Nancy Writebol, the missionary nurse in Liberia who contracted Ebola and was successfully treated at Emory University Hospital last July, was interviewed for this week’s Christianity Today. Her words reminded me of my sermon last week. As I discussed the headlines involving Brittany Maynard, I quoted James 1:2-3: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Count it all joy. Does “all” mean all? This is a hard truth but true nonetheless: God has what Tim Keller calls a “causal relationship with suffering”—meaning that God has good reasons for permitting it. As bad as our present suffering may be, we may trust that the alternative to our suffering—given this fallen world and its sin-filled circumstances—would be even worse. Even suffering, therefore, serves God’s purposes. The good news, as a consequence, is that God has the power to redeem it and use it for our good.
As I’ve said many times before, if God can transform the worst evil and suffering on the cross of his Son Jesus into the world’s greatest good, then he certainly has the power to redeem lesser evil and suffering—even our own.
Many Christians resist this idea. But I wonder: Would they rather God have no control over our suffering—and merely watch from the sidelines of our lives with pity? In that case, God would not be the God revealed to us in Jesus.
Writebol doesn’t pretend to understand why she contracted Ebola or why she was healed while so many others weren’t. Nevertheless, she said, “I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: ‘This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.'”
Here are some relevant excerpts from the interview:
How did you wrestle spiritually with the fact that you contracted Ebola and lived while many of your colleagues did not?
It is a wrestle. First of all, we don’t know the mind of God and why the Lord allowed me to survive and some of my African brothers and sisters not to survive. I just have to say that God is so great, and that we don’t know his mind and we don’t want to put him in a box: “This is how God should work or shouldn’t work.”
God has allowed us to survive, and there are many African brothers and sisters who are surviving Ebola. We give God glory for those who are surviving. But it’s like cancer or any disease: some survive and some don’t. I trust the Lord in what he’s doing and how he’s working. He’s brought awareness to the Ebola crisis, which has helped in getting a vaccine and a serum that can maybe help, and in raising awareness for the rest of the African countries that are suffering.
Did you ever ask God why you got sick?
I don’t know that I ever asked “Why, God?” or “Why?” I know that I received peace from the Lord. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t dark times. All of us in Liberia felt that the week that Dr. Brantly and I were really struggling, there was a spiritual battle going on—there were some very, very dark days. But also in the darkness, the Lord brought back into my mind his Word and his peace…
To what extent had you already been thinking through these theological issues simply because you had been treating Ebola for several weeks?
I always felt safe going. I trusted the Lord that we were the hands and feet of Christ. I had experienced Christ’s peace way before I ever contracted Ebola. [After I got sick,] my relationship with the Lord deepened, knowing he was in control. He was in control of what was happening, and it was not a surprise to God. He has our days numbered.