Digging in Deeper: James 5:16

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.”‬‬ (CSB – Read the chapter)

Yesterday morning we encountered the uncomfortable truth that there just may be a connection between sin and sickness. This came on the back of James’ instructions to confess our sins to one another that we may be healed. This is uncomfortable stuff. As we asked then, what are we supposed to do with this?

Well, we address it head on. Does sickness come from sin? Let’s go ahead and answer that with a nice, definite yes and no. Clear as mud? I’ll start with the no. No, there is not a hard and fast, one-to-one correspondence between sin and sickness. When someone develops cancer, for instance, we cannot simply announce that some sin is the culprit. We live in a broken world and part of that brokenness is the existence of germs and defects in our genetic code. Sometimes the purely medical answer is the right one. 

Also in the no category is sickness that comes simply from something foolish or ignorance, but not sinfully so. When asbestos was discovered, it looked like a terrific building material. It is readily available as a mineral to be mined, and could be easily processed into a form that helped fireproof all kinds of different materials. And then a connection was finally made between asbestos and cancer. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people have died from cancer caused by their exposure to it. Ignorance was the culprit (at least at first). 

One more mark in the no category is that God isn’t vindictive like that. When we have sinned, He is filled with wrath to be sure, but He never flies off the handle or responds in anger. His response is always perfectly measured to the situation. And He is gracious and kind when we are repentant. He runs to receive us when we turn back to Him from our sin. 

But. 

Don’t you hate that word?

Remember that I said both no and yes? Sometimes there is a connection between sickness and sin. Let’s ease into it. Say a person uses some tobacco product for years and ends up with cancer. We can debate whether tobacco use is a sin (if alcohol use isn’t necessarily a sin, tobacco use shouldn’t be either, but at the same time it is a willful use of something that is known to harm the body God has given us and told us to honor so it is not a problem-free decision), but is there any doubt there is a direct connection between its use and the sickness? 

You see, the first part of the sometimes yes here is that God doesn’t always or even often shield us from the natural consequences of our sin. He may deflect the brunt of them, but even that isn’t a guaranteed grace. If we commit a sin of some kind that has as a potential consequence an illness or injury, we shouldn’t be surprised or resentful when we face that illness or injury. 

Along the same lines, our sickness may be the result of someone else’s sin. Let’s say someone has an infectious bug and knowingly goes out in public. This willful disregard for the life and health of the people around us is sinful. In this case we haven’t done anything wrong, but our sickness is the result of sin all the same. 

One last category here, and this is the hardest one. Sometimes—and there is a fair bit of evidence in the Scriptures for this being a possible, if uncomfortable, category—our sickness is the result of God punishing us for our sin. Consider King Uzziah who became so convinced of his own righteousness that he went to burn incense in the temple, a place only priests were authorized to go. The writers of Chronicles (2 Chr. 26) and Kings (2 Kgs. 15) both tell us that he developed leprosy on the spot as a punishment for his sinful pride. In Numbers 12, Moses’ siblings both get struck with leprosy for sinfully opposing his leadership and then are later healed when they repent. 

Now, this last category isn’t easy to stomach, and we approach its application in our own lives and especially the lives of the people around us with the greatest trepidation, but it is at least a possibility to consider in the face of otherwise unexplainable illness. I would say that in most cases this is a judgment we are not in position to make in the life of another person and certainly not every time we get the sniffles, but it is worth at least being aware of its existence as a category. 

We could probably keep exploring this for a while yet, but let me get right down to the point: in the face of illness, especially when it is chronic or grievous, let us not overlook the power of faithful, fervent, righteous prayer and also confession as powerful tools in pursuit of healing. Now, God may not have plans for healing to take place. Those are certainly not our plans in the moment, but they will be for our good if we are willing to trust Him. No matter what our situation, though, if we will turn to and draw near to Him, we will find the good and life we need to experience.

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