When a friend of mine received a difficult diagnosis, she chose to share it on Facebook as she tried to process her feelings. She was grappling with her new reality: At barely 21 years of age she had a chronic, incurable condition, one that meant coping with daily pain and a gradually worsening disability for the rest of her life. Understandably, she was reaching out to friends and loved ones online for support as she struggled with the news.
As I scrolled down to leave some words of encouragement on her post, one particular comment jumped out and grabbed my attention: “Don’t speak that over yourself. You do not have fibromyalgia! I rebuke that in the name of Jesus! God wants you well. Speak healing over yourself.”
As much as I was taken aback by the post, I really shouldn’t have been. This was a sentiment I had heard so many times in my own 15-year struggle with chronic pain and disability. In fact, just the day before I read that post, a well-meaning connection had sent me an email suggesting I should listen to an online sermon on disease and healing. The message description includes the following statement: “[Religion] even tries to make us believe that sickness is a blessing. That’s just not true. God wants you well.” In the sermon, the preacher points to stories of Jesus healing the blind and calling the lame to rise up and walk, and he claims emphatically that the New Testament offers an undeniable precedent that Jesus would always heal anyone who truly asks for it, and the healing would always be immediate and complete. He goes on to explain that Jesus had instantly defeated all earthly diseases by His death on the cross, a belief he supports almost entirely with a single line from a single verse: “With his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
It’s appealing, to be sure, the idea that a believer in Christ need never experience earthly pain or disease and has only to call upon the name of Jesus to receive instant relief. Didn’t Jesus heal the sick? Doesn’t He want only the very best for His children? Aren’t we taught that every good and perfect gift comes from our Father above ( James 1:17)? All those other “gifts”—the issues and problems that hurt us—those could only come from the enemy, right?
It would seem logical, then, to conclude that disease and suffering are just spiritual attacks meant to keep us from being fully effective ministers of the gospel. Or perhaps they are punishment for sins of which we have not repented, the penalty for displeasing a perfect and holy God. Either way, they are an obstacle to be overcome and defeated, and surely Scripture must hold the key to moving beyond what ails us and brings us pain.
However, this seemingly logical conclusion, this theology of wellness and prosperity gifted from a God who only seeks to see us healthy and flourishing and living without pain, is not biblical. Not even a little bit. In fact, the deeper we dive into what Scripture really says about suffering, the more we discover that not only did God never promise us those things on this side of eternity, but He lovingly guides us away from the pursuit of earthly happiness. Instead, He sets us on a path to becoming ever more like Christ. He strips away the expectations of a “normal life” and replaces them with an open-handed surrender to an extraordinary life lived in intimacy and dependence on the God who saves. He breaks down our idols of security and ease and leads us lovingly to the feet of a God who’s making us more like Himself while stripping away all our attachments to this earthly shell.
I don’t want to downplay how difficult this mental shift really is. It would be disingenuous to pretend that this requires anything less than a complete transformation and renewal of our minds. It would be so much easier to avoid this topic of suffering altogether, to simply rejoice with those who rejoice and gloss over all the pesky references to those who mourn. It’s far easier to share stories of provision and abundance and proclaim, “See, God is faithful,” than to look into our vulnerable, broken places or to sit with those who are hurting and ask, “But where is God now?”
Yet the difficult subject of pain is ultimately inextricable from any desire to know God more intimately. The theology of suffering goes right to the heart of our relationship with God in the temporal realm. Suffering is the one universal experience that ties each of us horizontally to one another and vertically to Christ, because each and every one of us experiences pain, disease, and heartache in this mortal life—Christ Himself not excepted. There is not one of us who can say we’ve enjoyed a life free of suffering, nor will there ever be someone who can. It’s the universal unifier.
In order to build up a new and glorious understanding, we first have to tear down much of what we’ve already constructed in our minds. Much like a remodeling project, we’ve got to go through the uncomfortable process of smashing down walls and ripping out fixtures, living inside the dust and debris while the painstaking phase of rebuilding begins. This process of stripping away old comforts and faulty theologies and facing the realities of our broken world is painful, and you may finish this chapter feeling somewhat battered and bruised. But here’s the good news: We already know the ending, and it’s glorious. Jesus wins, we are not left forsaken, and the new thing He’s going to build far surpasses anything we must let go of in the meantime. In the book of John, Jesus promises, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” ( John 16:33).
Stephanie Tait wears many hats. Blogger, speaker, author, wife, mother, Jesus follower. Her fifteen-years and counting battle with Lyme disease has reshaped her view on the goodness of God. She makes her home in Oregon, where she lives with her husband and two children. She shares her stories at stephanietaitwrites.com.