Sickness And Sin


I have to admit. This is an uncomfortable topic for me.

Today I read I Samuel 4-6 about the Philistines taking the ark of the LORD in battle, then suffering some horrible disease for seven months that apparently killed a number of people.

Later I heard Alistair Begg preach from this passage in James:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

Is there a connection between the two? Just that sin and sickness may be connected. We know from the book of Job that they are not always connected, but I think our contemporary, science-and-medicine-oriented society largely dismisses the idea that sickness may have a spiritual cause.

I wonder if sickness caused by sin doesn’t look like any other sickness. When I was reading about the symptoms the Philistines suffered, I couldn’t help but wonder if they didn’t have small pox. Or not. God could have given them their own special “don’t touch the ark” disease, just as He could give us a special because-of-sin virus.

But interestingly, the Philistines connected the dots, albeit a little shakily, so that they determined to return the ark to Israel, complete with their version of a guilt offering. They weren’t completely sure the presence of the ark in their midst was to blame for their plague, so they devised a test—a convincing one.

The implication is that their act of repentance stopped the disease, though Scripture doesn’t say this directly.

The James passage does connect sin with sickness, and repentance with healing, however. In fact, as I thought about it today, I think it might be making a stronger statement about sin and sickness than we may realize. Take a look at the next five verses—all the way to the end of the book.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months.

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Here’s what I realized for the first time. The example of effective prayer James gives is Elijah praying that it would not rain—in essence praying for famine. The Old Testament account of this incident is recorded in I Kings 17. But here’s the part I hadn’t thought about before: toward the end of chapter 16, God says this about Ahab, the king at the time of the prayed-for drought: “Thus Ahab did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him. ”

Clearly, Israel’s physical suffering was connected to the sin of their king—and the sin they indulged in by following his example.

My point is this. While it seems like James turned a corner and stopped talking about sin and healing when he mentioned Elijah, I don’t think he really did. I think the Elijah story actually amplifies the point. And he brought it home in the last two verses.

Of course, the danger is that Christians turn this concept into an excuse to judge others. Instead, I think we should focus on our own condition and ask first if God might be using sickness to wake us up to sin in our lives even before we call the doctor.

Is it not possible that our quick reliance on doctors and medication—for which I thank God most sincerely—veils what God might want us to see? Instead of concerning ourselves with our spiritual condition (am I sick because God wants to get my attention about some sin in my life?), today we focus more on how to bring an end to the illness.

When someone asks us to pray because they or someone they care about is sick, do we ever wonder what it is they wish us to pray? No. It’s a given that they are soliciting prayers for healing.

But might we not serve them better if we also pray that God will use the illness in their life to accomplish His purposes? Such purposes could be to build their trust in Him, to put them in a position to witness to someone else, to glorify His name by healing them with His powerful hand or to glorify His name by submitting to the suffering the illness brings. Or even to get their attention about some sin in their lives.

Published in: on November 10, 2010 at 7:02 pm  Comments (6)  
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