On Confessing Sins and Physical Sickness image

On Confessing Sins and Physical Sickness

I've often been puzzled by the connection between physical sickness and confessing sins. When James 5:16 says, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed," I find myself quickly wanting to apologise for it. Not that physical sickness is a result of sin, I find myself clarifying, whether anyone is listening or not. Go back and read John 9:3. Yet close study of Scripture reveals that this is far from a one-off; despite the suffering of innocent people, which is a given throughout the Bible and is obviously at the very heart of the gospel, there nevertheless are a number of occasions in which sin and/or confessing sin are linked with physical sickness or suffering. It can be, frankly, troubling.

Here’s a perspective on that connection that I had never considered, from Kelly Kapic’s excellent chapter on confession in his new book Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering:

Here is the interesting point: our ability to hide our sin gets compromised when we are exhausted and in constant pain. It becomes much more difficult to pretend that we are fine ... Pain suffered in isolation does not make a person more of a sinner, but it does tend to remove our defences against accusations and lingering sorrows ...

I believe the act of confession, and in particular confession to a fellow believer, is crucial to sustaining the struggling saint. As we will soon see, for those facing physical suffering—where they have a heightened sense of their own sin—this act of confession becomes one of the keys to life-giving faith amid the voices of condemnation. This is not because they are greater sinners but because they sometimes have a greater sensitivity to the presence of sin in their lives and this world, and they sense their deep need for forgiveness and grace. We all need these gifts of divine compassion and mercy, but our relative health often masks the darker realities of our spiritual neediness.

This is not to say that the theological problem is solved. For every John 9:3 there is a John 5:14. But it is to say that there are relationships between confession and suffering that do not necessarily occur to those of us who, thank God, do not live with chronic physical pain (a point Kapic illustrates through the life of Martin Luther, among others). “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

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