upon me?” - is a question that is asked more than any other. The prophet Habakkuk cried out to God with this very question when the nation Israel was being taken into captivity by a violent and evil nation. He said: “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? … and You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises… for the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds” (Hab 1:2-4). Then God responded to His prophet with a challenge: "Look among the nations and watch--be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you” (Hab. 1:5). God challenged him to watch and see what He would do. The Lord declared that He was working a work that was beyond what the prophet could know or grasp intellectually, even if it was explained to him. God also told the prophet later that he simply had to trust in God’s care and righteousness (Hab. 2:4).
If you are questioning the same way the prophet Habakkuk was, you must rest in what you do know. Rest in the fact that you know God has greater wisdom than you do. Remember King David declared: “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:5). Unless God reveals the reasons for a particular action, "His ways are past finding out" (Rom. 11:33). Therefore, trust in His infinite wisdom and understanding. God knows what He is doing. Acknowledge to the Lord that you cannot figure it all out, but that you trust that He does know about every detail of your life.
Second, trust in the fact that God loves you and He is not playing games with your life. He proved His love for you once and for all time by coming to this earth to take your punishment and judgment on the cross (John 3:16; Rom. 8:31-32). If He loved you enough to willingly suffer and die in your place, how could you ever think that He would take pleasure in your suffering? Therefore, rest in the fact that God loves you. Trust in God’s character, wisdom, and power. He cares about you! Trust that He is smarter than you are and that He will somehow use this suffering for good.
Should you trust in divine healing or go to the doctor?
It is clear from Scripture that God wants to reveal His power and heal people. Jesus commanded that the disciples should pray and heal the sick (Matt. 10:8). God has bestowed the gifts of healing upon the church so that we might pray for the sick (1 Cor. 12:9). The apostle James taught, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). Therefore, you should pray and believe God for His divine intervention and healing. Asking for God’s healing should always be your first resort. There will always be those who have the gift of healing and will want to pray for you. Allow them to pray the prayer of faith for you. But, you also must come in faith. God wants you to trust and believe Him to fulfill His plan in this most difficult time in your life. This won’t be easy because your mind fights against your belief in divine healing. Therefore, you must fight in faith to stand on God’s Word that healing is truly possible. Paul said that we must, “Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). To trust God when you don’t understand exactly why all these things are happening to you; to trust Him when you feel so terrible; to trust Him when it seems so hopeless will require you to fight the good fight of faith.
However, is it a lack of faith to seek out a physician’s help if the illness continues? Absolutely not! God has also given mankind wisdom to treat all manner of sickness and disease. Jesus would never have used the analogy of physicians caring for the sick, nor would Jesus have referred to Himself as a spiritual Physician if He did not consider doctors essential for helping those who are sick (Jer. 8:22; Matt. 9:12; Luke 4:23). Even Paul the apostle had Luke the physician travel with him to care for his many ailments (Col. 4:14). It is thought by most Christians that Paul had many physical problems from the beatings that he had received and that he had some kind of severe eye problem. Note what Paul said about his physical condition: “And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me” (Gal. 4:14-15).
Therefore, you should find the most knowledgeable and caring physician possible to treat you or your loved one. If you are in doubt about the diagnosis, get a second opinion, which brings confirmation and wisdom for your treatment. Take the options given to you by your doctor and make an informed decision on the course of treatment.
What should you do if you or your loved one is not healed?
Many Christians have struggled and even doubted God’s love because they couldn’t understand why some believers are healed and others are not. There is not a complete answer to this question of why He heals some miraculously while others recover through the treatment of medicine and others die. Sometimes Jesus healed everyone that came to Him (Matt. 12:15). Other times He would only heal one person in the midst of many as He did with the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9). Note that there were, “multitudes of sick people, blind, lame, and paralyzed waiting” there at the pool, but Jesus healed only one man (vs. 3). Why did Jesus not heal all of them? We are not told. At other times Jesus did not do any miracles or any healing because of the people’s unbelief (Matt. 13:58). Therefore, you must understand that God is sovereign in all healing and it is impossible to try and figure out why some are healed and others are not. God has His own reasons and purposes that He is working out in the life of the one that is sick and in all the family and friends that surround this person. Therefore, pray and seek God’s healing power, find a good doctor, and trust that God will work out His plan through it all.
What about the Scriptures that seem to teach that everyone should be healed?
It is important to realize that God has provided for healing by the death of His Son, but Scripture does not guarantee that everyone will be healed. This is why many great men and women of faith have not been healed. Remember the examples of Elisha the prophet, Paul the apostle, or Paul’s fellow worker Epaphroditus, to name just a few that God used greatly to impact their world, but these men were not healed (2 Kings 13:14; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Phil. 2:25-30). Therefore, all Scripture must be taken into account when forming your beliefs. The misinterpretation or the misapplication of God’s Word will lead to great confusion, guilt, and many erroneous practices. Let’s look at the Scriptures that might appear to teach healing for all and determine exactly what they mean.
1. The apostle Peter said of Jesus: “Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness--by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:23-24). This is a passage that is used quite often to encourage people that they are already healed because of the stripes Jesus took for them, which seems to imply that healing is guaranteed for any believer. You are told by well-meaning people that by faith you should just receive the healing. However, if you give this passage a little closer examination it is clear that Peter is addressing the spiritual benefits of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection and how His example should help us live for righteousness when we suffer. It is important to note that the intent of this verse is that you, “might live for righteousness.” Granted, the word healed means to make a person whole, but it is used in reference to the transformation that His death brings spiritually. Unfortunately, people usually quote this passage in reference to physical healing, but the word healed is in the past tense which clearly indicates that it is primarily referring to the past work of the cross and the spiritual work of making us whole so that we could live for righteousness. Quite often Scripture uses healing as a metaphor for the transformation from ungodliness to living righteously. Notice how Isaiah spoke of the spiritually sick condition of the nation Israel: “Alas, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers… they have forsaken the LORD. The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints” (Is. 1:4-5). Jesus used the same metaphor when He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Obviously, the sickness here that needs to be healed refers to the people’s spiritual condition.
Physical healing is definitely a benefit provided for in the sacrifice of Christ, but Scripture does not guaranteed that all believers will be healed every time they pray. Healing is a gift of God given as He chooses; not a guarantee. It is a gift given at the discretion of the Giver or withheld for His own divine purposes. The ultimate determining factor concerning who is healed and who is not must be left to the sovereign will of God.
2. Another passage of Scripture that seems to imply healing for everyone is the statement by Jesus: “These signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will… lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). This passage must simply be balanced with the biblical references that refer to His sovereign will. One such verse is Hebrews 2:4 which declares, “God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will.” Or, as the apostle John taught, your prayers will only be answered if they are according to the Father’s will (1 John 5:14-15).
If you fight and argue with God over this issue of why He heals some and not others, you will stumble in your faith because you are not allowing Him to be sovereign over your life or that of your loved one. We cannot tell God how to do His business; we must allow Him to fulfill His will, whatever that may be. If you trust in the Lord with your whole heart for His divine healing and you are still not healed, then you must conclude that God has another purpose that He is working out in your life. At this time you should cry out as David did, “Hear my cry, O God; attend to my prayer… lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Ps. 61:1-2). Believe Him to give you His sufficient grace to go through this trial.
Why does God delay in answering prayer?
1. When God delays in answering your prayers it always means that He has another purpose that He is seeking to accomplish. The best example of this truth is seen when Mary and Martha sent for Jesus when their brother Lazarus had become sick. The Scripture teaches that, “When He [Jesus] heard that he [Lazarus] was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (John 11:6). Why did Jesus wait and not come immediately to heal His friend? Scripture makes it clear that Jesus loved Lazarus (John 11:5). Jesus declared His reasoning when He said that the sickness was for the glory of God. The Lord didn’t want to just heal Lazarus. He wanted to raise him from the dead in front of all who were present. Often we don’t know the purposes God is working out when we ask for His healing. God will glorify Himself in an immediate healing of His servant, in the delayed healing, in the strength and witness of an illness that is ongoing, or in the death of His servant. Could allowing someone to die really glorify God? Yes, Jesus thought so! The apostle John overheard Jesus explaining that Peter would have to give up his life one day for the cause of Christ. Notice Jesus’ words according to John: “This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God” (John 21:19). Therefore, Peter’s death did glorify God.
2. God may delay in answering your prayers because He desires to save others through your circumstances. After Lazarus was raised to life what happened? “Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him” (John 11:45). As people watch your circumstances and observe how God works in your life they too will come to believe that there is a God who is supporting and sustaining you.
3. God also delays in answering your prayers to develop your faith. God fulfilled this purpose in the life of Abraham when he waited at least twenty-five years for a child that God had promised. When Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promises through his own human plan by having a child through another wife, God asked this man: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” (Gen. 18:14). Then God promised Abraham again that he would have a child through his wife Sarah. Scripture tells us that after God made this promise again that Abraham, “Contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:18). Therefore, God may delay what He has promised to bring you to a depth of faith you have never experienced before.
4. God also delays in doing what you want in order to bring you to a place of surrender to His sovereign rights over your life. King Nebuchadnezzar had to learn this lesson in his own life because of his arrogance of thinking that he ruled the world. God told the king that he would lose his ability to govern his kingdom, “until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (Dan. 4:32). Therefore, when you experience delays to any prayer, be assured that God is fulfilling another eternal purpose that you may not understand. He is exercising and revealing His sovereign right over your life. Therefore, surrender to Him in faith.
Why does God say no to some of your prayers?
1. Sometimes God refuses to answer your prayer because it is simply not His will. Here again God is exercising His sovereign right in His kingdom to fulfill His purposes. The apostle John explained that the Lord has one essential requirement for answered prayer: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). Even Jesus while here on earth prayed, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). There are many things that we pray for that are simply not God’s will to do. For example, when Paul asked God to take his thorn in the flesh from him, which most people believe was some physical ailment, God said no. Paul explained what happened: “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:8-9). Therefore, God may not answer your prayer in the affirmative simply because He wants to do something else.
2. Other times God may refuse to answer your prayer because it is not His timing to do what you request. God’s timing was one of the reasons why God did not answer Abraham’s prayer immediately for his promised child. God stated that, “My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year” (Gen. 17:21). Again God promised to Abraham: “At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son” (Gen. 18:14). Note the fulfillment of God’s promise was for a set time. Scripture declared the fulfillment: “Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him” (Gen. 21:2). Therefore, submit to God’s timing and trust that He knows exactly what He is doing.
3. Sometimes God refuses to answer your prayer because you do not have the right heart attitude. How do you know if your heart is in the wrong place?
a. James taught that our hearts can doubt the Lord and this will keep us from receiving from the Lord: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:5-7). Therefore, be sure your heart trusts the Lord completely.
b. James also taught that we can ask with wrong motives in our hearts and this will also keep us from receiving from God: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Therefore, examine your motives.
c. Jesus taught that sometimes people come to Him in prayer with prideful and self-righteous hearts. Note what Jesus taught: “He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14). Therefore, be sure your heart is humble and right before God.
4. Sometimes God does not answer your prayer for healing because He wants to take your loved one home. This thought is probably not one that you want to hear, but it is possible that this might be the case. The Bible teaches that every one of us has an appointed time on this earth, and when it is over, we will die just like everyone else on earth. Joshua declared this truth when he was about to die. He said, “Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth” (Joshua 23:14). In other words, everyone on this earth will surely die one day. The writer to the Hebrews said the same declaring, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). So, if you are praying for your loved one and they are not healed, please don’t get angry with God for not answering you the way you want; but understand that this might be God’s appointed time for them to come home to be with Him. Job also acknowledged this truth that every life has appointed limits. Referring to all men he said, “Since his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). With these truths in mind, commit your loved one, and the desires of your own heart to the sovereign plan and purposes of God. Trust that God knows what He is doing.
Conditions for answered prayer.
The previous section will naturally bring up in your mind the question of what are the conditions for answered prayer.
1. You must come before God with personal repentance over your own sin and seek God’s favor with humility. This is obvious from the previous section relating to the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). You must always come to God with genuine humility if you desire to see your prayers answered. Notice the confidence that King David expressed concerning the Lord: “You have heard the desire of the humble; You will prepare their heart; You will cause Your ear to hear” (Ps. 10:17). Therefore, surrender to Peter’s command with the assurance of His love for you: “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).
2. You must not harbor any known sin in your heart. David taught: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Ps. 66:18). This means you cannot hold resentment in your heart toward anyone, but you must be forgiving if you want God to answer your personal requests for mercy and forgiveness. Jesus explained to His disciples this important condition: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses” (Mark 11:25-26). Jesus covered all offenses with all people when He used the terms “anything against anyone.” Jesus makes it clear that you must seek reconciliation with those who have offended you or those who are angry with you. Jesus taught: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24).
3. You must come before God with real faith to have your prayers answered. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22). Believing prayer is the means to receive from God. Therefore, do you believe God is able and willing to answer your prayer?
4. You must ask according to God’s will. The apostle John taught: “This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him “ (1 John 5:14-15). God will only grant the request that is made in accordance with His eternal plan.
5. You must ask in Jesus’ name seeking God’s glory. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). What does it mean to ask the Father in the name of Jesus? To ask in Jesus’ name is to plead His merit, character, and righteousness. If you have fulfilled these conditions then the Father and the Son will be glorified by the results.
Should you take medication or have surgery in order to be healed?
Some believers will tell you that it is wrong to take any medication to obtain healing or to treat your pain. Is it right to take medication if you are seeking God’s healing touch? Is it right to take pain medication to relieve pain or should you just endure it? God sheds much light on these questions in Scripture. God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah concerning the spiritual need for healing of the nation of Babylon and that He had done everything He could to help the nation. God spoke of the spiritual balm (medicine) that should be taken for the pain that the people were experiencing. “Babylon has suddenly fallen and been destroyed. Wail for her! Take balm for her pain; perhaps she may be healed” (Jer. 51:8). God clearly spoke and encouraged this nation to take medicine for her pain in the hope that the nation would be healed. God again spoke through Jeremiah to plead with His own people to take the medicine He had for them. “Is there no balm (medicine) in Gilead, is there no physician there? Why then is there no recovery for the health of the daughter of my people” (Jer. 8:22)? God would never have used these figurative examples concerning physicians, medicine, or pain relief if they were wrong.
Another passage that sheds some light on this subject is where God spoke of the future Kingdom Age when He would set up His throne here on the earth. God declared, “Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine” (Eze. 47:12). It is important to remember again that God would never have spoken of these leaves for medicine if taking medication were wrong. It is clear that Jesus came into this world to relieve suffering and pain by all that He did and taught. God has also given wisdom to caring physicians and researchers to try and find healing medications to do the same. Therefore, on the basis of these Scriptures and by Christ’s example you should do whatever is necessary, ethical, and wise to relieve your pain and find a cure.
If your doctor recommends surgery or the removal of parts of your body to prolong your life, is this something you should consider? Absolutely! Again, Christ gave a powerful illustration that directly relates to this issue. Jesus said, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matt. 5:30). What did Jesus mean by this statement? In this teaching Jesus was making a comparison. In the context, Jesus was addressing the lustful heart of man and asking His listeners to consider what caused them to sin. He asked them if there was something they were doing to incite lust that would ultimately stumble them or destroy their relationship with God. If there was, He encouraged them to take a radical action to remove it. This is an obvious use of hyperbole or an exaggeration to make His point that radical action is sometimes necessary to protect your life. He made this radical comparison so that all of us would compare the worth of something physical that is hurting us with the value of eternal life. Therefore, radical surgery is sometimes necessary to get rid of that which would destroy your physical life.
The application of this passage is very simple. Jesus would not have used this example if He thought that there was anything wrong with amputation or the removal of something in your body that could possibly destroy your life. I’m sure that Jesus and all of his listeners understood the wisdom of amputating a limb that had gangrene or the patient would die. This was a very common means of medical treatment in the first century and remained so until recent times with the advent of antibiotics. Therefore, you must compare the value of surgically removing a part of your body that potentially can destroy your entire life with the option of leaving it in and possibly dying.
Should you ever stop medical treatment when you have a terminal illness?
Stopping medical treatment is another very difficult decision that should not be regarded lightly. If you are not miraculously healed by God and the medical treatment that you have chosen has failed, you must conclude that God has chosen to take you home and give you the ultimate healing of a new body. Yes, God can choose to heal you at the last moment as He did King Hezekiah in the Old Testament (2 Kings 20:1-6). This is surely possible, but if God does not heal, then you should consider all your options. All end of life decisions should only be made after serious and honest consultation with your doctor and family. You should ask your doctor these questions: Has all available treatment been pursued? If a new treatment were administered, would it save my life? What benefits would there be in continuing treatment? What added suffering would come if I have more surgery or some other type of medical procedure? You must then weigh the value of this treatment and any added suffering that would result against the value of spending quality time with your family and loved ones without this intervention.
The Bible does not encourage mercy killing or assisted suicide, but neither does it encourage unduly prolonging a person’s pain and suffering. Paul told the Philippian jailer who was about to kill himself, “Do yourself no harm” (Acts 16:28). Obviously this passage would teach against suicide. However, you must also determine-along with the counsel of your doctor-at what point you are doing yourself harm by attempting to prolong your life with unnecessary procedures. If these procedures will not change the final outcome and only add suffering, what is the point? Paul said, “Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10). If you love someone you naturally don’t want this person to be harmed by causing them to suffer unnecessarily. The overriding principle that should be used in these issues must be: what is in the best interest of the patient. Paul explained that considering the interests of others was one of the most basic principles of love: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). It is not what is in the best interest of family members or what makes them feel good, but what is in the patient’s best interest that is important. The patient is the one who has to endure the chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries, etc. If these will not restore a patient to health, why would more pain and suffering be inflicted upon the patient with no hope of changing the outcome? Therefore, the patient needs to make the final decision.
If you believe that your death is near, you should discuss your final wishes with your doctor and family. If you were to become unconscious due to some medical complication wouldn’t you want your doctor and your loved ones to know exactly what your wishes are so you could relieve them of any guilt, confusion, or conflict among them? Do you want to be kept alive using extraordinary means no matter what happens or how futile these attempts are to restoring you to health? If it becomes clear to you and your doctor that, barring a miracle, no matter what medical treatment you try, you are still going to die, would you prefer to stop treatment and be allowed to go home and die with your family and friends around you? You must decide when the treatment is causing more suffering than if you were just allowed to die at home with your loved ones. This must be a personal decision between you and God, with the added counsel of your doctor and loved ones.
When you discuss this issue of stopping your treatment with some people they may tell you that you are giving up. Others will understand that you are only acknowledging the reality of your condition and that you have no desire to prolong your suffering. At the same time, it is not inconsistent to believe that God can still intervene and heal you if He so chooses. No one wants to die, but you must submit to the obvious reality of your condition and the sovereign will of God. Jesus had this same struggle when He was about to die. He asked the Father to let this cup, referring to His death, pass. He knew that as He became the offering for the sin of the world He would be separated from His Father. He didn’t want that to happen. He asked if there was any other way to save mankind. However, at the same time He was submitting to the reality of His Father’s eternal plan to send Him to the cross. Listen to Jesus pray: "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). Submit yourself to the Father’s sovereign will. You don’t have to understand God’s sovereign plan to submit to it.
I understand that the struggle and emotion surrounding this decision will be enormous. When Paul contemplated his own death while in prison, he expressed his difficulty: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil. 1:21-24). Paul wanted to go home because he knew that heaven was far better than anything he would experience in this life, but he struggled inside over what was needful. Do what Paul did. Fix your eyes on the place that is far better. Sooner or later we are all headed there. Remember, to die is gain. You aren’t losing in death; you are gaining your ultimate reward. Jesus said, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:12).
Should you ever remove a ventilator or feeding tube?
The last of these difficult decisions will probably not be made by you. This is why you must make your wishes known to your doctor and loved ones beforehand. Do you want to be kept alive on a ventilator and feeding tube if there is no possibility of recovery? Simple, common sense is the best way to make this decision. For example: Common sense would dictate that you should not try to keep someone artificially alive if his or her spirit and soul has already departed the body. If your doctor tells you that there are no brain waves present, you must conclude that the real person (the spirit and soul) has departed the body. James used this common sense comparison between life and death when he declared, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). The Bible is clear that death occurs when your spirit and soul leave your temporary dwelling place (your body) and you get a new body from heaven (2 Cor. 5:1-10). When Jesus died on the cross He bowed his head and “gave up His spirit” (John 19:30). The Greek word for spirit in this passage means breath, referring to the vital or essential principle of life. Also, when Elijah prayed for the widow’s son who died, the Scripture declared that, “the soul of the child came back to him and he revived” (1 Kings 17:22). The Hebrew word for soul is translated other places in the Old Testament as life, mind, or himself. Therefore, do you want oxygen and food to be forced into your body even when your spirit has departed from you?
Remember this very important principle. Just because man’s technology has the ability to keep you alive does not mean that it’s the right thing to do. Man’s technology has intruded into God’s domain and His sovereign right over life and death in many ways. Technology has given us the ability to do many things that are not morally right (i.e. human cloning). The question is, what is in the best interest of the patient? What will give the greatest benefit to the patient with the least amount of pain and suffering? Just because we have the human ability to force nutrients and oxygen into a body that has no chance of survival, does not mean that this is the right thing to do. Wouldn’t this only prolong the suffering? May God give you wisdom and common sense in these most difficult decisions.
Medical Association perspectives:
Statement by the British Medical Association: “The primary aim of instituting medical treatment is to provide a health benefit to the patient. The same justification is required for continuing treatment, which has already been started. Treatment is, therefore, often initiated in order to ascertain whether it is able to benefit the patient, even though it may subsequently be withdrawn when more information is available. When a particular treatment is no longer benefiting the patient, continuing to provide it would not be in the patient’s best interests and, indeed, might be thought to be morally wrong. Decisions to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration are taken only in the most extreme cases, where its provision would not provide a net benefit to the patient. A terminally ill patient is one with an active and progressive disease for which curative treatment is not possible or not appropriate and from which death can reasonably be expected within twelve months.”
Statement by the American Nurses Association: “The decision to withhold artificial nutrition and hydration should be made by the patient or surrogate with the health care team. The nurse continues to provide expert care to patients who are no longer receiving artificial nutrition and hydration. Like all other intervention, artificially provided hydration and nutrition may or may not be justified. It should be instituted or foregone only after a process of reasoned decision making focused upon estimates of benefits and burdens to the patient. Ethical difficulties arise when it is unclear whether food and fluid are more beneficial or harmful. Since they are essential for life, this uncertainty leads to questions about whether life, under certain circumstances, might be a greater harm than death. As in all other interventions, the anticipated benefits must outweigh the anticipated burdens for the intervention to be justified.
A personal note.
I know that each of the issues I’ve covered in this article are very difficult to understand and even harder to live through in your own life or with a loved one who is suffering. But, remember God has promised to “Never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). God has also promised to give you wisdom if you will ask for it (James 1:5). As you receive God’s wisdom in the midst of this trial the Lord will sustain you with His peace. As the disciples were about to go through one of the most difficult nights of their lives and see their Lord crucified the next day, Jesus said to them, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). God will give you His peace in the midst of this difficult time in your life as you trust in Him. He is with you! He will not leave you or forsake you to handle this illness on your own. The last thing that Jesus promised to His disciples was, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). This is a promise the Father will keep. Therefore, call out to Him for His peace and presence to come fill you right now and let your heart be strengthened!