Last Sunday Channel 7 aired a program featuring a Melbourne man Charlie Goldsmith. Charlie claims to have the gift of healing that he has been using for over 18 years which he kept very private. It wasn’t until after his first hospital study, completed in 2013 by doctors, interestingly, at the New York University Lutheran hospital that it became public. I watched the show during the week. As a Christian I’m not sceptical because I do believe that God can heal miraculously as I’ve witnessed it over the years. But it’s the questions that faith healing produces that always raises concern for me whenever I watch shows like this. If God can heal miraculously then why doesn’t he heal everyone? How does being one of the suffering who is not healed have their faith affected?
It is interesting in our Gospel reading when Jesus visited his hometown. It says that because of their lack of faith that he couldn’t do any miracles except to heal a few people by laying his hands on them. But I think in our 2nd reading – St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is where we discover a mystery about suffering where God’s power and love is not discovered in healing but actually in the suffering itself. Paul’s understands suffering differently to the point where he states in his letter to the Romans “we rejoice in our sufferings”. The first thing we note is that we do not know what Paul’s suffering is. There have been theories – some believe it is an eye complaint as a result from when he was blinded on the road to Damascus. In Galatians (4:15) he says: I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. It’s not important to know what Paul’s suffering was but Paul does refer to his suffering as – “a thorn in the flesh”. It’s probably like when you get a splinter – or a speck of dirt in your eye – and it just niggles you. No matter how good things are going – no matter how much you’re enjoying yourself it just constantly niggles you and won’t let you concentrate on anything else. Well that’s how Paul explains his suffering and he believes God allowed it because Paul was given a huge revelation where he was shown a glimpse of Heaven. He says: I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—he was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
Have you ever been privy to something – some breaking news you’ve been sworn to secrecy about and you just want to tell someone. Or you go around rather cocky because you know something and no one else does. Well that’s how Paul sees his suffering. To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. So Paul didn’t see his suffering as a punishment but as a grounding in his faith so that he kept focused on his mission and purpose despite the great privilege he had been given. That didn’t mean that his suffering wasn’t real as he prayed 3 times for the suffering to be taken away. And that’s when God answered by saying – “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” When God doesn’t heal, as we see even in examples of faith healings where some miss out, it doesn’t mean that God has favoured one over the other. What Paul discovers is that God reveals a very special presence with us in our times of suffering. And it’s that presence that keeps us focusing on God’s grace and not our physical circumstances – good or bad.
Healing is only ever temporary. All those that Jesus healed in his time on earth eventually end up dying. And even his disciples who had great faith suffered through persecution. But God’s grace is not about providing a comfortable existence here on earth but about assuring us of a transition from life here on earth and into heaven. Grace is always about new life in heaven. As Paul says in Ephesians: For it is by grace you have been saved. God is concerned about our eternal wellbeing. So God used Paul’s suffering to keep him focused on continuing his mission. Paul knew what he was striving for – he saw a glimpse of all that was awaiting him and all of us – he knew that by God’s grace Jesus had assured him of his home in heaven so God says – my grace is all you need. No one likes to suffer. We take all forms of pain relief when we do go through suffering. But suffering is not a sign of God’s punishment or disfavour. And neither is a lack of healing through prayer a sign of God not answering prayer or not caring about our plight. And suffering is definitely not because we don’t have enough faith. Suffering is a reminder that the world we live in is not the world God has destined for us. It was God’s gift to us until humanity disobeyed God and allowed suffering to enter through the knowledge of Good and Evil. God has now destined us to Paradise which Paul saw a brief glimpse of and has no human words to describe how amazing it is. It drew Paul to proclaim – I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Suffering is a reality of life and it’s easy to give encouragement in times of suffering when you’re not the one going through the suffering. But Paul sees in suffering a couple of matters. Firstly, suffering is a reminder that this life is not what we are destined for. We are destined for Paradise. Even if we go through life relatively suffering free we all face the reality of death but not in heaven. But secondly, in suffering there is a mystery of God’s special presence with us, in much the same way that parents show a deep love for their children when they suffer even desiring that they could take the suffering on themselves if it meant their child’s relief. Even though a parent unconditionally loves their child, as does God all his children, when suffering occurs there’s a deep compassionate love that goes out from the parent to their child – a love of God that Paul says – I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. Strong because I am going to rely on God and not myself.
Suffering is one of the biggest challenges that faces the church both for non-believers and believers. For non-believers they ask ‘how can there be a loving God if he allows his loved ones to suffer’ For believers they ask ‘why has God allowed me to suffer after all I’ve done for him’. The answer revolves around the reality – whether or not God exists, suffering will continue. The hope that Paul pointed to was what he witnessed in Paradise which St John also saw in his revelation: Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” And the suffering we experience now is part of the old order of things which are coming to an end. Suffering is joined with humanity where the 2 become one flesh. But we have Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, who suffered the full extent of our disobedience to ensure that suffering became only a reality in this life.
Suffering is of the old order of things but he who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” And if anyone is in Christ Jesus, they are a new creation. And so suffering becomes a signpost to keep reminding us that this life is coming to an end as we await the new heaven and the new earth. And that’s why St Paul can with confidence proclaim: we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
That hope is in the new life that Jesus has won for us which we are waiting for and until then whenever I am weak, then I am strong.