This is a provocative subject (and title). I am a Christian, so when I think about this question, I am looking at more than simply a biological viewpoint. I take the Bible seriously, and I am concerned about what it has to say about illness.
There seem to me to be four different causes of illness that I can identify. These are that they can be caused by others, caused by ourselves and unknown causes.
Caused by others
We can all think of circumstances in which a disability or illness has been caused by another person. For example, someone runs us over in a car, or stabs us. There are also parental choices which cause illness, for example drinking during pregnancy and the way we are brought up. These can mean that we become ill. I would also include genetic disabilities which are “caused” by something we inherit. I would also include the consequences of the Fall, as I believe that genetic faults and much illness is a result of living in a broken world that is not the same as the good world God created. That is, biblically, the fault of our first parents, and we all suffer from the curse they brought on themselves. This is something we must endure while we live on this earth, and look forward to the day when ‘[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” ( Revelation 21:4)
I think most people can accept that human choices can have an affect on our health, and that God permits such things to occur in this world, although it is not in his design for us. We are not – sadly – protected from the consequences our lives have on others, or ourselves. The innocent can suffer from our actions who have not done anything wrong themselves. Is this unjust? Yes, it seems so, but I personally believe that when we “know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12) we will see a different perspective. That is something I want to talk about in a future blog post. My point here is simply that evil (illness) can be caused to us by others.
Caused by ourselves
My first instinct at the idea that a person – and I naturally apply this to me personally – can be responsible for their own illness is to bristle. However I think we can all think of someone who has made themselves ill through their choices – an alcoholic who develops liver disease, for example. Or me, when I fell over drunk in the street once and banged my head and had to have stitches. That was the consequence of my action.
There are, though, biblically some illnesses which are the result of a particular sin by the person. (Actually, now that I think of it I think drunkenness is a sin too) For example Elymas in Acts 13:10ff was struck by blindness because he opposed the faith, and in 2 Kings 5:27 Gehazi was struck with leprosy because of his greed.
We know that God will, if he so chooses, punish someone who has sinned with illness or other bad thing, but sometimes he allows illness for good purposes.Not all illness or suffering is the result of my sin, my parents’ sin, anybody’s sin. In fact Jesus was asked this in John’s Gospel:
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.” (John 9:1-3)
Here, Jesus was able to say exactly why this man had a disability, but for those of us living now, we cannot necessarily identify why we are suffering. There could be many reasons, but we cannot really know, because we do not have the ability to look from God’s perspective on our suffering.
I want to write at another time about the purposes of suffering but here I want to note that because you or I or anyone else has an illness does not mean that we are harbouring some secret sin. The purpose of our illness might be to display the works of God (in whatever way that may be) or it might be that it brings character and hope:
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)
I think it is singularly unhelpful for we as Christians to assume that because some of the people in the bible had illnesses etc because they had sinned, and that was the punishment, that we can assume that anyone has an illness because of their sin now. Some people may, others may not, and it isn’t helpful to reach out to someone who is suffering and tell them that they are an especially great sinner who is being punished, when for all we know God may have quite another purpose for their suffering. We don’t know and may never know why we have the ailments we have, I don’t know why I am bipolar, for instance. But I do believe that there is a purpose behind my illness, and that when I am on the far side of suffering I will ask God, and he will show me that my illness had good consequences as well as bad, and that I will know the truth that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)