“I was sick and you visited Me.”
The Burden of Disease
Most of us have experienced illness, with those we love if not with ourselves. Sometimes we are sick for just a day, such as one we have a 24-hour flu. Sometimes illness goes on for years, even a whole lifetime, or it may cut our natural life short. Sometimes the illness is a result of poor choices that we have made, and other times it is due to circumstances entirely beyond our control.
[The global burden of disease can be measured disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), a combination of years of life lost due to early death, and the years spent in partial or full disability.] Each year, among the world’s 7 billion people about 1.5 billion years of life are lost due to early death, and about 1 billion years of life are spent suffering from debilitating disease. On the average over a third of our lives is lost to illness. In many areas we have made good progress, eliminating some diseases and reducing the impact of others. Yet still the reality remains that there are many diseases which we cannot cure and many untimely deaths we cannot prevent. So we struggle with disease. We suffer with pain. We try to find ways to transcend or work around our disabilities. We grieve the loss of loved ones who die prematurely. And knowing the severe limits of our healing power, we pray for healing, hoping that somehow God will hear and work a miracle.
The disease can be a great challenge to our faith. Some of us cannot reconcile belief in a loving God with the existence of painful disease, so we turn to atheism. Some of us believe that prayer and faith can bring healing, yet we wonder, How can we have enough faith to bring a miracle? And why do our prayers so often seem to go unanswered?
Though we sometimes bring illness on ourselves, no one wants to be sick. Throughout history people have recognized the difficulty of getting well, and have turned to God as a healer. David wrote, “He heals the brokenhearted And binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). He prayed, “I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled” (Psalm 6:2). Likewise Jeremiah prayed, “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; Save me, and I shall be saved, For You are my praise” (Jeremiah 17:14).
The prophets foretold that God would come into the world and bring healing: “‘I will restore health to you And heal you of your wounds,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 30:17). “Behold, I will bring it health and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them the abundance of peace and truth” (Jeremiah 33:6). “To you who fear My name The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2).
Physical illness is often used throughout the Bible as a metaphor for spiritual maladies. Just as our bodies become sick in various different ways, our mind or spirit also becomes sick when we make bad choices.
Isaiah wrote, “Alas, sinful nation, A people laden with iniquity, A brood of evildoers, Children who are corrupters! …The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness in it, But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores” (Isaiah 1:4-6).
David described the Lord as the One “Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3). He said, “Lord, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You” (Psalm 41:4). “There is no soundness in my flesh Because of Your anger, Nor any health in my bones Because of my sin” (Psalm 38:3).
In Jeremiah, the Lord says, “Your affliction is incurable, Your wound is severe. There is no one to plead your cause, That you may be bound up; You have no healing medicines…. Your sorrow is incurable, Because of the multitude of your iniquities, Because your sins have increased” (Jeremiah 30:12-13,15). “Behold, I will bring Jerusalem health and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them the abundance of peace and truth…. I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned and by which they have transgressed against Me” (Jeremiah 33:6, 8).
In some cases physical illness is described as a punishment for sin and sometimes it is more of a natural consequence for sin. Generally, though, we will better understand what the Bible says about healing if we think of illness as a metaphor or symbol of sin, rather than as a punishment, as we shall see.
Health and Salvation Are the Same
Jesus sometimes told people who were miraculously healed that their faith had saved them (Luke 17:19, 18:42). In Luke Chapter 7, Jesus said to a woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). Jesus says the exact same words in Chapter 8, where it is translated, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace” (Luke 8:48; the difference between these verses occurs in many translations [25 out of 30 versions available on biblestudytools.com], though the Greek for both verses is identical). The translations are not inaccurate; rather the Greek word for “save” (sozo) or “salvation” (soteria) also means “heal” or “health.”
The Lord’s Ministry
When the Lord came into the world His work mostly involved teaching and working miracles. His teaching focused on repentance from sin, love for others, and the kingdom of heaven. He worked a variety of miracles, including turning water into wine, walking on water, calming a storm, feeding multitudes of people with just a few loaves and fish, and creating large catches of fish. Yet in nine out of ten — and possibly 99 out of 100 — of the miracles that He performed were healing miracles. Matthew says simply, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” (Matthew 9:35, 4:23).
When John the Baptist wanted to know whether Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus sent the message, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). Healing was the evidence that He was the Messiah.
Since sicknesses represented the unrighteous ways and the evils of spiritual life the sicknesses which the Lord healed mean deliverance from the different kinds of evil and falsity that were infecting the Church and human race and that would have brought spiritual death. Divine miracles are distinguishable from other miracles by the fact that they involve and have regard to states of the Church and the heavenly kingdom; and this is why the Lord’s miracles were primarily healing of sicknesses. (Secrets of Heaven §8364.6)
Healing the Paralytic
One of the people that Jesus healed was paralyzed, so that he could not come to the Lord on his own. Jesus was in the house crowded with people when four men brought the paralyzed man on a stretcher. The crowd was so dense that they could not even get in the door, so they opened up the roof and lowered the man into the room where Jesus was. As we look at the details of this story we will see that it illustrates how and why genuine healing can take place, and how we can deal with sickness in ourselves and others.
Only the Lord Can Heal
The first concept we need to understand is that only the Lord can heal. Most doctors recognize that they cannot heal people. Sometimes they can eliminate infections or poisons that cause illness, and they can prescribe a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep. Ultimately, it is the body that heals itself, or rather it is the life flowing from the Lord through the soul into the body that brings healing. This is generally true of both spiritual and natural healing. We can provide care, but the cure comes from the Lord.
In the story of the paralyzed man, there was a great crowd of people wanting to see Jesus. They came because He could do what others could not. Some of them may have already seen many physicians and not found a cure (Mark 5:26, Luke 8:43). Clearly the four men who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus could not cure him, nor could he cure himself. They resorted making a hole in the roof to lower the man into the room where Jesus was, because they believed that Jesus was the only one who could cure the man.
We are often in a similar situation. When someone we love is sick, and we may not know any way of curing the sickness. We can remind ourselves, though, that our task is to do what we know and are able to do. The Lord does not expect us to be able to heal every illness. Our intention can be to be present with people in their illness, rather than expecting to bring a cure. The Lord said, “I was sick and you visited Me,” not, “I was sick and you healed Me.”
The Lord compared Himself to a doctor. When the Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:16-17, Luke 5:31, Matthew 9:12). The Lord is the One who can heal, yet He does not immediately remove every illness.
Spiritual Health Is Important
Another principle we learn from this story of a paralyzed man is that the Lord cares more about our spiritual life than about our physical life. He cares more about the health of our souls than about the health of our bodies. When they brought the paralyzed man to Jesus He said, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” One might think that Jesus would have immediately healed the man of his paralysis. It would be easy to assume that the most important issue in that man’s life was the fact that he could not get up and move. Yet Jesus all but ignored the man’s physical condition and focused on something that actually was much more urgent and important. “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus made it clear that spiritual health and survival are more important than physical health and survival. He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30, Mark 9:47). “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
When Jesus saw the paralyzed man He made no remark about the man’s disability. It is almost as if Jesus did not even see the disability, but instead looked at the real person—the choices, desires and values that he had. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” You have made some bad choices, but you can let go of those and become someone different. We all have a variety of experiences, good and bad. Things happen to us, but outward conditions do not determine the kind of person we become, not even a little bit, not even if it paralyzes us. It is our response to those conditions that determine who we become. When I look at someone who is paralyzed or has some other ailment it is easy for me to see only the disease and disability. But the Lord sees more deeply, to things that really matter. “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
There are a number of reasons why the Lord allows us to become ill. One reason is that we cannot reach our full potential without going through spiritual challenges, and sometimes those challenges involve physical illness. When we get sick we may wonder whether the Lord is caring for us and present with us, and may have doubts about His providence and mercy. In that case the illness is bringing on a spiritual trial (Secrets of Heaven 8164, 8392). Spiritual challenges or temptations are most painful when they involve physical suffering as well, especially if the pain is chronic and becomes more intense, and if we ask the Lord for help but don’t seem to get it (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 196). Yet it is through these challenges that we become more loving and wise, develop a closer connection with the Lord, and overcome bad inclinations and wrong thoughts in ourselves.
Still, spiritual temptations are a struggle for our heart and soul, not for our body, and when we go through illness the Lord’s primary concern is not to eliminate any disease, suffering or challenge, but to give us the strength, courage, wisdom, humility and compassion to be able to transcend the challenge.
Evil Is Like Illness
As we have seen, evil is like disease and is compared to disease in the Lord’s Word. There have been times when people have assumed that sickness is a punishment for sin. When we think that way, we tend to judge people who are sick. We assume that any illness they have is a punishment for some evil that they have committed. The Lord’s disciples were thinking this way when they found a man on the street who had been born blind. The disciples asked the Lord, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus replied, “It was neither this man nor his parents, but this happened so that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:1-3). Jesus then healed the man, and later the man became one of Jesus’s followers. Jesus told the man that He came so that those who are blind might see, and so that those who see might be made blind. When speaking of the seeing being made blind, He was referring to the religious leaders who thought that they were without sin and consequently blinded themselves to the opportunity for forgiveness that Jesus presented to them. The religious leaders did not become better people by virtue of their ability to see, but rather used their sight to observe the faults of others and to condemn them, while they became blind to their own sin. On the other hand, the man who was blind from birth did not have his life ruined by that blindness. In fact he became a better person for it, because he gained humility and courage, and he recognized his need for the Lord and His healing.
When we think of illness as a punishment for sin, it gives us a concept of God as someone who needs revenge or retribution in order to satisfy his sense of “justice,” instead of a God of pure love and compassion who only wants to take evil and suffering away from us.
Another way of thinking about punishment is the concept of “karma,” that everything bad that happens to us is a result of something bad we have done in the past (possibly in a former life). Now it is true that when we choose to do evil, we receive evil, and when we choose to do good, we receive good, but lots of bad things can happen to us because of other people’s bad choices, or apparently because of accidents and chance.
In the Lord’s providence bad things can happen to us, including all kinds of sickness, yet the Lord is not looking at our past and bringing it back to haunt us; He always looks to the future. He sees our potential, and always allows evil only for the sake of our salvation or healing.
Doctors often promise never to do harm to anyone (based on the Hippocratic Oath). Sometimes their methods of healing may be painful, but their goal is never to harm but to bring health. So it is with the Lord. More than any doctor, He never wants to harm anyone, yet He allows us to go through sickness and suffering because through suffering we can find a deeper level of healing.
Our Healing Requires Our Cooperation.
The Lord commanded the paralyzed man, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.” The Lord offers us healing in a way that requires us to take steps forward as if we were on our own. The bed is symbolic here. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking about things I want to do without actually doing them. Bed can be a good place for thinking: David wrote, “Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches” (Psalm 63:6). There is a time for healing, but also a time to say, “Don’t just lie there making plans. Pick up your plans and take steps to accomplish them!”
The steps to healing are the steps of repentance. Jesus compared sinners to sick people who need a doctor, and then said, “I have to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17). It is in repentance that spiritually sick people find healing.
Solomon prayed for the people, “Whatever plague or whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone,…when each one knows the plague of his own heart,…then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and give to everyone according to all his ways…. When they sin against You (for there is no one who does not sin), and…when they come to themselves…and repent, and make supplication to You… saying, ‘We have sinned and done wrong, we have committed wickedness’; and when they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul…, and pray to You, then hear in heaven Your dwelling…and forgive Your people who have sinned against You” (1 Kings 8:37-39, 46-49).
These words of Solomon are reflected in New Church teachings which say that “active repentance is examining ourselves, recognizing and admitting our sins, praying to the Lord, and beginning a new life” (True Christianity 528).
Some people have thought that we can be healed or saved just by thinking about it, or by faith alone, but when Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you,” He was never talking about faith alone, or about just believing that He had paid for our sins. The people who came to Jesus didn’t believe that He would be punished for their sins! Rather they believed that Jesus had the power to heal. Through the first millennium of Christian history, the focus was on the Lord’s power over evil and hell. With Calvin’s penal satisfaction theory of the atonement in the 16th century the focus turned to His punishment, rather than His power. Going back to the miracles in the New Testament, we see that it was always a faith in His power that brought healing, never a faith that He was punished in our place.
We can also see that New Testament faith worked without following Jewish ritual laws (what Paul called the “works of the law”) such as circumcision and sacrifice, yet that faith could never be separated from love (1 Corinthians 13:2) and acts of kindness (James 2:10-24).
A key principle in the New Church is that we should turn away from evil and do what is good as if we were on our own, but still recognize that the power to turn from evil and do good comes from the Lord working in us and through us. The paralyzed man experienced healing not by lying in bed thinking about things, but by making the effort to get up and carry his bed. When we make an effort to do things on our own, the Lord’s power can start to work in us.
The Greek word for “faith” (pistis) also means “faithfulness.” We know what it means to be faithful or unfaithful in marriage. If the Lord had said to someone, “Your faithfulness has saved your marriage,” we would know that the faithfulness was much more than just believing that the marriage was OK, or thinking that Jesus would fix things without any effort or commitment on their part.
Helping each other
A final thing we learn from the paralyzed man is that we can help one another. The gospel says that “when Jesus saw their faith” He forgave the man’s sins. It wasn’t just the faith of the paralyzed man, but the faith of those who carried him and let him down through the roof. Though each of us must ultimately live our faith on our own, just as the paralyzed man got up and walked on his own, we still have a role in helping people come to the Lord and supporting them in times when they really need our friendship and help. Our goal is to help people gain a feeling of independence. We don’t want on the one hand to help them be more dependent, or to abandon them to become independent on their own.
We can’t actually do anyone else’s repentance for them. We can’t “self-examine” another person. And certainly throwing out criticisms, judgments and unwanted advice is not an effective way to encourage repentance–it more often just increases the paralysis.
On the other hand, we can set an example, or share what has worked in our own lives. We can sponsor or mentor others, walking with them on their spiritual journey, listening and showing compassion. Sometimes we must carry them to a doctor, or to the Doctor, who can provide more help than we can. There may be other times, though when all that is required–and all that we are able to do–is simply to visit a person who is sick, and sometimes just being present is a greater help than all the medicines in the world. The mark of spiritual health is to have a loving connection with the Lord and with other people, and when we are present with people going through challenges, have compassion on people who are suffering, and forgive those who feel miserable about their mistakes, then in that compassion and forgiveness we experience the Lord’s compassion and forgiveness, and the Lord’s promise will be fulfilled: “I was sick and you visited Me.”