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Is Illness Caused by Personal Sin?
by Max Aplin
11/19/2018 / Health
It is, of course, a fact that the world is full of people who are ill, infirm and disabled.
One question that Christians often ask is how much of a connection there is between sin and illness. If we are struck down with a serious disease, for example, is it because of something we did wrong? For many, this is a burning question.
ALL HUMAN ILLNESS IS INDIRECTLY THE RESULT OF SIN
It is certainly true that all human illness and disability is at least indirectly the result of sin.
As a human race, we have chosen to rebel against our Maker. This has led to each of us becoming damaged in various ways, sometimes by suffering illness and disability. So when we become ill or disabled, we are certainly at fault insofar as we are members of a sinful human race.
Christians widely agree about this corporate responsibility for sin.
SOME SINS ARE THE PHYSICAL RESULTS OF PERSONAL SIN
Something else that it isn’t necessary to defend is that many illnesses are the physical results of personal sin.
One common example of this in Western countries is people overeating and becoming ill as a result. There are many who suffer physical illnesses because they have repeatedly committed the sin of gluttony.
No reasonable Christian would deny that this sort of physical cause and effect exists between personal sin and illness.
THE BIG QUESTION
The question that many Christians ask is not about corporate responsibility for sin, or about the physical causes of illnesses. Rather, the question is whether there is some sort of a spiritual connection between personal sin and illness.
If someone suffers from an illness, might it be because they committed a certain sin or sins, even though there is no physical connection between the sin and the illness? This is what many want to know.
TURNING TO THE BIBLE
To try and answer this question, we need to turn to the Bible to see what it has to say. Scripture is our God-given “Manual for the Human Life,” and what it says is always key.
As we will see below, the Bible makes it very clear that sometimes illness is not the result of personal sin, but sometimes it is.
EXAMPLES OF NO CONNECTION BETWEEN PERSONAL SIN AND ILLNESS
Let’s look first at some passages which tell us of people who were ill or disabled, without personal sin being the cause.
Actually, the final example doesn’t involve illness or disability, but it is relevant for our topic, as I will explain in due course.
The book of Job
To begin with, a famous biblical example of where illness, and other disasters, are not the result of personal sin is the book of Job.
The book begins, in Job 1:1, by introducing Job in this way:
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
As the rest of the book goes on to show, however, Job’s uprightness didn’t spare him from suffering terribly, including in illness (e.g., Job 2:1-8; 7:5).
Much of the book is taken up by speeches of Job’s friends, who insist that calamity and personal sin are closely connected (e.g., Job 4:1-21; 8:1-22; 11:1-6).
But Job’s friends, although sincere, were just plain wrong (e.g., Job 1:8, 22; 2:3, 10).
A New Testament example of disability that is not the result of personal sin can be found in John 9:1-3, which reads as follows:
“1 As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3 Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”
Jesus is clear that this man’s blindness was not the result of personal sin.
The disciples seemed to assume that he was either born blind as a pre-punishment for future sins he would commit, or that his parents sinned in some way. But Jesus leaves them in no doubt that such thinking is badly mistaken.
Another passage that is relevant for our topic is Luke 13:1-5. Illness is not actually mentioned in this text, but it is worth noting nevertheless. The passage reads as follows:
“1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”
Jesus refers here to two groups of people who had suffered horrible deaths. And He says that the fact that they died in these ways doesn’t mean that they were worse sinners than other people.
Although Jesus doesn’t spell out the logic of His argument, it is likely that He is implying that the suffering these people experienced was not the result of personal sins.
And if people suffer disasters like these that are not caused by personal sin, it makes sense to think that the same would often apply to suffering from illnesses too.
EXAMPLES OF A CONNECTION BETWEEN PERSONAL SIN AND ILLNESS
Let’s turn now to look at some biblical passages which show a connection between personal sin and illness.
2 Samuel 11-12
In 2 Samuel 11:1-12:12, we are told how David committed the sins of adultery and murder, and how the prophet Nathan rebuked him for what he had done.
Then in 2 Samuel 12:13-14, we read:
“13 David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.’”
In verses 15-23 we learn how Nathan’s prophecy was fulfilled. David’s baby son became ill and died.
Verse 14 is very clear that David’s sin caused the death of his son.
This whole business of a child being affected by a parent’s sin is a very difficult issue, and not one that I want to discuss here.
For our purposes, it is enough to note that this passage provides an example of personal sin leading to illness and death.
Our next example concerns the Jewish king Herod Agrippa I. In Acts 12:21-23, Luke tells us:
“21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”
Although v. 23 says that an angel immediately struck Herod down, Luke surely doesn’t mean that he died at the time he was before the crowd.
Rather, Luke apparently means that he immediately contracted a fatal disease. There are two reasons for this. First, the reference to being eaten by worms seems to be about suffering from a disease. And second, Luke implies that Herod was eaten by worms before he breathed his last, and it surely took some time for him to be eaten by the worms.
It seems, then, that an angel struck down Herod by giving him a fatal disease.
And the passage is completely clear that the angel did this as a punishment for personal sin, because Herod accepted the crowd saying that he was a god.
1 Corinthians 11:27-30
Our next example concerns Christians. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, Paul writes:
“27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
The Corinthian Christians were making a real mess of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. They were not treating this sacrament with nearly the respect that it deserved. So Paul sharply criticizes them.
In v. 30 he is very clear that many of them have become ill because they have been committing this sin. And he even says that some have died as a result.
It is unlikely that all in the Corinthian church were genuinely born-of-the-Spirit believers. Yet to claim that all those Paul refers to in v. 30 would not have been genuine Christians is totally unwarranted.
This passage should leave us in no doubt that personal sin does sometimes lead to illness, and that this happens even to Christians.
The texts we have looked at, then, make it clear that illness is sometimes the result of personal sin, but that sometimes it has nothing to do with personal sin.
This conclusion is well illustrated by James 5:14-16, where James writes:
“14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
Note in v. 15 how James says, “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” The way that this immediately follows the preceding instruction about illness and healing surely means that James is implying that some Christians who become ill do so because of committing sins.
There are, however, many who deny this. They claim that when James says, “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven,” he is saying something unconnected to what he has just said about illness and healing. They claim that in v. 15 James is saying two separate things about those who are ill: one, that they should be prayed for, and two, that if, on an unrelated note, they have committed sins, they will be forgiven.
This is an extremely unnatural interpretation of James’s words. Under this interpretation, the reference to committing sins seems to come out of nowhere and fits very poorly with the context.
Instead, we should accept that James is implying here that illness is sometimes caused by sin.
On the other hand, however, James is very clear that personal sin is not always the cause of illness. He says, “if he has committed sins,” which certainly implies that sometimes sin would not be the cause.
James, then, sums up the biblical position on this issue well. Sometimes personal sin is the cause of illness, and sometimes it isn’t.
ACCEPTING BIBLICAL TEACHING ON THIS ISSUE
There are huge numbers of Christians today who deny that personal sin is ever the spiritual cause of illness. They will always rush to tell anyone suffering from an illness that it is not because of sins they have committed.
I think in some ways their motivation for doing this is good. They know that people suffering from illness sometimes get depressed by the thought that they might be responsible. So they want to prevent their suffering from increasing.
It is not acceptable, however, to distort biblical teaching, even if it is out of a desire to comfort people. We must also be careful not to give in to the temptation to believe what we want to believe about things. Many Christians have clearly fallen into this trap on this issue.
Besides, if someone does have an illness that has been caused by personal sin, we are doing them no favors at all if we say that sin is not the cause. Usually, the more we understand the truth about a situation, the better placed we will be to resolve it.
We should all therefore choose to accept biblical teaching on this topic. Personal sin is sometimes the cause of illness, and sometimes it isn’t.
My main aim in this article has simply been to show that illness is sometimes caused by personal sin. It isn’t my intention here to discuss the ramifications of this in any detail.
Nevertheless, I will make a few brief comments.
How often sin is the cause of illness
Firstly, there is the difficult question of how often personal sin is the cause of illness and how often it isn’t.
I suspect that quite a large majority of the time it isn’t the cause, but I am not confident about that.
When Christians become ill because of personal sin
Secondly, there is the issue of how we understand the mechanics of Christians becoming ill because of personal sin. As we saw above, believers do sometimes get ill in this way.
The difficulty here is that we Christians are God’s saved people, who have received His forgiveness. So it looks quite strange to suppose that when we sin, God punishes us by making us ill.
When Christians become ill through personal sin, I think, instead of seeing this as God’s retributive justice, we do better to see it differently.
First, instead of viewing the illness as justice being meted out, I think it is preferable to view it as a consequence of God’s protection being withdrawn to some extent. The sin leads to God becoming more distant, which in turn leads to greater exposure to dangers, including illness.
And second, we can probably see it along the lines of God’s discipline.
In Hebrews 12:7, the writer asks rhetorically:
“For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
And then he goes on in v. 11 to say:
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
I think that looking at this issue in terms of God’s discipline is a helpful approach.
For Christians who become ill through personal sin, then, we do better to view things in terms of God’s discipline and the withdrawal of His presence, rather than as Him administering justice by punishing.
Counseling those who are ill
Finally, because illness is sometimes due to personal sin, this means that counseling those who are ill can be a challenge.
If someone is troubled that they might be ill because of sin, it won’t do to simplistically deny that there is ever a spiritual connection between personal sin and illness. And in some cases, discernment might be needed to help people appropriately.
Incidentally, this point speaks volumes for the usefulness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:8, i.e., messages of wisdom and messages of knowledge. Sometimes, one of these gifts might provide an important piece of information that can be used when counseling believers who are ill.
Of course, even if we become convinced that a certain illness is the result of committing a sin, that doesn’t mean that God is any less able to heal it than if no sin were the cause. Once we confess our sins, God forgives them (1 John 1:9), so any obstacle to healing caused by unrepentance is immediately removed.
The truth of the matter is that God works everything for the good of Christians (Romans 8:28), and that He is with us (Matthew 28:20). So, like Paul, we can confidently put the past, including our sins, behind us and move forwards with the Lord into the future (Philippians 3:13).
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I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com
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