A listener named Leland wrote in to ask: “Pastor John, today I listened to a TGC podcast panel discussion you moderated. You, David Platt, and Matt Chandler discussed the comfort of knowing that our good and sovereign God has ordained the suffering people experience. Matt Chandler spoke movingly about how his view of God’s sovereignty in ordaining his cancer helped him through the awful side effects of chemotherapy. Here’s my question. If our sovereign God ordains cancer for his glory and a Christian person’s good (Romans 8:28), why isn’t the appropriate Christian response either to hope in God to glorify himself by healing the person miraculously or to rejoice in the glory of God in a life ended by cancer? Why is it NOT a sin to use chemotherapy and other modern medicine to interfere with the natural progression of a disease God ordains for his glory and a person’s good?”
The answer is that it may be sin to pursue chemotherapy and it may be sin not to pursue chemotherapy. It isn’t the use of human science or ingenuity in relation to the creation that makes an action sin or not. It is the way we think about it and the way it relates to God and the way it relates to faith and the way it relates to love.
“It may be sin to pursue chemotherapy and it may be sin not to pursue chemotherapy.”
Perhaps it will make this a little more clear if I point out that the problem Leland sees in relation to chemotherapy also applies to prayer and supernatural healing. In other words, if God ordains that I get prostate cancer, which I believe he did, then I could ask in relation to prayer and supernatural healing the same thing that Leland asks in regard to chemotherapy. Why interfere by prayer? Why interfere by prayer with the natural progression of a disease that God ordains for his glory?
It isn’t just chemotherapy that creates the issue, but any kind of intervention on our part, including prayer. Prayer for healing would be a human intrusion, and the use of medicine would be a human intrusion. So, I think what would be most helpful for me to do here is to suggest five passages of Scripture that give us guidance in both of these kinds of intrusions — prayer and chemotherapy — which sometimes may be right and sometimes may be wrong. Even prayer may become, eventually, wrong. So, here are five quick texts.
1) Second Corinthians 12:7–9, “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.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
This text points out the obvious, that God has ordained for us to pray about our needs, because we don’t know at the outset whether our circumstances are intended to last or be temporary. God bids us to pray and says, in James 4:2, we have not because we ask not, often. He doesn’t treat prayer as an intrusion upon his sovereignty. He invites it as part of his sovereignty. It is part of his sovereign plan for ruling the world. In some cases, he will make it plain that he does not intend to take away the thorn in the flesh and we should say, even though it is a messenger of Satan, God is the one overruling it because he is talking about this sanctification of Paul through it.
Instead, he intends to glorify his sustaining grace through suffering rather than his healing grace in that case. And we don’t know whether that is the case ahead of time. So, we are invited to pray and to be a part of the causality of God’s sovereign will.
2) Second Chronicles 16:12, “In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe. Yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from physicians.” Now in that case, God intended Asa’s foot disease to lead him back to God so that he would seek him, seek help from God. But Asa proved to be so indifferent to his relation to God and so saturated with a this-worldly mindset and all of the resources of the world that it didn’t even seem important to him at all to seek God’s help, and he went straight to doctors without consulting God at all. And he was clearly wrong to do it.
“I think we are sometimes wrong by failing to pray for healing before we take an aspirin or go to the doctor.”
Therefore, I think we are sometimes wrong by failing to pray for healing before we take an aspirin or go to the doctor. That is why I said at the beginning that sometimes the pursuit of chemotherapy may be wrong — though it may not be wrong, it may be right. It doesn’t follow that it is right or wrong, just that you are doing it or can do it. It may be wrong, especially if it betrays that you have no interest in seeking God’s help whatsoever. And you are not going to rely on him at all. And you don’t love him and trust him at all. Well, then, whatever you do is going to be wrong. But it may not be wrong. If you fly to chemotherapy with no reference to God, no love for God, no dependence on God, no prayer to God, you are in the same situation as Asa was in.
3) Colossians 4:14, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.” Now, evidently Paul was quite happy to have an attendant physician traveling with him. He didn’t have to draw attention to the fact that Luke was a physician when he wrote Colossians. He could have dropped that with a kind of embarrassment. “Oh, dear. I don’t want to give the impression that I am not relying on the Lord by referring to my good friend Luke as a physician, as though people will think that I need a physician.” He didn’t drop the name. He called him a “beloved physician.” But he wasn’t embarrassed about it. He didn’t seem to think that the work of a physician was intruding upon the sovereign plan of God for his health. Rather, it seems as though he regarded Luke’s skill as a physician as a gift from God.
4) In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul says to Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” So, it seems that Paul not only valued the work of his physician, Luke, but also he valued some of the therapies that he had learned along the way from whomever; namely, that in Timothy’s case his chronic stomach problems found relief not just through prayer, but through a wise use of wine.
And if someone objects that there is a huge difference between wine and chemotherapy, my response is: Well, actually there is not. The line between natural remedies and less natural remedies is not all that clear. And when you think about it, those lines become very blurry. But perhaps even more important is the next passage, the last one I am going to refer to, because this text says it doesn’t really make any difference what the lines are between the natural and the human invented.
5) So here I am at Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them. And God said to them,” — Adam and Eve, — “‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves.’” Now, what does Moses mean when he writes, “Subdue the earth”? It is a remarkable statement, because it is given before the fall when everything in the earth and the world was perfect. Well, what in the world does he mean by subduing what is perfect? Shouldn’t you just leave it alone?
No, you shouldn’t just leave it alone. It means, “Many things, Adam and Eve, as you find them in nature are not yet perfectly suited for your maximal use. They are perfectly suited for your change. They are perfectly suited as raw materials. So, you need to take them as you find them, give thanks, and then by means of your craft and your art and your labor, change them. Change them into a form where they are maximally beneficial to you.”
“God is looking for the deepest, most joyful submission to his sovereign will, however we deal with our suffering.”
So, you might cut down a tree. Cut it into boards and build a house to keep the sun off and the rain off. Or, you might pick grapes and crush them under your feet and store them in a cool place and make wine out of them, which, in some cases would be called medicine. Or, you might take the flight of electrons around the nucleus and so alter them that you create a beam that kills cancer cells on the other side of the fall.
The upshot of these five passages of Scripture, it seems to me, is that God has provided an endless array of strategies for subduing this world and making it serve our maximal usefulness and fruitfulness to his glory. And the key is, Are we seeking the Lord? Are we depending on the Lord, trusting the Lord, praying to the Lord, loving the Lord in all of this? Are we praying, trusting, loving, seeking to submit ourselves deeply to his sovereign will? For there is no doubt. His sovereign will, will in fact, be done. It will be done through prayer and through miracles and through medical intervention. And what God is looking for is not the least intrusive strategy of dealing with disease. He is looking for the deepest, most joyful submission to his sovereign will, however we deal with our suffering.