Jesus’ attitude towards sickness

anonymous illustration of Jesus healing Peter'...
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10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, New International Version, ©2011)

Often – but not always – we see the gospel writers attribute physical infirmity to satanic influence.  It’s interesting to note that in the gospels we never see Jesus offer the sick a cliché.  Jesus did not call the illness the absence of the good, he did not appeal to mystery, nor did he attribute it being the natural working of God’s good creation.  Jesus didn’t tell the crowd that they were not in the place to understand God’s larger purpose. He did not tell the woman that her infirmity was being used by God to make her soul.

On the contrary, Jesus viewed this woman’s condition as unjust imprisonment that must she ought to be immediately be liberated from; regardless of how it might offend the synagogue leader’s legalistic interpretation of God’s law.

Theologians and philosophers have in different ways worked at forming a sound theodicy regarding natural evil. Defined, natural evil is evil for which no agent is morally responsible. In contrast, moral evil would be the result of any morally negative event caused by the intentional action caused by a person. The “free will defense” has largely answered most of the problems posed by the problem of moral evil.

Therefore, I find it highly interesting that the gospel writers document Jesus dealing with disease as form of spiritual warfare against demonic forces, not mere natural evil. This point is further brought out in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ house, we read “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

While our modern sensibilities find the idea of an evil spirit corrupting nature implausible, I find it telling that when one’s child suffers from leukemia, or as in the case of the woman in Luke 13, their back is painfully deformed so they can’t do anything but live in a painful stoop, we describe these things as evil. These things really bother us, even to the point of anger at times. Typically we don’t call such a thing merely a misfortune, we see it as an injustice. It is not right that a person suffers terribly under excruciating pain.  Jesus thought that something ought to be done about it immediately. Our common experience is that people truly do suffer various injustices not that are not naturally caused by human beings. We feel anger towards these things as if something personal was at work. If tragic illnesses are merely a misfortune, then we have no reason to feel angry about the situation. Therefore, I think we’re justified trusting our common sense in saying that some injustices are not caused by mere natural processes. Rather there are injustices that have supernatural causes.

This seems to be the worldview advocated by the New Testament. As Greg Boyd argues, while even death is just a natural result by what we call natural processes, the devil is named the one who “holds the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) Death is called the “last enemy”. (1 Cor. 15:26) We see elsewhere in scripture that Satan is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who “whole world is under the control” of. (1 Jn. 5:19)  Believers have been redeemed from this foe through the atonement. (Col. 1:13-14) This view was held by the early church fathers as shown by various quotes of Origen, Justin, Tertullian and Athenagoras.

If sickness is a perversion of the natural order Satan uses as a weapon against those whom God loves, then I think we are misguided to ascribe our sicknesses and infirmities to God’s will. (Caveat: obviously we don’t feel the sense of injustice when we make ourselves sick through neglect or over-indulgence, but we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy.) The Bible calls illness oppression, and like with the case of the woman, we ought to be loosed. God is not the oppressor, He’s the liberator. If Christ is the Head and we are the Body, then why would Christ work against his own body by making it sick?If Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, why do we see him so often healing in response to faith?

For unless we are theological determinists who believe that God is micromanaging everything – even causing the decisions of people and evil spirits – then I see no reason we should resign ourselves to the so-called inscrutable purpose of God when so-called natural evil strikes. Rather, I think we should do anything more than stand strong in faith, resisting the adversary with every method at our disposal. God is infinitely wise and knows how to bring good out of such evils brought about by free creatures.  We can also be assured that Satan’s free power to influence is finite and will eventually be fully ended while simultaneously enjoying a large degree of freedom from his works in the life that now is.  If we learn anything out of such trials, it ought to be learning to resist and rule over, not resigning. (1 Pet. 5:8-10, James 4:7, Luke 10:19, Rom. 5:17, Rev. 11:15, 20:10)