I'm feeling a bit off-colour. Physically, I mean.

It's nothing serious—catarrh, a sore throat and a flu-like sensitivity round the waist. An early night and a couple of aspirin should see it on its way.

The thing is, should I be feeling off-colour? I can't be a man of faith or I'd be enjoying the divine health that is my right, right? Well, my faith must have slipped a bit, leaving a landing strip for the sore throat and other devilish discomforts to touch down. But it's never too late for faith to arise and scatter the enemy. So maybe I should just order the sickness to leave in Jesus' name and find instant wellbeing?

I wish it were that simple. But it isn't.

To raise the stakes a bit let's swap my minor ailments for something major—like ankylosing spondylitis. My wife has it. It's an arthritic disease based in the spine. It fuses the vertebrae and refers pain at random to any part of the body, and the pain is worst when you're resting. Medically speaking, it's incurable.

Of course, to the ultimate G.P.—the Great Physician—nothing is incurable. In fact we know a man with the same disease who's been free of it for years, thanks to the Lord's touch. Then why, some ask, doesn't my wife live up to her name—Faith—and dismiss her own disease in Jesus' name?

I can tell you, we've dismissed it and denied it, commanded it and cursed it. We're experienced rebukers. The family has prayed. So has the housegroup, the local church, the elders and a fair number of visiting preachers. She's been anointed with oil, declared healed and pressed down by many a laid-on hand. But the old ankylosing spondylitis lingers still.

I mentioned this in a newsletter we sent to our friends during the two years we lived in Africa. I quote: 'Please continue to hold us up in your prayers. In particular, pray for Faith's health. Many of you know that she has ankylosing spondylitis, and the last two months the referred pain in various joints has not allowed her more than a couple of hours sleep each night. We look to Jesus, who suffered the pains of Calvary and is therefore "a sympathetic high priest" (Hebrews 4:15). He is also Christ the healer!'

Soon after, a package arrived in the mail. It contained a letter, a booklet on healing by a 'healing evangelist' and a tape by an American 'faith' preacher. The kind couple who sent it wanted to help us with a few insights.

The insights were three. First: 'there is really no such thing in Scripture as a diseased or sick Christian.' Second: getting healed is simple. How? That was the third insight: come up with the right mix of faith and good confession and God can't refuse you.

The letter gave us a mild rap on the knuckles: 'If you confess that Faith is diseased,' it explained, 'you are not actually confessing the Word of Truth which says, "By his stripes Faith was healed" (1 Peter 2:24). Command the disease to bow to the Word of God and it must go.'

Ah, would that it were all so simple!

Is it true, for instance, that 'there is really no such thing in Scripture as a diseased or sick Christian'? No, it isn't true. There was Epaphroditus, Paul's fellow-worker. He 'was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him.'[1]  If healing is so simple, how come he didn't get healed earlier? He was, after all, the companion of an apostle characterised by 'the things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles.'[2]

In fact Paul must have been hopelessly short of faith and a positive confession because Timothy, an apostolic delegate and another of his companions, had a weak stomach and was liable to 'frequent illnesses'.[3]  Why didn't Paul cure the guy once for all and get it over with? Instead he prescribed wine.

And, oh yes, there was Trophimus. He fell ill and didn't recover by the time Paul had to move on from Miletus. No mention of, 'Come on, brother, throw off that duvet and your pale face. Confess that you're healed and let's get on the road.' Instead, Paul left him there to recover.[4]

Worst of all, Paul himself knew what it was to be sick. It was some illness that led to his stay in Galatia. He went on to preach the gospel there with great success,[5] so I bet the Galatians were glad Paul didn't find faith for instant healing.

Clearly, then, there is such a thing as a sick Christian in Scripture. And, to knock number two on the head, healing clearly isn't simple.

I feel better already.

So what about number three: if you have faith in what the Word says and confess that you're healed, God can't refuse you? Odd that Paul & Co. didn't seem to realise it, especially as it's Paul who writes about gifts of healing.[6]

Not that there's anything wrong with faith and a good confession. But let's not turn these twin virtues into coins that we put into a divine slot machine. Insert the right amount and quality of faith, boldly confess the right scriptures, and God is obliged to dispense the healing. After all, you've paid.

But God isn't a slot machine. He's a person. Shove coins into a machine by all means. Nudge it, wallop it, shout at it. But don't treat a person that way—especially a divine one. It's insulting. People are alive, unique, sensitive, complex, and we approach them by way of relationship, not by trotting out a formula. What a nerve to suggest that with a spiritual 'hocus-pocus' we can twist the Almighty's arm and force him, machine-like, to yield up what we want from him.

But don't some who come on a slot-machine basis go away healed? Yes, and that's because he's a God of grace. It's his grace that heals, not the inserting of the right coins.

I say 'some' go away healed, because he doesn't heal all. Even Jesus didn't do that. Sure, sometimes he healed 'all' who came to him,[7] but not on every occasion. Out of the 'great number' of people coughing and groaning at the Pool of Bethesda he healed only one.[8]  The cripple who asked Peter for alms and got legs instead had been begging at the temple-gate 'every day'.[9]  It was his regular spot. Jesus had been in and out of the temple precinct many a time without healing him.

The Lord is sovereign and heals as and when he will. We daren't insist, mere creatures that we are, that he must heal us if we fulfil certain conditions. He's not a cosmic bellhop; he's the Hotel Manager. He takes the big view and he knows what he's doing. At a glance he sees the whole of his great eternal scheme. We see only our present pain, the grapes, the get well cards and, in our mind's eye, the catalogue of monumental masonry.

When we cry out for healing and don't receive it there's more going on than we could ever hope to grasp. Job never got to read the opening chapters of the book that bears his name. He never knew about the heavenly encounter that triggered his boils and other sorrows. His sickness was serving a higher purpose than his own relief. How do we know that our own pains are not doing the same?

'Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him,' Job said.[10]  That's faith and confession of the highest order.

Job's story, of course, had a happy ending. In time the Lord restored his health and fortunes. Today, no less, Jesus heals and restores many. He does it through gifts of healing in the church, through anointing and prayer by church leaders or by his own spontaneous, merciful touch.

Others, by contrast, suffer for years and die unhealed, with a Job-like confession to the last. Dare we kick them when they are down by suggesting that they go unhealed because of their lack of faith or failure to make the right confession? Never.

My dear wife still has ankylosing spondylitis. When she's having a bad day with joint pain or can't sleep because of the discomfort I pray with her and remind the Lord that we're looking to him as the Great Physician to cure what the medical people declare incurable.

Meanwhile, her attitude remains positive. She does exercises to counter the disease's effects and refuses to let it dominate her everyday life. She tells people who enquire that she's looking to God for healing. In short, she's living up to her name.

And me? Yes, I'm still feeling off colour. But I'm living in hope.

Copyright © David Matthew 1997

Postscript:  Some ten years or so after I wrote the above, it became clear that the normal advanced symptoms of ankylosing spondylitis had not developed. The medics concluded it had probably been a mistaken diagnosis. For this we were very grateful to God! Though some arthritic pain and discomfort remained, it proved quite manageable, and in 2014 my wife, at 72, is still living a pretty active life! In no way, of course, does this undermine the principles outlined above.

1. Philippians 2:25-27

2. 2 Corinthians 12:12

5. Galatians 4:13-14

The Right Coins

...for the faith machine

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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3. 1 Timothy 5:23

4. 2 Timothy 4:20

6. 1 Corinthians 12

7. Matthew 12:15

8.  John 5

9.  Acts 3

10.  Job 13:15

The Right Coins

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