“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6:33 (KJV)
“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Mark 16:15-18 (KJV)
A missionary friend spent a very short week with us last Fall (2013), trying to learn my diabetic low carbohydrate high fat diet, alas, with less fruit than I’d hope. Still I always enjoy his company, and we have been friends since 1992–since Neuchatel, Switzerland. He was the one who first put me in contact with FATEB in Bangui, Central African Republic, where I taught for eight years as a visiting professor of New Testament and early Church history. At one point during the week, my friend said something quite interesting, and I paraphrase: “You mean it really does matter what I eat. I never put any concern into eating. You know, Seek ye first the Kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you.” “All these things” is a reference to necessities of life–food, clothing, shelter. But during that week I’d stressed to him that for diabetics, sugar and starch are like poison because they raise our blood sugar to levels that we can’t bring down and the excess blood sugar begins to damage our skin, our blood vessels, our eyes, our brains, our nerves, and whatever other bodily tissue there might be.
I think I shared his attitude while still young and healthy. As long as I was in the will of God and on the mission that he’d called me to do, I didn’t have to worry about what I ate, for God would protect me. Of course I wasn’t entirely consistent. I didn’t want to go to Africa and die of malaria or some other tropical disease. So I relied on medical science to keep me alive, and indeed, without the yellow fever vaccine, you can’t even enter the tropical countries of Africa. I went to the local Missionary Health Institute and received numerous shots and two prescriptions: mefloquine for malaria and Cipro for traveler’s diarrhea. So was this the sign of my lack of total faith in my reliance in medicine instead of God’s healing power? Doesn’t the long ending of Mark promise protection to God’s missionaries against serpents and poisons? One would think that promise would also protect us from drinking Typhoid laden water or the bites from malaria or yellow-fever infested mosquitos. Perhaps.
But St. Paul left Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Tim 4.20). Even Paul himself suffered bodily affliction (Gal 4.13). Paul says also that the grace of God means that we can do all things in Christ Jesus who gives us the strength, and that means to prosper or to suffer want (Phil 4.10-13). So Paul, arguably the greatest missionary of all time, knew both want and illness. Timothy may also have suffered from bad water (1 Tim 5.3), given his frequent illness–Was that traveler’s diarrhea? Ultimately, God’s protection is for our eternal well-being (e.g., Matt 10.28); but he allows us temporal suffering. This temporal suffering can be the most excruciating: I heard the story of an orphaned missionary kid, whose brothers died of malaria in a Canadian hospital and whose parents died in a airline crash off the coast of West Africa. And during my first trip to Central African Republic, one of my students said that the grave yards were full of the first missionaries who died shortly after arriving in Africa–but nevertheless, the African church was grateful for their sacrifice on behalf of the gospel.
I am reflecting on this issue as a I continue to suffer debilitating tendinitis, brought on by my putting something deadly in my mouth, Cipro. Somehow, Mark 16.15-18 doesn’t apply to me. Instead, as a diabetic, I have to worry about the food that I eat. Instead, I have to do the Wahls Protocol in my attempt to heal the damage that exposure to toxic foods and pharmaceuticals have done to my body. I am a victim, and this is partly as a result of answering the call of God, for I wouldn’t have taken toxic drugs like Lariam (mefloquine) and Cipro if I hadn’t taught in Africa.
So my conclusion is this: We shouldn’t see the biblical passages like Matthew 6.33 and Mark 16.15-18 as promising protection from all harm, especially the harm that we do to ourselves by eating junk food or by exposing ourselves to toxins. Ultimately, this means we are still responsible for what we put in our mouths, and if we eat badly, then we shouldn’t expect God to protect us. We shouldn’t reject wisdom and thus confuse presumption with faith. Besides, if God promises to provide food for us, our faith should be strong enough to ask God for nourishing healthy food, and we should not view food that is ultimately going to ruin our health as God’s intended provision. God gives good gifts to his children (Matt 7.9-12; RSV): “Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”