By J. C. Ryle
Isaiah had said—"Let them take a lump of figs, and lay it for a plaster on the boil, and he shall recover." —Isaiah 38:21
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 Hezekiah was sick unto death."
This is the old story. It is the history of every child of Adam for the last 6,000 years—except 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 5th 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, and discover remedies, diminish pain, and lengthen life. But in spite of vaccination and quinine and chloroform, in spite of all that medicine and surgery can do—there is something which your 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 tabernacle or 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 wonder so much that we die at last—as I do 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 heaven above us and the earth beneath us—perfection in the movements of a planet like Jupiter—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 that 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, and pain. These are not things which God created at the beginning. They are the consequences of man's transgression. To suppose that a perfect God could deliberately create imperfection, is a supposition too monstrous to be believed. It is man that 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 Deist cannot explain. When I see a little infant, too young to know good from evil, 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. I would ask myself, "Where is the justice and mercy of allowing such distress? Where is the wisdom and love of the Creator?" But when I turn to the Bible 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.
In the next place I ask you to learn from this chapter that sickness is not an unmixed evil.
That King Hezekiah received spiritual benefit from his illness I think there can be no doubt. The beautiful and pathetic language of his "writing," which Isaiah was inspired to record, places that beyond question. The good man saw things in his sickness which he had never seen clearly and fully in the days of health. "By these things," he says, "men live." He might have added, "By these things men learn."
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 irreligious than they were before. Too often they return to the world, if not to Sin, with more eagerness and zest than ever; and 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.
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. It is a friendly letter from heaven. It is a knock at the door of conscience. It is the voice of the Savior asking to be let in. 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 plead with you a little about this, and show you a few of the lessons which He by sickness would teach us.
1. Sickness is meant to make us think—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.
2. 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.
3. 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 repent truly of my sins? Are my sins forgiven and washed away in Christ's blood? Am I prepared to meet God?
4. 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.
5. Sickness is meant to send us to our Bibles. That blessed Book, in the days of health, is too often left on the shelf, becomes the safest place in which to put a bank-note, and is never opened from January to December. But sickness often brings it down from the shelf and throws new light on its pages.
6. 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.
7. Sickness is meant to make us repent and break off our sins. If we will not hear the voice of mercies, God sometimes makes us "hear the rod."
8. Sickness is meant to draw us to Christ. Naturally we do not see the full value of that blessed Savior. We secretly imagine that our prayers, good deeds, and sacrament-receiving will save our souls. But when flesh begins to fail, 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.
9. Last, but not least, sickness is meant to make us feeling and sympathizing 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 sympathize as those who have never had trouble themselves—and none are so able to feel as those who have drunk most deeply the cup of pain and sorrow.
Men and 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 should 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 "need 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 should never learn elsewhere. Settle it down in your minds, that, however much you may dislike it, sickness is not an unmixed evil.
Originally Ttiled "Christ in the Sick Room"