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Over the course of my ministry, I've spent time with hundreds of believers, whose bodies have been afflicted by illness and injury. In the wake of those physical setbacks and seasons of pain, I often hear questions like these:
If God really loves me, why is He allowing me to suffer this way?
Is God paying attention? What is He going to do for me now that I'm sick?
Where is God when I'm sick and need Him most?
Why doesn't God just step in and heal me?
When we or a loved one is sick, it's easy to question whether God cares because, frankly, it's at those times when it seems He doesn't. In our human thinking, if He was truly concerned about us, He wouldn't allow us to go on suffering that way.
So does God care when we are sick? Absolutely! In fact, I'd say that when we are suffering-be it from physical illness or any other painful situation-He expresses His tender care for us more than ever.
The Bible is filled with declarations of God's loving, caring heart for those who suffer. But I want to focus our attention on an account in which Jesus demonstrates over and over just how much He cares for those He loves. It's the account of the sickness and physicaldeath of a man named Lazarus-and the stunning miracle Jesus performed on his behalf and on the behalf of his sisters, Mary and Martha.
JESUS LOVES ME, YET ...
The story of Lazarus begins in the New Testament book of John, chapter 11.
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick." vv. 1-3
John, you'll notice, goes out of his way to tell us that Jesus loved Lazarus. This wasn't just brotherly love for a fellow human being, but a personal, heartfelt love. Jesus loved Lazarus with the love of God, the one and only perfect love-what the Bible calls agape love.
Yet Lazarus wasn't just sick; he was gravely ill. In the original language of John's Gospel, the word sick refers to a sickness leading to death. In other words, Lazarus was dying.
This demonstrates something we all need to keep in mind: It is possible for Jesus to love us and for us to love Him in return and still get sick-even deathly sick. Not only that, there are times when God allows us to become sick for specific purposes in His great (and often incomprehensible) plan.
We live in a time when some believe that those who love Jesus should never be sick, and that if they do experience illness their faith is enough to repel any affliction that befalls them. It's a nice thought, but that is not a sound reading of God's Word. The Bible gives us several examples of people God loved going through problems of all kinds- including persecution, injury, and physical illness.
In the case of Lazarus, someone Jesus loved had fallen deathly ill. And it was a situation that was going to get a lot worse before it got better. FROM BAD TO WORSE
Faced with a problem beyond their ability to fix, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus. This is a simple but beautiful example of what prayer really is: taking our problems or situations to the Father through Jesus Christ, and humbly asking Him to provide the remedy we could never provide.
Obviously, Mary and Martha wanted Jesus to come to Bethany right away and heal their brother. To them, it was a simple formula of Jesus' love and their request equaling healing for Lazarus.
But it didn't happen that way.
Jesus did not drop everything He was doing and go to Lazarus immediately, but stayed two more days where He was-in Perea. The Gospels call Perea "the land beyond the Jordan." It was about forty miles from Bethany, which was about two miles east of Jerusalem. Instead, of coming immediately, Jesus sent these words of assurance: "This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it" (John 11:4).
Meanwhile, Lazarus didn't get well. In fact, his condition only worsened. And Jesus wouldn't show up in Bethany until it was-in Mary and Martha's minds anyway-too late. By the time He would arrive, Lazarus would have been dead and buried.
In our human thinking, that doesn't sound very much like a Savior who cared when His close friend became sick, does it? Jesus had already proven over and over that He had the supernatural ability to do something about Lazarus's sickness.
So ... He had the ability. He loved Lazarus. He loved Mary and Martha. The sisters had exercised simple faith in asking Him to come. But He did nothing, and their beloved brother was slipping away.
When we are faced with sickness, we tend to believe-probably as Mary and Martha did-that if God truly cared He would step in and do something about it. But it doesn't always happen that way. In fact, our situation may stay the same-or even become worse.
Certainly God has the ability to heal us in an instant, but just as certainly there are many times when He doesn't. But that doesn't mean He doesn't care, and Jesus' words for Mary and Martha's messengers demonstrate that fact.
We live in a fallen world corrupted by sin-where sickness, physical death, and heartbreak are part of our lives. But as believers, we never have to view our illness as a "waste of time" or a "worthless experience." In fact, we can be sure that God has allowed our illness for His eternal and spiritual purposes. In light of that biblical truth, we should never ask, "Why me?" in our suffering, but instead, "For what purpose has God allowed this?"
Jesus had already told Mary and Martha that Lazarus's sickness was "for the glory of God." But God uses our physical sicknesses for another eternal purpose, and it's for correction and personal growth in our lives.
This is so incredibly difficult for us. I believe that one of the biggest weaknesses in the church today is our inability to make spiritual connections between what we're going through physically and what God wants to teach us and do in us through those things.
Yes, our God is a God of love. John tells us that God is love.
But He is also a Father who, in His love, corrects His children.
The Bible is very clear that there are times when God uses physical sickness in the lives of His children as a means of discipline or correction. The apostle Paul gives us an example in his first letter to the Corinthian church:
For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. 1 Corinthians 11:29-32
The Corinthian church had a simple but very serious issue: They were taking communion, the meal commemorating the sacrificial death of Christ, without first addressing personal sin. Because of that, God's hand of discipline was upon them, and many of them suffered physically.
God cares when we are physically sick, but He is even more concerned that our lives be free of sin.
Those of us who are parents know that no matter how much we love our children, there are times when it's necessary for us to go to the "rod of correction." The very same is true of our heavenly Father. He has identified Himself as the God who loves tenderly and compassionately, and His love compels Him to correct us, sometimes using difficulties in our lives, including physical illness.
SICKNESS FOR GOD'S GLORY
While God sometimes allows illness to inflict our bodies in order to correct us, He also has another purpose in mind: to bring Himself glory.
We see an example of that in John's Gospel, just a few chapters before the story of Lazarus. Jesus and the disciples had encountered a man born blind begging near the Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples, who obviously didn't understand that God often had a higher purpose for people's illnesses and disabilities, asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" (John 9:2).
Jesus didn't correct the disciples' notion that sin could bring this kind of calamity into a person's life, but instead told them that this man's blindness was part of God's plan to focus the world's attention on the Father and the Son. This, He told them, had nothing to do with anyone's sin, but had happened so that the power of God could be put on display that day.
And that's just what happened! It wasn't long after Jesus healed this blind beggar that news of this miraculous healing began to spread throughout Jerusalem. Some greeted this miracle healing with skepticism, while others were sure this was the same man they had for years seen begging near the Temple.
When the former blind man was brought before the Jewish religious leadership and grilled about what had happened, all he could tell them was, "The man who is called Jesus made clay, and anointed my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash'; so I went away and washed, and I received sight" (John 9:11).
This beggar's blindness had nothing to do with sin and everything to do with God glorifying Himself before an unbelieving world. The very same is true of Lazarus.
So we find ourselves ill ... with some physical affliction in our body. Did God allow it as a correction in our lives to help us grow, or is it solely to bring glory to His name? That's an important question. When we don't know which it is, it's difficult for us to pray and act rightly toward our situation-just as a doctor would find it difficult to prescribe a right treatment for a physical problem without a careful diagnosis.
But how can we know the difference?
We have to ask Him.
It's simply a matter of asking God for the answer, then waiting for a personal word from Him.
A PERSONAL WORD
Jesus didn't give Mary and Martha the immediate solution they had asked in faith to receive. But He didn't remain silent about it either. He didn't leave His friends "twisting in the wind."
Jesus demonstrated how much He cared about Mary and Martha-as well as their sick brother-when He gave them something God wants to give each of us today: a personal word.
When Jesus told these ladies, "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it," He wasn't talking about sickness in general. Jesus started out His promise to Mary and Martha with the phrase "This sickness," meaning that He was speaking specifically to them and to their situation.
The same is true for us today.
When you are sick and hurting, it's vitally important to hear what God has to say to you in the midst of your situation. In other words, you need to hear a personal word from God. While many Christians today hear the Word of God, I wonder how many really hear a word from God. By that I mean that while they may know the Bible well and are fully aware of God's promises, they have never personalized it, never taken the time to read and study it, and then ask God, "What are you saying to me personally through Your Word?"
It has been said that the Bible is God's love letter to a fallen world. But it's much more than that. It's His love letter to each and every one of us personally and individually. All we need to do is make it our personal message from Him.
Every Sunday, I stand up in front of our church and deliver a sermon based on the Word of God. You might come to visit us someday. (I hope you do. You would be welcome.) If you walked through the doors of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church in Dallas, Texas, on most any given Sunday, you would hear my sermon to the whole congregation. But what if you and I were to go out to coffee, and across that little table, I gave you the essence of my message face-to-face?
That's a different dynamic, isn't it? Then it would become a personal message to you and you alone.
That is very much how God speaks to us personally through His Word. When we simply read it and understand it, it is still the Word of God to us; but when you read it as a personal God-to-you message (and it is), then you receive a personalized word from Him.
You need to have a passion to hear, know, and understand the written Word of God because that is how you can hear a word from God. If you don't have the Word of God written in your mind and heart, you're hindered from hearing what He wants to say to you in your suffering. But when you know the Word of God, you can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit more clearly-at the very time when you so desperately long for answers.
Many of us in our personal Bible studies take fluorescent yellow pens and highlight particular verses or passages of Scripture so that they will "jump out at us" later on. But the Holy Spirit goes much further than that, actually taking a verse or passage we read and making it jump off the page and into our minds and hearts.
This is why it's so important for us to go to the Scriptures regularly -and especially when we need more than ever to hear from God. When we make it our habit to consistently and regularly devote ourselves to the reading and studying of the Bible, we will have more confidence that we're truly hearing God's personal word to us.
But what about those times when we're so sick or weak or in despair that we have difficulty even reaching out to God and asking for a personal word? Then we can receive yet another great gift of our God: the overflow and blessing of God's love and communication to brothers and sisters who daily walk with Him.
CARING FOR US THROUGH OTHERS
Even though Lazarus was sick to the point of physical death, he wasn't alone in his illness. On the contrary, he faced his sickness within the context of a caring earthly family and a caring spiritual family-an earthly family because his sisters were with him and a spiritual family because they loved Jesus.
Lazarus didn't need to send for his Friend and Lord in his illness; Mary and Martha took care of that. And the message they sent to Jesus in Perea was based on two things: their love for their brother ... and their belief that Jesus loved them and could do something about it.
How do we know these things about Mary and Martha?
The answer to that is found in John 11:2, which tells us something about Mary that at first might escape our attention. She is specifically described as the one who "anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair."
John wrote his Gospel several decades after Jesus' death and resurrection, and when he tells us that Mary was the one who had anointed Jesus with oil, he was referring to an incident recorded one chapter later, just days before Jesus would finally enter into Jerusalem for the final time.
In the culture of that time and place, anointing someone's feet was an outward expression of adoration, even worship. When Mary anointed Jesus' feet, she was expressing her love and adoration, an act He not only allowed but encouraged (see John 12:7-8). This shows us something about Mary's relationship with Jesus: She had a special connection with Him, and she didn't care what others thought as she openly worshiped Him.
When we are sick or hurting and can't make a "prayer connection" with God, He uses others to demonstrate how much He cares for us. It is during those times that we need to be close to somebody who knows how to get close to Jesus, someone who regularly sits at His feet and worships Him.
Excerpted from GOD, DO YOU REALLY CARE? by TONY EVANS Copyright © 2006 by Tony Evans. Excerpted by permission.
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