I wrote this tonight after long meditation on sick friends. My father also has Multiple Sclerosis. May God spare some of you, and bless others by your experience. I may make an audio version tomorrow since it's long, but until then...
[b]How to suffer sickness for Christ[/b]
Believers who have suffered physical harm on behalf of Christ may identify with the apostles after their first beating by Temple authorities: "They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name." [Acts 5:41] There is a blessed sense of identification with Christ in bodily suffering, Who was Himself smitten, stricken, and afflicted as He "endured the cross, despising the shame." [Heb. 12:2] Many saints attest the joy of sharing Jesus' cross exceeds the pain of whatever splinters it leaves in our mortal flesh.
Though not always the result of persecution, disease may be also be viewed as a joyful opportunity of "filling up what remains of Christ's sufferings" [Col. 1:24], if it is the result of Christian service. For instance, missionaries to impoverished locations often contract the very ailments of their congregations. Paul records that such a man was Epaphroditus. This ambassador of the Philippian brethren fell upon sickness while ministering to the imprisoned Apostle. "For the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me." [Phil 2:30] This sufferer's consolation was in knowing his sickness was "for the work of Christ."
But what should we think of natural sicknesses that come about in the course of ordinary life? Diabetes that runs in the family, for instance, or breast cancer? In what way, if any, may we identify with Christ through natural sicknesses?
First we must acknowledge that the Lord is both sovereign and good. It is one thing to know He is sovereign but this alone does little to comfort us. Classic Greek fatalists theorized an invisible principle which subjugates all events to a predestined end, but without purpose. Chrysippus (c280-c206 B.C.E.) wrote of the idle argument, which seeks to show some form of sovereignty over illness but provides no explanation for the meaning or usefulness of it. Unlike these blind philosophers, believers have an assurance that God does more than control, but even causes "all things [to] work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." [Rom. 8:28] There is some good reason for our suffering.
Next we must understand that sickness is not necessarily the result of personal sin or a lack of faith. The natural disorder of the universe called the curse is a byproduct of Man's fall in Adam, [Rom. 8:22] the effects of which land upon every earthly creature. Even the Son of God, when He came in the form of the man Jesus Christ, became subject to physiological weaknesses. He dealt with the temporal repercussions of sin in the world, though He was without personal sin. After fasting He hungered [Luke 4:2], His capillaries burst under stress [Luke 22:44], and He thirsted on the cross [John 19:28-29]. We are made out of mortal flesh and blood, and "he himself likewise partook of the same things." [Heb. 2:14-15]
The reason for suffering is not necessarily to chasten us, though that it also good. [1 Cor 11:29-31] On the contrary scripture provides many examples of God's children enduring illness up to their last hour, apart from sin. "Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof he died." [2 Kings 13:14] Paul noted Timothy's frequent ailments, even instructing him to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities." He said nothing of repenting to "make the little devil go away" as modern health-and-wealth peddlers do nowadays. So then we must ask, if God is sovereign and good, and sickness in not necessarily a byproduct of sin or faithlessness, what is its purpose?
Part of the problem is the notion that some activities are spiritual and others are commonplace. We must get into our heads the fact that there is no true disconnect between the holy and mundane, in Christian life. Through our High Priest, Jesus, we have joined a perpetual priesthood. [1 Peter 2:9] Old Covenant priests had set times to serve in the temple. It is not so for us. Every New Covenant action should be an offering of grateful obedience and heartfelt thanks to God. [Col 3:17] Instead of lamenting that 'the missionary's disease is for Christ, but my natural illness is not', we ought to realize that for those who are in Christ, all things are for Christ. Paul's vast command to the church at Corinth, "whatsoever you do, do unto the glory of God" [1 Cor. 10:31] encompasses natural sickness, and compels us to see bodily infirmities as sovereignly dispensed opportunities for glorifying God in Christ.
The first way we might seize natural afflictions for Christ's sake is to bear them with thankfulness. Sickness is no exception to gratitude. "In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." [1 Thes. 5:18] It is worthwhile to quote the Apostle Peter, who understood why we ought to be thankful for natural suffering. "For a season, if necessary, you are in heaviness through manifold temptations: so that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ." [1 Peter 1:6-7] Note, the trials that befall us are not arbitrary, but necessary. They prove our grace and separate false reliance on temporal comforts, from the true faith set on things above. God in His wisdom has determined to strip our confidence bare so that we might rejoice in His free favor towards us in Christ. He has not shown such kindness to everyone, thus we should be especially thankful.
A second way to reclaim our physical trials for God's glory is to bear them patiently. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the following counter-intuitive counsel. "Count it all joy when you fall into various trials." [James 1:2] Really, joy? He would be taken for a masochist if that were all his instruction, but he tells us there is a Divine purpose for these difficulties. "...Knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing." [James 1:3-4] Paul concurred, "we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance." [Rom. 5:3] There is a reciprocal relationship between faith and patient endurance. One must have faith to endure the first trial, but the first endurance increases faith for the next. Matthew Henry commented, "The devil endeavours by sufferings and crosses to draw men to sin and to deter them from duty, or unfit them for it; but, as our afflictions are in God's hand, they are intended for the trial and improvement of our graces. The gold is put into the furnace, that it may be purified." As one jewel of grace is polished, the whole crown becomes more glorious. As we bear patiently our infirmities, we grow more abstracted from the vanity of the present age. But, as James says, we must let this patience continue for the duration of the trial. "Do nothing to limit it nor to weaken it; but let it have its full scope: if one affliction come upon the heels of another, and a train of them are drawn upon us, yet let patience go on till its work is perfected," says Henry.
A third means of using bodily weaknesses for the service of Christ is by ministering our past mercies and future hopes to others who are presently suffering. "Comfort, yes, comfort My people!, says your God." [Isa 40:1] It is both our privilege and duty to comfort others. Even as good generals equip their field medics with all necessary supplies, so the Lord provides needful first-hand knowledge of such wounds, physical and spiritual, as we shall encounter in the battle. A doctor who has never fractured a bone may not handle his patient so considerately. Personal afflictions teach us to empathise with hurting and broken souls. We become able to honestly respond to the pain-filled question of one who asks, 'do you know what it's like to...', because we have experienced grief personally. The comforts afforded to us by God enable us to direct them likewise to look to Jesus for consolation. Paul says this vividly to the Corinthians, and is worthy of a full quotation.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our tribulation, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort whereby we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. 6 Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. 7 And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation." [2 Cor. 1:3-7]
We see here a direct relationship between the suffering of one believer and his ministry to others. "If we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation." [v.6] Again, the "God of all comfort... comforts us in all our tribulation, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort whereby we ourselves are comforted by God." [v.3-4]
A final means of profiting from our physical ailments is like the previous one. It is simply to pray for those who are suffering, or for deliverance of others who may. Those who have felt fire recoil from the flame and call loudest to ones in danger of being burned. Our familiarity with the heat of sickness puts coal under our prayers and stokes earnest petition as we pray. "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." [James 5:16] Often as we recall our infirmities we are reminded to intercede for the body of brothers and sisters like ourselves, parts of whom are sick with manifold trials and hindrances.
There is no doubt that for as long as the age continues, illness shall continue amongst us. Disease is like poverty, for "the poor are with you always." [John 12:8] We sit with sickness in the waiting room, until the Good Physician returns to heal all our diseases. [Mark 2:17, Psa. 103:3] I thank God in Christ, for the day when "many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" [Dan. 12:2] for in that time "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." [Rev.21:4] Until that time we ought to view our physical ordeals as a means for magnifying the hope we have in Christ as our Covenant representative, the fulfillment of the Law for righteousness to them who believe. [Rom 10:4] Who knows, but by this means some might be saved? Our bodies may be black with grief now, but "they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever." [Dan. 12:3]
God bless your trials to you, friend.