Christ and Cancer – John Piper

All the affliction that comes to the children of God, whether through persecution or sickness, is intended by God to increase our holiness by causing us to rely more on the God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9). If we get angry at God in our sickness we are rejecting his love. For it is always in love that he disciplines his children. It is for our good and we must seek to learn some rich lesson of faith from it. Then we will say with the psalmist, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn thy statutes . . . I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me” (Psalm 119:7175). That is my fourth affirmation: ultimately God controls who gets sick and who gets well and all his decisions are for the good of his children, even if the pain is great and the sickness long. For as the last verse of our text, Romans 8:28, says, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”


We Should Pray for Healing Power and Sustaining Grace

The fifth affirmation is that we should therefore pray for God’s help both to heal and to strengthen faith while we are unhealed. It is fitting that a child ask his father for relief in trouble. And it is fitting that a loving Father give his child only what is best. And that he always does: sometimes healing now, sometimes not. But always, always what is best for us.


But if sometimes it is best for us not to be healed now, how shall we know what to pray? How shall we know when to stop asking for healing and only ask for grace to trust his goodness? Paul had faced this problem in his own experience. You recall from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that Paul, not unlike Job, was given a thorn in the flesh which he called a “messenger of Satan.” We don’t know what sort of pain or malady it was, but he says that he prayed three times for its removal. But then God gave him the assurance that though he would not heal him, yet his grace would be sufficient and his power would be manifest not in healing but in the faithful service of Paul through suffering.


In our text at Romans 8:2627 Paul addresses the same problem, I think: While we are waiting for the redemption of our bodies “the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words and he (God) who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is because he intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Sometimes all we can do is cry out for help because we do not know in what form the help should come. The Spirit of God takes our stumbling, uncertain expressions of need and brings them before God in a form that accords with God’s intentions. And God responds graciously and meets our needs. Not always as we at first hoped, but always for our good.

So let us not be proud and stand aloof from God stoically bearing what fate has brought. Rather let us run to our Father in prayer and plead for help in time of need.


We Should Always Trust in the Power and Goodness of God

we should always trust in the love and power of God, even in the darkest hour of suffering. The thing that distresses me most about those who say Christians should always be miraculously healed is that they give the impression that the quality of faith can only be measured by whether a miracle of physical healing takes place, whereas in much of the New Testament you get the impression that the quality of our faith is reflected in the joy and confidence we maintain in God through suffering.


The great chapter on faith in the Bible is Hebrews 11. It begins, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” What is often overlooked in this chapter, though, is the final eight verses where we get the balanced picture of faith as that which lays hold on God for rescue from suffering, and as that which lays hold on God for peace and hopein suffering. Verse 33: “By faith they conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.”

Now if we stopped reading here our conception of how the quality of faith manifests itself would be very distorted, because here it sounds as if faith always wins in this life. But here a shift occurs and we find that faith is also the power to lose our life: “By faith . . . others were tortured, not accepting release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheep skins, in goat skins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy) wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground . . . And all these gained approval through their faith.”


The glory of God is manifested when he heals and when he gives a sweet spirit of hope and peace to the person that he does not heal, for that, too, is a miracle of grace! O, that we might be a people among whom God is often healing our sicknesses, but is always causing us to be full of joy and peace while our sicknesses remain. If we are a humble and childlike people who cry out to God in our need and trust in his promises, the Holy Spirit will help us and God will bless our church with every possible blessing. He will, as the text says, work everything together for our good.


That is my theology of sickness in a nutshell. First, in this age all creation, including our bodies, has been subjected to futility and enslaved to corruption. Second, there is a new age coming when all those who endure to the end in faith will be set free from all pain and sickness. Third, Jesus Christ came and died to purchase our redemption, demonstrate its character as both spiritual and physical, and give us a foretaste of it now. Fourth, God controls who gets sick and who gets well, and all his decisions are for the good of his children even if they are painful. Fifth, we should pray for God’s help both to heal and to strengthen faith while we are unhealed, and should depend on the Holy Spirit’s intercession when we don’t know which to pray for. Finally, we should always trust in the power and love of God, even in the darkest hour of suffering.


O, that we might be an assembly of saints who echo from the bottom of our hearts the faith of Joni Eareckson after a long struggle with paralysis and depression. She wrote at the end of her book: “The girl who became emotionally distraught, and wavered at each new set of circumstances is now grown up, a woman who has learned to rely on God’s sovereignty” (Joni, p. 190).


Christ and Cancer

by John Piper | Scripture: Romans 8:18–28

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