Sin and Sickness. Yep, In the Same Sentence. (Psalm 38)

There is no soundness in my flesh 
      because of your indignation; 
there is no health in my bones 
      because of my sin. 
For my iniquities have gone over my head; 
      like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.

—Psalm 38:3–4

In Evangelical, prosperity gospel-eschewing churches one may speak of sickness and offer comfort and one may speak of sin and aim at conviction, but should sin and sickness be mentioned together, we squirm. Fear of being misunderstood cripples us in communicating what we should. And what we should confess is this: all sickness, indeed all sickness, sorrow, and suffering are rooted in sin. They are the fruit of sin. Now, that does not say everything, but this much must be said.

Not all sorrows are due to a particular sin your life, but all your sorrows are rooted in sin. We can even say they are rooted in a particular sin—Adam’s. As sin multiplied, so did our misery. Look around. What you see is not just sin proliferated, but the woes of sin multiplied. True, many of your sins result in no personal sickness, at least as far as we can observe. But this fact allows us to draw this sobering conclusion: there is not a soul among us suffering even a billionth of what our own sins deserve. On this earth men do taste of judgment, but even in the worst judgment in this life, there is still a degree of mercy. Thomas Brooks warns, “He that hath deserved a hanging hath no reason to charge the judge with cruelty if he escape with a whipping; and we that have deserved a damning have no reason to charge God for being too severe, if we escape with a fatherly lashing.”

This connection makes us uneasy for how it can make us uneasy. Every time we get sick we might question whether or not our sickness is due to sin. As I see it, there are only two ways to know this information.

  1. The sin itself makes you sick. This can be more immediate, like a hangover due to drunkenness. Or it can be more removed from the sin, as with a history of drunkenness leading to cirrhosis of the liver. 
  2. Revelation.

As I already spoke of eschewing prosperity gospel heresies, I’ll take it you can understand why I’m not going to run with number 2. Even so, sickness can act like a smelling salt to rouse us to perceive sin that we have been ignoring. This is not to say that perception implies causality. You shouldn’t worry about sickness as though it were a puzzle to solve. You should repent of any clear sin. Done.

All this has been a set up for us evaluate yet another kind of sickness that is related to sin. In regard to the 38th psalm, some believe David is sick due to his sin—that the sickness is punishment for sin. I don’t buy that. I do believe David is ill. But David feels sick, not due to some virus as punishment, but due to conviction. God’s hand is so heavy on his soul, his body bows. The arrows of conviction so pierce that his bones ache. Child of God, have you never experienced conviction of sin so sharply, that you lose you appetite? Have you never felt like vomiting because of your sin? Such is the sin-sickness of David’s soul.

In our therapeutic age this kind of soul-sickness is too often chalked up to brokenness in the body or the mind. Sin has indeed broken the body and the mind. There is common grace to be had in medicine. But there is a kind of soul misery that we try to mask. Common grace is no substitute for special grace. Special grace will not heal your cold. Common grace cannot heal your soul. Sometimes man should feel miserable. There is a misery every soul outside of Christ should know. Many a man’s greatest problem is that he has not yet been made miserable enough to truly deal with his misery. We want to get over deep sorrows as quickly as possible to enjoy superficial joys. Try anything else, and whatever cure you may think you find, only makes you worse. And the worst cure is the one that makes you feel best, while your sin remains.

There is only one remedy for the sin-sick soul. You must cry out to the Great Physician; the very one who as a surgeon is causing your pain. If you are His child, those are not His arrows, they are His scalpel. He hurts to heal. He makes the scalpel feel like an arrow that you might fear God and cease ignoring your Father. God has told you how you must position yourself for Him to heal and until you bow on your knees in repentance, He will persist in causing pain of soul, precisely because He is good and He refuses to allow you to destroy yourself.

The Penning Pastor: Pleasing Grief and Mournful Joy

From “Looking at the Cross

With pleasing grief and mournful joy,
My spirit now is filled;
That I should such a life destroy,
Yet live by him I killed.

—John Newton, Works