sickness and healing (part 1): “sin causes sickness”?

Yesterday I went to the Sunday gathering of a church affiliated with my old church, of which I was a member up until a few months ago.

I had a great time. It’s a reasonably small group (40-50 adults), and with lots of old friends present good times were had all ’round.

The preaching topic for the day was healing. My friend Barry was sharing with us, and noted that in his experience this topic, more than any other, caused division in the church (even more than tongues). I’m not sure if it’s the most divisive issue, but I take Barry’s point about its divisive potential.

In the course of the morning Barry got us to break up into groups to discuss the issue of healing – What is it? Does it still happen today? What about when people don’t get healed, etc. etc.

I wasn’t planning on writing about healing on this blog, but following the group discussions and the subsequent public reflection a number of people asked me to write a post on it.

It turns out one post has become two. I could never hope to comprehensively outline healing in two posts of course, though I will speak into two concerns that were raised throughout the morning that people discussed with me; the first was a claim made that sickness and disease has to do with sin (this post), and secondly that if people are not healed and they die they are in fact healed because “they go to be with Jesus” (next post).

“Sickness and disease is related to sin”?

This claim was made by someone (not Barry) from the platform. I found it particularly problematic. To the person’s credit they mentioned that sometimes it is the person’s own sin, sometimes it is sin committed against them. Overall they meant this in a very “spiritual” sense – sinfulness causes sickness and repentance from sin can bring miraculous healing.

Certainly there is a sense to which a person’s “sin” can cause sickness. If a person is gluttonous and they overeat they will become overweight and suffer the consequent health problems. If a person abuses their body by chain smoking or taking illicit drugs their body will suffer. Repentance (i.e. changing one’s mind and lifestyle) will in some cases result in a reversal of those consequences. This is a very natural process, and I would not necessarily call it “healing” in the miraculous sense meant by most Christians.

Many Christians attribute sickness and disease to “the Fall”. This will depend largely on how one interprets the story at the beginning of Genesis, and there is insufficient space to discuss this here. Certainly there is nothing in the story, taken literally or figuratively, that explicitly claims disease and sickness resulted from the primal sin. It may be that human fallenness causes sickness and disease, but I wonder whether this is merely the result of natural causes (as in the examples above) rather than the presence of an almost omnipresent force called “sin”. In any case this is all conjecture.

More concretely Jesus has two seemingly contradictory things to say about this issue. The first is his command to a man who he has just healed:

Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more,that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:13-14)

Later in John’s Gospel we find this:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)

So does “sin” cause sickness or not? John 5 seems to have Jesus saying it can, while in John 9 Jesus seems to repudiate this idea. Assuming Jesus is coherent, the most we can say is that sin can cause sickness (As in John 5), but this is not a general rule by any means (John 9).

John 5 could also be read as 1. Jesus healing the man and then; 2. calling him to turn from his sin (unrelated to 1.) while; 3. warning him that a life of rebellion against God’s purposes will lead to even worse consequences than 38 years of paralysis. This reading would not necessitate the man’s paralysis having been caused by sin.

In my view John 9 should be more definitive for our theology on this issue than the ambiguity John 5. This of course tells us that we should be very, very cautious about attributing sickness to sin. As a general rule there is no connection between the two, unless of course there is an obvious cause-and-effect relationship (in the case of smoking, for example).

But this is all predicated on a narrow view of “sin”. In my view sin is not merely certain actions that God doesn’t like – sin is a way of life (including individual actions) that are contrary to the patterns and purposes of God.

In this sense sin causes sickness. Let me explain.

Whole societies often act contrary to God’s will. This is not merely lapses in individual moral behaviour – it includes socio-political and economic systems that oppress some while rewarding others. When this kind of “sinfulness” occurs you will inevitably find that some are crushed under the weight of such a system.

The U.S. in recent times is a fantastic example – debates about the economy, with all the spending cuts that are being demanded, inevitably favour the rich (e.g. the Bush Administration’s tax cuts) at the expense of the poor. The health care debate is a perfect illustration; to save the economy from budgetary deficit it is easier to deny millions of people health care and social support than it is to cut the taxes of the powerful.

Imagine the illness this causes those at the bottom of society.

Another example might be a third world dictator who routes funds from the country’s economy to the bank accounts of himself and his supporters. Such a dastardly act may subject the country’s populace to poverty and thus increased risk of disease and other forms of illness (physical or otherwise).

These are simplistic examples, but space is short – you get the point.

In Jesus’ time it was certainly the case that Roman imperialism, with the resulting collection of taxes and tributes from peasants, caused the majority of people to suffer economic hardship. This would lead to decreased nutrition and thus hunger, exhaustion, mental pressure and physical disease.

In this sense Jesus’ healings were reversals of the evils caused by the sins of empire. It is no coincidence that one of the groups of demons that Jesus cast out in Mark 5/Luke 8 was called “Legion” (a reference to the Roman imperial military) and that these demons were sent into a group of pigs (the symbol of the Tenth Fretensis Legion of the Roman military in nearby Syria) which ran off a cliff.  Jesus is sovereign, even over the sickness caused by imperial Rome.

Does sin cause sickness? As a natural consequence? Sure. In saying this we must be cautious when we talk about one’s own personal sin causing them some kind of spiritually-caused sickness since Jesus repudiates this view in John 9. However it is the case that social sins, including systemic oppression, can easily cause people en masse to be subjected to sickness, disease and a host of other issues.

Whose sin causes sickness? It is probably our sin that causes the sickness of others…

… whenever we buy products that perpetuate poverty and oppressive conditions for workers and their families

… whenever we support corporations and institutions that cause copious amounts of pollution

… whenever we support policies that favour the rich and rob the poor of social security measures

… whenever we support tax exemption for the rich rather than allowing those taxes to be used for hospitals, schools and other crucial social institutions.

Harsh but true.

My friend Barry is right, this issue is divisive – I have no doubt many will disagree with my comments here.

Still, I wonder what your perspective is on the connection between sickness, healing and sin. I would love to hear your comments.


(Look out for Part 2 of this series.)

Posted on December 5, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Church/Ecclesiology, New Testament, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It’s great to follow up on this topic, thanks Matty!!

  2. The issue of healing and sin is an interesting topic. There is no doubt that the sins of others can lead to sickness in others… My own experience of situational depression caused by abuse is testimony of this. I have also had to work through this as someone who suffered sudden long term illness with slow recovery. And within that framework have heard and experienced possibly every cliché imaginable within Christendom.

    I think within the framework of the fall, no matter how you understand the editorial purpose of Genesis: death and sickness was never part of God’s perfect plan for us. This is reflected within the schema of the new creation of heavens and earth.

    I do like the way you have turned it to look at the issue of empire. My wife / MIL are aboriginal and I have first hand experience of seeing the result of empire with the stolen generation in Australia and what that did in the destructive stripping away and formulation of identity.

  3. Like(d).
    Reading your post that is.
    Logic speaks well to me; and I like the way you reason through options logically; and with numbers to deconstruct and separate the concepts.
    Thanks for the read.

  1. Pingback: sickness and healing (part 2): death as healing? « life.remixed

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