Salvation Thru Sickness, Not From It1
How and Obscure Passage from Paul Undercuts the Prosperity Gospel
At a time when sickness is on the minds of so many, the 'benefits package' offered by the often-termed 'prosperity gospel' might seem especially appealing. What is the prosperity gospel? It's the belief (popular in many Charismatic and Pentecostal circles) that Jesus came, not simply to save you from sin and self, but from disease and debt as well. Scholar Stephen Hunt describes this doctrine as...
...the doctrine of the assurance of “divine” physical health and prosperity through faith. In short, this means that “health and wealth” are the automatic divine right of all Bible-believing Christians and may be procreated by faith as part of the package of salvation, since the Atonement of Christ includes not just the removal of sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty. (from 'Winning Ways': Globalisation and the Impact of the Health and Wealth Gospel)
So for the man or woman who is walking in strong faith and solid obedience before God, the prosperity gospel offers a guarantee of good health and financial wealth. Why? Because Jesus died in order to make this 'good life' possible. Conversely, according to this same teaching, those struggling with sickness must be those struggling with faith. The presence of disease surely reveals the presence of doubt.
But is this really what the Scriptures teach? Is this prosperity gospel the genuine gospel of the New Testament? Consider for a moment how a short, obscure passage from Paul's letter to the Galatians refutes the claims of these 'health and wealth' peddlers. Galatians as a whole is deeply concerned about the genuine gospel of Jesus. That's clear from the opening words of the book (cf. Galatians 1:1-9). But when we move on to chapter 4, we find this interesting, personal note about Paul and his readers...
You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first,  and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. (Galatians 4:13, 14)
With the possibility of "a different gospel" (1:6) leading his readers astray, Paul wanted to remind them of their original hope and joy, hope and joy because of the original gospel he brought to them. But in 4:13 and 14, Paul recalls the actual circumstances that brought him and the Galatians together: "it was because of a bodily ailment". It seems Paul was not physically well as he traveled through what is today the highlands of central Turkey. What was this "condition" with which he suffered? Verse 15 seems to point to some kind of eye infection, maybe resulting in temporary blindness. For as Paul warmly remembers about his Galatian hosts, "if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me."
But in light of the claims of the prosperity gospel, consider the following observations about these two verses:
1. Paul was physically afflicted. Whatever medical condition Paul was battling, it was serious; serious enough to alter his travel plans and sideline him in Galatia. There is no indication from Paul that doubt or disobedience was the cause of his condition.
2. Paul's medical condition was a "trial" for his hosts. Some might suggest that, though not mentioned, Paul's miraculous healing was the means God used to reach the Galatians. But the Apostle is clear in verse 14: “my condition was a trial to you”. Caring for someone who is struggling with their sight requires work. Paul understood this. Thus, with gratefulness he remembers, “you did not scorn or despise me”.
3. Paul's temporary illness was used in an eternal way. Verse 13 appears to indicate that if Paul had not been struggling with his health, he would not have stopped in this part of Galatia, at least not when he did. But because Paul had to stop, a new ministry opportunity was created. Even though Paul was struggling with his eyes, his voice was strong and clear with the Good News concerning Jesus.
Notice there is not a trace of the so-called 'prosperity gospel' in this passage, neither front and center, nor in the background. Did Paul believe in divine healing? Absolutely. His ministry was filled with such “signs and wonders” (cf. Acts 14:1-10). But Paul also understood that while God can and does use the divine overcoming of sickness to accomplish his gracious, transformative, gospel-centered purposes, he also uses the divine permitting of sickness. Had he not done so in Paul's life, the Galatians may have never heard the life-giving message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
But what about you? Has God done something similar in your life, whether through your own season of sickness or because of the hard and harrowing hospitalization of a loved one? How might God be at work in today's infirmity, or in a future diagnosis? For the one who embraces Christ in faith, there is no need to be fearful or anxious. While the prosperity gospel may be false, there remains an even better prosperity offered by the genuine gospel: Jesus has secured “riches of [God's] grace” (Ephesians 1:7; 2:7) for both this life and the next; grace flowing from a gracious God, who works in times of both sickness and health, through victories and infirmities, that we might prosper in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23); that is, that we might become more like Christ. Earthly illness can be God's means of accomplishing a spiritual, eternal healing, far bigger and far better than any medical miracle.
Be encouraged. Seasons of sickness are inevitable. But even they are in God's gracious hands.