Is there a spiritual reason for disabilities that children suffer before birth?

Q. In John 9, there was a man born blind. I believe every child is created perfect and is a gift from above. My question is: For the many children born with disabilities, is it spiritual? Jesus said, when asked if sin was the reason for this man’s blindness: “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” What happened? If disabilities occur in the womb, is there a spiritual reason for it? Thanks for your anticipated response.

Jesus made the statement that you quote in response to a question from his disciples: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The disciples believed that illness and disability were punishments for sin. But they did not think it would be fair for God to punish a baby for his parents’ sins, and they did not see how the baby himself could have sinned before he was born. So they were confused and upset.

In response, Jesus changes the perspective. He does not address the reason why the man was born blind; he speaks of the potential result. It seems that Jesus is telling his disciples that there are some things whose reason we will simply never understand in this life, but nevertheless we can be looking for what God might want to do in those situations and how we can cooperate with him.

John says in his gospel that when Jesus healed this man who was born blind, this was one of the signs through which Jesus revealed his glory, that is, his identity as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. And this was indeed a great sign: As the man himself said when the religious leaders asked him about it, “Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.”

So whatever the reason for the man’s blindness from birth, the result that God brought from it was glory to the Savior. And we today can look for what God wants to do even through situations that we find troubling and perplexing. It may be that some people today will receive divine healing as this man did, and that will bring glory to God. Some may receive healing, or at least a much greater measure of health, through what we call “natural means,” doctors and medicines and therapies, but those too are really gifts from God, and we rejoice and thank God just as much when people are healed that way.

And I also believe that God is glorified when we take the perspective that you expressed: “I believe every child is created perfect and is a gift from above.” When we recognize that every person bears the image of God and so has inherent dignity and worth, and accordingly we become able to receive the many gifts that every person brings into this world, then God is glorified as we become more like the people he intends us to be—respectful, generous, loving.

So in every situation, even difficult and perplexing ones, God is at work. We can look, as Jesus always did, for how God is at work and how we can join him in that work. We may never understand the reasons for some things, but we can trust that God always wants to bring good results.

Why were lepers treated so harshly by the law of Moses?

Q. What was the meaning of leprosy in the Bible? Why were lepers treated so harshly by the law of Moses?

In the Bible, the term “leprosy” applies to a broader range of skin diseases than the one known by that name today (which is Hansen’s disease, a long-term bacterial infection). As a note to Leviticus 13:2 in the NIV explains, for example, the Hebrew term traditionally translated “leprosy” was actually used for a variety of diseases affecting the skin. These included conditions such as whitening or splotchy bleaching, raised scales, boils, scabs, and so forth.

The law of Moses does seem to impose some harsh requirements on people who have such skin diseases. It says, for example, “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.

We should understand, however, that these regulations served to prevent the spread of such diseases. While we can appreciate how difficult it was for those who had the diseases themselves to be identified and isolated in this way, these measures protected the community as a whole. It has been noted that during outbreaks of leprosy in Europe in the Middle Ages, Jewish communities had a much lower incidence of the disease than others because they followed these regulations in the law of Moses.

We should also note that the term “unclean” is not moral a term. Rather, it refers to the absence of a state of ceremonial cleanness. In Leviticus, that state is closely connected with the boundaries of the human body. When those boundaries are not intact or when they are broken by something going in or out, there is a temporary loss of ceremonial cleanness. That is why, for example, people become unclean by eating the wrong kinds of food (because they bring them inside the boundaries of their bodies) and why a woman becomes temporarily unclean after giving birth (her child has gone from inside to outside the boundaries of her body). Similarly, when the skin is broken by a disease, the outer boundary of the body is no longer intact.

So we should not see the isolation required of people with skin diseases as reflecting any kind of moral stigma. The hope was that they would recover from the disease as soon as possible and be restored to the community. Leviticus has just as much to say about the cleansing and restoration of a person who recovers from a skin disease as it has to say about the necessary isolation of such a person while they have the disease.

And as is the case generally for issues that trouble us in the Bible, we see the heart of God regarding the issue reflected ultimately in the character and actions of Jesus Christ, who is the culmination of God’s revelation to us. Jesus did not stigmatize or condemn people who had skin diseases. Instead, this is how he responded, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” So in the process of restoring the man to health and ceremonial cleanness, Jesus reached across the isolation and touched the man, showing that God’s desire for anyone in such a situation is healing and restoration to community.

Was Jairus’s daughter really dead or only sleeping?

Q. Luke tells us how Jesus went to the house of Jairus, whose daughter was “dying” (at first) but apparently “dead” when Jesus arrived. Jesus said, “She’s not dead but asleep.” But Luke says that when he took her hand, “Her spirit returned.” Then Jesus told the girl’s parents not to tell anyone what had happened. So was the girl dead or asleep? Why did Jesus tell them she was “not dead”? And why did he tell the girl’s parents not to tell anyone what had happened, when he had just instructed the man who’d been freed from the legion of demons to tell people how much God had done for him?

As for Jairus’s daughter being dead or not, I think the key to what Jesus meant is that a common expression for death in ancient cultures was “falling asleep.” We see this in several places in the New Testament, for example, in 1 Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” and in 1 Corinthians, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” We also see this in the Old Testament; a common way to describe someone dying is to say that they “went to sleep with their ancestors.” While the Old Testament examples are in Hebrew and the New Testament ones are in Greek, the image would also have been used in the Palestinian Jewish culture of Jesus, where Aramaic was spoken, so we can be confident that the Greek-language New Testament writings are preserving Jesus’ expression accurately.

Now “fallen asleep” has the connotation of potentially waking up; “died” is more final. So I think Jesus meant that the wailing and mourning were not appropriate in any event because the girl already had the hope of life after death, and moreover in this case she was just about to be raised from the dead as a proclamation of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. So the main point really is, “Stop wailing,” or, “Do not grieve as those do who have no hope.”

As for why the man freed from the legion of demons was told to tell all his friends what happened, while this girl’s parents were told not to tell anybody, I think this has something to do with is sometimes referred to as the “Messianic secret.” Jesus couldn’t let his own people know too soon who he was, or that would provoke deadly opposition from their leaders before his purposes on earth had been completed. But there wasn’t that risk among Gentiles; instead, the proclamation among them prepared the way for further ministry to them by Jesus (he later went back across the lake and this time the people wanted to see him for teaching and healing) and for proclamation of the good news to them by the apostles after the resurrection.

How could Jesus heal a man based on his friends’ faith?

Q. In the episode where a man’s friends lower him through the roof to Jesus, it says that “when Jesus saw their faith,” he forgave and healed the man. Does this mean that my friends can be healed if I have enough faith for them? Aren’t we supposed to have faith for our own healing?

Matthäus Merian the Elder, “The Healing of the Paralytic,” 1625-27

Actually, I see this as one of those places in the gospels where Jesus recognizes that God is at work by the faith God has given someone to believe He will intervene.

For example (as I explain in my study guide to John), at the wedding feast in Cana, “When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother Mary asks him to help. Jesus expects that the power of God will only be increasingly demonstrated through him as his ‘hour’ draws near (meaning the time of his death as the Savior of the world). But Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show that God is powerfully at work in this very moment. Jesus performs a miracle and transforms well over a hundred gallons of water into fine wine. This demonstrates God’s concern to provide for material needs, even for celebrations. It also illustrates the joy and abundance God wants people to experience. This first sign reveals Jesus’ ‘glory’—not so much his miraculous powers, but his intimate relationship with God and his sensitivity to the work that God wants to do through him at each moment.”

As I explain more generally in another post on this blog, “Jesus pursued what scholars often call ‘co-operation’ with the Father.  Within the context of his overall life mission as he understood it, Jesus discerned where God was already at work and considered how he could join in. His classic statement of this approach was, ‘The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.'” And one way Jesus often discerned where God was at work was by recognizing when God had given people special faith to believe and trust for God to do something that would transform a situation.

So I’d encourage you to frame the question in this way: It’s not a matter of you trying to have enough faith for God to heal your loved ones. Rather, the faith you already have for this (or you wouldn’t be asking about it!) may have been given to you by God and it may be an indication that God is disposed to work in the situation. You should certainly investigate that possibility by praying earnestly according to that faith and seeing what God will do.

In fact, as I also say in that other post, “‘Co-operation’ can also work in the other direction. Besides seeing where God is already at work and joining in, we can also take sanctified initiative within the context of our life mission, and see whether God will join in with us!” It’s certainly never wrong to pray for the healing of the sick, knowing that Jesus always had compassion on them.

However, as I explain further in a post on my other blog Endless Mercies, “Prayer for healing must be understood as the first step in a process of seeking guidance. It’s an appropriate and necessary first step; whenever we hear someone is sick, we should always pray first for their healing. But then we should be watching and listening to discern what God might show us about the purposes He wants to accomplish through the illness. (We don’t believe that God actively causes someone to be sick or injured, but rather that God is always looking for a way to advance His own purposes in the face of these unfortunate realities of our broken world.) Particularly if what we discern suggests that a person might indeed be going to die, we need to help them die well. That means being lovingly cared for, in a way that allows them to say goodbye and leave a legacy. But ultimately this all comes down to the faith God gives us to respond to a situation. Prayers for the recovery of a friend who appears to be going to die may be offered in audacious defiance of what seems to be happening. So praying about and responding to a sickness as if it were ‘unto death’ or ‘unto the glory of God’ is not a matter of conforming to the circumstances, but rather of following guidance actively received from God.”

In those terms, “when Jesus saw their faith,” he was actively receiving guidance from God about what God wanted to do in the situation. We may do the same and trust that God will still do things today through our own prayers that are offered according to the faith He gives us.

Does a believer have authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead?

Q. Does a believer have authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead?

Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to
Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to “heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead.” Are believers authorized to do the same today? (Image: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Die Bibel in Bildern [“The Bible in Pictures”], 1853.)
As I understand it, God still does use believers to do works of healing and deliverance in our day. However, I would stress that the authority we’ve been given to do this is delegated authority. It is to be used under God’s directions, in God’s way and in God’s time, to fulfill God’s purposes, which are to declare through such works like these that His kingdom is  breaking into our world.

In other words, we don’t have a blank check simply to “take authority” over any sickness or case of oppression that we might encounter. There needs to be a discernment process in which we seek to discover how God wants us to use the authority he has delegated to us in this particular situation.

Jesus himself said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” And so, for example, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he first explained to his disciples, ““This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.” In other words, Jesus had discerned that God wanted to use the occasion of Lazarus’ sickness and eventual death as an opportunity to announce the coming of His kingdom. Many people believed in Jesus because of the miraculous sign he did in raising Lazarus from the dead.

However, if Jesus had discerned instead that Lazarus’ sickness was “unto death,” that is, that his “time had come” and God meant instead to bring him home into His presence, then while Jesus would probably still have gone to provide strength and encouragement to Lazarus and his sisters, he wouldn’t necessarily have healed him, or have acted with such authority (“Lazarus, come out!”) if he had died before his arrival.

It’s really  hard to imagine this second possibility, however, because Jesus was something of a special case. He actually embodied God’s inbreaking kingdom in his own person. And that’s why we hear over and over again in the gospels that Jesus healed everybody who came to him. It’s hard to picture Jesus not using any occasion as an opportunity to announce God’s kingdom.

But later in the New Testament we discover that Jesus was indeed exceptional in this way. Paul had to tell Timothy in his second letter, for example, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” Even though previously Paul had done extraordinary miracles of healing, in this case he had to go on without a badly needed co-worker because God apparently had a different purpose at work in the situation, as difficult as it might be for us to understand what it could have been.

All that said, I would encourage a person who felt strongly that God wanted to demonstrate His power and presence in a given situation, in order to announce the presence and liberating, life-giving character of his coming kingdom, to pray and act in bold faith, believing that God might indeed use them as a channel to bring about healing and deliverance.

Here are a couple of other posts that relate to this same subject:

Are so-called miracles actually only things that could happen naturally, as Hitchens argued?

Q. I’ve heard of many seemingly credible instances of God working miracles of healing in our time.  But the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Atheists,” made a point that I’ve wondered about. He asked why, if God is performing these miracles, they only happen in cases that could be explained by natural means. For example, miraculous cures are claimed in situations like cancer, where a remission is possible anyway. But why do we never hear of something like a person miraculously growing back a limb?

The first problem I have with Hitchens’ objection is that it can never be satisfied.  It starts by identifying the limits of what has been claimed as miraculous activity by God, and then insists that if God were real, He would do something beyond those limits.  If we actually did have attested cases of people growing back limbs in answer to prayer, Hitchens would just ask something like, “Why hasn’t God ever turned an 80-year-old back into a 20-year-old?”  Whatever the actual limits of what people of faith accept and claim as miraculous, there has to be something beyond these limits (God can’t have done everything we could possibly imagine), and so an atheist would simply argue that unless God did this or that other thing, God isn’t real.

My next problem with Hitchens’ argument is that the purpose of miracles is not to prove that God exists (even though people sometimes appeal to them as proof).  And so any failure to do miracles of some particular kind does not prove that God doesn’t exist.  The purpose of miracles is rather to proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking into our world.  When Jesus sent out his disciples to expand his own mission, he told them, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”

If God really is selective about what kinds of miracles to perform, we might say that God chooses to do miracles that have a symbolic meaning that discloses the character of the kingdom they are announcing.  For example, the healing of lepers sounds the theme of cleansing so closely associated with God’s saving work.  The restoration of sight to the blind speaks of God’s light coming into the world, to enlighten those who are in darkness.  Enabling the lame to walk alludes symbolically to the Old Testament image of “walking” as a metaphor for following God’s ways.  Miracles of these types are all attested in the ministry of Christ and his apostles.

If there is any other kind of selectivity at work in the kinds of miracles God does, one might say, though only from observation, that it appears that in this present world, God has limited Himself to miracles of restoring what is there, rather than of re-creating what has been lost.  And so God might cure a lung of cancer, but not necessarily recreate a lost limb.  If this is so, it may be because a new creation, a re-creation, is coming, and we are all to look forward to that time, in faith and patience, when lost things will be restored.  In the meantime, we are called upon to use all of our compassion and ingenuity to support, comfort, strengthen, and empower people who have suffered losses.  In fact, if we are not out to disprove the existence of God, we can freely see how God is just as much at work through the efforts of people who design prosthetics and perform physical therapy as through more ostensibly “miraculous” means.

My final observation would be that there’s always a challenge that comes along with a miracle, that is, an intervention of God in our world.  The challenge is to recognize that God has done it.  The gospel of John, after its lengthy account of Jesus’ ministry, marvels, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.”  So if it were generally true that God intervenes to do things that might happen naturally anyway (like a remission of cancer), this should not surprise us.  This provides a challenge and an opportunity to our faith, and I think this is intentional.

But there are things that help us be confident that God, rather than mere natural forces, have been at work.  For example, it has been observed that we can have confidence that God has answered our prayers through a certain means if (1) the answer comes while we are praying, or (2) if the answer comes when it is needed most, or (3) the answer comes with a special kindness attached, or (4) the answer comes despite great difficulties that make it unlikely, or (5) we receive above and beyond what we ask for.  And if all or most of these things happen together, we are likely to be so convinced that God really has intervened on our behalf that we cease wondering whether this is so, and simply praise and thank God, no matter how skeptical someone looking on from the outside might be!

Should we try to heal people today the way the apostles did?

Q. I passed a man in a wheelchair begging on the sidewalk one day and I wanted to say, as Peter did to the beggar at the temple, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!” But I didn’t know whether that impulse came from God or from myself, and of course one doesn’t want to just say these things! How do you think the apostles knew it would work? Was it because they’d already done miracles earlier? But what about the first time? And since then, without Jesus here to actually say the words, “I give you the power to do miracles,” how does anyone know now if God is calling them to be used in that way?

St. Peter Healing the Crippled Beggar, H. H. Ambrose c. 1530

As I wrote in my last post, even Jesus’ own miracles depended on “the mysterious interaction between God’s sovereign disposition to act supernaturally at specific times and human receptivity to that disposition.”  In other words, I don’t believe that if we just have the right amount and kind of faith, or the right understanding of how miracles work, or something along those lines, we can do miracles every time.

Healing of the sick is one sign of the kingdom, a proclamation that it is breaking into this present age, and God does sovereignly intend in certain situations to heal people as such a proclamation. But not everyone is healed.  Even in the New Testament, Paul had to explain to Timothy, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.”  So even members of the apostolic ministry team were sometimes not healed!

Instead, while healing of the sick is a sign of the kingdom, caring for the sick is part of the work of the kingdom.  Jesus explains this in his parable of the sheep and the goats.  In that parable, the king blesses those who did works of mercy, saying, among other things, “I was sick and you took care of me.”  Not, “I was sick and you healed me.”

So depending on what God’s intentions are for a given situation, as followers of Jesus and citizens of the inbreaking kingdom, we are called either to be channels of miraculous healing of the sick, or else channels of merciful care for the sick.

We can only know whether our calling is the former one if we have previously cultivated the ability to hear God’s voice and discern God’s intentions on a day-to-day basis. Jesus was the ultimate example of someone who could do this.  As I noted a couple of posts ago, Jesus explained, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”  Jesus discerned what God was doing and then joined in.  I think the apostles learned that from Him, and that’s how they got started.

Moveover, we can only fulfill a calling to be a channel of God’s miraculous power if we have previously learned how to become such a channel starting in small ways.  It is those who are faithful in small things who are entrusted with greater things.

So while the impulse to want to heal someone in a wheelchair is admirable and compassionate, I wouldn’t necessarily advise trying to start there.  I believe it would take a great many experiences discerning God’s voice and trusting God to act in supernatural ways before we were equipped to play a role like that.  (Remember, the disciples spent three years watching closely what Jesus did, and then they went out on apprenticeship journeys and discovered that God could do the same through them.  So they had a lot of background and experience.)

Instead, I would see if you could discern something God had in mind for you to do with Him today by way of encouraging someone (for example), or meeting a practical need, or answering someone’s question.  Begin that way to discover the secret of co-operation with God that Jesus modeled so well.

At the same time, see where God is calling you to exercise faith to believe for provision, or direction, or reconciliation, or opportunity, and learn that way to trust God for greater and greater things.

Over time, who knows?  And in the meantime you can still offer a smile and an encouraging word to any beggars you pass on the street. (In most cases it’s not a good idea to give them money directly but you can always refer them to places that can help.)  They’ll probably find this refreshingly different from being treated as invisible, and it might begin to show them Jesus’ love for them—which was really the point of the healing that Peter performed.

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

Q.  What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh“?  I’ve heard some people say it was a disease he couldn’t recover from.  But I’ve heard other people say this isn’t right because Paul had the gift of healing and could have healed any sickness he had, so we need to take him literally when he calls it “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  In other words, these people say it was a demon that was harassing him that he couldn’t make go away.  Which is right?

I think the first understanding, that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a disease he couldn’t recover from, is more likely the correct one.

We know that Paul suffered from a disease at some point in his ministry because he wrote to the Galatians, “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.”  (“Illness” here is astheneia in Greek, literally “weakness.”) This was most likely some disease of the eyes, because Paul goes on to say, recalling the Galatians’ love and concern for him at this time, “If you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

There’s a further suggestion that Paul had eye trouble at the end of Galatians. Paul authenticates the letter, which he has been dictating to a scribe, by adding some things in his own handwriting, and he begins by saying, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand,” as if he had difficulty seeing.

Some have actually speculated that Paul suffered from chronic bacterial conjunctivitis, a recurring infection of the lining of the eye (a common ailment in the time when he lived) that would have made it difficult for him to see. It would also have affected his appearance, making his eyes red and causing them to discharge fluid or mucus.  Perhaps this is why Paul also told the Galatians, as he recalled their earlier care, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.”  There was something embarrassing about Paul’s condition that the Galatians overlooked in love.

All of this background helps make sense of what Paul says about his “thorn in the flesh” as he defends his credentials to the Corinthians, at the demand of the self-styled “super-apostles” who had infiltrated the church there.  Paul describes some amazing visions he had, but then explains he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to “keep me from becoming conceited” because of these “surpassingly great revelations.”  An unsightly disease of the eyes would be an ironically appropriate means of keeping a person from boasting about visions they’d had.

After explaining that he’d asked the Lord to take this “thorn” away from him, but that God had told him in response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me.”  “Weakness” here is astheneia, the same word Paul used to describe his “illness” to the Galatians.

Paul also notes, earlier in this section, that the super-apostles were saying about him, “In person he is unimpressive,” literally “the appearance of his body is weak” (asthenos).  Such language about “weakness” seems more appropriate for describing the effects of a disease like chronic conjunctivitis than the frustrations of persistent spiritual harassment.

Even though Paul had the gift of healing, this didn’t mean that God always chose to heal everyone through him.  For example, Paul tells Timothy at the end of his second letter, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.”  The fact that Paul had to leave this valuable co-worker behind shows that he couldn’t heal everybody, and that would include himself.

And so when Paul describes his illness as a “messenger of Satan,” he most likely uses this language not because his “thorn in the flesh” was a harassing demon, but to indicate that God is not the creator or source of sickness and disease. These things are instead the result of sin and evil in the world.

We’re promised that when God renews the heavens and the earth, there will be no more sickness or pain.  But in the meantime, Paul’s experience with his “thorn in the flesh” shows us that God can redeem even these features of our fallen world to make our character more Christ-like and to lead us to rely more on the sufficiency of his grace.

(When I discuss Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I ask, “Do you have a physical ‘weakness’ that you wish God would take away? If so, given what Paul writes here, could this weakness actually be protecting you from something and permitting God’s power to be seen more clearly in you?”  What would you say in response to that question?)

The apostle Paul, 5th-Century Ceiling mosaic, Archepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew, Ravenna, Italy. (Do the large eyes reflect some ancient tradition about Paul’s appearance?)