So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:7-9)
So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes. Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.(Job 2:7-10)
Virtually everyone older than thirty five knows that the young spry body you were born with is neither spry nor young. In the past, things that went wrong with your body usually went away after a short time of pain and suffering, but it is rapidly dawning on you that this may no longer be the case. From here on out, life will be plagued by various and permanent physical maladies. On the other hand, many people have known this for a long time and have been suffering with illnesses of different kinds for quite a while.
How We Should Think of Illness
It is important, before encountering sick people, to know and understand what the Bible has to say about physical illness.
- Some physical ailments come because of sin, but will probably not be alleviated by repentance—Brain damage due to: an accident, drug abuse, liver problems due to alcohol abuse, contracting AIDS because of sexual immorality, etc. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. (1 Cor. 11:30-31) .
- Some illness comes because of sin, and go away when sin is confessed and repented of—Ulcers, some stress related illnesses such as migraines, and other ailments we may not know anything about; Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin (Psa 32:1-5) andIs anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (Jam 5:14-15). See also Pro 14:30; 17:22; Psa 22:15.
- Some illness comes because of sin, but we don’t know if the illness will go away with confession of sin—And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”(Mar 2:5-11)
- Some illnesses are unrelated to our individual sin—the man born blind in John 8, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and Job’s illnesses, the flu, various viruses, etc.
- Some illness comes from the Devil—God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.(Act 10:38) and ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?(Lk. 13:16).
- Many illnesses we simply don’t know anything about for certain. They might exist because of sin, but there is no specific sin to point to. They may be totally unrelated to our own personal sin. Some autoimmune diseases more than likely fit into this category. Many of these conditions are even a mystery to doctors, which makes me think they are spiritually related in some way.
- All illness is in the world because of Adam’s sin—in the beginning all was very good (Gen. 1:31), Adam sinned, was cursed, and from then on everything went south (Gen. 3:17-19). From that point on death and illness characterized man’s plight on the earth.
- Then, to confuse things even more, many of these things combine and join together to produce illnesses of various kinds.
Because all these things are true, it is very difficult for the counselor to be strict with his characterization about what is happening in the counselee who is ill. The best we can do is be patient, check things out, pray for wisdom, and go from there.
In your data gathering you are generally looking for two things: is this illness due to sin? And is this illness causing sin? The answers to these questions will dictate the direction you take when moving forward. Because God is the God of hope and the God of healing, there is always hope for physical healing. But if healing does not happen, or does not happen right away, there is reason for hope to get through the illness with real victory. This is true even if it all ends in physical death. Hope is present and should be cheered for in every situation.
Generally, people don’t come for counseling because of physical illness, but sometimes the physical condition becomes an obvious factor in the counselee’s spiritual situation. A woman might suffer regular and ongoing migraine headaches. This will impact how she is able to put up with her husband’s short temper. You may need to make some suggestions to her regarding the alleviation of her headaches in order to work with her regarding her husband. Keep in mind, however, that you are not a doctor and cannot make medical diagnoses nor prescribe medication.
You can, in the process of gathering data find out how the woman knows what is wrong with her, how was the trouble diagnosed? What kinds of test were rendered? Did she actually see a doctor, or is she self-medicating? You may not be a doctor, but you can suggest—perhaps strongly—that she see a doctor for her illness.
While gathering data, pay attention to how the illness was contracted, what she thinks about her illness, how she feels about it, what she has gone through as a consequence of the illness. What I mean by this last point is how are her friends and relatives treating her as a result of her having contracted the illness? Are they shunning her? Helping her? Encouraging her? Causing her to feel guilty for having it? Etc.
You will also want to ask her about side effects of the medication, complications as a result of other things she has done to deal with her situation, and how having the illness has affected her walk with God.
Again, we will find most of these answers by asking careful and wise questions; not assuming anything, and not jumping to conclusions. The questions should be infused with hope for the person. Not necessarily hope that the sickness will go away, you simply don’t know, but hope that God is in it with her and will not leave her nor forsake her (Heb. 13:5).
All Illness is a Kind of Suffering
No matter how a person contracts an illness it is safe to say that the person is suffering. She may be sick as a result of her sin, but she is still suffering. The Biblical counselor cannot reject or ignore this fact and while we cannot give medical help, we can help the person to live in the midst of suffering with triumph and victory. God gives us victory over every situation through Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57). We gain victory when we are able to find contentment in whatever situation we find ourselves (Phil. 4:11-12). But we can only think this way when we realize that (1) suffering is normal in this life, especially for the Christian (2 Tim. 3:12), (2) God is in control of the whole universe, including each facet of our lives, (3) he is in it with us (Pr. 21:1; Dan. 2:21; Rom. 8:28-29), and (4) the temptation to despair will not overwhelm us (2 Cor. 10:13).
It is important in the counseling process to help the counselee verbalize her questions. Often they are the same questions the various Biblical characters had: Where are you God (Psa. 63:1)? Aren’t you paying attention to what is going on with me (Psa. 69:3)? Who do you think you are putting me through all this (Job 31:35)? It hurts, why aren’t you helping (Psa. 27:9)? When a person is crying out to God, even in anger, confusion, hurt, dread, fear, angst, and suffering they are still coming to God. They are still crying out to the only source for help. They are still exercising faith. We want to encourage them in that direction.
If they aren’t crying out to God, even if accusing, we need to work diligently to help them turn their face and attention toward Him. For he is the primary source of comfort and peace for them.
Once the person is turning their focus toward God, we can begin the process of helping them to think correctly about God and about their situation. You see, it all comes back to faith in God, trust in his provision for his people, reliance on his wisdom and his will for our lives.
New Life Thought
It is important at this point to help the counselee to know and to remember that God has not stepped out for a bite to eat. He is still seated on his throne and in charge of the situation (Is. 45:3, 5). God is also still the God of love (1 Jn. 4:16). If both of these are true, and they are, then something else is going on in your life than you think. The Bible tells us that God has a plan for our lives (Rom. 8:28ff). His plan is to make us into the image and likeness of his Son Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). He is making us into a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5). He is removing all our spots and wrinkles (Eph. 5:27), all for his glory and honor.
We all need to remember that we all need to be like Jesus. Jesus was a man of suffering (Is. 53:3), he suffered in all the same ways we do (Heb. 2:18), he learned obedience through his suffering (Heb. 5:8), and when he suffered he offered himself to God in order to please him (Heb. 9:14).
To this, and much more, we were called: Paul tells us that we were called to share in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Peter tells us to have the same mind in us when we suffer that Christ had in his sufferings (1 Pet. 2:21).
But what about the pain? Belief in Christ doesn’t diminish the pain, though it might, but it does give reason and purpose for the suffering. It explains our pain and gives it a goal. We aren’t just suffering for nothing. We are suffering in order that we might grow in grace and in glory. Romans 5 tells us, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). The suffering is, according to the Bible, a “light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
I know that we as counselors take everything back to faith, to belief, to trust in God. The Bible tells us that everything that happens in our life is for our good — that it has a purpose, an eternal purpose (Rom. 8:28-30). Do you believe that? Can you say, “I believe, help me in my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24)? We must begin our counseling here. If God is God, then we can trust that whatever is happening to us is happening for our good and his glory.
Pain and suffering are horrible things. But God knows all about suffering and he gives more grace to those who need it more (Jas. 4:6). Where does the temptation to reject God come from?
What are the alternatives? Trust and rely on God or what? What is left to do? We can either become depressed and inward focused, which gets us nowhere, or we can turn to God in faith and trust and rejoice in our situation (Jas 1:2; Phil 4:4). We can ask God to teach us what he has for us and to use our circumstances to glorify him and to make us more like Christ (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
We can trust God and be content with where he has us in our life. And in the midst of our suffering we can look for ways to serve God and others. God says if we draw near to him, he will draw near to us (Jas. 4:8). He says that his strength is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:10). God says he is pleased when we serve him with our whole hearts, minds souls and strength.
Standing on the Promises
As Christians one of the ways we can walk with God in faith is by learning to stand on the promises of God. We do this by offering our sick and dying bodies to God and not being conformed to this world (Rom 12:1). We keep ourselves from being corrupted by the world when we learn to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and by striving to renew our minds moment by moment (Rom. 12:2). When we renew our minds we do two things: 1) we learn to discern what is God’s activity in our lives and 2) we focus, keep, and dwell on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise (Phi 4:8).
Here is a short list of the promises of God:
- God promises to be with me in my suffering. He promises never to leave me (Hebrews 13:5).
- Jesus wants me to go to him in my suffering. He is my great High Priest who has conquered death and now continually intercedes for his people (Hebrews 7:24-25).
- Jesus rules over all things so I have nothing to fear. He willingly experienced pain for me when he took my penalty on the cross so that I could be made righteous (1 Peter 3:18; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
- God is in control of all things and his control is good (Proverbs 21:1; Psalms 119:68; 136:1).
- God has promised that because I love him, everything (including any pain I experience) is for my good to make me more like his precious Son (Romans 8:28-29).
- God promises that he will never give me more than I can handle without also providing ways to handle my suffering with growing obedience (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Through it all, ask God to redirect your thinking. One of the things suffering does is to “focus your mind marvelously.” When you suffer, everything seems to be brought to a single point, life stops except with regard to this particular situation. You need to ask God to change your focus. Ask him to become real to you in a new way. Ask him to remind you, when you feel distraught, pain, anxious, worried, stressed, etc. to use that opportunity to think about the things God has promised you. God may not remove your suffering, but you can draw near to him in the midst of your suffering and be content and at peace (2 Cor. 12:10).
Ask God to give you a glimpse of Heaven. We are all going to go there one day, some sooner than others. Paul had the attitude toward death that he actually wanted to go there more than he wanted to stay on earth. He said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:21-24). Wouldn’t it be great if we had that same attitude? We want to be with the Lord, but because we are needed by our friends we will stay and serve them. Remember that when writing, Paul was in prison (1:12, 13).
God does not promise pain-free lives, and everyone suffers in some way. But if you remember that you have a God who knows and loves you, and who uses his power to free you and bring you nearer to him, you will handle suffering in ways you never thought possible. As you learn to invite God into your suffering more and more, you will experience a renewed freedom that pain will not impede. May God bless you as you trust him through the challenge of fibromyalgia, and may he give you the grace to say along with Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). From Fibromyalgia, by Robert Smith, New Growth Press, Greensboro, NC, 2012.