How Should We Deal with the Phenomenon of Disease?

By Ralph D. Winter

[The following is an entry in the prayer log at the U.S. Center for World Mission during the 6 am to 10 am shift.]

Sunday, 8 December 2002

This is a great place to start out on a birthday, even though I will only be able to go to the 11 O’Clock service and not Sunday School. Today I’m 78 and feel like 60. It is hard to believe that the tests last week showed the telltale signs of bone marrow cancer (myeloma) continuing steadily to increase. It means that no matter how fine I feel now I may not be able to count on very many more months of that. Its funny. We all know that life is uncertain and that in a bike accident like Dan Eddy’s we could actually break our necks, etc., but in my case a fairly likely date has been set, so to speak, not too far in the future. This allows and indeed encourages pinch-penny use of time almost like never before. Of course I have not for many years been regarding my time much differently simply because of the thrill and excitement of making every day and hour count for the work of Christ.

It really is thrilling to be my age and in my health. I feel I have learned the most important things of my life since I was 70! The more you know the easier it is to attach new information to what you already know. This is true in the realm of the spiritual, in regard to historical information, as well as science.

At the same time knowing things that the average citizen may not know is unhandy because it separates you off into some kind of isolation. Most of what I have “learned” since I was 70 has to do with the nature of God and His Word. I have been especially fascinated by praying and meditating about the glory of God. I have come to the place where I am doubtful that by singing over and over again “glory, glory” we are learning more about His glory. Suppose you were separated from your earthly father at birth and at the age of 30 met him for the first time. If you were to raise your hands and sing “wonderful father” over and over again it would not expand your knowledge of him at all.

I am doubtful that by singing over and over again “glory, glory” we are learning more about His glory.

I don’t mean people are trying to avoid God by their worship songs. I believe all of that is quite sincere. What I am thinking is that most people don’t know what to do to know God better. Or, take another example. Suppose you get engaged to a girl who lives in a distant city. Every letter you get enlightens you more about her. And going over older letters may even give a bit of additional knowledge about this person. But pure meditation would have distinct limitations in providing you with new and additional information about her.

I am the one who pushed for a TV set in here, and specifically because of the amazing video by R. C. Sproul on the holiness of God. I don’t see that video here anymore but I continue to believe that a weekly or biweekly four-hour time of prayer and meditation here can be best served if we have input not merely output. One of the last things prayer is is talking to God. Listening to Him is more important and learning about Him is also important. If you called up someone to whom you are engaged and did all the talking you would not learn much about her or him.

So how do we find out more about God? Through His words and deeds, not by talking to Him or even singing about Him (unless the song or hymn reveals new things not just generalities). His words and deeds are seen preeminently in the Bible. His deeds are also and magnificently seen in His Creation. Thus we have two books to consult: the Book of Creation (nature) and the Book of Revelation (the Bible). Note that the Book of Creation came first and that “there is no speech or language where (its) voice is not heard (Ps 19:1-3). In Romans 1:20 we read “Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen.”

So how do we find out more about God? Through His words and deeds, not by talking to Him or even singing about Him (unless the song or hymn reveals new things not just generalities).

Scientists peer into the one book often with sincerity and genuine awe. Religious people peer into the other book often with sincerity and awe. But the religious people have become alienated from the Book of Creation by some of the scientists who have misread and misinterpreted it. They tell all the scientists that their book is no good. And, of course, many scientists say the book of the religious is no good. But God meant us to read both books! It is our obligation to read, study, and worship Him as we learn of the true glory of God that can be seen in both books. Thus, not only prayer but worship is seen in a new light. Prayer and worship thus also consist of witnessing and digesting and learning about God. That is why prayerful and worshipful reading of the Bible is itself a form of prayer and worship (here in the prayer room). But if I brought in a text on microbiology I would guess a few of our good people here would be shocked.

I wonder if we cannot learn something from the way we treat the fabulous video we are widely promoting, “Unlocking the Mystery of Life.” We all enjoyed it in part because it tears down Darwinism and bolsters our faith in God as the Intelligent Designer. But note, it is combative in some ways. It pours scorn (courteously of course) on enemies of the Gospel. We do not use it as a worship tape, however. No one I know is putting some of the awesome glory of God in the small world of microbiological world into worship songs. There we simply go on and on praising God “generically.” Is it not obvious that there is something dreadfully wrong with our relationship to the Book of Creation?

OK, take me. Here I am a few months away from my own death by an apparently irreversible destruction of my bone marrow. My daughter Linda in this very log sincerely presents the idea “that many of our sinful responses to life (fear, anxiety, unforgiveness, bitterness etc.) have negative consequences in our physical bodies.” (Incidentally, wrongly understood this is a veritable recipe for morbid introspection.) Well, I certainly have no problem believing this.

I know that Linda also believes “devoutly” (yes that’s the right word!) in fighting cancer by proper nutrition. Oh yes, exercise, too. And all of this I devoutly believe. But I ask, does nutrition, exercise, banishing anxiety, etc. protect you or cure you of Malaria? Are our immune systems normally capable of defeating Malaria, Tuberculosis, Smallpox, Anthrax, etc.? No, not normally. And, if the latest thinking is correct, slow-acting viruses underlie heart disease as well as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and Schizophrenia.. And perfectly healthy people like Jeff Brom are keeling over every day from heart disease, So, do we go on just praying in addition to making sure we heed these other things (nutrition, exercise, peace of soul and mind, etc.)?

...does nutrition, exercise, banishing anxiety, etc. protect you or cure you of Malaria? Are our immune systems normally capable of defeating Malaria, Tuberculosis, Smallpox, Anthrax, etc.? No, not normally.

Note that all of those things are mere defenses against disease. However, surprising recent insights are that all of the listed diseases are all basically caused by outside invaders, which we need to fight in the same sense as we fight the crime of visible terrorists. It is understandable, of course, that we would not automatically think about going beyond prayer and taking concrete measures to quell the source of these destructive diseases if we did not know that they are caused by attacking pathogens which our immune systems, no matter how healthy, cannot always overcome.

Here is where closer study is needed of the Book of Creation to discern the difference between the beauty God put there and the violence and gruesome cruelty Satan has put there. Here is where we cannot leave this to secular scientists. Do you realize that we have not even kept a list of our own staff and immediate relations that have died of heart attacks, cancer etc.!

Why? Because we continue to assume that there is nothing you can do but hope and pray it does not happen to you! OK, there WAS nothing we could do (beyond the many reasonable defensive measures mentioned earlier). There is not NOW nothing that can be done. And this massive change is the result of a relative handful of (mainly secular) people studying the Book of Creation and discerning therein that God is not the author of the twisting and distortions of that Creation, but that there is a whole array of intelligent pathogens to be fought and exterminated. Meanwhile Evangelicals often believe by default that it must be God that is destroying his own creation. (Sort of like the opposite where the Pharisees resorted to the position that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Satan!). Jesus healed diseases. He did not blame God for them. Peter described Jesus’ ministry as “healing all those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38).” He recognized an outside enemy, not a lack of proper nutrition, exercise, etc. although it is obvious that an outside attack is more likely to succeed if we ignore those defensive measures.

Meanwhile Evangelicals often believe by default that it must be God that is destroying his own creation.

So what does this all lead to? It seems likely to mean that now that we have new knowledge about the outside sources of several massive diseases, that we cannot in good conscience fail to do what we can to mount new offensive warfare with those attacking sources.

My time is running out on this shift. A week ago I spent a couple of hours prayerfully perusing a book that patiently, detailedly, describes how over 200 years of missionary work went down the drain. The word Florida in the 16th century included not only our present state by that name but also the entire southeast of the USA, in the triangle from Virginia to Alabama to Miami. In that area lived literally hundreds of thousands of Indians (native Americans). Well, between about 1530 and 1800 primarily Spanish work was undertaken employing both soldiers and missionaries, the latter very faithfully. Lots of good things and unwise things happened, but eventually “missions” (outposts) of the kind we see still standing in California, 150 of them, were planted. Each one was a worship center, an educational center, and an industrial center.

However, today there is not a physical trace of a single one of those painstakingly established missions. Worse still the entire Indian population, as in Cuba, has totally vanished, dying primarily of European diseases. All of those hundreds of thousands of people! Their religion certainly did not save them, at least not in this life. Neither did ours. Are we to send missionaries around the world simultaneously to implant disease and offer eternal salvation? You will say no, not intentionally. But what about the diseases they already have? Are we to help them to eradicate those diseases (not just be kind to those who get sick)?

It is not obvious how we can help, if in fact virtually no one is trying to figure out how to eradicate pathogens, especially those pathogens whose existence we have not even thought about. But few realize how little attention is given to the ultimate causes of disease, or how confused we have been as to what the causes of, say, heart disease are. Last week’s TIME and NEWSWEEK both reported that the percentage of people who die of heart disease but who do not have high cholesterol, etc. is now finally admitted to be 50% We have a lot of learning to do and as a nation we don’t seem well prepared to do that study. But that is another story. 

Ralph D.Winter (December 8, 1924 – May 20, 2009) was an American missiologist and missionary who became well-known as an advocate for pioneer outreach among unreached people groups. He was the founder of the U.S. Center for World MissionWilliam Carey International University, the Perspectives Study Program and William Carey Library Publishers