The setting is the peak of the Cold War. America and an unnamed superpower have both developed a new technology called miniaturization, allowing any object to be temporarily shrunk to microscopic size. A scientist named Benes makes a breakthrough—a way for miniaturization to last indefinitely. But his life is threatened by a blood clot in the brain. If he dies, the secret to permanent miniaturization—and a quantum leap forward in technological world dominance—will be lost.
Five scientists are miniaturized to the size of germs and injected into Benes’ bloodstream in a tiny submarine called the Proteus. Their mission: make their way through Benes’ circulatory system and destroy the lethal blood clot in his brain—before their miniaturization wears off and they (and their sub) return to normal size while still inside his body. If that isn’t enough of a challenge, four of the five scientists don’t know that the fifth is a saboteur whose mission is to make sure Benes doesn’t survive.
Wow! If that’s not a setting for a sci-fi thriller, I can’t imagine what is. And that’s why Isaac Asimov’s 1966 book, Fantastic Voyage (and the resulting movie of the same name) is now a classic among sci-fi fans. For our purposes, one of the most exciting parts of Fantastic Voyage is Asimov’s description of how the body’s immune system goes to work to attack and rid the body of the germ-sized submarine and its passengers.
According to the Home Edition of The Merck Manual of Medical Information, “the function of the immune system is to defend the body against invaders.” Microbes (germs and other microorganisms), cancer cells, and transplanted tissues and organs are all viewed by the immune system as intruders which must be attacked and defeated. The immune system is based in the body’s lymphatic system, which coordinates key body parts—lymph nodes, tonsils, bone marrow, spleen, liver, lungs, and intestines—to organize and deploy lymphocytes (antibody-producing cells) to attack invaders. An infection on your finger may lead to a swollen lymph node in your elbow as your body corrals the infectious germ cells and transports them to be destroyed. What an amazing system!
Did you know that God has an immune system designed to protect us from external “invaders” which, if unchecked, can wreak havoc upon our spiritual lives? Think of all the “germs” we have to defend ourselves against on a daily basis: financial shortfalls, breakdowns in relationships, vocational disruptions, family problems, natural disasters, accidents, discouragement and despair, loneliness, and even illness. When these things happen to Christians, we often hear, “Why do bad things happen to God’s people?”
That question is, of course, a take-off on the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s 1981 best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner attempted to answer that question as a result of an incurable disease which afflicted his son. I wish I could tell you his book is an uplifting and encouraging treatise which you should read in order to understand God’s purposes in allowing invaders into our lives—but I can’t. In the last chapter of his book, the rabbi reflects on the death of his teenage son: “I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human and human moral freedom.”1
An immune system based on that thinking would never have preserved Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Esther, Paul, Peter, or Jesus Himself. Their experiences with troubles and trials can be summarized in the little verse that describes how Jesus responded to suffering: “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Don’t miss it! “He learned. . . .” If Jesus Christ our Savior, in the mysterious mix of His divinity and humanity, had to learn from suffering, what does that say about us? If the heroes of our faith (read Hebrews 11) found themselves invaded by tests, temptations, trials, and troubles, what does that say about us?
God’s External Immune System Is Five-Fold:
1. Invading problems bring with them great opportunities.
Tell me—what do Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon; the book of Revelation, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and A Discourse Touching Prayer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German all have in common? They were all written while the authors were in prison or in exile. Would they have been written otherwise? We don’t know. But we do know these men of God didn’t miss the opportunity to capitalize on the moment. Problems represent opportunities for those who embrace them.
2. Invading problems promote spiritual maturity.
Remember the verse I cited earlier—Hebrews 5:8? It begins by saying that even though Jesus was God’s Son . . . He suffered. My wife, Donna, and I had to learn to resist the temptation to always be “rescuers” of our children— meaning, stepping in and rescuing them when they were experiencing trials. What parent likes to see his son or daughter suffer? But suffering is what brings spiritual maturity. It is in the crucible of pain that we are brought to the end of ourselves and our resources and are forced to cry out to God. That’s why it is important for our children to go through troubles, and why God allows them.
3. Invading problems prove integrity.
The famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher said, “We never know how much one loves till we know how much he is willing to endure and suffer . . . .” What we are until we suffer is merely reputation; what we are while we suffer is character. Reputation is what men think you are; character is what God knows you are. I hear people say, “But the situation made me this way.” No, the situation revealed the way you were. The modern business writer Tom Peters observed that “there is no such thing as a minor lapse of integrity.” Job’s wife asked him why, sitting on an ash heap, covered with boils, he persisted in holding on to his integrity (Job 2:9). He did so because integrity is a possession which no pain can strip away and which only pain can reveal.
4. Invading problems produce dependency.
When Joseph found himself unjustly confined to prison in Egypt, the Bible says the Lord was with him (Genesis 39:21). The psalmist asked, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:7) And King David told his son, Solomon, “The Lord God . . . will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you . . .” (1 Chronicles 28:20). God is always with us, just as much in times of peace as in times of trouble. Our need is to match our dependency to His dependability—and troubles make us do that.
5. Invading problems prepare our hearts for ministry.
God’s order of events in this world is as follows: We experience troubles; God ministers to us; then we minister to other troubled people with the same ministry we received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). There’s no better way to learn to prepare spiritual chicken soup for a friend’s soul than to have survived on it yourself the week before.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because we live in a fallen world (Matthew 5:45). God wants good people everywhere to look up in times of trouble and see Him as the One who controls everything. And why do bad things happen to God’s people? Because God never said Christians are immune to troubles and trials, and because He has given us an immune system designed to draw us closer to Him.
If you read or watch Fantastic Voyage, let it be a lesson: There is no more fantastic voyage in this life than allowing God to carry us through and preserve us from all the invading forces which seek to bring us down. God’s immune system is designed to protect us temporarily and heal us forever.
Sources:1Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 179.