The time must come when you, as well as others, must go down the dark valley of the shadow of death. The hour must come when you, like all your forefathers, must sicken and die. The time may be near or far off. God only knows. But whenever the time may be, I ask again, What are you going to do? Where do you plan to turn for comfort? On what do you plan to rest your soul? On what do you plan to build your hope? From where will you get your relief?
I plead with you not to ignore these questions. Allow them to work on your conscience, and do not rest until you can give them a satisfactory answer. Do not play with that precious gift, an immortal soul. Do not defer the consideration of the matter to a more convenient time. Do not presume on a death-bed repentance. The most important business surely ought not be left to the last.
One dying thief was saved that men might not despair, but only one that none might presume.
I repeat the question. I am sure that it deserves an answer. “What will you do when you are sick?”
If you were going to live forever in this world then I would not address you as I do. But it cannot be. There is no escaping the common lot of all mankind. Nobody can die in our place. The day must come when we must each go to the place where we will spend an eternity. I want you to be prepared when you face that day. The body which now takes up so much of your attention–the body which you now dress, and feed with so much care–that body must again return to the dust. Oh, think of what an awful thing it be in the end to have provided for everything except the one thing that was needful – to have provided for the body, but to have neglected the soul – to die, and “give no sign” of being saved! Once more I ask the question of your conscience: “What will you do when you are sick?”
I offer “counsel” to all who feel they need it and are willing to take it–to all who feel they are not yet prepared to meet God. That counsel is short and simple. Seek after the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved.
Either you have a soul or you do not. Surely, you will never deny that you have one. Then if you have a soul, then seek that soul’s salvation. Of all the gambling in the world, there is none so reckless as that of the man who lives unprepared to meet God, and yet puts off repentance. Either you have sins or you have none. If you have (and who will dare to deny it?), turn away from them without delay. Either you need a Savior or you do not. If you do, flee to the only Savior this very day, and strongly cry to Him to save your soul. Pursue Christ at once. Seek Him by faith. Commit your soul into His keeping. Cry mightily to Him for forgiveness and peace with God. Ask Him to pour out the Holy Spirit on you, and make you a true Christian. He will hear you. No matter what you have been, He will not refuse your prayer. He has said, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” [John 6:37].
Beware, I beg you, of a vague and indefinite Christianity. Do not be content with a general hope that all is right because you belong to an old established church denomination, and that all will be well in the end, because God is merciful. Do not rest without a personal union with Christ Himself. Do not rest until you have the witness of the Spirit in your heart, and are washed, sanctified, justified, one with Christ, and Christ is in you. Do not rest until you can say with the apostle, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” [2 Timothy 1:12].
Vague, and indefinite, and indistinct religion may seem to work fine in a time of health. It will never do in the day of sickness. A mere formal, mechanical Christianity may carry a man through the sunshine of youth and prosperity. It will break down entirely when death is in sight. Nothing will do then but real heart-union with Christ. Christ interceding for us at God’s right hand–our Friend–Christ alone can rob death of its sting and enable us to face sickness without fear. He alone can deliver those who through the fear of death are in bondage. I say to everyone who wants advice, Be one with Christ. If you are ever to have hope and comfort on the bed side of sickness, then be one with Christ. Seek Christ. Pursue Christ.
Take every care and trouble to Him when you are one with Him. He will keep you and carry you through everything. Pour out your heart before Him, when your conscience is burdened. He is the true Confessor. He alone can forgive you and take the burden away. Turn to Him first in the day of sickness, like Martha and Mary. Keep on looking to Him to the very last breath of your life. Christ is worth knowing. The more you know Him the better you will love Him. Be one with Jesus Christ.
In the third place, I exhort all true Christians who read this paper to remember how much they glorify God in the time of sickness, and to “lie quiet in God’s hand when they are sick.”
I feel it is very important to touch on this point. I know how ready the heart of a believer is to faint, and how busy Satan is in suggesting doubts and questionings, when the body of a Christian is weak. I have seen something of the depression and despondency which sometimes comes upon the children of God when they are suddenly laid aside by disease, and obliged to sit still. I have noted how prone some good people are to torment themselves with morbid thoughts at such times, and to say in their hearts, “God has forsaken me: I am cast out of His sight.”
I earnestly entreat all sick believers to remember that they may honor God as much by patient suffering as they can by active work. It often shows more grace to sit still than it does to go here and there, and perform great deeds. I entreat them to remember that Christ cares for them as much when they are sick as He does when they are well, and that the very chastisement they feel so acutely is sent in love, and not in anger. Above all, I beg them to remember the sympathy of Jesus for all His weak members. They are always tenderly cared for by Him, but never so much as in their time of need. Christ has had great experience with sickness. He knows the heart of a sick man. He used to see “every disease and sickness among the people” [Matthew 4:23] when He was on earth. He especially felt for the sick in the days of His flesh, and He especially feels for them now. Sickness and suffering, I often think, make believers more like their Lord in experience, than heath would. “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases” [Isaiah 53:4; Matthew 8:17]. The Lord Jesus was a “Man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” No one has such an opportunity of learning the mind of a suffering Savior as suffering disciples.
I conclude with a word of “exhortation” to all believers, which I heartily pray that God would impress upon their souls. I exhort you to keep up a habit of close communion with Christ, and never to be afraid of “going too far” in your religion. Remember this, if you wish to have “great peace” in your times of sickness.
I observe with regret a tendency in some quarters to lower the standard of practical Christianity, and to denounce what are called “extreme views” about a Christian’s daily walk in life. I remark with pain that even religious people will sometimes look coldly on those who withdraw from worldly society, and will censure them as “exclusive, narrow-minded, selfish, unkind, bitter,” and the like. I warn every believer in Christ who reads this paper to beware of being influenced by such censures. I entreat him, if he wants light in the valley of death, to “keep himself from being polluted by the world,” to “follow the Lord wholeheartedly,” and to walk very closely with God. [James 1:27; Numbers 14:24]
I believe that the lack of “thoroughness” concerning many people’s Christianity is one reason for their lack of peace, both in health and sickness. I believe that the religion of “compromise,” which satisfies many in the present day, is offensive to God, and sows thorns in dying pillows, which hundreds never discover until it’s too late. I believe that the weakness and feebleness of such a religion never reveals itself so clearly as it does on a sick bed.
If you and I want to be “greatly encouraged” in our time of need, we must not be content with a barren union with Christ. [Hebrews 6:18] We must seek to know something of a heartfelt, experimental “communion” with Him. Never, never let us forget, that “union” is one thing, and “communion” another. Thousands, I fear, who know what “union” with Christ is, know nothing of “communion.”
The day may come when after a long fight with disease, we shall feel that medicine can do no more, and that nothing remains but to die. Friends will be standing by, unable to help us. Hearing, eyesight, even the power of praying, will be fast failing us. The world and its shadows will be melting beneath our feet. Eternity, with its realities, will be looming large before our minds. What will support us in that trying hour? What will enable us to say, “I will fear no evil” ? [Psalm 23:4] Nothing, nothing can do it but close communion with Christ. Christ living in our hearts by faith–Christ putting His right arm under our heads–Christ sitting by our side–Christ alone can give us the complete victory in the last struggle.
Let us cling to Christ more closely, love Him more wholeheartedly, live to Him more thoroughly, copy Him more exactly, confess him more boldly, follow Him more fully. Religion like this will always bring its own reward. Worldly people may laugh at it. Weak brethren may think it extreme. But it will wear well. At the evening time of our lives it will bring us light. In sickness it will bring us peace. In the world to come it will give us a crown of glory that will never fade away.
The time is short. This world is passing away. A few more sicknesses, and it will all be over. A few more funerals, and our own funeral will take place. A few more storms and gales, and we will be safe in the harbor. We travel towards a world where there is no more sickness, where parting, and pain, and crying, and mourning, are done forevermore. Every year heaven is becoming more full of God’s beloved children, and the earth more empty. The friends that have gone before us are becoming more numerous than the friends left behind. “In just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay.” [Hebrews 10:37] In His presence will be fullness of joy. Christ will wipe away all tears from His people’s eyes. The last enemy that will be destroyed is Death. But he will be destroyed. Death himself will one day die. [Revelation 20:14]
In the meantime let us live the life of faith in the Son of God. Let us lean all our weight on Christ, and rejoice in the thought that He lives forevermore.
Yes: blessed be God! Christ lives, though we may die. Christ lives, though friends and families are carried to the grave. He lives who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light by the Gospel. He lives who said, “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” [Hosea 13:14] He lives who will one day change our vile body, and make it like His glorious body. In sickness and in health, in life and in death, let us lean confidently on Him. Surely we ought to say daily with one of old, “Blessed be God for Jesus Christ!”
— J. C. Ryle (1816-1900), on “Sickness”