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.

Why Character Matters (even when there’s not a global pandemic)

I’ve been thinking a lot about character lately, in part because I’ve been working on a book on compassionate discipleship for about three years now and this subject is always bouncing around in my brain.

But this afternoon as I was preparing an online lecture on missions for our University of Valley Forge Students, I came across a list of character traits in a book called Introducing Missions, by Scott Moreau, Gary Corwin and the late Gary B. McGee. The list seemed especially applicable these days and so I thought I’d share my own version of their list (with some minor changes and with my own elaborations for life in the time of COVID-19). So, here they are:

1.Focus on people over tasks – put people first, and your tasks will become richer and more meaningful.

2.Can withhold unproductive criticism – If it can go without saying, it probably should.

3.Tolerance of ambiguity and flexibility – change is the only constant. Embrace it and your stress levels will drop dramatically!

4.Empathy – laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry, and offer practical help to both (and platitudes and cliches to neither)

5.Openness in communication style – say what you mean, mean what you say. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Life is so much simpler this way.

6.High cognitive complexity – don’t fall for the intellectually lazy blame game or for making an entire race culpable for…anything.

7.Good personal relational skills – get along with folks. Its a lot less work than the alternative.

8.Perseverance – don’t give up. The answer/solution/relief is likely closer than you think.

Stay safe and joyful everyone! Jesus is in control!

Should Christians Uncritically Obey Governments?

Should Christians Always Obey Their Government Officials?

What does it mean for the Bible to declare that all authority comes from God? Does that require that all Christians acquiesce to every government authority and never challenge or question presidents or world leaders? Does it mean that even bad leaders are chosen by God? What does the Bible say?

Should Christians unflinchingly and blindly obey, say, a Hitler or Idi Amin?

In addressing these issues, there are several points I’d like to make. Importantly, the admonition of Romans 13:1-2, which does say that all authority comes from God, must also be interpreted in light of all else that Scripture says about God, authority, and those in power. 

1. Submission to Government authority does not entail blind obedience.

Romans 13:1-2 reads:

Rom 13:1-2  Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.(NASB95)

Perhaps the key to understanding this passage is found in the meaning of the word here translated as “subjection” (or in some translations, “submission”). A number of commentators have pointed out that this word (Gr. hupotassō) is less strong that the word “obey,” and that this is likely an intentional move by Paul. As Everett Harrison says, “he seems to avoid using the stronger word “obey,” and the reason is that the believer may find it impossible to comply with every demand of the government.”[1] As Doug Moo explains, this is because all of our allegiances are subject to our supreme allegiance to God.[2] In other words, “submission” to government is always subsumed in the Christian life under obedience to God. Christians therefore not only have permission to question whether leaders exercise authority in accordance with God’s will, but have an obligation to do so.

2. God grants authority with the expectation that leaders will be just and righteous.

The Bible is quite clear that God appoints leaders for the specific purpose of carrying out justice and righteousness. Consider the following two verses (among many others):

Gen 18:19 “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

1 Kgs 10:9 “Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”

This of course raises the question of what exactly is meant by “justice” and “righteousness.” First, justice in Scripture is often related to the fact that all people have rights by virtue of being made in the image of God. As Lewis Smedes has pointed out, the Ten Commandments, for example, are inherently rights oriented. Murder is forbidden because people have a right to their own life, theft because they have a right to their own property, and so on. Righteousness then refers to actions that uphold the justice expected of God in all human relationships. Thus, the terms “justice and righteousness” appear together often in Scripture, and refer to what we in modern parlance would call “social justice”—that is just-ness in the way we treat others, especially the poor and vulnerable. For example, Jeremiah declares

Jer 22:3 ‘Thus says the LORD, “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Therefore, basic human rights are not granted by governments, but by God. Governments may protect human rights, but they don’t establish them. All people as divine image bearers are due fundamental protections and provisions. The Bible especially highlights the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan because these are often most vulnerable and therefore most likely to have their rights impinged upon by those that would unjustly take advantage of them.

3. God-given authority does not guarantee obedience to God.

We should carefully note that justice and righteousness are action words. They relate to what we do and define the nature of our relationship with God. Because God himself is just and righteous, those created in his image are to embody these same characteristics. Furthermore, the lack of these qualities leads to the judgment of God, but the practice of justice and righteousness restores one to a right relationship with God. In Ezekiel we read:

Ezek 18:21  “But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

Because people have free will, there is no guarantee that leaders will embody this concern for justice and righteousness that God expects. Perhaps no story in Scripture illustrates this better than the story of Saul. Saul was chosen of God, but failed to demonstrate the kind of leadership God expected. At the end of Saul’s life, he had become prideful, disobedient, and jealous and God judged him for it. He rejected God’s word and chose to go his own way. As Origin said regarding Romans 13:

God will judge us righteously for having abused what he gave us to use for good. Likewise, God’s judgment against the authorities will be just, if they have used the powers they have received according to their own ungodliness and not according to the laws of God.[3]

4. Humility is a requirement for those in authority.

Remember, it was humility that God desired in Pharaoh during the Exodus (Ex. 10:3). God over and over again judges the kings of Israel for their lack of humility (e.g., 2 Chron. 33:23; 36:12). Throughout the wisdom literature humility is described as a prerequisite for obedience to God and for knowing the will of God (Ps. 25:9; 69:32; Prov. 11:2; Prov. 29:23). And Isaiah declares that humility and obedience to God’s word go hand-in-hand:

Isa 66:2 For My hand made all these things,

                        Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD.

                        “But to this one I will look,

                        To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.

5. Those in power must value and stand for truth.

 When Jethro advised Moses to appoint leaders that can assist him, he told him to select “men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain” (Exod. 18:21). Solomon later described his father David as having served the Lord in “truth and righteousness” (1 Kings 3:6). And when Hezekiah pleaded his case before God, he declared that he had “walked before the Lord in truth” (2 Kings 20:3).

Because of these five things (and one can likely find more), we cannot simply declare based on Romans 13 that all people in authority are so by the will of God or that they are acting in obedience to God. Romans 13 is teaching the broad principle of authority, not endorsing the actions of every person in power. Christians are to be discerning in their obedience to governments and leaders, and evaluate whether obedience to government is compatible with faith in God. The true test is to ask whether the actions of governments and government officials are grounded in justice, righteousness, humility, and truth. Nothing, not even concern for our own safety, can justify the neglect or rejection of these fundamental qualities of godly leaders.

[1]Everett F. Harrison, Romans, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein and J. D. Douglas, vol. 10 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), n.p.

[2]Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 797.

[3] CER 5:92–94.