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Facing a serious illness and the certainty of death is a humbling experience . . . and one that wakes us up by shattering the illusion of security and health that surrounds us in the modern world. If you’ve walked the halls of a nursing home, you understand what I mean. If you or a loved one has been on the receiving end of a terminal medical diagnosis, you’ve felt it. If you’ve been to a funeral or two, you probably know what I’m talking about. In these moments—undistracted by the noise of the world—the reality that what the Bible says is true is seen with unusual clarity . . . and then usually quickly forgotten as one re-enters “regular” life.
As I returned to my room after visiting Rob in the nursing home, my mind was in high gear, still sorting out the implications of his illness. While the “big picture” put “the question” into a biblical framework, many other issues needed to be faced: What then should one expect out of life? Is this fair? Can God heal, and if so, why doesn’t He? How do we help others in situations like ours?
As the realities of the inevitable loss of my brother intensified, so did my desire to connect with him again. Sure, I could talk to him (and did so as I sat at his bedside) but I was unable to tell if my words were getting through. At this point there was no response at all. How I yearned to hear his voice again; to discuss together what he—and we—were facing. But how could that happen? The very issue had placed a great gap between us, making it impossible for him to reach across the void that his illness had erected between him and the rest of us.
That’s when my youngest brother Stephen gave me an audio tape. “You’ve got to hear this,” Stephen said. “It’s almost prophetic.” The label on the tape read The Experience Trap. Robert Ham, June 1, 1997. My mind did the math: This was a sermon that Rob had preached only a couple of years before his major health issue began to manifest itself. “Rob deals directly with the very issue he’s being confronted with right now,” Steve continued excitedly. “It’s like he’s giving the sermon to himself!”
I was fairly stunned. What did he have to say that related to this current situation? Did he have some insight I hadn’t been given that could throw more light on the situation? Could his words help his family or perhaps encourage others who are grieving over the pain and suffering of a loved one? Could this help us understand how to cope with his present condition? Might the historical and theological reconciliation I sought continue through the concise words of my brother, even as he lay with mumbled speech on his death bed? After looking at the tape for some time, I placed it in the cassette deck and pressed the “play” button. . . .
This morning, I want to address the issues of sin, sickness, and healing from the Word of God. . . .
The health, vigor, and confidence of his words were startling—a complete contrast to who he had become. This was the brother I knew! This was the man whose desire to preach truth could be felt in the urgent intensity of his voice. As his message began to flow, I found myself clinging to every word. It was as if God had been preparing Rob, his family, and his friends for what was coming—answering ahead of time so many of the specific questions we were now facing.
As the tape rolled on, Rob’s words began to speak alongside the Bible’s words—the Word which he so deeply trusted and preached—and as they did, the context of the issues we were facing began to find reconciliation not only in my mind, but also in my heart.
Sure, I’ve taught the “big picture” in reference to geology, the family, and human history, but now, listening to Rob, I wasn’t the teacher, I was the student: “You see, if there was no sin in the world . . . there wouldn’t be any sickness and there would be no death,” he began. “There is not a person in this world who will not die before the Lord Jesus comes again. . . . Death is the ultimate ‘sickness’ that we all have to face as a result of sin.”
When it came to the origin of sin and death, Rob and I were on the same page. We both understood from the Genesis narrative why there is suffering. Adam’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden had corrupted the original creation and because we are all descendants of Adam and continue to sin, we all suffer the same problem. As he applied the “big picture” to the circumstances we were in—the circumstances he was in—many of the questions we were dealing with as he was slowly being destroyed by disease were answered in his own words—even as he now faced certain death.
Earlier in the day—the day Steve had given me the tape of Rob’s sermon—I had been beside Rob’s bed in the nursing home, holding his feeble hand. I kept thinking This is not normal, Rob. Surely it is not normal for this to happen to such a one as you. As I looked at his weakened body and his blank and sunken face (that had once been filled with the overflowing joy of his Christian character), I was overcome with the notion that this is not the way it should be, that his condition was not following the expected course of human life.
But that evening, Rob’s own words on the tape countered my thoughts . . . it was as if he knew back then what would be on my mind, and he used the example of the apostle Paul to make his point:
I am going to say this twice. . . . I would like this to melt into your mind and into your heart. I want it to be written indelibly on your mind so that it will never, ever be wiped away. Please understand this. You see the apostle Paul when we look at the whole New Testament. . . . Paul saw illness and he saw sickness as normal. Let me spell it for you: N-O-R-M-A-L. I’d like to underline it with a great big felt pen and write it indelibly in every one of our minds. The apostle Paul saw sickness and illness as normal living in a world ruined by sin. I’ll say it again: the apostle Paul saw illness and sickness as normal living in a world that has been ruined by sin.
Rob was right. We should expect illness and death. Although sickness is abnormal in the sense that it was not part of the original creation before sin, it should be considered “normal” in this fallen world. Had Rob been with us, helping us deal with his situation (looking on his disease-racked body and knowing the person lying there was a devout Christian) he would say, through tears of compassion, that this is the sort of thing to be expected in a sin-cursed universe. I believe Rob would then tell us that instead of focusing on the disease, we need to focus on Christ.
As Rob continued to develop this part of his sermon on the tape, it became very clear to me what he would say to us now if he were able:
I know it’s sad watching my body die and not being able to communicate with me. I know you feel a horrible separation, but look at what the Bible says. It doesn’t promise we will be physically healed in this sin-cursed world. Remember, we are all sick and dying because of sin—this is to be considered normal in this world. Even the people who were healed or raised from the dead by Christ during His earthly ministry or through the Apostles had only a temporary reprieve. Eventually, they had to die anyway. No one can escape this normal course of events for this world. But for the Christian, the wonderful news is that God does promise to comfort us and strengthen us, knowing we are sinful creatures living in such a fallen world.
In Eden, our expectations could have been different. But now, outside the Garden, the consequences of sin dictate our destiny. While our unavoidable confrontations with illness and death will still pierce our hearts with grief, they should not come as a shock. As Peter counseled the first generation of Christians, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you . . .” (1 Peter 4:12).
Yes, illness and death is the norm in this post-Fall era of human history, and we should not expect otherwise.
When trying to discern the root cause of illness, disease, and death, it’s not uncommon for us to search out a particular sin that the suffering individual may have committed that has caused the problem. In his message, Rob explained that the consequences of certain sins could lead to sickness. (For example, alcohol abuse can lead to liver damage and unbiblical sexual behavior can lead to AIDS and a host of other very, very serious sexually transmitted diseases.) Also, there are times when God can cause people to become sick because of their rebellion against Him.
Certainly our specific sins can have their consequences in specific illnesses. As Galatians 6:7 says:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.
But, of course, there are other people who seem to have done nothing to cause their sickness (a baby born HIV positive, for example, or a child with leukemia). And then there are those who die in accidents or disasters that appear to have no direct connection to their personal sin at all. In those situations, the hardship may not be because of any specific sin in their life at all, but because of the sins of others or as a result of the world itself being fallen. Sin has been in the entire world since Adam and Eve rebelled. It is called “original sin,” and it affects everyone. Perceived innocence is no insulator against the all-encompassing effects of this sin. Every day bad things happen to good people (“good” as we might compare them to other “bad” people at least, but still sinful by God’s standard!). These things come upon us because the world itself is fallen and the consequences of our sins “in Adam” which have been passed down through the generations.
As the tape rolled on, I realized that Robert had not only taught this truth with his words, but he was illustrating it with his own life, before my very eyes, as his mind and body continued their decline.
During one of my earlier visits to Australia, before Rob had deteriorated too badly, I took him on a trip to a country town west of Brisbane. He couldn’t talk much and when he did, some of his sentences didn’t make sense. He kept trying to tell me about his sermons—trying in some way to explain to me his unending love for preaching God’s Word. He would say things like, “I did 14 on Genesis, and 10 on Romans and. . . .” I figured that he was telling me about the sermons he had preached on those books but nothing came out right. As he tried to speak he seemed perplexed and his face became as contorted as his words. No matter how hard he tried to explain, he couldn’t say it. His memory that was once so full of knowledge concerning God’s Word was basically gone. It was such a distressing and pitiful scene.
At this point, Rob could still play the piano and the accordion. We would motion to him to sit down at the piano or get out his accordion, and he would play with a big smile on his face; the music expressing the special talent the Lord had given him. Over time, though, this gift started to disappear. He could play fewer and fewer tunes, until he could play only parts of certain ones. Eventually, all his wonderful abilities in this area ceased.
After the disease had taken considerable control, we still took him to church—knowing that he wouldn’t understand (as far as we knew) what was happening. It appeared as if he was still able to read . . . at least he would pick up his favorite books (especially the Bible) and seemingly read the words page after page (although we don’t know how much, if anything, he understood). At one of the church services, we stood up to sing a hymn. Though Rob could no longer speak to us, he sang his heart out to the Lord with clear and convincing words. My mother, tears running down her cheeks, watched with breaking heart. But at the end of the service Rob did not seem to know anything about what he had done or what was going on around him.
Intimately involved in all of this, of course, was Brenda, Rob’s wife, and his two sons, Joshua and Geoffrey. Feelings of injustice must have overwhelmed them. Rob did everything because of his love for God and His Word. Now they were watching him die, and it was not just a “normal” death, but a slow, debilitating, and utterly dehumanizing one. How must they have felt as they watched him being robbed of his ability to communicate and play the piano and accordion—the special gifts they all believed God had given him—as his mental faculties left him? How incomprehensible it must have been to see his thoughts and speech, which he had so purposefully developed and used to communicate the gospel, now reduced to nothing.
Sure, it all fit within the biblical framework, but it all seemed so unjust.
During my lifetime, I’ve heard non-Christians mock God when they see a Christian suffering by saying such things as, “That person doesn’t deserve to suffer like that. How can a God of love let someone who serves Him go through such a terrible situation?” Such mockery has made me angry . . . but now we were asking the same questions. Sure, other “bad” people might deserve this kind of a death, but not a God-fearing servant like Rob, right?
I remember the day I received the phone call from his wife, Brenda. We had hoped his brain tests would come back negative; that was when we were still fairly sure that his problems were because of severe stress . . . at least that was our continued hope. However, the tests came back positive. Rob had a major problem—an unusual disease causing relentlessly progressive loss of brain function.
I didn’t know what to say. My mind was in a daze. This couldn’t be happening—not to Rob. Surely God wouldn’t let this happen to a man who had sacrificed much to study and preach His Word? He had basically only just started his ministry—he was in the prime of life. At a time when there are so many Christian leaders who compromise the Word of God, and thus undermine its authority, my brother was totally committed to standing for its full authority. None of it seemed fair. I must admit that from an up-close human perspective, none of this seemed to make sense.
Granted, Rob sinned . . . but not horrendous kinds of sins, not the kinds of sins that we see in the lives of lawless pagans—who often live long, carefree, and healthy lives. He was a man who sought God. Not only had he trusted the Lord Jesus Christ (the Creator of the universe) for salvation, but he had also dedicated his life to preaching God’s Word. Even though Rob, like everyone else, was under the condemnation of death, surely a God of love wouldn’t let some terrible disease inflict a person like him? How could that be fair? Here was my brother, one of God’s faithful children, afflicted with a disease most of us don’t even want to think about—a disease that caused him to lose his mind and die slowly, while others lived on in health. My struggles echoed those of David, who in Psalm 73:12–14 said:
Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long, and chastened every morning.
Fueled by frustration and feelings, these thoughts were tossed around in my mind. But as I continued to stand back and see the big picture (putting our specific situation into the broader biblical perspective), I was led to a conclusion that reflected God’s perspective rather than my human one. Did Rob deserve to suffer the way he did? The answer is “yes.”
When you think about it from a Christian perspective, we all deserve much, much more than the suffering afflicting Rob. Because of our rebellious condition, we don’t even deserve to live. But God didn’t annihilate us, He has allowed us to live—while at the same time giving us a taste of what life is like without God.
We sin because we want independence from God; we want to be our own god. That was the hook of the temptation in the Garden: Eat of the fruit and you shall be like God. That alone should have been a complete and immediate death sentence for Adam (or for us as we make similar choices). If God didn’t show merciful restraint, rather than fully granting our desire to be free from Him, we wouldn’t even exist. Colossians 1:16–17 says:
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things have been created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (emphasis added).
God has obviously withdrawn some of that sustaining power so that creation is no longer held in a perfect state but sustained in an imperfect state. Now our bodies and everything around us falls apart eventually. We are actually living in a world where we can taste what it is like to live without God—mutations, death, suffering, etc. This is a necessary consequence of rebellion against our Creator. We do deserve what befalls us. We don’t deserve what God has done for us. We don’t deserve even the life we do have.
Sometimes, when I called my mother to see how Rob was doing, Mum would tell me how she’d been up all night praying that God would heal him. “I believe God can heal him,” she would say. “Don’t you believe that?”
Yes, I too believed God could heal Rob. God can do anything. And over the years I’ve known of several verifiable situations where God’s supernatural healing was obvious. In his sermon, however, Rob also carefully documented a slew of healing hoaxes that have permeated Christianity and embarrassed the Church.1 While God can heal, it certainly does not mean that He will . . . and we best not assume His intent in any situation.
As we sought balance and focus regarding this issue, Rob’s own words spoke to us again through the taped sermon. As you consider what he stated, you will see his sincere devotion to the Lord and his intense burden to challenge people to focus on Him and Him only:
In many churches today, the focus is on our ailments, on our illnesses and on our sicknesses, and so on. But the problem is that when that is the focus . . . we are focusing on ourselves rather than focusing on the Lord Jesus Christ and rather than focusing on what the Bible is actually saying and telling us. Now you see, I am not for a moment suggesting that the Lord can’t heal or can’t bring miraculous things in people’s lives, I am not suggesting that for a moment. . . . The miraculous sign that the Lord gives us (and the sign that we constantly need to be seeking and focusing on) is the sign where the Lord Jesus came into this world and gave up His life and shed His blood that you and I could be drawn to Christ. He rose from the dead. This is the greatest sign in the history of this world and it will be the greatest sign until the Lord Jesus comes again. This is the great miracle: Christ came into the world to give His life.
Faith is an indispensable element of the Christian life, important in all aspects of our belief and hope. Some have wrongly assumed, however, that healing is dependent on our level of faith; they claim that if we had enough faith, we would always be healed. But is that the case? It sure wasn’t for the apostle Paul. While a man of incredible faith, he recognized the humbling gift of illness in his own life—even though he prayed in faith for its removal:
. . . for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me. . . . Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me (2 Corinthians 12:7–8; NAS95).
Robert addressed Paul’s situation in his sermon, referring also to the suffering of Job:
Job was afflicted, where the Lord allowed the devil to afflict Job . . . and there the Lord allowed the devil to afflict Paul . . . and whatever this thorn was, it was incredibly painful. The word “torment” comes from the word “buffeted,” and it means “a fist crushing bones.” It means this: Whatever Paul had, it was brutally painful. I don’t know what it was, whether it was his eye, or whatever it be, it was incredibly painful. In 2 Corinthians 12:8, Paul stated, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” Three times he asked the Lord to take it away. But it didn’t happen. It didn’t go, so the question you see that I must ask, the question I have to ask the apostle Paul is, “Paul, why didn’t you have enough faith? That must be the whole problem, Paul. You didn’t work up enough faith. You didn’t believe enough, that is your problem.” So many people face exactly that sort of aspect today; so many people. By the way, I want you to notice that Paul does not bind the devil; nowhere does he rebuke, nowhere does he cast this out, nowhere!
When Robert said that “So many people face that sort of aspect today,” I wonder if he had any idea that he would soon be one of those “so many people.” While many people gathered around us in this time of need, some cruelly suggested that there was a lack of faith on Robert’s part and our part, and that that’s why Robert had not been healed.
Yet again, we see many biblical examples where faithful people were not healed. In 2 Timothy 4:20, for example, we read, “Erastus remained at Corinth, but Trophimus I left sick in Miletus.” I’m sure Paul prayed for Trophimus, and no one is condemned here for a lack of faith causing this man’s sickness. The same Paul through whom God at other times had miraculously healed the lame—even raised the dead—left Trophimus knowing that, under the sovereignty of God, his ministry would not in any way be thwarted. However, Paul also recognized that sickness is a “normal” part of this life.
In 2 Corinthians 1:8, Paul takes this point further as he says, “We despaired even of life.” Paul knew toward the end of his life that he would probably be martyred. Certainly, God could have stopped this, and no doubt Paul prayed concerning this matter, but he also recognized that in a world where “men loved the darkness rather than the light” (John 3:19), death was also a “normal” course of events.
Please understand that this does not mean that we shouldn’t seek medical help or should just “resign” ourselves to death. This is a position Rob never took. This is certainly not to say that we shouldn’t pray for physical healing either (James 5 actually commands us to do so). Rob acknowledged that God can bring healing and at times does so for His purposes. However, this is certainly not the normal course of events in today’s world. The “normal” course of events, as Rob has clearly stated, is this:
People suffer all sorts of trauma in their fallen state. Even if God heals someone physically, eventually they still will have to succumb to the effects of sin and the curse on their physical body. . . . The Bible makes it clear, including through the actions of Christ himself, that local, temporary efforts to alleviate the Curse, such as healing of sicknesses, binding up wounds, and so on, are to be encouraged.
The normal effects of the Curse will always be realized; that’s what we are to expect. Sooner or later, through disease, decay, or disaster, the bodies we live in will die and perish. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
It’s impossible to describe all that I experienced as I continued to listen to my brother’s voice through the tape player. His words were so distinct, his voice so confident, and his instruction so urgent. The irony was so amazing. Here he was, describing the reasons behind the very situation he was in, laying a foundation through Genesis to explain his condition. Then, as he moved into the application section of the sermon, it was as if he began to instruct me personally, advising me of specific ways I could respond as I navigated my way through the issues that his illness had caused us to face. Without in any way negating the fact that we pray for physical healing, Rob challenged his congregation (and us) this way:
I suggest that when we are talking to somebody who is sick, that we need to restructure our terminology, that we might go to the person and say, “Brother, sister, I want you to know that we love you dearly. I want you to know we can see how much you are sick, and we are really praying to the Lord for you. We are just praying for you, really praying. And we want you to know how much we want to help you, and we want to come and help you. I’d like to pray with you. We are going to bring some meals for your family. We want to help you.”
Since Rob recognized that sickness is a normal part of this life (even though we can ask God for healing), he exhorted us to encourage the sick person, telling them that we love them and are praying for them—prayers that include asking for the strength and comfort of those being most affected. He then encouraged practical acts of service that help the suffering person and those closest to them with the burdens they face during the tribulation.
This was a good reminder for me. I had flown to Australia especially to spend time with my mother and Brenda, the boys, and the rest of the family. This time of need presented unending opportunity to encourage them and share the weight that they were all carrying. Around me, family and friends were extending helping hands in all sorts of ways to Brenda, Joshua, and Geoffrey. Each word was a clear expression of love and care; each thoughtful act helped them with the physical demands of those days.
Sadly, many people (including many Christians) didn’t know how to handle the situation. Personally, I think this was because they didn’t have a full understanding (like Rob did) of the sin-cursed nature of this world, and how we should view life through God’s “eyes.”
Sadly, many people (including many Christians) didn’t know how to handle the situation. Personally, I think this was because they didn’t have a full understanding (like Rob did) of the sin-cursed nature of this world, and how we should view life through God’s “eyes.” Without that foundation, they didn’t know how to cope with a man of God like Rob being in such terrible physical condition. Robert’s disease caused him to lose considerable self-awareness and depleted his ability to communicate. It took a lot of physical work to be around him . . . but for those who didn’t have a biblical worldview, it took a lot of mental work, too. Without a scriptural understanding of what was going on, people felt very awkward in his presence.
Without a big picture perspective, some avoided the situation altogether, while others gave in to false hopes or false fears. These were all things that didn’t reflect the truth, the truth that what Robert was going through was actually “normal.”
As I continued to listen to Rob’s sermon tape, my mind had found closure on so many issues. Objectively, I now had specific confirmation to the answers that I had found through the big picture. Rob, too, was convinced that sin was the answer to the question “How do you explain death and suffering in a world where an all-powerful, loving, and just God exists.” Rob’s message had also addressed many other issues regarding healing and “fairness”—issues that we would continue to face in the closing weeks of his life. But the closure for me was more than just theological or philosophical; it was deeply personal. Hearing Rob’s voice again, and receiving the message that God had prepared years before for him to give to me began to set my soul at peace.
God’s Word had answered the deepest questions we were facing on earth. What God had created was originally very good and had become deeply corrupted and contaminated by sin. God has graciously allowed us to continue to live . . . sometimes even extending life through supernatural healing. But because of sin, we all face illness, disease, and a certain death; that’s the new norm on this earth.
But what happens after that? What are we to expect as we pass from this earth into eternity? God’s Word, starting in Genesis, shows us that God has a plan for us beyond the grave as well.