In July 2013 my daughter was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis (CF). When the doctor called and asked to meet with my wife and me, I had no clue how serious CF is. I did not know the difficulties of life, nor the abbreviated life-expectancy associated with the illness.
At that time, I was pastoring a church in Victoria, Canada and some of my congregation confirmed what I had suspected for a long time—that much of the evangelical laity have bought into a veiled form of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. This is particularly so in the area of health, and the unholy idea that God’s chief end is to make us happy and healthy.
We were encouraged by many to pray for healing. Now, the issue was not the rights and wrongs of praying for healing—that is another subject. The problem I faced as a parent and pastor was the prevailing and palpable opinion that God wanted the child to be healthy, that the sickness was not according to God’s will, but in fact contrary to God’s will.
We knew of course that the illness was not in the category of God’s punishment for sin. Punishment for sin had been completed in Christ. Perhaps in the back of the mind, there was the lingering idea that the illness could have been in the category of chastising. God has many methods of corralling our attention, molding the heart and directing life. But fundamentally I knew that the illness was in the category of calamity—a law of nature in a fallen world.
It is this category of suffering (see the previous post) and a faulty understanding of Original Sin, that is percolating into evangelical churches. There is an unhealthy expectation of health and happiness in this present world. It has undermined the biblical principle that the strength the believer receives from God shines forth most gloriously in human weakness, not human health and strength. Paul learned this in the context of a debilitating “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
If God chooses to get glory in sustaining a child with chronic illness or disability, rather than by removing the condition, that is His prerogative and we should rejoice in it. Removing it may make life easier, more pleasant and comfortable for the family. But God does not exist for our happiness—we exist for his glory.
On Sunday 18th August 2013, therefore, I preached to my congregation on the subject, The Majesty of God and a Disabled Child. I was aware, that in dealing with my own circumstances, there were others, even in the congregation that morning, who were struggling with a disabled child, struggling to find answers or to reason through their circumstances. But the message was intended to present the absolute sovereignty and majesty of God in the circumstances of a disabled or chronically ill child.
The verse that caught my attention that week was Psalm 65:5 “By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us, O God of our salvation.” I had three very simple points.
First, the Lord does “terrible things.” The word translated “terrible” is used throughout the Old Testament of things that make us fearful, apprehensive or terrified. Adam heard the sound of the Lord in the Garden and was “afraid”(Genesis 3:10). Jacob was afraid and said, “how dreadful is this place…” (Genesis 28:17).
Here in Psalm 65:5 the Hebrew points to the fact that God does things to cause us to be impressed, or to stand in awe of Him. At first, like Jacob, there may be fear and anxiety, but through time the Lord shows the believing parent, that all things are working together for good, and that little child which once filled you with distress and fear and dread for the future, has become a particular treasure—because you have learned, that they, like other children, are “fearfully and wonderfully made”(Psalm 139:14).
Think, for a moment about those words, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are prone to look at the body that we have maintained by diet, that we have kept fit by regular exercise and that we have guarded by living clean and say; “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
But ask yourself, of whom is this statement true? Is it of the healthy person, the slim, fit, athletic person, with 20-20 vision, a body toned like Michael Angelo’s David and a heart that beats like a Swiss watch? Or is this statement true also of the little girl born with Cystic Fibrosis, or the little boy with a heart defect, or the conjoined twins with a rare genetic disorder? Are these words true also of the downs syndrome, the autistic, the epileptic, or the cerebral palsied child?
When David said we are “fearfully … made” he used the same word that he used in Psalm 65:5 “By terrible things…” God forms babies in the womb that will cause us to fear Him, reverence Him and stand in awe of Him.
Second, God does these things in righteousness. We have established that God has formed this disabled or sick baby in the womb so that we will stand in awe of Him. But the Psalmist goes on to say that he does this “in righteousness.” This was no mistake, Satan did not veto God or intrude into the womb against God’s will.
We are prone to attribute those things that we don’t like to the devil, to think perhaps that God is not in control. But God owns this disability, this deformity or sickness, and he will use it for His Glory.
Samuel Rodigast (1649-1708) put it well in his classic hymn “Whatever my God Ordains is Right.”
Whatever my God ordains is right
Though now this cup in drinking
Bitter it seems to my faint heart
I take it all unshrinking
My God is true, each morn anew
Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart
The third point I made that morning was that all that God does is for our good. Notice the words “wilt thou answer us.” The Lord is not doing these things randomly or capriciously but in answer to prayer. Remember, our personal comfort is not the goal, but conformity to Christ. He will answer according to his glory, not our personal comfort.
But the point is that there is a prayer behind these “terrible things” and there is a purpose in front of them.
What prayer is the Lord answering by these “terrible things,” for no right-thinking parent has ever prayed for a disabled child?
He is answering our desire to be conformed to His image—that is the fundamental desire of every true believer. If you are praying for sanctification, be prepared for “terrible things.” The Lord sanctifies and purifies through the fires of affliction if that’s what it takes for us to stand in awe of Him.
Remember the question put to the Lord Jesus concerning the blind man. The Disciples had the same faulty notion as the prosperity gospelers; that God was punishing sin. The Lord said, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (John 9:1-3). Commenting on this verse, John Piper said, “the explanation for the blindness lies not in the past causes, but in the future purposes.”
In many cases, God is not only conforming us to his image, but He is creating useful instruments of ministry to others in similar circumstances, so that we become, like Jesus Himself, a “wounded healer” (Hebrews 2:18).
I know of parents with disabled children who have adopted more with the same conditions. My friend Steven Lee (of SermonAudio), and his wife Jamie had a little boy, Martin, with a heart condition. Since then, both he and Jamie have adopted two little children from China with the same condition as this their own son. Why? Because the Lord has opened their heart and enlarged it with compassion for children in the same condition.
Just this morning as I finish this post, my attention is drawn to Russell Moore, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary. After a series of lost pregnancies, Moore and his wife have had a significant ministry in adopting a number of children. In the early days of those losses, as they went through the pain of loss, Dr. Tom Nettles, professor of Historical Theology at the Southern Seminary, visited his home. Here are his words to the Moores, as they suffered (See the full article).
“God has promised you something. He has promised to do whatever it takes to conform you into the image of Christ, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. I don’t know why this is happening to you and Maria. It’s awful. I can’t tell you the reason God is permitting you to walk this path, and I can’t tell you exactly where He is taking you in it. But I know this. God is committed to shaping you into the image of Jesus, and that’s for your good. He hasn’t forgotten you and He hasn’t forsaken you.”