Living With An Incurable Disease

John Meinen  |  March 06, 2017

“Blessed are the spiritually poor.” So begins one of the most famous sermons ever uttered—Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Jesus had a way of startling us to attention, didn’t he? The spiritually poor are blessed. The spiritually rich are cursed. The ones who know they are sick get cured. The ones who think they are fine die outside the hospital. 

I have this date marked on my calendar—the seventh of every month, a date I call “AIDS Day.” My wife asked me about it the other day: “John…what is ‘AIDS Day? And why is it on your calendar January 7, February 7, March 7, etc.?”

I explained to her where and how it started: On December 7, 2016, Rev. Tim Keller addressed a bunch of RUF campus ministers at our annual December training. He opened up the day with a morning devotional from 2 Cor. 12:7-9, a passage where Paul talks about his “thorn in the flesh.” “God gave me this thorn,” Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited—conceited because of the surpassingly great revelations he has shown me.”

According to Keller, Paul is not the only one who received such revelations. Any minister of the gospel has received surpassingly great revelations too. RUF campus ministers know the gospel; we know the good news about Jesus Christ; we know things that “angels long to look at” (1 Pet. 1:12). Without a “thorn in the flesh,” we are prone to conceit just as much as Paul was.

Suffering has a way of humbling someone, of bringing us to our knees. So does wrestling with God, which often coincides with suffering. Paul was given a thorn. Jacob walked with a limp. Keller talked about his bout with cancer. But what about me? Have I been lamed? Am I in touch with my weakness?

The problem is I don’t feel lamed very often. Far too often, I operate out of my gifts and strengths. I need something to remind me that I’m not well; something to remind me of my true, spiritual condition; something that will drive me into the arms of a Good Physician and keep me in His care. So I put “AIDS Day” on my Google calendar—something that stands out in the thick of a busy schedule packed with 1-1s and small group Bible studies; something that I see every single day; something to remind me that I have a sin-sickness inside of me that, until I get to heaven, is not going to go away.

I need reminders like these. “You have spiritual AIDS.” There are cures for cancer, but so far there is no cure for HIV/AIDS. Granted there is medicine that you can take on a regular basis that will enable you to live a somewhat “normal” life, but even on meds you still carry the disease within you.

On the 7th, Keller re-told a story that kicks off his book on prayer. The year was 2001. It was his 12th year of his ministry in NYC. 9/11 had just happened. Kathy, his wife, was struggling with Crohn’s disease. And he himself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The weight of ministry, family life…the world—all of it was pressing down on him and his wife. Things came to a head one night. We have to pray, Kathy said. Not just once in awhile. We need to pray every night. “Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget?”[1]

Of course not. You would pray every night. You would pray because you had to—because you were desperate—because you realized the seriousness and the urgency of your condition.

I need something or someone to make this all too clear to me. I need a thorn in the flesh, a limp in my step, something…anything…to remind me that I am sin-sick and that if I don’t take my medicine daily, I will die.

* * * * *

Jesus’ sermon continues: “Blessed are those that mourn, who groan, who grieve their condition, who hate their spiritual AIDS.” “Blessed are the humble ones—those who find themselves low to the earth—who feel like all they can do is crawl. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they don’t have it, but they know they need it; they want it; without it, they will perish.

These are the ones, Jesus says, who are blessed. These are the ones who get heaven and earth thrown in, who are comforted, and who are fully satisfied. It is the sick-and-poor ones who are blessed. Not because it’s awesome being a sinner and having this disease called “sin” inside of you. Rather, what makes them blessed is that they have a God who knows their condition, who left heaven for earth, and who did so in order to heal them. They don’t need to do anything to be healed but cry out for mercy. All they need is need.

The curse of being spiritually rich is thinking you’re ok. You need healing just as much as the other guy, but you don’t ask for it. You don’t ask for it because you don’t think you need it. And you don’t receive because you don’t ask.

* * * * *

In Bible study this semester, we’re looking at the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve explained to our students the way his sermon works. In many respects, Jesus is presenting us with a clean bill of health: “This is the kind of life you were made for. This is what real righteousness looks like. This is the kind of righteousness you need in order to see the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matt. 5:20).

As you sit through this sermon, it very quickly dawns on you: “If this is what true spiritual health looks like…I am not well.” And that is precisely the point! The question is: what are you going to do with that knowledge? Are you going to deny it, hide it…try harder? Or are you going to let your diagnosis drive you to the hospital and into the arms of a Good Physician? That is the first and critical move of this sermon. Once you are in the care of the Good Physician, taking your meds—i.e., the means of grace (Word, sacraments, prayer)—rehabilitation happens. You are not perfected, but you are bettered. It doesn’t happen all at once, mind you—healing is a slow and sometimes painful process—but it does happen. Slowly but surely, it happens. Under the care of the Good Physician, you do begin to see yourself more and more in that “clean bill of health.” But—and this too is critical—your rehabilitation is a consequence of your salvation and not the condition for it. If you want to get well, you must first of all admit you are sick. “Blessed,” Jesus said, “are the spiritually poor.”

On the 7th of every month, I call my friend and fellow campus minister, Ande Johnson. He has spiritual AIDS too. We ask each other, “How are you doing?” and we tell each other the good news about Jesus. We groan because we are far worse than we think we are. We laugh because we are dearly loved by the One who stitched us together inside our mother’s womb and is at work even now, stitching us back together outside of it. That’s good news for people like you and me. We are indeed spiritually poor men and women. But we have a spiritually rich Savior. And that makes us blessed.

[1] Quoted in Timothy Keller, Prayer (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).