September 28, 2009

Sinning and Sickness

James 5:15 declares: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” The uneasy connection in this text between sinning and sickness in this week’s epistle reading is found in many other texts of Scripture.  Sometimes it appears as if sickness is a direct result of sinning, as in the story of Miriam; she criticized her brother’s choice of a wife (as did Aaron) and was stricken with leprosy. Other times, persons are warned not to try to find the sinful source of one’s suffering. When Jesus was asked about the man who was born blind, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2), he refused to make any connection between sickness and sin.

The theological conundrum is real: sin can make us sick, and not all sickness comes because we are sinful (as the book of Job struggles to understand).  Our sinful habits can contribute to our sickness as we fill our bodies with harmful products and fail to remember that we are constructed with “moveable parts.” Negative emotions can lead to sickness. The roiling anger within can diminish human flourishing, especially when there is unresolved guilt involved. Yet, we must remember that we are also sick because we are finite—which is never simply equated with sinfulness in Scripture.

The hottest political topic in our day involves sickness, that is who will receive healthcare coverage and who will not. In some ways the conversations re-visit biblical themes that Jesus discounted.  If one does not have healthcare, it is assumed that one is irresponsible or derelict (i.e., sinful), or that ill health is necessarily because of indulgent living. This perspective forgets that financial inequities determine far more the state of one’s health than simple causative equations.

The wisdom of James is that sickness should always prompt prayer. My prayer in these days of heated debate is for compassion for those who need coverage, forgiveness for those who only consider their own interests, humility for those unwilling to bend in negotiation, and understanding for legislators that sharing resources more equitably is the only just practice.

Molly T. Marshall

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