In our daily lives we encounter sickness quite a bit. We’ll get the sniffles at some point during the winter, or perhaps we’ll get the flu and be out of commission for a week or two. We also know that there is nothing worse than a summer cold. We also encounter more serious forms of illness. From cancer, to mental illnesses, and heart disease, etc.. We get sick, we suffer, and we die. So, too, we sin. From “little” sins to “big” sins, we’re continually tempted to sin and turn away from God, to continue our separation from him. By sin, I don’t mean a legalistic sort of “God has a three strikes and you’re in hell” rule, but in the truly Christian sense of “missing the mark.” It’s a seemingly rather bleak state of affairs, but it wasn’t always so, and it isn’t that way now so for us. Christ has come and changed our sadness into joy because while we still get sick and eventually die, death is now a passageway to Life in Him.
Starting in the book of Genesis, we know that humanity was created “very good” and that God desired for us to be in communion with him forever, for all eternity, in Eden. It was through the sin of Adam and Eve that communion between humanity and God was broken and our lives became lives of toil, suffering, and sickness. God is Life, and without him we die. When we sin, we push God away and don’t live in communion with him. In Greek, the word for sin is “amartia” meaning to “miss the mark.” We miss the mark, we don’t live in the way that God knows is the best and healthiest way for us. When we sin, we continue to live a life out of joint and disconnected from God.
There is a recognition that we live in a world that needs to be reunited to God, and that there is a connection that exists between sin and sickness that can sometimes be obvious or more subtle. Take for example someone who engages in dangerous sexual encounters, or someone who drinks heavily for a long time, someone who smokes, or who eats excessive amounts of fat and processed foods; there are serious health risks to each of these and each end in sickness and suffering. It’s science. Most of these behaviors have their origin in natural needs (drinking, eating, sexual union) that we distort and move away from their purpose, we abuse them. The root causes of these addictive sorts of behaviors is spiritual in essence, they’re attempts to fill those holes in our souls, in our lives, with something other than God who is all goodness, joy, life, and love.
There’s also a more subtle connection between sin and sickness. Take the case of a young child who suffers from leukemia. It isn’t because of sin that that child has committed that they are suffering, the child is innocent. Rather, it’s a reflection on the sinful state of the world that we live in, a world that’s been affected by the first sin of our parents Adam and Eve, and is still separated from God by our continued disobedience. We’re born into a world that suffers and needs to be reunited to God by our actions and our prayers. That’s why the Church gives us the sacraments which help restore our communion with God, that patch the connection that was lost, that reunite us to the Church, Christ’s Body. In the liturgy we’re given a foretaste of the eternal bliss we’ll enjoy in the Kingdom of Heaven. However, we’re not in the Kingdom yet and so the Church gives us help along the way.
As I said before, the connection between sin and sickness can be both obvious and more complex, but at the root of both is the spiritual condition that we find ourselves in. Our response to sin and to sickness, as Christians, is a turning back towards the God who gives us life, and who gives us comfort in times of distress. Because of the Incarnation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and because of his Passion and Resurrection, our suffering and our sickness can be transformed, here and now, by joining our suffering to his Passion, to his Cross. Our suffering acquires a redemptive quality when we unite ourselves to Christ, and by doing so we’re restored to communion with God.
That is why the sacraments have transformative power, especially Holy Unction, because it gives meaning to our sickness and our suffering; with Christ as our goal we no longer experience death since there is only life in Christ. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes in his book For the Life of the World,
Healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new life, its experience and anticipation.
This transformative power of Christ is present in our lives if we allow it into our lives. When we address the root cause of our sickness and suffering we discover that sin, in one form or another, is there and can be eradicated through a return to Christ and a reorientation of our lives. We are, through the sacraments, restored to our baptismal purity and the eternal life with Christ that we were promised at baptism. Even in the deepest darkness there is light and life with Christ, “the true Light which illumineth and sanctifieth everyone who cometh into the world.”