“A man‘s spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” Proverbs 18:14
The history of humanity is the history of sickness, disease, and death. When sin came, death came, and sickness remains the leading agent of death. The horseman of pestilence has visited plagues and pandemics upon humanity throughout the centuries. Even in the age of modern medicine and the conquest of so many diseases, the very real risk of pandemic remains — and we feel it in our souls.
The outbreak of swine flu now dominates the headlines and news programs, with at least 150 deaths in Mexico already recorded even as the disease is now confirmed around the world. For many years medical authorities have warned of a coming influenza pandemic — a modern plague — that could kill on a magnitude similar to the 1918 outbreak that killed over 100 million persons worldwide.
Writing in The Atlantic in 2005, Michael Specter called influenza “Nature’s Bioterrorist.” As Specter explains, “A pandemic is the viral equivalent of a perfect storm. There are three essential conditions, which rarely converge, and they are impossible to predict. But the requirements are clear. A new flu virus must emerge from the animal reservoirs that have always produced and harbored such viruses–one that has never infected human beings and therefore one to which no person would have antibodies. Second, the virus has to actually make humans sick (most don’t). Finally, it must be able to spread efficiently–through coughing, sneezing, or a handshake.”
Is this outbreak of swine flu the harbinger of a hellish pandemic? It is far too early to say, and there is no justification for jumping to that conclusion. Nevertheless, it is a clear warning. Even in a normal year 36,000 Americans die of the flu. We are made of fragile stuff.
Experts on pandemics suggest that the question is “when” and not “if” this threatened pandemic will come. Michael Specter offers a sober warning: “Infectious-disease experts talk about pandemics the way geologists talk about earthquakes; the discussion is never about whether ‘the big one’ will hit.”
The public discussion about swine flu and the threat of a breakout pandemic should prompt Christians to think seriously and soberly about what all this means. Biblical Christianity has much to say about disease and sickness, and the Christian tradition is rich with thought about how Christians, churches, and pastors should think of sickness, disease, and death.
At the onset, we must remember that sickness and death are part of the curse. Every single disease and malady can be traced back to Genesis 3 and humanity’s fall into sin. Adam and Eve were the first humans to taste life and, after their sin, they were also the first to taste sickness and death. While only a few sicknesses can be traced to specific sins (such as sexually transmitted diseases), in reality the whole enterprise of sickness and death is rightly traced to sin, both individual and corporate.
The New Creation that is coming will know no sickness and death, for the curse is reversed in Christ. Yet, even as we await the coming of the Day of the Lord, in this life we will all know the pangs, pains, perplexities, and perniciousness of disease. We are headed for death.
Nevertheless, we should be thankful for modern medicine, and the invention of both antibiotics and antiseptics. The germ theory of disease is a relatively recent human achievement, and the widespread use of effective antibiotics dates back only to the midpoint of the last century. While thankful for these medical advances, we are reminded that humanity will never finally triumph over disease and death. The curse is beyond our power to reverse.
At the same time, Christians have honored Christ by ministering to the sick. As Thomas C. Oden reminds us, “Christian ministry prays in good conscience for healing, although it does not tempt God by making faith contingent upon a particular healing. Ministry never prays that sickness or pain be increased. Ministry consistently is on the side of fighting affliction, not increasing it. Meanwhile, it does not view pain as an absolute evil out of which no good could ever come.”
Martin Luther, no stranger to sickness, taught his congregation to use medical means, but to place trust in God alone. “Rather you should go on in simple faith, and when you are in danger and trouble, you should use whatever means you can, lest you tempt God. But if you find that these means, which God has created to dispel danger or sickness, supply neither the desired help or the remedy, then cast your care and your life on God and commit yourself to the direction of His wisdom and goodness.”
Sickness should prompt the Christian to yearn for eternity. As the Apostle Paul explains, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” [1 Cor. 15:53] Until then, Christians will suffer all manner of maladies ranging from the mild to the deadly. Our bodies cry out for the glory that is promised to believers in Christ. Until then, we cough, sniffle, choke, collapse, suffer, and die.
The Christian’s confidence is in Christ alone. We trust that God has a purpose in our suffering, and that this purpose is perfect, even if yet undiscerned. As Luther assured his flock, “If God wants to have you sick like this, what He wants will certainly be better than what we want.”
Luther ministered in a time of plague and epidemic. He provided a model of the pastor who never leaves his people. He also urged his people never to leave the sick. In 1527 the Bubonic Plague came to Wittenberg. Luther sent his students home, but he stayed to minister to his congregation and the city. He called for others with responsibility, especially pastors, to do the same. Cowardice in ministry is a denial of Christ, Luther warned, for “whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well.”
In Geneva, John Calvin taught his pastors to visit the sick as a primary duty of “a true and faithful minister.” As Calvin explained, “the greatest need which a man ever has of the spiritual doctrine of our Lord is when His hand visits him with afflictions, whether of disease or other evils, and specially at the hour of death.”
Calvin taught the faithful minister to offer suffering Christians the consolation of Christ, lest they be overwhelmed by the fear of death and judgment. On the other hand, if the sick person is not “sufficiently oppressed and agonized by a conviction of their sins,” the pastor should speak to them of the justice of God, “before which they cannot stand, save through His mercy, embracing Jesus Christ for their salvation.”
In the end, sickness points to sin and sin points to our need for Christ. Luther, Calvin, and all true ministers of Christ know that sickness and death point to our need for a Savior. Even as Christians seek to minister to the physical needs of the sick, the spiritual need is even more urgent. Each tiny germ shows us our need for the Gospel. Every cough is a reminder of coming judgment. Our confidence is placed only in the ministry of Christ our Physician, “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases.” [Psalm 103:3]
Christians will, sooner or later, be called upon to show the love of Christ in the midst of sickness. Perhaps we will minister out of Christ’s love in a time of swine flu. If so, we do well to remember Luther’s summary of the best prescription in the face of disease: “My best prescription is written in John 3:16. ‘God so loved the world.’ This is the best I have.”