Written by J.C. Ryle
(Today we publish an article by John Charles Ryle (1816 –1900), the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool, who was a faithful witness to the Gospel of Christ to the end.)
“In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live. 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the LORD, 3 And said, Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore” (Isaiah 38:1-3).
Sickness, disease, decay, and death are the common lot of all mankind without exception.
You have a striking proof of this in the chapter from which my text is taken. The Holy Spirit shows us a king and ruler of men, a dweller in palaces, a possessor of all that money can obtain, a good man, a holy man, a friend of God — laid low by disease, like the poorest man in the kingdom. Hear what the Holy Spirit says, “In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death”!
This is the old story. It is the history of every child of Adam for the last 6,000 years — except for Enoch and Elijah. It is as true of the infant who only lives a few hours as it is true of Methuselah who lived 969 years. The story of every patriarch in the fifth chapter of Genesis concludes with the simple words, “and he died”.
There is no discharge in this war.
Sooner or later, all die. There is no exemption for any rank or class or condition. High and low, rich and poor, gentle and simple, learned and unlearned, kings and their subjects, saints and sinners — all alike are liable to disease and all must submit to the “king” of terrors. The admirals and generals who have left behind a world-wide reputation, the statesmen who have swayed senates and made indelible marks on the history of their own time — are all carried, one after another, to the grave. Rich men, in spite of all their privileges, enjoy no immunity from sickness and death.
No medical skill can prevent death.
Our physicians and surgeons are unwearied in their efforts to find new remedies and modes of treatment. They compass sea and land in order to prevent disease, discover remedies, diminish pain, and lengthen life. But in spite of all that medicine and surgery can do, there is something which the ablest doctors find beyond their reach. When the time appointed by God comes, they cannot keep men and women alive.
After all, there is nothing amazing in this. The tent in which our soul lives — the human body — is a most frail and complicated machine. From the sole of the foot to the crown of the head, there is not a part of us which is not liable to disease. When I think of the variety of ailments which may assail our frame, I do not so much wonder that we die at last — as that we live so long.
But whence comes this liability to sickness, disease, and death?
How are we to account for it? This is a question which will arise in many minds — and it is one which ought to be answered. Perfection is the ordinary mark of all God’s handiwork — perfection in the heavens above us, and the earth beneath us, perfection in the movements of the planets, and perfection in a fly’s wing, or a blade of grass. Look through a telescope or microscope at anything which God created — and you find nothing defective. How then can we account for the power of disease, decay, and death over the body of man?
There is only one book which supplies an answer to this question. That book is the Bible. The fall of man at the beginning, has brought sin into the world — and sin has brought with it the curse of sickness, suffering, pain, and death. These are not things which God created at the beginning. They are the consequences of man’s transgression. To suppose that a perfect God would deliberately create imperfection, is a supposition too monstrous to be believed. It is man who is to blame — and not God. The countless bodily sufferings that we see, are the just consequence of man’s original disobedience.
Here, to my mind, lies one among many proofs that the Bible is given by inspiration of God. It accounts for many things which the atheist cannot explain. When I see a little infant convulsed with bodily pain and hovering between life and death in a weeping mother’s arms, I would be utterly puzzled and confounded, if I did not believe the Bible. But when I turn to the Book, the mysterious problem is solved. I learn that suffering is the result of Adam’s fall. That infant would not have suffered — if Adam had not sinned!
I ask you to learn from this chapter of Isaiah, that:
Sickness is not an unmixed evil.
That King Hezekiah received spiritual benefit from his illness — I think there can be no doubt. The good man saw things in his sickness, which he had never seen clearly and fully in the days of health.
I do not say that sickness always does good. Alas! We ministers know to our sorrow, that it frequently does no good at all. Too often we see men and women, after recovering from a long and dangerous illness — more hardened and impious than they were before. Too often they return to the world, if not to overt sin — with more eagerness and zest than ever. The impressions made on their conscience in the hour of sickness, are swept away like children’s writing on the sand of the sea-shore when the tide flows in.
But I do say that sickness ought to do us good. And I do say that God sends it in order to do us good. Affliction is a friendly letter from Heaven. It is a knock at the door of conscience. It is the voice of the Savior knocking at the heart’s door. Happy is he who opens the letter and reads it, who hears the knock and opens the door, who welcomes Christ to the sick room. Come now, and let me show you a few of the lessons which He by sickness would teach us:
- Sickness is meant to make us think. It is to remind us that we have a soul, as well as a body, an immortal soul — a soul that will live forever in happiness or in misery — and that if this soul is not saved, we had better never have been born.
- Sickness is meant to teach us that there is a world beyond the grave — and that the world we now live in is only a training-place for another dwelling, where there will be no decay, no sorrow, no tears, no misery, and no sin.
- Sickness is meant to make us look at our past lives honestly, fairly, and conscientiously. Am I ready for my great change — if I should not get better? Do I truly repent of my sins? Are my sins forgiven and washed away in Christ’s blood? Am I prepared to meet God?
- Sickness is meant to make us see the emptiness of the world and its utter inability to satisfy the highest and deepest needs of the soul.
- Sickness is meant to send us to our Bibles — that blessed Book, which in the days of health is too often left on the shelf, and is never opened from January to December. But sickness often brings it down from the shelf and throws new light on its pages.
- Sickness is meant to make us pray. Too many, I fear, never pray at all, or they only rattle over a few hurried words, morning and evening, without thinking what they do. But prayer often becomes a reality — when the valley of the shadow of death is in sight!
- Sickness is meant to make us repent and break off our sins. If we will not hear the voice of mercies — then God sometimes makes us “hear the rod”.
- Sickness is meant to draw us to Christ. Naturally we do not see the full value of the blessed Saviour. We secretly imagine that our prayers, good deeds, and sacrament-receiving will save our souls. But when flesh begins to fail — then the absolute necessity of a Redeemer, a Mediator, and an Advocate with the Father, stands out before men’s eyes like fire, and makes them understand those words, “Simply to Your cross I cling!”, as they never did before. Sickness has done this for many — they have found Christ in the sick room.
- Last, but not least, sickness is meant to make us feeling and sympathising towards others. By nature we are all far below our blessed Master’s example — who had not only a hand to help all, but a heart to feel for all. None, I suspect, are so unable to sympathise — as those who have never had trouble themselves. And none are so able to sympathise — as those who have drunk most deeply the cup of pain and sorrow.
Brethren, when your time comes to be ill, I beseech you not to forget what the illness means. Beware of fretting and murmuring and complaining, and giving way to an impatient spirit. Regard your sickness as a blessing in disguise; a good — and not an evil; a friend — and not an enemy.
No doubt we would all prefer to learn spiritual lessons in the school of ease — and not under the rod. But rest assured that God knows, better than we do, how to teach us. The light of the last day will show you that there was a meaning and a “needs-be” in all your bodily ailments. The lessons that we learn on a sick-bed, when we are shut out from the world — are often lessons which we would never learn elsewhere. Settle it down in your minds that, however much you may dislike it, sickness is not an unmixed evil.