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  • Larry Payne

Chronic illness and new hope

The woman was in tears as she talked with a chaplain. She had been a patient more than 200 days, enduring countless test and five surgeries. Weeping, she said to the chaplain, ‘I don’t think I can go through this anymore.’

Chronic illness is a reality for millions of persons today. Chronic illness means that some condition has gone uncured for a long time. A story from the days of Israel speaks to us about chronic illness and the work of God. In 2 Kings 5 we can follow the experience of a warrior named Naaman. We can find hope for the long journey through illness.

Naaman is a man of power and privilege in the nation of Aram, or modern day Syria, which lies to the north of Israel. He was a military leader of great power and success, an advisor to the King. For his entire career he has been respected and followed. Then something terrible happened. A skin disease began to creep across his body. His healthy olive-colored skin began to redden, then form blisters, then turn white with disease. We can imagine that whispers spread through the entire army. “The General is cursed. The general is dying.” At home, his wife withdrew and friends kept their distance. The dark fog of Despair spread around his command post, his family, and his own heart. The chronic skin disease had done what no army had ever been able to do, in defeating the mighty warrior Naaman. His search became so desperate he was willing to do anything to find relief. He was even willing to listen to a Hebrew slave girl who served his wife. She told him about a prophet in Israel who could help. He decided to make the long, desperate trip to find help.

Chronic disease will often bring a period of intense searching for a cure. This is normal. All of us want health. We want to be pain-free, worry-free, financially free. This general of 28 centuries ago felt the same way we do today. We search, we hope, we give up, then try again the next day. Searching is normal and good. It’s not selfish. We should feel no guilt that somehow looking for health is going against God’s will. Every living creature strives for survival. Some days we will feel hopeful, and some days we will sit in the dark hole of discouragement. Not everyone will understand. Accept these ups and downs as a part of the long journey to healing. It’s OK to seek a cure.

Naaman traveled south to Israel to seek a cure. Perhaps the last time he saw this territory it was as a conquering hero standing in his chariot, looking down on broken warriors and bloody sands. Now he comes wounded, yet still trying to hang on to his pride. He asked the gruff old prophet for healing, but when the answer is given, to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times, his pride rises up. Only the desperate pleadings of his faithful servants finally convince him to follow the instructions and participate in the treatment.

With reluctance he gave the order for his servants to help him into the river. They surround him for the ritual washing, lowering and lifting him in the clear river water and dousing his diseased skin. Once, twice, seven times—the angry man with the diseased skin is covered by the cool water of the Jordan. And the healing of God comes! After seven ritual washings a miracle unfolds. The terrible diseased skin—white, yellow, blackened—begins to change. Whether over minutes or days, the Bible doesn’t tell. The end result is astounding. Healthy, vibrant skin, flush with the glow of renewed life, covers the body of the mighty general!

I believe Naaman’s story is the same as ours today. We must participate in the process of healing. That may be as simple as asking God in prayer for help or following the doctor’s instructions to not go back to work too soon. Or it may be far more complicated, like changing our exercise patterns, throwing out old recipes and tempting treats, or attending AA to overcome drinking. We may be called on to forgive and leave behind the anger that is poisoning our body and soul. In many ways, the battle to overcome chronic illness demands that we become a vital participant, not a passive pill-taker. Whatever the process, you must join with God in the work of healing. I believe God uses many ways to heal us. God uses aspirin and absolution of sin, Paxil and psychotherapy, radiation and meditation, prayer and PET scans. All are tools for the loving intentions of God to unfold. Don’t turn away from any of His works, or pridefully neglect the counsel that could make such a difference if you would just do it!

Naaman’s physical healing brought an epiphany of spiritual insight. He confesses his faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel. The heart of the rough prophet Elisha is warmed with this dramatic proclamation which shows a changed soul as well as a healed body.

The ultimate goal in the heart of God for every step of our life is for us to be transformed into His likeness. Jesus said, in John 17:3, “This is eternal life: that each person may know the only true God and Jesus, the one who was sent.” The spiritual path for each one of us will be different. Some paths may even be through the valley of physical illness that lead to spiritual wellness, like Naaman. Had he never known the terrible affliction of his body, he would have never known the healing of this soul. We must trust God as we walk through times of illness. Remember it’s not about the illness—it’s about you and God joining for total wellbeing!

(Photo by E.Akyurt on

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