A Pentecostal Theology of Sickness

As Pentecostals we talk a lot about healing. Or, at least we used to. But that talk often went awry. It far too frequently tended toward the hyper-faith movement wherein the sovereignty of God became subject to the faith of the afflicted (thereby rendering the terms “sovereignty” and “faith” innocuous). But rarely have we articulated a theology of sickness with distinctly Pentecostal themes. And that is shortsighted.

Theologies of healing have historically had close ties to the atonement, especially Isaiah 53:5, “By his wounds we are healed.” The Messianic passages in Isaiah in which this verse is found though clearly emphasizes healing from our sins, a point sometimes overlooked by Pentecostals. That said, the more holistic theology that sees physical healing as included in salvation was from very early on embedded in the notion of the four-fold gospel emphasizing Jesus as Savior, Sanctifier (or Spirit Baptizer), Healer, and Coming King.

But what might a Pentecostal theology of sickness look like? And what value might such a theology have to a uniquely Pentecostal understanding of faith?

First, without such a theology, the Bible’s teaching on healing miracles can lead to the misplaced expectation that God always heals those who are sick. And if He doesn’t, then the fault (as mentioned above) lies squarely at the feet of the faithless. I remember when my mother-in-law was gravely ill a few years ago, just before she died. A near-constant string of Pentecostal preachers, evangelists, and plain church folk showed up at her house and, after praying, more than one declared emphatically that her sickness would not end in death. All she had to do was believe it and “take hold of it.” Well, her sickness did end in death, in some cases days after she was told emphatically it wouldn’t, and yet few people I’ve ever known had more faith or trust in Jesus than my mother-in-law.

Second, and more positively, a theology of sickness, like a theology of suffering (and I’d argue they are very closely related), helps us to have a more balanced expectation about what a life of faith might look like for some. That is, it might keep us from an overly romanticized vision of what it means to be a Christ follower. This matters because a romanticized vision of anything is sure to produce not only disappointment, but ultimately despair.

That said, I’d like to propose that a theology of sickness matters in two ways. It matters for the sick and for those in the church called to care for them. And by the latter, I mean everyone who considers themselves a true disciple. It is especially interesting to me that in a 3rd century discipleship document known as the Apostolic Tradition, candidates for baptism are to be examined to see if they (among other things) regularly visit the sick. Care for the sick was thus a primary criteria for determining if a person’s commitment to Christ was genuine. Imagine what a thinning might occur in our churches were we to return to this practice!

So what then might be the value of a theology of sickness for those who are sick? If we use the four-fold gospel as our paradigm, then I would argue that first, sickness or physical affliction drives us back to the first (and foundational) Christological truth, that Jesus is our Savior. It simultaneously drives us forward in eschatological (end-times) hope.

In our hpyer-materialistic and overly self-indulgent culture, it is easy to reduce Jesus to being a mere ornament of our faith. We commemorate Him with our cross necklaces and earrings, with fish emblems on our cars, and with nativity sets that we drag out at Christmas. But maybe we are not always as conscious as we should be that we are saved by Him, that through His shed blood our lives are redeemed from death. And sickness I think has a way of shocking us out of our apathy about that. It reminds us what salvation means. It doesn’t mean anything resembling that ever-so-common prosperity gospel “your best life now” nonsense, but maybe your hardest life now, your most trying life now, your most struggle-constant life–because your life now is a shadow of your life that is to come. Yes, to be saved is to have our present radically transformed and often for the better. But its essence is not our physical well-being but our grounding in who Christ is.

To put it another way, in light of the fourfold gospel, a theology of sickness can ground us more deeply in Christ as both Savior and as Coming King, giving a much needed balance to our understanding of Christ as healer. If our understanding of healing is not book-ended by Christ’s salvation and by His return and ultimate victory, then any theology of healing might too easily reduce God to little more than a benevolent vending machine in the sky.

Sickness sometimes helps focus our attention in laser-like fashion on the things that really matter. It moves us out of the dreary routinization of our faith, the going through the motions to which we are so easily susceptible. It reminds us of the goodness of work and the limits of work, both in relation to the kingdom and in relation to our own satisfaction. Few people on their deathbed wish they had spent more time behind the desk and less time knee deep in Legos with their child.

But these are not the most important reasons for a theology of sickness. Sometimes sickness produces in us the very opposite of these things. Sometimes it leads us to a thousand questions about God and his goodness and his providential care for us. Sometimes it produces not greater faith but rampant fear. Sometimes what sickness creates in us is something more frightening than the sickness itself because its something we never knew we were capable of, at least not for a long time now. We thought we had moved beyond this!

And so perhaps they key to a Pentecostal theology of sickness is simply mystery: the mystery of the divine revealed sometimes in pleasure (healing) and sometimes in pain (sickness). Because sickness does not always lead to revelation any more than it always results in healing and a happy ending. Sometimes it produces questions that never get answered. And the more deeply we are grounded in Christ’s salvation and in His return, the more ok I think we become with that mystery.

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