David Jeremiah - Disease: The Fear of Serious Illness
Have you ever thought about the fact that when we get to heaven we won't be subjected to prescription drug ads? We certainly can't escape them here on this earth, can we? I mean, television, newspapers, websites. These ads are everywhere, warning us of diseases that seem to be lurking around every corner. Now, I'm not condemning modern medicine but I am concerned about an epidemic affecting millions consumed by the possibility of falling ill: the epidemic of fear. And the good news is the Great Physician has prescribed a treatment for fear which we'll discover as we consider "Disease: The Fear of Serious Illness". It's all part of our ten-part series, "What Are You Afraid Of? Facing down Your Fears with Faith". It's interesting, by taking fear out of our response to sickness, God gives us the best medicine of all: encouragement.
As I was preparing this message, I had to take time out to get my semi-annual CT scan at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. I have made this roundtrip journey now for almost 20 years. Started in 1994 when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and then I was sent back here for this local hospital in La Jolla to care for me. On that first day as I went to the clinic I met oncologist Dr. Alan Saven and after these many years he is still the one who examines me twice a year. It was Dr. Saven, along with Dr. Charles Mason, who presided over the stem cell transplant which ultimately brought me healing from this disease and gave me my life back. I've written about this extensively in a book I authored back then called "When Your World Falls Apart," so I won't go into detail here about that. But since I'm preaching this series about fear, I thought I would answer the question that I've been asked hundreds of times over these last two decades. Here it is. "Dr. Jeremiah, were you ever afraid during the time you were dealing with cancer"?
Now, the question itself is kind of amusing to me because it seems to indicate that if you're a pastor you sort of get a free pass on stuff, you know? You know, I actually had people say, "Well, you're a pastor. How'd you get cancer"? Well, the problem I have is the problem that we all have. I suffer from what they call humanity and cancer, along with other diseases, they're all human diseases, aren't they? So just because we're Christians, we don't exit humanity. We get the same human problems and diseases everyone else gets. Well, I wanna answer the question, "Was I ever afraid," and I'll do it in a moment but, first, I wanna tell you that you probably will have a difficult time understanding what I'm about to say. It's hard to explain to those who have not experienced cancer what it's like to have that disease associated with your name. In fact, you can get inside my skin.
Just stop and think what would you feel right now if somebody told you you had a disease that could take your life, what emotions would you be feeling? I had all the same ones. So disease is ever present with us and the probability is that you have or will encounter it somewhere along the way. The probable encounters with disease. Well, it started back in the Garden. God created Adam and Eve in a state of perfect health and their bodies were free from disease. But then they sinned and the whole order of nature was convulsed and sickness became a grim reality and death an unavoidable eventuality. And at least a portion of our days on this earth, whether we like it or not, are going to be spent ill or sick or diseased or injured or wounded or dying. The loss of health comes on us either suddenly or slowly but on us all it descends.
One of the things that we shouldn't be surprised at but because we don't necessarily always read our Bibles the way we should, we are often surprised to discover how many of these current kinds of problems that we face are actually also faced in the people of the Bible. I told you early on that in the Bible there are over 200 people about whom it is said they were afraid. Well, you wouldn't believe how many people in the Bible were actually sick. I went through the Scriptures and I kind of made a little list of them and I'm going to read this real fast and you won't be able to write 'em all down, just maybe the names. But here's just a sampling of the people in the Bible who were sick. There's Paul and his thorn in the flesh, and Job who we already met, sitting in the ash heap. And there's Lazarus and his terminal illness, and the woman with the issue of blood, and Naaman and the disease of leprosy. And King David with the evil disease that clung to him, and King Asa with his diseased feet. And King Jehoram and his diseased intestines, and the people of Galilee who came to Christ with all kinds of disease. And Epaphroditus who was sick almost unto death, and Dorcas who fell sick and died leaving behind a grieving community of disciples.
I've never heard of a pastor preaching a series of sermons on the diseased people of the Bible but if he should ever choose to do so, there would be no lack of material because the Bible has many, many stories and encounters of people who were sick. But the one biblical account that is the poster child for this message is a man by the name of Hezekiah. Now, Hezekiah has often been the brunt of some jokes because some people say there's a book in the Bible and the book is called Hezekiah. When they want to tell you something and give it biblical credit they'll say, "It's in Hezekiah 2:3". Well, let me tell you something. There is no such book as Hezekiah but there is such a person and he was one of the kings of Judah. In fact, he was one of the good kings, maybe one of the great kings of the Old Testament, who assumed the throne of Judah at the age of 25 and immediately began to set things back in order because the nation of Israel had regressed and had backslidden.
In 2 Chronicles chapter 31 we read: "Then Hezekiah did what was good and right and true before the Lord his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, and in the law and the commandment, to seek his God, he did it with all of his heart. And he prospered". And the next 10 or 15 years in Judah were among the happiest years in the history of Judah. But when Hezekiah turned 39 everything changed. It says in Isaiah 38, verse 1 that "in those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, went to him and said, 'Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.'" That's like the oncologist coming out after the examination and saying to you, "You got six months. Your disease is inoperable. It's terminal. There's no hope". That was the sentence that was given to Hezekiah.
Now, Hezekiah is an illustration of what people do when something like that happens. We've seen the probable encounters with disease and we've looked at some primary examples but now I want you to notice the painful emotions of disease in Hezekiah's response. What would you do when you first heard that? Well, you would do exactly what he did if you're a Christian. He prayed. It says in Isaiah 38:1-3: "In those days Hezekiah was sick and near death. And he turned his face toward the wall, and he prayed to the Lord, and he said, 'Remember now, O Lord, I pray, how I have walked before You in truth with a loyal heart, and have done what is good in Your sight.' And he wept bitterly". Though we can't predict how the Lord will answer, we do know that tears and prayers are seen and heard by God when we cry and when we pray. The prayer was the first emotion and then came the promise. In Isaiah 38:4 we read: "And the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, saying, 'Go tell Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have seen your tears; and surely I will add to your days 15 years.'"
Sometimes we say, "Well, I've tried everything else and I guess all that's left is prayer". And we demote prayer to the bottom of the list when it should be elevated to the top of the list. By the way, let's start with prayer. Let everything else descend from that. Hezekiah prayed. Listen to me, and God heard him. And God answered his prayer and gave him 15 more years. Interesting, though, that God didn't just speak from heaven and say, "Hezekiah, be healed". He gave Hezekiah a prescription. You gotta be kidding me. No, he did. Why would God do that? Can't he just heal by saying, "Be healed"? Absolutely, but also we know that God often works through means. Isaiah 38:21: "Let them take a lump of figs, and apply it as a poultice on the boil, and you shall recover".
Now, that's the first chemotherapy that I've ever read about in the Bible. These are called pharmaceutical figs. And this would certainly be an answer to those who have said, and you've probably heard them, and I have too, "No, no, no, no, you don't need anything but God. You don't need doctors. You don't need medicine. Just trust God". In fact, I've heard them say this: "If you trust in a doctor or if you use medicine it is because of your lack of faith, that God does not heal that way, that God always heals without any means". The only problem with saying that is it's just not true. God can heal any way he wants. He can heal with a doctor or without one, by a prescription or without one. But in this case, God used a prescription to heal Hezekiah and I just wanna stop and say I thank God for my doctors. From the human perspective, I would not be here, apart from the two men I mentioned earlier in this message. Was God in that? Absolutely and I thank God every day for his leading me to them, for his using them, for his giving them the wisdom and the knowledge and the education and the wherewithal to deal with the disease.
And so God used this prescription. He prescribed something for Hezekiah and when that was applied, Hezekiah got better. And then what happened next is what you would expect. There was a rejoicing, there was a praise party. This all happened over a period of a few days and so when Hezekiah realized that he was well and that he was gonna live, the Bible says that he began to praise God and some of his words are in Isaiah 38, verses 17 and 20. He said, "Indeed, it was for my own peace that I had great bitterness; but You have lovingly delivered my soul from the pit of corruption. The Lord was ready to save me; therefore we will sing my songs with stringed instruments all the days of our life, in the house of the Lord". Hezekiah looked back and, in experiencing God's healing, he testified to the Lord for his goodness. Our God is a healer and he's able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think. Often when we pray for healing, we are healed and Hezekiah was healed.
Now, I wish I could tell you that this is the end of the story that Hezekiah lived out his life and honored the Lord with those years that he was given and that God blessed him abundantly, and Hezekiah was so grateful to be healed that he lived every day in obedience to the Lord. But he did not. And there's a problem. Let me tell you what happened. The Bible tells us that during his extended 15 years, Hezekiah made some very bad mistakes. First thing he did was he allowed the Babylonians to come into Israel and Hezekiah had become very enamored with his wealth, with his collection of treasures. So he invited the Babylonians to come and he showed them the treasures of Israel. Why would he do that? It was surely nothing more than his arrogant pride, his desire to be viewed as someone important with all of these many treasures.
Well, guess what? The Babylonians came and they invaded the nation and, during this time, great evil took place in Judah because of the arrogant pride of Hezekiah. But that's not the worst. Up until this time in his life, King Hezekiah had no son. After his healing by the Lord, he had a son whose name was Manasseh, and Manasseh, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most evil people you will ever meet in the Bible. He was a despotic man, a wicked cruel man. I will say this in all candor: Judah would have been better off if Hezekiah had died because when God gave him his life, he used the life that was given to him by God to bring ruin and shame and sin upon his nation through his own actions and especially through the actions of Manasseh. There are some things that are worse than disease. And one of those things happened to Hezekiah.
Now, we've talked about the probable encounters with disease and the primary examples of disease and the painful emotions of disease. So I wanna finish now with some practical encouragements for disease. If Hezekiah were here today, here are some of the things he might say to us. What we should do if we're battling an illness, if disease runs in our family, if we're apprehensive about imagined sickness or future disability, if we are afraid because of disease or fearful that it might come into our lives or perhaps it has and we're now really afraid. Here's what Hezekiah might tell us if he could speak into our situation. Number one: Control your mind. Control your mind. 2 Timothy 1:7: "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind".
You look at people who battle diseases and become victorious in getting past the deadlines and you will discover that, for many of them, it wasn't even just the medicine or the good doctors or the therapy or whatever. It was their own personal attitude, their own personal fortitude. And I found a verse of Scripture this week that I had never seen before, at least in this light. I wrote it down and I wanna give it to you. It's Proverbs 18:14 and it says this: "The spirit of a man will sustain him in his sickness". Sometimes you begin to feel sorry for yourself. We say, "Why me? Why now"? And we become absorbed in self-pity. We all go through that to some degree. But we have to get through it to the other side and say, "This is what God has allowed in my life. I'm not going to fight it. I will embrace it and together, God, you and I will go forward and make what you want out of this in my life".
Control your mind. Secondly, count your blessings. You say, "Jeremiah, you've got to be kidding? I've got cancer. You want me to count my blessings"? Well, do you know, the Bible does say, "In everything, give thanks". It doesn't say, "For everything," but it says, "In everything". So what should you be thankful for? Though we're sick we can rejoice in the prayers of our friends, in the note of a loved one, in the medical care of a conscientious nurse, in the smile of a doctor, in the verse of a hymn that comes to mind, in the grin of a grandchild. Training ourselves to spot these blessings like wildflowers in a forest is the secret to learning to count it all joy. Not only control your mind and count your blessings, but continue your work.
Ephesians tells us that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works except when we are sick". No, that's not what it says, is it? It says: "We are his workmanship, created unto Christ Jesus unto good works". When we are ill we need to continue the work that God has given us to do. You say, "Well, how am I supposed to do that"? I was absent from the pulpit for a number of weeks. I couldn't preach. But I could still do some things that I normally did. I could read, I could research, I could write. Figure out how much of it you can do. Do as much of it as you can because work is a therapy.
Number four, claim your promises. And there are so many of them. And I wanna give you one that's very special to me that I've never shared from a pulpit before 'cause I never understood it until this week and it's so unique. It's John 11:4 and the context of the promise is the Lord Jesus and Lazarus and, remember, Lazarus was sick and they sent for Jesus and before he could come, Lazarus died. And in John 11:4, we have these words: "When Jesus heard that, He said, 'This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.'" For the Christian, our sickness never ends in death. It may include death but we all know that's not the end, that there is life after death.
So it is true to say that God heals everybody. He heals some of us down here, he heals all of us up there. And our healing is in the Atonement because what Jesus did on the cross makes it possible for us to go to heaven and ultimately find our healing in his person. So if heaven is the worst thing that can happen to us, we shouldn't despair, even amid medical emergencies of the loss of health. And here's why. We have a Great Physician whose own tomb is empty. We have a heavenly home whose doors are open. We have a sympathetic Savior whose arms are outstretched, reminding us that we don't need to have a spirit of fear but of power, and of love, and of a strong mind.