“Is any sick among you? 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” (James 5:14).
Someone asked C.S. Lewis, “Why do the righteous suffer?” “Why not?” he replied. “They’re the only ones who can take it.” I am not sure that C.S. Lewis was exactly correct in his observation. Oswald Chambers in Christian Discipline notes that “Suffering is the heritage of the bad, of the penitent, and of the Son of God. Each one ends in the cross. The bad thief is crucified, the penitent thief is crucified, and the Son of God is crucified. By these signs we know the widespread heritage of suffering.”
Christians are not the only ones who suffer but suffer they do, and, in the end, they can take it because they have faith. Faith is the victory which over comes the world, and all the heartaches and setbacks of being in the world (1 John 5:4).
Hellen Keller was a Christian in the world. Due to an early childhood illness that left her unable to see or hear she became familiar with affliction every day of her life. Said Miss Keller, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
In the midst of tragic news, and heartfelt sorrow the Christian is called to a life of triumph. One facet of becoming victorious over the circumstances of life is to learn the lessons that the Lord would have His children to learn through suffering.
Born in England in 1903, Malcolm Muggeridge (d. November 1990) was considered by some to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, journalists of the 20th century, and a prophetic voice of modern times. Though reared a socialist, and for a while embracing Communism, Mr. Muggeridge came to saving faith in Jesus Christ as personal savior. He set out to live the Christian life, and in so doing found a great challenge. In one of his books he had this to say. “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”
Such words seem strange to the ears of a society that strives to promote personal pleasure, while avoiding any contact with affliction. But those of us who have walked in the valley believe we can enjoy the mountain top of life all the better when we get there, for the contrast between pain and pleasure is sharper, the vision is farther, and the overall sensation of spiritual exhilaration is more intense.
When the Christian is asked to walk for a little while in the valleys of life, the Lord has a reason. One reason is to bring honor and glory to Christ by manifesting faithfulness to Him. Peter wrote to the saints to remind them that the trial of their faith, “being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1: 7-9).
When faith is found to be genuine it brings honor and glory to the Lord for an age-old question is answered. Satan initially raised the question about a righteous man named Job. One day the Dragon sneered in the courts of heaven and said, “Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face” (Job 1:9-11).
The Lord allowed Satan to touch all that Job had, including his health. Job did not curse God but blessed Him. When a Christian endures suffering, it brings honor and glory to Christ, for it shows that Jesus is loved, not for what He gives, but for who He is.
Suffering is not always a punishment for sin. Much suffering is not even about the individual as much as it is about Christ whom having not seen, we love; in whom, though now we see him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of our faith, even the salvation of our souls (1 Peter. 1:8,9).
Another reason for suffering is to share in Christ’s afflictions in a physical manner. At the Nicene Council, an important church meeting in the 4th century AD, of the 318 delegates attending, fewer than 12 had not lost an eye or lost a hand or did not limp on a leg lamed by torture for their Christian faith. While most Christians in America today are not asked to suffer physically for the cause of Christ it is part of the Christian heritage, and so we mention it.
There is a third reason why Christians suffer, and that is to enjoy a blessing on the other side of the moment. The apostle James instructs believers to be like a farmer who is willing to wait “for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receives the early and latter rain” (James 5:7).
In between the early and latter rain there is a dry season. In the Christian experience there are dry seasons, but that is not the end of the matter. The believer is to be patient, and look for blessings yet to come, no matter how difficult the moment.
Somerset Maugham, the English writer, once wrote a story about a janitor at St Peter’s Church in London. One day a young vicar discovered that the janitor was illiterate and fired him. Jobless, the man invested his meager savings in a tiny tobacco shop, where he prospered, bought another, expanded, and ended up with a chain of tobacco stores worth several hundred thousand dollars. One day the man’s banker said, “You’ve done well for an illiterate, but where would you be if you could read and write?” “Well,” replied the man, “I’d be janitor of St. Peter’s Church in Neville Square.” The man was patient and found a blessing despite the initial difficult moment. There are blessings yet to come to the Christian who is patient in a time of testing. The believer can look for the early and latter rains.
There is a fourth reason why Christians suffer, and that is to display the power of God through weakness. The apostle Paul came to understand this truth and declared, “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Most of the Psalms were born in difficulty.
Most of the Epistles were written in prisons.
Most of the greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers
of all time had to pass through the fire.
John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress from jail.
Florence Nightingale, too ill to move from her bed, reorganized the hospitals of England.
Semi-paralyzed and under the constant menace of apoplexy, Pasteur was tireless in his attack on disease.
During the greater part of his life, American historian Francis Parkman suffered so acutely that he could not work for more than five minutes as a time. His eyesight was so wretched that he could scrawl only a few gigantic words on a manuscript, yet he contrived to write twenty magnificent volumes of history. Sometimes it seems that when God is about to make preeminent use of an individual he puts that person through the fire.
A fifth cause of suffering is to move the thoughts of the believer from time to eternity. The Lord wants to loosen our grip on the temporal to prepare our hearts for the eternal. The famous preacher D.L. Moody told about a Christian woman who was always bright, cheerful, and optimistic, even though she was confined to her room because of illness. She lived in an attic apartment on the fifth floor of an old, rundown building. A friend decided to visit her one day and brought along another woman – a person of great wealth. Since there was no elevator, the two ladies began the long climb upward. When they reached the second floor, the well-to-do woman commented, “What a dark and filthy place!”
Her friend replied,
“It’s better higher up.”
When they arrived at the third landing, the remark was made,
“Things look even worse here.”
Again, the reply, “It’s better higher up.”
The two women finally reached the attic level, where they found the bedridden saint of God. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the room was clean and flowers were on the windowsill, the wealthy visitor could not get over the stark surroundings in which this woman lived. She blurted out,
“It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!”
Without a moment’s hesitation the shut-in responded,
“It’s better higher up.”
She was not looking at temporal things. With the eye of faith fixed on the eternal, she had found the secret of true satisfaction and contentment. Her thoughts were being taken from time to eternity.
A sixth cause to be mentioned for suffering is a sweet assurance that we are known by God and loved by Him. If that sounds strange I invite you to read the words of the prophet in Isaiah 48:10: “I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.”
On a wall in his bedroom Charles Spurgeon had a plaque with Isaiah 48:10 on it. “It is no mean thing to be chosen of God,” he wrote. “God’s choice makes chosen men choice men…We are chosen, not in the palace, but in the furnace. In the furnace, beauty is marred, fashion is destroyed, strength is melted, glory is consumed; yet here eternal love reveals its secrets, and declares its choice.”
“Why do the righteous suffer?” Maybe because they are all after all, “the only ones who can take it.”
When the time of suffering comes the Christian can determine what the response will be. When William Sangster was told he was dying of progressive muscular atrophy, he made four resolutions and faithfully kept them:
I will never complain
I will keep the home bright
I will count my blessings
I will try to turn my pain to gain.
These are noble resolutions. But there is three more things a Christian can do: pray, ask for anointing, and witness.
The Christian can pray. James 5: 13 says, “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray.” It is not wrong to pray and ask God for healing. It is not wrong to tell the Lord about the fears that flood the heart.
“What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.
Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised Thou wilt all our burdens bear
May we ever, Lord, be bringing all to Thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright unclouded there will be no need for prayer
Rapture, praise and endless worship will be our sweet portion there”.
As Christians can pray so they can ask for prayer and anointing with oil. “Is any sick among you? 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” (James 5:14). There are two basic reasons why many churches do not anoint people with oil. One reason is that some ministers sincerely believe that James 5:17 does not mean what it says. A second reason is rooted in unbelief—nothing will happen if this verse is practiced.
In response let it be heard that it is the will of the Lord that His people pray and invite prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. The church can leave the results up to the sovereign will of God but we can go this far in our faith and practice. And so we will. Amen.