Hard Pressed Between Two Worlds

Hard Pressed Between Two Worlds

As a pastor, I talk to a lot of sick people (and hear about many more). Praying for them is part of the ministry God has given to me. I admit, though, that I have often struggled to know, exactly, how to pray for each one. The details for all of the sick are different- their circumstances, their spiritual condition- these things and more come in to play when I come before the Lord and make requests. But it’s when I pray for fellow Christians that I feel the most tension. I understand that the moment these brothers and sisters pass from this present world, they will be with the Lord forever. I have a desire for them to remain here, but I understand that to be with Him is far better (Phil. 1:23). As the apostle Paul said about his own situation, “I am hard pressed between the two” (v.23). This tension complicates my prayers, but my heart is generally drawn to want to pray that they get that thing which is truly better. In some situations this is right and good. A dear saint has lived many good years; has a bad prognosis; the treatment has been miserable and ineffective, and she doesn’t think it best to continue. She looks forward to being with Christ, and this is what I pray for. Amen! However, there are other situations where the prognosis is bad, but this child of God could still live many more fruitful years if healing comes. This person knows what it feels like to be pulled in two different directions. Pastorally, how do I best pray for these sufferers? Thankfully, God’s Word casts light on this question.

    There are biblical examples of the sick who have recovered, and God’s people rejoice that they remain. I’m thinking primarily of Epaphroditus, the faithful servant from Philippi who ministered to the needs of Paul. The Apostle says that this man “was ill, near to death” (Phil. 2:27). No doubt, if Epaphroditus would have died, Paul would have been able to give thanks that this saint was now with the Lord. There would have been the sadness of loss, a sting of death that remained here on earth, but the people of God who knew him could surely rejoice with this man who would have been currently rejoicing in the presence of God. But that’s not what happened. Epaphroditus was spared death. In fact, Paul describes his recovery and continuance on earth as a merciful act of God (v.27) toward this faithful servant. Wouldn’t it have been better to think of it as merciful if God just brought him on home? I think yes. It would have been an act of mercy for God to do so, but I know it was an act of mercy for the Lord to allow Epaphroditus to remain. God is telling me so (I also think here of Hezekiah, or of Lazarus. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, we do not read anything that would lead us to think that Lazarus was disappointed to receive more time on earth).

    I have had a number of conversations with those around me- those who aren’t currently sick- speculating about what they would probably do if they did become ill, like really ill. Generally, those conversations go in the direction of “just let me go be with Christ. I don’t want to suffer through that. This world isn’t my home anyway.” And honestly, I understand it. But this doesn’t seem to be the full perspective of the Bible. The Scriptures speak consistently as they do in the situation of Epaphroditus. There is certainly great blessing in our death. Faith will become sight on that day, but it is also great blessing to continue here. It is a mercy of God. But why?

    The answer to that question rests in our purpose. Why are we here on earth? If my purpose here is all about what is best for me, alone, then of course I should always desire to be on the first train out of town. But I’m not here just for me. God has put you and me on earth to bring glory to Him. I admit that I can lose sight of that. Often, the way I will best glorify Him is to be a tool to help others do the same. I’m reminded here of those in the Old Testament who pleaded with God to spare their lives so they could continue to praise Him (Ps. 88:10-11, 115:17; Isaiah 38:19-19). Their earthly praises would cease as soon as they descended to the pit. Even though it is true that their praises would be able to continue on the other side of the grave, there is something of their current praise that is lost. They won’t be able to praise God here anymore. They won’t be able to praise God in this world, in the community of the faithful. They can’t offer their praise in the midst of an unbelieving world, as a testimony to the grace of God by this sinner to other sinners who will remain. That element of praise truly will disappear from the earth at their death.

    In a similar way, there are things that bring glory to God that can only be done here on earth, by certain people, in a certain allotment of time- acts of service that will reverberate into eternity. We see that perspective in Paul’s words to the Philippians as he wrestled with this in his own situation. He knew that it was better for him, personally, to be in the presence of the Lord, “but to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 2:24). He was still able to accomplish much good on behalf of these disciples by staying, so from God’s perspective this was the more needful thing, and what would most glorify Him. There would be plenty of time for Paul to stand rejoicing in God’s presence, as he is to this day, but for that season, it was better for him to continue to serve the church.

    All of this informs my own heart as I think about my own future, and informs my prayers as I pray for those who are sick and suffering. As for myself, I should be willing, and wanting, to stay as long as I can be useful to others to increase their joy in the Lord. If it be more glorifying to God that I remain on earth, this had better be my desire, because this is what I’ve been created for. I am not my own anymore. John Newton writes about the goodness of this perspective in the Christian, who, “though he longs for heaven, would be content to live as long as Methuselah upon earth, if, by any thing he could do or suffer, the will and glory of God might be promoted.” This should be my prayer, that if possible, may the Lord give me many years, unto old age, allowing me to spend myself for the genuine good of others, to His glory. I am grateful to have eons to be in His presence, but I will rejoice to have forty more years to promote His cause on earth, if I can be useful to others in the Gospel.

    As to my prayers for the sick, (with a few exceptions) I will begin to ask much the same for them. I won’t plead for their healing just so they can stick around, but so that they can remain for godly purposes in the service of others. It is a mercy of God that they stay. There are things they can do here, for the good of man, and the glory of God, that they cannot do from the grave. Soli Deo Gloria