I know the suffering and pain that sickness entails. I admit the misery and wretchedness that it often brings along with it, but I cannot regard it as an unmixed evil. I see in it a useful provision to check the ravages of sin in men’s souls. If man had never sinned, I would have been at a loss to discern the benefit of sickness. But since sin is in the world, I can see that sickness is a good. It is a blessing quite as much as a curse. I grant it is a rough schoolmaster, but sickness is a real friend to man’s soul. Here are some of the benefits that sickness may bestow:
1. Sickness helps to remind men of death.
Most people live as if they were never going to die. They follow business, or pleasure, or politics, or amusements as if earth was their eternal home. They plan and scheme for the future, like the rich fool in the parable, as if they had a long lease of life, and were always to live in this poor world. A heavy illness sometimes goes far to dispel these delusions. It awakens men from their daydreams and reminds them that they have to die as well as to live. Now, this, I say emphatically, is a mighty good.
2. Sickness helps make men think seriously of God, their souls, and the world to come.
In their days of health, most people can find no time for such thoughts. They dislike them. They put them away. They count them troublesome and disagreeable. Now, a severe disease sometimes has a wonderful power of mustering and rallying these thoughts and bringing them up before the eyes of a man’s soul. Even a wicked king like Benhadad, when sick, could think of Elisha (2 Kings 8:8.) Even heathen sailors on the boat with Jonah were afraid when death was in sight, and “every man cried out to his god.” (Jonah 1:5.) Indeed anything that helps to make men mindful of eternity is a good.
3. Sickness helps to soften men’s hearts and teaches them wisdom.
The natural heart is as hard as a stone. It can see no good in anything which is not of this life, and no happiness except in this poor world. A long illness sometimes goes far to correct these ideas. It exposes the emptiness and hollowness of what the world calls “good” things and teaches us to hold them with a loose hand. Sickness reminds us that money alone is not everything the heart requires. Illness reveals the shortcomings of costly apparel, entertainment, and socialite events are miserable comforters in a sick room. Indeed anything that obliges us to alter our weights and measures of earthly things is a real good.
4. Sickness helps to humble us.
We are all naturally proud and high-minded. Few, even of the poorest, are free from pride’s infection. Few do not look down on somebody else and secretly flatter themselves that they are “not as bad as other men.” A sick bed is a mighty tamer of such proud thoughts as these. It forces on us the mighty truth that we are all poor worms, that we “dwell in houses of clay,” and are “crushed more readily than a moth” (Job 4:19), and that kings and subjects, masters and servants, rich and poor are all dying creatures, and will soon stand side by side at the judgment bar of God! It is not easy to be proud in the sight of the coffin and the grave. Surely anything that teaches that lesson is good.
5. Finally, sickness helps tests men’s religion, whether it is saving or not.
There are not many on earth who have no religion at all. Yet only a few have a faith that will bear Scripture’s inspection. Most are content with their parents’ traditions and can render no valid reason for their hope of Heaven. Now disease is sometimes most useful to a man in exposing the utter worthlessness of his soul’s foundation. It often shows him that he has nothing solid under his feet and nothing firm under his hand. It makes him find out that, although he may have a form of religion, all his life, he has been worshiping “an unknown god.” Many a profession looks well on the smooth waters of health, which turns out utterly unsound and useless on the rough waves of the sickbed! Winter storms often bring out the defects in a man’s house. In the same way, sickness often exposes the gracelessness of a man’s soul. Indeed anything that makes us find out the real character of our faith is a good.
I do not say that sickness confers these benefits on all it comes. Alas, I say nothing of the kind! Myriads every year are laid low by illness and restored to health who evidently learn no lesson from their sickbeds and return to the world! Myriads every year pass through sickness to the grave and yet are receiving no more spiritual impressions from it than the beasts that perish! In short, they live like beasts, and they die like beasts.
These are awful things to say, but they are true. The degree of deadness to which man’s heart and conscience may attain is a depth which I cannot pretend to fathom!
-J.C. Ryle (with minor edits for today’s reader)
HT: Grace Gems