Pope Francis is a Pope for our times: determinedly doctrinal yet graciously pastoral, informal (for a Pope of the Roman Catholic church) and humorous, socially active yet spiritually focused, humble and austere—a shepherd for twenty-first-century Roman Catholicism. On Wednesday, Pope Francis was admitted to a hospital and expected to stay for “some days” due to a respiratory infection. He’s eighty-six.
Will the Pope recover?
In that vein, are Christians promised a healthy, prosperous life?
A timeline of the Pope’s health problems
Pope Francis has dealt with several health issues recently.
In 2020, he suffered a flare-up of sciatica pain. In 2021, he underwent colon surgery and was hospitalized for ten days. In 2022, he had some problems with an inflamed knee ligament and later suffered a small fracture. Doctors treated the issue with laser and magnet therapy. While he rebounded, he often needed a wheelchair in the recovery period. In 2023, he announced his diverticulitis returned but insisted he was in “good health” for his age.
One of his doctors recently said the Pope is “a very nice and very stubborn patient,” refusing the more invasive surgeries.
While apparently open to resigning for health reasons, as his predecessor Pope Benedict did, Francis will do so only if a severe medical condition leaves him incapable of performing basic functions. He said in February, “I believe that the papal ministry should be for life. I don’t see a reason why it should not be this way . . . historic tradition is important. If instead we listen to gossip, then we would have to change popes every six months.”
Will Pope Francis recover?
When Pope Francis was named Jorge Mario Bergoglio and only twenty-one, he was struck with severe pneumonia. He needed surgery to remove part of his right lung, making him more vulnerable to respiratory infections.
Although this makes his current respiratory infection more concerning, the Vatican reports that Francis is in good condition and “gradually improving.”
This raises an important question: Why do the “righteous” people fall ill? Why does fortune seem fickle?
Thankfully, it’s one asked by the writers of Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Job, as well as by Jesus’ disciples.
Is Pope Francis being judged?
Seemingly random suffering should not necessarily lead us to doubt our own faith, nor should we connect pain with God’s judgment.
This was common thinking at the time of Jesus, which prompted his disciples to ask about a blind man, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus responded, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). After these words, he healed the lifelong blind beggar.
The Lord may discipline us, his children, but God is not a God of confusion (Hebrews 12:5–6). If he means to discipline us, the Spirit will convict our hearts alongside the hurt. Of course, sin leads to suffering by its nature, and original sin broke the world’s good orderliness in the Fall. However, when seemingly random misfortune befalls us, we sometimes understandably doubt God’s goodness.
Has Pope Francis sinned? As “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” indeed, yes (Romans 3:23). More specifically, some accuse him of dismissing sexual abuse claims, protecting guilty leaders instead. Perhaps that’s true, horrifically, but only God knows his heart. Tying sickness to a specific sin must be made clear by God and rarely happens in Scripture.
God is purposeful in all he is sovereign over, but suffering should not be assumed as punishment.
Let us rejoice and be content in suffering
For Christians, we should follow Paul in being “content” in all circumstances, rejoicing in suffering, which produces “endurance,” and “count it joy” with James, who believes that tested faith grows steadfastness. Pope Francis seems in good spirits and follows these teachings (although his aides initially said he was scheduled for previously planned checkups, seeming to unnecessarily downplay the significance of his sickness.)
Pain, sadness, questioning, and mourning are not sin, for pain was not meant to be a part of this world, but a Christian can take solace in Christ as our rock, regardless of circumstances.
Take Job. He was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” yet calamity struck him (Job 1:1). Suffering is suffering, and we should not minimize pain nor sweep away mourning. Job’s agony torments him nearly to death, and Christians affirm the evil of pain and the goodness of joy.
Nevertheless, after the initial wave of calamity, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lᴏʀᴅ gave, and the Lᴏʀᴅ has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ.” Indeed, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:21–22).
Does prosperity reveal God’s favor?
In the Bible, we see deep questioning of how favor settles on some and not others.
One psalmist writes, “My feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 72:2–3). Ecclesiastes 9:11 says, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” Jesus reiterates that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
We can trust that God, in his absolute knowledge and transcendent wisdom, perfectly acts as king, “redeeming all that he allows,” as Dr. Jim Denison reminds us.
A member in our church recently shared about the life-changing way God miraculously healed a recent flare-up in tumors. She’s lived with a barrage of tumors her whole life due to a rare disease.
In her testimony about the miracle, she made it clear that she was thankful even if her upcoming scans showed the tumors were actually still there (they didn’t). Even if God decided to allow her to continue suffering, she would remain faithful.
I have never been more moved by a miraculous healing than her story. She is an everyday saint of God.
The lie of the “health and wealth gospel”
Many churches continue to teach that health and wealth are promised to the faithful. This leads to a corrupting line of thinking: if leaders are faithful, they must appear rich and in good health.
I wrote convictionally about this issue concerning megachurch pastor Joel Olsteen. Former celebrity Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz, after a two-year-long break from ministry after adultery and failing leadership, recently joined the staff of Transformation Church. The church appears to uphold the health and wealth gospel under its “concrete” doctrinal beliefs.
We should heed Paul’s warning to Timothy, “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive . . . swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1–5).
We should ask for good gifts, knowing that God loves to give them, while resisting the temptation to see wealth as approval from God or sickness as punishment.
We can trust alongside Paul that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).