Early in Mark’s Gospel, a man with leprosy comes to Jesus and begs him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Mark says, “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him.” (Mark 1:40-42)
The Apostle John tells us that God is love. It is God’s nature to have compassion for the many maladies that afflict us. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he read from the scroll of Isaiah that he had come to preach the good news to the poor and bind up the brokenhearted. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus manifesting his compassion by healing the blind, the lame and other illnesses; forgiving sins; and freeing people of various forms of bondage.
Yet, we know from our own experience that many people experience illness and other forms of adversity, prayers are offered, and the adversity appears to continue. Why are some people healed in response to prayer and others appear not to be healed? Maybe a better question is what is God doing in this particular situation or need?
Paul says, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Ro. 5:4) James tells us to “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.” (James 1:2-4)
Our life experiences also teach us that we grow more in our trials than we do in our consolations and successes. God often uses adversity to draw us closer to him. He uses final illnesses to bring us into his presence.
A number of years ago, I was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of prostate cancer. My wife, children and friends prayed for my healing. My treatment included surgery to remove the prostate followed by three and half years of hormone therapy. The surgery revealed that the cancer had migrated outside the prostate to at least one lymph node. One of my friends, who himself was suffering from renal cell carcinoma, prayed for me several times including in the pre-op room after persuading the nurse that he was my brother [Christian, that is].
While he and I were good friends and Christian brothers before my cancer, we became particularly close afterwards. We now shared a similar adversity that could be potentially life threatening. I prayed for him and he prayed for me. When we were together our conversation often took on deeper meaning.
A couple of years later he died. I am still alive. We could ask why, but again, the better question might be what was God doing with us? Perhaps my friend was ready to come into God’s presence, and I was not. These are mysteries for which we will never know the answer in this life, “for who can know the mind of the Lord?”
While we may never know why God responds in different ways to different circumstances, we can know by faith that out of compassion and love he is “willing” to do what is best for us.