PROLOGUE: SICKNESS AND SUFFERING: BANEOR BLESSING?
In the same way that human beings are prone to sin, they are prone to sickness also. Sickness is a universal experience. The physical and mental stress of daily living gradually weakens our bodies so that we easily lose resistance and succumb to the forces of this world which cause disease and infirmity. Psychosomatic disorders as well as organic diseases continue to multiply and intensify suffering. At times, they cause suffering more agonizing than the suffering generated by physical illness.
On occasions, of course, sickness is of short duration and causes minimal suffering. The patient may recover with or without medicines. On other occasions sickness is protracted and painful, causing the patient unbearable suffering and rendering him desperate and helpless.
Where do sickness and suffering come from? Who, or what, is really responsible for these disasters that virtually affect all people everywhere, at least to some degree? If God allows them, why does He allow them?
On the other hand, if sickness and suffering are disasters, are they only disasters? Is it possible that, though sickness and suffering are essentially disastrous and destructive, they may still yield blessing? If so, how?
As a medical practitioner who, by God’s grace, has been engaged in the healing process of many sick and suffering people for many years, I have been concerned with such questions about sickness and suffering. However, it was only after I myself endured the ordeal of severe sickness and suffering and could relate this personal experience to my personal faith that I was open to discover more satisfactory answers to these and similar questions and to understand how God graciously and powerfully could extract His blessing for us from out of our human disasters. And at what a cost to Him!
So let me relate my experience to you.
I was born and brought up in a Muslim family in a small village about two hundred kilometres south of Bombay (now called Mumbai), India. At the age of twenty-three, I graduated from the University of Bombay with a degree in medicine and surgery. It was while studying at Grant Medical College, Bombay, that I had my first contact with Christian teachers and students. Prolonged and frequent contact and fellowship with these new friends had a profound and salutary impact on my mind and conduct. When I left medical college in March, 1958, to take up an appointment as a medical officer at the newly established Government Leprosy Control Centre at Savda, about four hundred and fifty kilometres north of Bombay, another Christian friend gave me a Bible. I promised my friend I would read it. This precious gift soon changed my life.
At that time I was not an ardent follower of Islam. Nevertheless, the commitment to read the Bible which I made to my Christian friend led me to undertake a careful research of both the Qur'an and the Bible. Thus a more than three year quest for truth brought me to the feet of Jesus the Messiah, as I accepted Him as my Lord and Redeemer, God’s gift of Himself in this world and for this world.
Then, in 1960, I married the friend who had placed the Bible in my hands and always encouraged me in my study of it. In Milly, a nurse and midwife, God had graciously provided me with a life partner and a professional co-worker. Together we decided to provide a modest health care programme for our community with whatever resources were available to us. After I resigned from my government position in 1963, we established a clinic in Dasgaon, a village close to my birthplace. Despite difficulties, we treated the rich and the poor alike for four years. Once a month we visited our daughter, Shirin, whom we had admitted into a boarding school in Poona, about one hundred kilometres from Dasgaon. While in Poona, we were also able to worship God with many fellow Christians in one of this city’s many churches. We were grateful for this opportunity, especially since we lacked it in Dasgaon. Later we settled in Aurangabad.
God met our needs and we grew in our faith. Though we had a lucrative medical practice, we owned no property and had no money in the bank. The Lord led us to give our surplus earnings to the poor and to live one day at a time. This gave us great joy. With it came added blessing from the Lord.
In December, 1979, events in our lives took a sudden turn. I began experiencing pain and swelling in the lymph glands under my chin, armpits and groins. I took antibiotics for a week with no positive result. A few preliminary laboratory investigations also proved inconclusive. I decided to consult oncologists at the Tata Cancer Hospital in Bombay. The tests there conclusively demonstrated that I had malignant lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph glands. The doctors began treatment immediately. They told me to put my medical practice on hold and advised us to relocate to a cooler climate during my convalescence.
Within a month the pain and swelling in my lymph glands subsided, but the drugs left me weak and unable to work. I quit my practice and moved my family. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of my trials!
At first, we moved to Bangalore in South India, thinking that the climate there would be more congenial. Since it was not, we moved after two months to Belgaum.
Faithfully and prayerfully I continued the treatment for a year and a half as the doctors had recommended. Then I suffered a relapse. The doctors prescribed stronger and costlier drugs. Soon our funds were exhausted so that we could no longer buy drugs. Thank God, as soon as our friends in Aurangabad and elsewhere heard of our plight, they responded overwhelmingly! Within two weeks we had enough money to purchase the medicines and to cover other personal expenses for the next six months.
One of the prescribed drugs, Adriablastin, gave me much trouble. Whenever my wife injected me with it, it caused inflammation of the veins and killed the surrounding tissue. Soon I had scar marks covering my hands, feet and the front of my elbows. My veins had thickened like nylon cord. I became completely bald and, in fact, lost all the hair on my entire body.
To make matters worse, an injection area became infected and I developed a three centimetre ulcer on my left foot. My condition deteriorated and I became bedridden.
I thought the ulcer would develop into gangrene. Immediately Milly arranged for me to return to the hospital in Bombay. In turn the doctor sent me back with an assurance that gangrene had not yet developed. They prescribed treatment to control the infection and advised me to return to the hospital when the ulcer had healed sufficiently for them to perform plastic surgery.
After three weeks I returned to the hospital for the operation. My projected three week stay turned into two months. Immediately upon admission the infection became worse due to a cross infection in the ward where I was located. This delayed the operation by three weeks.
Grafting a piece of skin from another part of my leg brought me additional misery. After forty-eight hours the wound was opened for inspection. I was shocked to see that almost the whole of my lower left leg had been sliced for the graft. Drops of a costly drug were flushed through the wound day and night for seven days with the hope that the graft would take. It was to no avail; the skin flap died. To make matters worse, the same ward infection again settled in the wound. This time the infection proved resistant to the antibiotics.
The wound was dressed four or five times daily. Each time, the dressing was soaked in a saline solution before loosening and removing it. I could hardly bear this procedure. My body panicked from the noise of the dressing trolley as it was dragged by my bedside. I lost my appetite and became anaemic. The infection continued to spread upward in the leg. It seemed best to amputate the leg below the knee as soon as possible in order to save the knee.
Many of our friends came to visit me in the hospital. Among them were the missionaries Paul and Virginia Morris who lived in Bombay. I always stayed with them when I came to Bombay for medical examination. They served me Holy Communion, brought me books and magazines and looked after my other needs. But my main source of comfort and strength was the Bible. I read through every verse on prayer, faith and healing. I noted that God wants us to be healthy (3 John 2) and that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). As I read and prayed, I tried to understand what I lacked for healing. I knew that hundreds of people were praying for me. What was missing?
Then, suddenly, I happened to look at the scars that I had developed on my elbows, hands and feet where the drugs had been injected into me – though, to be sure, through fine needles. Then I recalled the ghastly wounds of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, whose bleeding hands and feet had been pierced with thick nails at the time of His crucifixion.
As I remembered the suffering our Lord endured for my sake and, in fact, for the sake of all people (1 John 2:2), I felt ashamed! He gave away His life voluntarily, out of compassion for sinful mankind and in obedience to the will of the Heavenly Father. My suffering added up to nothing in comparison with the sufferings He endured as the Son of Man from the moment of His birth in the manger to their climax on the cross of Calvary. He lived as "a man of sorrows". He bore our infirmities, carried our diseases. He was insulted, lashed and tortured, taking upon Himself the punishment we deserved so that we could be forgiven. Though He, as God’s eternal Word, was one with the eternal God, sharing in His Father’s deity and sovereignty, yet He had humbled Himself to become an obedient servant, accepting even the ignominious death of a slave on the cross in willing and total obedience to the will of His Father (Philippians 2:6-8). He truly experienced the Psalmist’s cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). In Jesus the Messiah what a demonstration of the limitless love of God for us! In Jesus the Messiah what an exposure of the sinfulness of our sin, God’s judgment upon it and the price He paid to forgive it! And at that moment also, I remembered our Lord’s very words that He taught His disciples to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
Until that point I had not adequately grasped what surrendering self to God and His will really meant. It was at that point that the Lord impressed upon me the need to re-examine my faith and prayer-life, to compare them as I practised them with the Biblical understanding of what they should be and, yes, to check my intention in practising them. Then I began to realise that for me, too, as for the Lord Jesus Himself, trusting God means totally surrendering my life to God and His will. While I, as His little child, should express my wants to Him, I must not dictate to Him what He should do for me. I must recognise that He, my Lord, knows better than I, His child and servant, what is best for me, that I am in this world to discern and to do His will, that I am to pray that He would bend my self-centered will to conform with His gracious will, not that He would conform His will to mine. How easy to try to manipulate God, to try to get Him to do things my way! How hard, so often, for me to really want what He wants me to want! The moment I realised this, I felt as though my shoulders were relieved instantly of the heavy burden I had been carrying all these days.
I had spent all the days of Lent in the hospital. Throughout, Milly stood by my bedside like a solid rock, strong and confident in her faith, encouraging me and lifting up my spirit. Then on Friday morning, a week before Good Friday, two days before Palm Sunday in 1982, I surrendered myself to the will of God. This decision, inspired by God’s Spirit, was the turning point in my life.
Later that morning the assistant surgeon came to discuss the amputation. I told him to go ahead. We decided that on the following Monday the left leg should be amputated.
As Milly had gone to the chemist’s shop for some medicines, she was not present at the time of the decision. When I told her about the decision, she did not accept it. She believed that the Lord would preserve my leg and refused to give written consent to the operation, saying she would continue to fast and pray.
Milly fasted the entire next day. When some friends came to see me in the evening, I was having tea and asked them to join me. When they wanted Milly also to join us for tea, I told them that she was fasting and praying on my behalf.
Then one of them suggested that all lay their hands on me and pray (James 5:14-16). I was asked to lead the prayer. Then the others took turns praying. Their earnestness was evident from their words and their tears. I concluded with the words: "Lord, let your will, not mine, prevail." At that moment something strange happened! I experienced a feeling that is hard to explain. It was as if something like lightning or electricity went through my body, giving a sensation of warmth and joy. I felt as though the bandage around my leg had loosened and the entire layer of pus and scabs had come off.
I could not resist telling others what had happened. All were excited and joined me in praising God. An hour later, the house surgeon came to change the dressing as usual. After he untied the knot, he removed the bandage without difficulty. This time not a drop of saline was required to remove the inner dressing. Apart from a small area over a tendon, no trace of pus existed. The entire area was pink with granulation tissue, a new tissue ready to accept the superficial skin graft!
On Monday, the day scheduled for surgery, the chief surgeon came to my room. He could not believe the house surgeon’s report. He himself unrolled the bandage and looked at the wound. He smiled in amazement and said that the next day, they would perform surgery for the superficial skin graft on my leg.
Within a few days after the skin graft, I left the hospital. I was instructed to use a pair of crutches for two weeks, then only one crutch for another two weeks, then a cane as long as it was necessary. But the Lord wonderfully worked it so that after one week I gave up the crutches and walked with a cane. After three days I dispensed with the cane also.
I did continue to limp. However, one Sunday when I had gone for church worship, the pastor asked me to read the Scripture lesson for the day. As I walked to the reading stand, I suddenly stopped limping! The Lord had completed the healing process.
Once my body was riddled with cancer; today it is whole. Since February, 1982, I have taken no medication for this malady.
Once it was certain that I would lose my leg; today I stand solid on both feet.
Once I thought I would not be able to practise medicine again; today, with God’s help, I am healing the sick in Aurangabad.
Once my faith was weak and fragile; now it is strong and firm. And that is my greatest gain. I had tasted something of the joy in suffering, to which the Bible refers: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Dare one speak about a foretaste of resurrection in this life? If, as the Bible most eloquently testifies, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and His victory over death happened through His violent suffering and death on the cross for us and for our salvation, then should not the fruits of His salvation be manifest also in us and through us among others whom God equally loves? Thankfully, with my family and others I rededicated my life to God.
“What a wonderful God we have – He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the source of every mercy, and the one who so wonderfully comforts and strengthens us in our hardship and trials. And why does He do this? So that when others are troubled, needing our sympathy and encouragement, we can pass on to them this same help and comfort God has given us.” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4, The Living Bible translation)
This personal experience of intense suffering due to a critical illness and its complications has profoundly affected my attitude toward the sick and my treatment of their ailments. I count it a blessing from God to have suffered physically so that I can fully identify with the suffering of others. Now I want to diagnose their sickness and treat them, not only their sickness. I want them to know that God cares for them, that ultimately He is the source of all healing, that medical staff, instrument and drugs are simply His gifts and that finally the proper stance of both patients and staff is to say: "Thank you, dear God!"
We pray for our patients and offer them portions of the Holy Bible that speak of new hope, new purpose and God’s peace for their lives. If only, through their sickness, they might see God not only as their master and judge but also as their loving Heavenly Father! If only they might taste the sweetness of God’s love and forgiveness, and their hearts be liberated from the acids of anger, greed, envy, hatred and revenge, which so often impede even physical healing also!
“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ (the Messiah) from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11)
“But how can they hear without someone spreading the Good News!” (Romans 10:14)
This book is a humble endeavour toward that end.
Dr. Ibrahimkhan Omerkhan Deshmukh