Can sickness and suffering be better than health and prosperity?
In a world that lives to avoid pain, that question may sound ridiculous. Not only pleasure-seekers, but even the religious, view suffering as entirely negative — a sign of God’s disapproval. In most world religions, health and prosperity are the reward for a good and faithful life, while sickness and suffering are curses, the result of evil deeds in this life or a past one. The American prosperity “gospel” perpetuates these lies, equating health and material blessings with our faithfulness and God’s favor, and sickness with a lack of faith.
My Life of Sickness
At times, I almost agreed with them, though, particularly when my prayers felt unanswered and my pain relentless.
“Nothing has more powerfully shaped me — my theology, my character, my love for God and for others — than suffering.”
I wondered why God wouldn’t respond to my earnest pleas, suspicious that he had cursed me, rather than blessed me. My sole focus was getting relief, so I was puzzled by verses like these: “Count it all joy my brothers when you meet with trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) and “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Trials made me miserable. Nothing about affliction seemed good. I looked enviously at people who had what I wanted and longed for an easier life.
Contracting polio as an infant, I’ve always been physically limited, unable to run or hike or even be outside by myself. Instead, I learned to love “indoor” activities like crafting, painting, and cooking, happy to do anything creative with my hands.
The diagnosis of post-polio syndrome changed that, narrowing my physical world even further so that now I sometimes struggle to pick up a glass. I live with daily pain that was once just occasional. Rather than making my life harder, however, each physical loss has been a strange gift, one that has increased my dependence and love for God.
Testimony of Sufferers
My experience is not unusual. Christians around the world and throughout the ages have experienced the unique blessing that God gives us in sickness and suffering. Hudson Taylor, the well-known missionary to China in the 1800s, reported,
The deepest, most precious, and most abiding spiritual lessons, which God has been pleased to teach me were learned in consequence of enduring my various experiences of sickness. . . . I feel it would have been nothing short of a calamity to have missed the physical suffering through which I have passed. . . . I am positive that I have sometimes met with God’s refusal to heal when I have been most in fellowship with him.
“Through pain, God has ushered me into the fullest, most intimate, most sacred encounters with him.”
It would have been nothing short of a calamity to have missed the physical suffering through which I have passed. Hudson Taylor’s physical suffering included hepatitis, a damaged liver, constant exhaustion, year-long paralysis from a fall, and severe depression. Yet suffering is what drew Taylor closest to God.
Henry Frost, a physician and friend of Hudson Taylor, attested to the same benefits of suffering. He saw some of his patients miraculously healed after prayer, while other patients, equally sick and equally faithful, were not healed. Frost commented,
Special spiritual blessings were given to the persons who were permitted to be sick, and most of the persons, if not all of them, were finally constrained to testify that they believed that the sickness had proved to be even better than health could have been.
Sickness proved to be even better than health could have been.
A modern saint and quadriplegic who lives with agonizing pain, Joni Eareckson Tada, agrees with Frost and Taylor in her book A Place of Healing. She adds, “He has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer his embrace.”
The more intense the pain, the closer his embrace.
The testimonies of these saints, while radical, are not rare. Everyone I have encountered who has turned to Christ in their suffering, looking to Jesus and his grace in their pain, testifies to this reality: suffering and sickness are greater gifts than health and prosperity. The intensity of fellowship with him, the immediacy of his presence, and the comfort of his love are all heightened in suffering.
Nothing Has Shaped Me More
Through pain, God has ushered me into the fullest, most intimate, most sacred encounters with him. Times I will never forget, even after my suffering has passed. My faith has become much stronger.
Because of sickness, I am less attached to the temporal and more grounded in the eternal. I am more understanding and compassionate, aware of my own frailties and weakness under pressure. In fact, nothing has more powerfully shaped me — my theology, my character, my love for God and my love for others — than suffering. Through it, I have learned that one day in his courts, one day embraced by his love, one day of fellowship with him, is better than a thousand elsewhere.
“Getting grace to bear our struggles can be better than not having them.”
In prosperity and health, I am grateful for his gifts but not as desperate for his presence. My material blessings can keep me occupied. In ease and abundance, I tend to live selfishly, entitled and independent, focusing on what makes me most comfortable. I have gone days with little thought of God, not sensing any need for him. I am content to keep God at a distance, but in suffering I need him near.
Greater Mercy Than Health
Charles Spurgeon, who struggled with frequent depression, rheumatism, gout, and Brights disease, said,
There is no greater mercy that I know of on earth than good health except it be sickness; and that has often been a greater mercy to me than health. It is a good thing to be without a trouble; but it is a better thing to have a trouble and know how to get grace enough to bear it.
Getting grace to bear our struggles can be better than not having them. Yes, prosperity and health are mercies, but they are only temporary, meant to be enjoyed in this life alone. But suffering and trouble enable us to lay hold of the greater gifts of God, gifts like his fellowship, comfort and love, which grow sweeter over time.
God loves to give his children good gifts and, looking through the lens of faith, we can see that sickness and suffering are among the greatest.