Within the last few days, the Lord gave me a powerful reminder of some very important truth concerning life and death. I was visiting a member of our church who was hospitalized in very serious condition. In fact, his doctors told him that the infection and resulting organ damage should have taken his life. At various points during his ordeal, he was in such excruciating pain that he was literally screaming, and was so highly medicated that he was hallucinating. He said that it got so bad for a period of about half an hour one day that he called out to God and asked to die. He paused, then turned to look at me and said, “But God said, ‘No.’”
Medical science doesn’t acknowledge the sovereign authority of our Creator over our bodies. As I visited this brother there in his bed in the hallway of a large hospital, he was approached to a medical resident who wanted to ask him some questions. But my brother asked him a question first: “Do you go to church?” “I don’t go to church,” was his terse reply.
How, then, can we explain such awful suffering that we Christians are sometimes called to endure? Scripture gives us a number of answers, and here, very briefly, are four of them.
- Our physical afflictions teach us to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Our lives have been planned by God. He determines the day of our birth and the day of our death. Remember the Psalmist’s words: “. . . In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them” (Psa 139:16). Job said of man: “his days are determined, the number of his months is with You; and his limits You have set so he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). And that’s in spite of the best efforts of medical science! Indeed, says David, “My times are in Your hand” (Psa 31:15).
- Our physical afflictions teach us to appreciate our mortality. When we are laid aside with serious illness, we are forced to reckon with just how fragile and brief life is. David writes: “Lord, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight” (Psa 39:4-5). When we are preoccupied with daily life, we don’t bother to meditate on the brevity of our existence here and the unending duration of the life to come.
- Our physical afflictions teach us to assimilate God’s Word. David acknowledged the benefit of what was apparently an extended and serious illness when he wrote, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word” (Psa 119:67); and again in verse 71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.” When we are sick or injured, we finally sit (or lie) still enough to hear the Lord speak through His Word. If we fail to do so at other times, He forces us to pay attention in our pain.
- Our physical afflictions teach us to anticipate eternity. Once again it is David who grasps this: “As for me,” he writes in Psalm 17, “I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake” (v. 15). And in the preceding Psalm: “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psa 16:11). Suffering has a way of stimulating a desire in our hearts for heaven and a longing for our glorified bodies.
Just a few days ago, one of our young adults who traveled this summer to a foreign country described a serious automobile accident in which she and several fellow young adults were involved. The police said that all of them should have been killed, yet they all walked away from it with only minor scrapes. So once again, we were reminded to “number our days,” so that we may present to God a heart of wisdom (Psa 90:12). Let’s not forget that our times are in His hand! Affliction is no accident; God is in control!