No Soundness in My Flesh

O YHWH, rebuke me not in thy wrath / Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure (Psalm 38:1).

Illness exposes our weakness and fragility in ways we would rather deny or forget. We would rather figure out reasons why we surely would not be called upon to thus suffer and explain the illnesses of others as somehow based upon their particular plight or as the consequences of their behavior. Far more seem ready to provide some kind of ready-made cure than to sit in lament with the one enduring illness.

At some point in his life David experienced great distress from some kind of illness, or gave voice to the people of God to express great distress from illness before God, in Psalm 38:1-22. The psalm is reckoned as one “to bring to remembrance,” begging God to pay attention and to deliver. David called on YHWH to not rebuke him in His wrath or to chasten him in His displeasure (Psalm 38:1). David acutely felt affliction, and he deemed it as having come from God; in his flesh there was no soundness or health in his bones because of his sin (Psalm 38:2-3). His sins were many and too heavy a burden for him; he has infected wounds on account of his foolishness (Psalm 38:5). David felt numb in the crushing weight he experienced, crying out with moaning in heart (Psalm 38:6-8). David appealed to God who understood his heart and heard his groaning: his strength was failing, and even though his adversaries plotted against him and friends and family avoided him, he was as a deaf or mute man, incapable of making a defense (Psalm 38:9-14). David waited for YHWH, expecting a response: he prayed for deliverance lest his enemies gloat over him and taunt him (Psalm 38:15-16). David felt great pain and was concerned he was about to stumble, thus he confessed his sin (Psalm 38:17-18). David begged for God not to abandon him or remain far from him, but desired the Lord to hurry to help and deliver him (Psalm 38:20-22).

It would not be wise for us to attempt to ascertain exactly when or how David experienced this affliction so as to identify what sins David might have committed to lead to his condition. No such information is revealed; even if it had, we must always remember that David never spoke only for himself in the psalms, but wrote to give voice to the people of God to bring their distress, concerns, and praise before Him. We can imagine many Israelites having reason to come to the Temple and proclaim Psalm 38:1-22, or most of it, before YHWH: afflicted terribly with some disease, looking for deliverance and healing from God, and thus humbling themselves in lament and confession of sin so nothing would come between them and God.

David strongly considered illness the consequence for sin and iniquity. He had good reason to do so. David numbered Israel and saw God’s plague cut down thousands of his people in response (2 Samuel 24:1-17). In the Law Israel was promised they would be protected from sickness and would not suffer the plagues YHWH imposed upon Egypt if they remained faithful to the covenant (Deuteronomy 7:15); the curse which would come for disobeying the covenant included sickness (Leviticus 26:16). In judgment YHWH sent plague against Israel, but they would not listen (Amos 4:10); plague would be among the means by which YHWH judged Jerusalem and Judah (Ezekiel 5:12). To this end Jesus’ disciples simply conveyed the normal assumptions and expectations of Israelites during the Second Temple when they asked Jesus whether it had been the man himself or his parents who had sinned, leading to his blindness (John 9:2).

Such a perspective about illness does not sit well with us today. We are uncomfortable with those who to this day make the na├»ve proclamation that health displays the favor of God and illness God’s disfavor, and for good reason. Plenty of wicked people maintain good health throughout their lives; many righteous people have suffered terribly from sickness and illness. According to Jesus neither the man born blind himself nor his parents so sinned as to lead to his condition: his blindness was given as the means by which God’s actions would be revealed to the world (John 9:3). Illness might come about from a host of reasons not directly connected with any given transgression by its sufferer: environmental conditions, a pandemic, a result of stress or trauma, and so on. Few sights prove as devastating and heart wrenching as seeing small children undergoing treatment for cancer or other major illnesses: they suffer greatly and yet have not personally participated in any sin or transgression.

Yet perhaps modern Westerners have proven a little too eager to disassociate illness from sin. Illness is part of the corruption of the creation introduced with sin (cf. Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). We have no quarrel with germ theory; we appreciate the benefits of modern epidemiology and the greater quality of life made possible by the elimination or significant reduction of many diseases. And yet, as we live in a more sanitized culture, we see the development of autoimmune conditions and “superbugs” which are becoming antibiotic resistant. As long as we live in the broken, corrupted creation of the present, illness will be with us in some way or form.

Christians do well to take another look at Psalm 38:1-22 as they consider illness, themselves, and others. We might be far removed from David’s worldview, and that might be at least partly to our own harm. We tend not to think much of illness until we suffer it ourselves or hear about the suffering of others. When we are confronted with the prospect of illness, we have a tendency to respond in shock, anger, and bitterness; we rarely look to ourselves the way David did.

Yet perhaps the greater warning from Psalm 38:1-22 ought to come to those who do not presently suffer as much from illness. After all, why is it that so many people are invested in attempting to ascertain what sin it might have been that led to an illness? Why do so many seek out the right behavior, supplement, or oil and regard them as having almost magical powers? We humans desperately look for reasons to explain why “they” are ill to reassure ourselves that “we” will not succumb. Jesus addressed a similar challenge in Luke 13:1-5 when informed of recent news about how Pilate mingled the blood of some people with their sacrifices, with the intent to understand that such people must have sinned in some way so as to bring that fate upon them: He declared that they were no more or less sinful than anyone else, and if His audience did not repent, they would likewise perish.

So much of what we do in the face of illness is a reflection of our deep anxiety about the prospect of suffering and/or death. We do not like the cold, hard reality: we are all sinners and all have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and we may suffer from illness no matter how healthily we live, eat, or behave. We may go through our lives without enduring many difficult or challenging illnesses; our lives might prove to be a never ending parade of various illnesses or marked by a chronic condition. No one automatically deserves health or illness; if we escape, we may be fortunate, but if we suffer, it is part of the corruption of the creation, and it is our lot.

In all such things we do well to return to the words God has given us to speak to Him. David is giving us a voice to beg God for forgiveness of our sins and to acknowledge that our illness is a result of sin, even if it is not the result of any individual specific sin we may have committed in Psalm 38:1-22. David understood the most important thing in the face of illness is to maintain relational unity with God and to clear out any sin, foolishness, or difficulty which might get in the way of that relationship. Note well that David never associated his illness with any specific sin: his illness reminded him that he did have sin and transgression, and did not want to have to stand before God in His fierce anger. Neither should we.

In the “new heavens” and the “new earth” John envisioned no more death, and no more pain, crying, or mourning anymore; in such a place illness can have no place (Revelation 21:4). We eagerly await that day. Until then, we do well to turn to God and put our trust in Him whether in sickness or in health, and seek healing from Him in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Where is the God of Justice?

Ye have wearied the LORD with your words.
Yet ye say, “Wherein have we wearied him?”
In that ye say, “Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delighteth in them;” or, “where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17).

The evils and inequalities of life can pose a quandary for people who believe strongly that there is a God and that He loves and cares for His creation. When oppression takes place and injustice seems to rule the day, it is easy to start wondering where the God of justice went! Probably not a few people have turned to Deism in order to make some sense, at least in their own minds, of how it could be that God could create the universe and then allow such things to happen– instead of trusting that God will right the wrong, it is easier to believe that God is an absentee landlord.

Undoubtedly Israel in the days of Malachi wondered whether God was an absentee landlord. It would be quite easy to interpret their statements in Malachi 2:17 as rebellion but they are most likely the result of frustration and despair. They say such things not because they do not believe in God but precisely because they do believe in God and do believe in the promises God made to their forefathers.

What they do not understand is how God can be the God of justice and lovingkindness and allow what was happening to continue. These Jews had their faults and failings– but they were not as guilty as their fathers. They had not established idols of all the gods of the nations around them as their fathers had done. And yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Israel with their own king, they remain under the hand of the Persian authorities and Persian taxes. How was that just? How was that fair? How could God allow them to remain under the hand of a foreign authority when they were acting more faithfully than their fathers who were free? Where was God in all of this, anyway?

The Jews also perceive how the ways of the wicked, at least for the time being, were prosperous. They had read in the Law and the Prophets how blessings come to those who obey God and curses to those who act wickedly (e.g. Leviticus 26:1-46, Jeremiah 7:1-15). The Psalms and Proverbs are full of such statements (e.g. Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:17, Psalm 75:10, Proverbs 3:33, Proverbs 10:6). Yet, in the eyes of the Jews, those who were righteous were not gaining favor, but the wicked were increasing and prosperous. In bitterness they declare that God must now be siding with the wicked– how else could they be so successful?

The Jews, however, are not right in this, no matter how justified they might have felt in their despair and criticism. They are wearying God with these words and these ideas. Malachi goes on to promise the day of God’s coming, a day of refining and purification, and it will be painful (Malachi 3:1-6). The message is evident: God is paying attention. God sees what is going on. God remains the God of justice. God does not take pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked. Yet God is patient, and shall accomplish His will in His good time.

We would do well to learn the same lesson. It is easy to get impatient and impetuous and wonder where the God of justice has gone. One could easily despair and wonder if God is in fact prospering the wicked. But such would be wearisome and unprofitable– God is still here, and God has no pleasure in the sinfulness of the wicked (1 Peter 3:12). God also takes no pleasure in any injustice, especially injustice perpetrated against His elect (cf. Luke 18:1-8). Nevertheless, God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is patient when we would be impatient (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). His concept of time is far different from our own (2 Peter 3:8). When God acts, it will be done mightily, and we will be ashamed of ourselves if we wearied God with these types of words– we will see His justice vindicated, and righteousness fully established (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13). The righteous will be refined as silver (1 Peter 1:6-9); the wicked will perish (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).

Let us not fear or be distressed. The God of justice has not abandoned His creation. He is paying attention. He will render to each one according to His works. Let us therefore serve Him while we still can, fully confident in His presence and justice, and be prepared for the ultimate Day of the Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry