Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sin and Sickness

Another missing piece from the first Jesus book...
Before we leave the topic of the miracles Jesus did, I should mention a connection the New Testament sometimes makes between sin and sickness that may seem strange to us today.  For example, in John 9 Jesus and his followers come upon a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples immediately assume that it was the result of someone's sin.  "Was it him or his parents?" they instinctively ask.

In this case, Jesus denies it.  The man was not blind because of anyone's sin. But the New Testament does not deny that physical sickness can result from sinfulness. We have a tendency today to "demythologize" such things.  Sure, if you are promiscuous, you are bound to get some disease. Sure, if you are completely self-indulgent you are likely to get liver disease or lung cancer.

But this is scientific, normal cause-effect thinking.  The biblical writers saw a potential connection between sin and sickness in a way that would not normally occur to us.  For example, Paul tells the Corinthians that some of them have become sick and some actually died as a punishment for the divisive spirit and cliquish spirit they have shown when eating the Lord's meal together (1 Cor. 11:30).

James 5 makes this same connection when it talks about praying for the sick.  The elders of a church are to pray for the sick. "The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven" (Jas 5:15).  James doesn't explicitly say that some sickness results from sin, but it seems implied.

The same connection may be there in Matthew 9 when Jesus first pronounces the sins of a paralyzed man forgiven and only later heals him.  The nearby teachers of the law believe Jesus is blaspheming when he thinks he can pronounce the man's sins forgiven. [1] However, the fact that Jesus also heals the man presumably shows that Jesus does have the authority to forgive sins.  After all, if the man's sins were connected to him being paralyzed, then the authority to heal presumably implied the authority to forgive sins.

There are great dangers with associating sin with sickness today.  We can fully believe in healing as Christians and yet strongly affirm that it is not God's will for every sick person to be healed.  If sickness were always--or even primarily associated with sin, then forgiveness would often involve healing.  It just doesn't seem to work that way.

Jesus has also made it clear that it is not our place to judge the intentions of people's hearts (Matt. 7:1). There are many overt actions a person may do that are obvious enough.  A person is planning to blow up something and accidentally blows up himself.  But it would be very wrong indeed to presume that someone is sick because of some sin he or she had done. Indeed, such an approach to sickness would likely reveal an evil heart on our own part, a hateful spirit.

So while the connection is real in the Bible and we should not say it cannot be so, we are probably right, in the end, only to connect sin with sickness when there is a natural, cause-effect relationship.  For example, anger, rage, and bitterness can indeed facilitate high blood pressure and heart disease. Gluttony and overindulgence can indeed lead to diabetes and many other sicknesses. Any other connection is best left to God.

[1] This is a little puzzling, since presumably priests pronounced people's sins forgiven all the time after they offered the appropriate sacrifices.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

I think if one looks at the different aspects to human understanding, then it is easier to disconnect "sin" with sickness.

The mind; tribal or primitive societies believe that "sin" or "taboos" ( whatever a particular culture identifies as a "taboo") will result in some consequence (the "gods" will judge, as "gods" are over the universe/physical realm ). Our mind tends to work in a cause/effect way, and the result was scientific investigation, seeking out the causes, not presuming "causes", as in "God".

The body; our physical bodies are expressions of our minds, as we do behave or respond to what we imagine, or think is "the case" or "cause". If we think "God" is the cause then, we will sacrifice, seek to appease the "gods", judge others that have certain problems as the "sins of the father", instead of understanding that bodies are the expression of one's mind, and neuroscience would go further to describe the body as a function of the brain, as humans respond to stimuli through their senses.

Medical science; humans do not understand all there is to know about the human body, much less the physical universe. Neuroscience is studying how humans respond and think. How the brain guides our actions. As human action and control is what political order necessitates.

John C. Gardner said...

The question of disease, natural evil and Christ is one that is a perrenial discussion. I myself see a connection with a Fallen world, spiritual sickness and the need of all for God's healing. I also go for medical treatment when needed and pray for those who are ill. There is mystery in life and God did create the world(which I believe is consistent with God guided evolution and which has been held by ancient Christians(See Alister McGraths discussion of Augustine and modern scientists from Farraday to Polkinghorne as well as McGrath himself.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

John C. Gardner,
You still affirm Einstein's "God doesn't play dice with the universe?"?

Last night Nova had a special on multiverses, string theory, quantum theory, which goes against what Einstein held about "God's order".

I don't know that we will ever understand that kind of science in our experience, but we can mathmatically prove some of these theories. Does math "prove" God? Then, is "God" under our mathmatical abilities, which really means that "God" is a prescription of our brain. Does "God" really exist as the "creator of our brains" or is "God" a product of our imaginations via our brains? Isn't it like the "chicken and egg" about which come first?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Christian scientists would affirm that everything that science produces is a part of "imagination", "invention" and "creation" of a person's brain, but they would grant that "God oversaw" or "created" their brains, giving them the ability to resolve scientific problems, etc. Practically speaking there is no difference in a Christian scientist or a atheistic scientist, nor in any other discipline, because what humans find to be true, is true, irregardless of whether one calls themself a "Christian" or not.

John C. Gardner said...

You might try reading John Polkinghorne's Faith of a Physicist. Polkinghorne is a world class physicist, an Anglican priest and has discussed Christianity and science. You might also examine any of the works of Alister McGrath(DPhil Oxford) who is both an expert on theology, church history and a scientist. He teaches at the University of London.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

One thing one can assume is that myth has served man in many religioous traditions, so is the "myth" fact, or how man described the world before he came to understand a particular area of scientific investigation? Were demons real, or a seizure disorder?

Christianity has used "myth" to make for meaning, but science has given new meaning and understanding to man. The point is; does one hold to a naturalist understanding of "what is", or a "supernaturalist" understaning of "what is". One has to believe in "God" or "gods" as a supernatural beings, where the other view holds that "God" is a product or process of nature...