In 2015, I had surgery to remove and scrape a lump of fluid from my leg. Turns out, it wasn’t fluid at all. The doctor had misread the MRI. It was an uncommon cancer called myxofibrosarcoma.
While waiting for yet another surgery to remove any cancer cells in the muscles and tissues around the tumor site, I went to a men’s prayer breakfast where two men pulled me aside to pray with me. Specifically, they prayed that my sins would be removed and my faith would be bolstered so that my cancer would be healed. A few weeks later, the surgeons flayed my leg from my knee to my ankle to obtain “clean margins.”
Though I was offended and confused by by the prayers of those two gentlemen, I knew they meant well; they are good men. However, they told me directly that if my faith had been strong enough then I would have grown close to God that I wouldn’t have gotten cancer. Over time, I became resentful of that statement. Still, I had to investigate the truth of the matter.
Is there any truth to the belief that Christians battle illness because of sin and lack of faith? That question is too big to deal with in its entirety. The question of faith-healings and faith-healers has incessantly stalked the Church for a century and a half. Any stance taken has been and will be largely subjective. Instead of looking at faith and healing, let’s see what the Bible says about sin and sickness.
We will begin with James 5, where the brother of Jesus asserts that when someone is healed of their illness, their sins are also forgiven (James 5:14-15 NIV).
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And 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.
The relationship here, though not explained, is undeniable: the prayer of faith makes one well and raises them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
Moreover, the next verse could not be clearer (James 5:16 NIV):
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
It follows, are you sick? Call the elders, ask to be anointed with oil, pray in faith, confess your sins to one another, and then your sins will be forgiven (if you’ve sinned) and you will be healed.
Still, that is a far cry from saying that the sins of the person who is sick are to blame for their illness. There is a growing belief in people that I know who attend churches that put greater emphasize the practice of praying for the sick than they do anything else. It goes like this: many are sick because they have sinned, and because they are unrepentant we won’t pray for them, but instead we will turn them over to Satan. This is a dangerous, unloving, and calloused belief. It may be why James concluded his letter with a call to rescue the perishing.
The belief that illness is directly linked to the sins of the ill was also a common belief in the first century. But, is it a sound belief?
Let’s look at John 9:1-7 NIV:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
Here we see that Jesus and His disciples encounter a man who had suffered a lifetime of blindness. His parents would have suffered as well, raising a boy who was blind. The disciples look at the man and – in their minds – condemn him for his sins. But then they think that perhaps they are being too harsh. Maybe he didn’t sin at all; maybe it is his parents who are to blame*.
Jesus tells them that neither supposition is correct. The man had been born blind so that God would be glorified in His healing. God knows why we suffer illness, but we cannot with certainty determine such things, so we must not pass judgement.
While we cannot and must not conclude that anyone is sick because of one’s own sin (only God can say for sure), we can be certain that the path to healing begins with the attitudes and faith that James outlines in the steps in his epistle. Corporate confession (genuine confession must include repentance), faith, personal and corporate prayer, and the symbolic anointing with oil. One may not be sick because of sin, but unrepented sin demonstrates a lack of faith in Christ, and one cannot be healed without faith in Jesus.
Isn’t it interesting that the Bible never tells us (not that I can recall) that Jesus asked believers to gather together, pray, and anoint the sick with oil while He walked in this earth, but after He ascended into heaven this practice became the norm. Why? Because it is just as important to God that we (His body, filled with the Holy Spirit) love and care for each other in the same way we love God. He emphasized this in naming the Greatest Commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).
This too is certain: sickness and death have been with us from almost the beginning of this age and will be with us until the end of this age. Sickness and death, though, are not part of God’s ideal journey for humankind; sickness and death came about only because the first-created of mankind (Adam and Eve) chose to be like gods instead of loving and cherishing the true God. Original sin.
*It is interesting to note that even the Pharisees, experts in the Law, believed that this man had been born blind because of sin. See John 9:34.