"Sickness" by J.C. Ryle
As we begin this new year, we begin it in the midst of the ongoing spread of COVID-19 in its variant forms. Many of us have gotten sick or have family members or friends who have gotten sick. We might feel discouraged by it all.
To provide us some encouragement, I want to share some key ideas from J.C. Ryle’s short essay titled “Sickness” which he wrote in 1878. You can find it for free online with a Google search. Ryle begins by demonstrating the universal prevalence of sickness. It is everywhere and touches every person, whether rich or poor, young or old. Ryle writes: “The Englishman’s house is called his castle; but there are no doors and bars which can keep out disease and death!”
Ryle then outlines the benefits of sickness. He explains that though sickness is painful and uncomfortable, “it is a real friend to man’s soul.” He provides 5 reasons why:
1. Sickness helps to remind men of death. Most people live as if they were never going to die. They follow business, or pleasure, or politics, or science—as if earth was their eternal home. They plan and scheme for the future, like the rich fool in the parable, as if they had a long lease of life, and were not tenants whose length of stay is brief. A heavy illness sometimes goes far to dispel these delusions. It awakens men from their day-dreams, and reminds them that they have to die, as well as to live. Now this I say emphatically is a mighty good.
2. Sickness helps to make men think seriously of God, and their souls, and the world to come. Most people, in their days of health, can find no time for such thoughts. They dislike them. They put them away. They count them troublesome and disagreeable. Now a severe disease has sometimes a wonderful power of mustering and rallying these thoughts, and bringing them up before the eyes of a man’s soul. Even a wicked king like Benhadad, when sick, could think of Elisha (2 Kings 8:8). Even heathen sailors, when death was in sight, were afraid, and “cried every man to his god” (Jonah 1:5). Surely anything that helps to make men think, is a good.
3. Sickness helps to soften men’s hearts, and teach them wisdom. The natural heart is as hard as a stone! It can see no good in anything which is not of this life, and no happiness excepting in this world. A long illness sometimes goes far to correct these ideas. It exposes the emptiness and hollowness of what the world calls “good” things, and teaches us to hold them with a loose hand. The man of business finds that money alone is not everything which the heart requires. The woman of the world finds that costly apparel, and novel reading, and the reports of balls and operas—are miserable comforters in a sick room. Surely anything that obliges us to alter our weights and measures of earthly things, is a real good.
4. Sickness helps to humble us. We are all naturally proud and high-minded. Few, even of the poorest, are free from the infection. Few are to be found who do not look down on somebody else, and secretly flatter themselves that they are “not as other men.” A sick bed is a mighty tamer of such thoughts as these. It forces on us the mighty truth that we are all poor worms, that we “dwell in houses of clay,” and are “crushed before the moth” (Job 4:19), and that kings and subjects, masters and servants, rich and poor—are all dying creatures, and will soon stand side by side at the judgment bar of God. In the sight of the coffin and the grave—it is not easy to be proud. Surely anything that teaches that lesson, is good.
5. Finally, sickness helps to try men’s religion, of what sort it is. There are not many on earth who have no religion at all. Yet few have a religion which will bear inspection. Most are content with traditions received from their fathers, and can render no reason of the hope that is in them. Now disease is sometimes most useful to a man in exposing the utter worthlessness of his soul’s foundation. It often shows him that he has nothing solid under his feet, and nothing firm under his hand. It makes him find out that, although he may have had a form of religion, he has been all his life worshiping “an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Many a creed looks well on the smooth waters of health—which turns out utterly unsound and useless on the rough waves of the sick bed. The storms of winter often bring out the defects in a man’s dwelling—and sickness often exposes the gracelessness of a man’s soul. Surely anything that makes us find out the real character of our faith, is a good.
Ryle then outlines several special duties and practical applications and ends with an encouraging reminder of eternity with Christ:
The time is short. The fashion of this world passes away…We travel towards a world where there is no more sickness…In Christ’s presence shall be fullness of joy. He shall wipe away all tears from his people’s eyes. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. But he shall be destroyed. Death himself shall one day die (Rev. 20:14). In the meantime, let us live a life of faith in the Son of God. Let us lean all our weight on Christ, and rejoice in the thought that he lives for evermore.
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