Here is a familiar line of logic in Christian circles: a. Jesus healed virtually everyone who asked to be healed. b. In texts like John 14:14 Jesus tells his disciples to ask him for whatever they might ask. c. We then pray and ask him to heal a dear friend who has stage 3 or stage 4 cancer.
So far, so good.
What comes next is the problem. We find that despite our passionate and repeated prayers the cancer remains active until it takes our friend’s life. Along with our grief over the loss comes frustration and anger that Jesus failed to keep his promise: where was he when we needed him most! So faith is shaken and questions about God’s goodness start to stir.
Do we have any easy answers here? No. Only challenging considerations—options that aren’t so clean and tight as the syllogism we began with. But considerations that offer us a pathway into a faith “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:7).
Let’s take up the passage just cited. Peter wrote of this precious faith in a letter to those who had been forced from their homes and sent off to an unwelcoming exile. Their response? Peter answers: “You have been grieved by various trials.” Yet in that grief Peter knew they would also “rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory”.
Grief and rejoicing are woven together in God’s greater agenda for humanity—an agenda Jesus lived out for us. Grief, as Peter continued, comes with “the sufferings of Christ” yet it is followed by “the subsequent glory” (verse 11).
Suffering and glory are linked. This morning I started a new Bible read-through and in Genesis 2-3 I was once again reminded of the role death plays in human history. Adam, not God, was responsible for our struggle with death. God told him to stay away from death. Adam instead embraced the deception foisted on his wife by the serpent, and they both died as a result.
God then told him of a further consequence: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘you shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you . . .” (Genesis 3:17). This curse on the earth—we read between the lines here—was God’s gracious work of subjecting Adam’s physical body (made from the earth) to death in alignment with Adam’s spiritual death from his eating the forbidden fruit. God refused to support Adam’s spiritual immorality with physical immortality.
So the brokenness of our physical world—including illnesses like cancer—all began with Adam’s declaration of independence. Death is tragic but wholly deserved. As Paul pointed out in Romans 3, all humanity embraces Adam’s independence; and ongoing grumbles about how unfair God is for this only reveals the heartbeat of human autonomy.
This brings us to the question we started with. If Jesus can heal people, why doesn’t he heal everyone we ask him to heal? The answer is profound: grief comes before glory. Jesus, we recall, gave his promise to the disciples in John 14 only after his call for them to follow him in his death in John 12—a call to be “buried” with him in order for “much fruit” to follow.
For us to depend on Christ, then, is to embrace the need for death in a world dying because of rebellion. So for us to charge God with wrong because he fails to fulfill our wishes smacks of continued independence. His disciples were on board with God’s agenda, and not their own, when he gave them the promise that anything they might ask would be fulfilled. We need to share in his agenda too for that promise to apply.
Peter himself, for instance, knew that just after Herod Agrippa killed James God chose to send angels to rescue Peter from Herod (in Acts 12). Peter would later be martyred himself so it is clear that God rules over the time and circumstances of such tragedies. What does not change is that God continues to honor Adam’s preference for death, but he means for us to hate it.
So we are meant to hate illness and death. But can also be certain that God has full authority over such suffering—something Jesus freely displayed by his healings—yet the glory of eternal life only comes through death and, ultimately, Christ’s own death.
So let’s take this lesson about God’s agenda from Peter: grief and glory come together. So we can rejoice even in our trials and losses. That, in turn, displays a faith more precious than gold.