There are times I really like reading the Bible. When I am discouraged, I love to go to my favorite passages of scripture and let them heal my weary soul. I especially love the Psalms in those times. However, other times the Bible makes me very uncomfortable. Take this verse for example:
23 “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.'” (Luke 9:23-24 ESV)
I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but this doesn’t make me feel warm fuzzies. It isn’t that I disagree, or think it’s wrong — I just don’t like it. Or at least, I don’t like the implications. Honestly, this sounds hard. While I like a challenge, this feels a little too … I don’t know … permanent?
I grew up in the Christian community. I’ve been to all sorts of churches, and those churches made all sorts of assertions concerning the nature of God. Lately, I’ve been pondering, what I believe to be, one of the boldest assertions of them all — “Jesus always wants to heal.” Often this is shortly followed by a quick proof text:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11 ESV
And it sounds nice, but I’ve always had a hard time with this statement. Partially, because there are things I still haven’t been fully healed of in my own life. I know, sometimes far too intimately, that I’m still a work in progress. I have my own counter arguments from scripture … chiefly the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15). In this passage, Jesus and the disciples walk by a pool where lay a “multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed” waiting to be healed by the water of the pool. Jesus could have healed all of them. It wouldn’t have been difficult. Instead, He singles out one man who it says has been waiting for 38 years for healing, and asks the man if he wants to be healed. The man doesn’t seem to know who Jesus is.
“Sir,” he says “I have no one to put me into the water.”
Jesus replies, as he often does, “take up your bed and walk.”
It wasn’t this man’s “great faith in Jesus” that healed him in this situation. He had no idea what was going on. The other people who were there had the same faith that he did, and yet none of them were healed. Maybe I’m far too aware of the fact that this man had to wait 38 years before healing came. I’m also aware, in the case of Jeremiah 29, that this verse is in the context of God sending the entire nation of Israel into exile for 70 years. This 70 year exile is part of God’s plan to give Israel “a future and a hope.”
I really like the idea of serving the God who always heals, always protects, and always provides. And in truth, I believe He does do those things. But I’m also far too well acquainted with the God who also allows His people to go through suffering, hardship, and pain. His disciples seemed to be as well. Even His own Son was sent to earth to die on a cross.
Paul talks about it multiple times:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)
8 “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 ESV)
Peter and James also join Paul in opening letters with warnings about hardships:
6 “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV)
2 “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)
You know what’s weird? All of these passages seem to point to trials, hardships, pain, and even death not as negative things, but rather as a way to grow faith. We are actually told to count these negative things as “joy” in our lives, because they will produce “steadfastness” and “genuineness” in our faith. Suffering and pain are expectations for those of us living on the planet earth, Christians and non-Christians alike. Jesus, and his disciples, seemed to think that Christians would get the short end of the stick here as well. Not because God isn’t a God who heals. Because we have so much more to be healed of than we think we do.
I am concerned with the obvious things that bother me in daily life. God is concerned with the deep rooted issues I’m not even aware of. Sometimes the things that God doesn’t heal are there because He is working on something deeper. Sometimes those things make us doubt, and question our own faith in a loving God. You know what? I don’t think that’s wrong. “Steadfastness” is listed among the results of trial and suffering. But so is “genuineness.” Genuine faith isn’t always pretty faith. It certainly isn’t a perfect faith. But it’s a step in the right direction. Our faith is in the process of being refined “by fire” so that our genuineness may be found to “praise, honor and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
I think that when we are able to say “I’m not there yet,” that’s okay. I like to follow that with the sentence “but God and I are working through it together.” One of my pastors back in Kansas City once said “I’m not totally sanctified, but more and more each day.” Isn’t that the essence of the gospel?
Our God is a healer. He doesn’t heal everything — at least not all at once — but more and more each day, as we follow him. One day that work will be complete. Until then, as Jesus said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”