Whose Sin Causes Illness?

Jesus and His disciples once encountered a man who was blind from birth. The disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2).

The problem of sickness and suffering is a troublesome one. Some think its presence disproves God’s existence; they reason that a loving God would surely not allow so much disease. Others are bothered by the fact that there is no direct correlation between suffering and righteousness. Unrighteous people sometimes live pain free while the righteous are afflicted (see Psalm 73). The disciples assumed some cause and effect correlation, but what was it?

Sickness may be directly linked to one’s own conduct (e.g., smoking results in cancer) or to another’s (e.g., “second hand smoking”). These examples, however, are physical connections. The disciples’ question was asked from a different perspective: illness inflicted as punishment for sin. This man had a congenital condition. Was it the result of a sin he committed in the womb or in a pre-existent state (some in Jesus’ day believed that either was possible), or was it a punishment of the parents for some sin of theirs?

In a broad sense all suffering is the result of sin, in view of the fact that it came into the world after man sinned (Genesis 3). Also, the Bible does contain examples of God afflicting people in response to their sin (e.g., Miriam’s leprosy [Numbers 12]). That does not mean, however, that there is always some direct connection. In this case there was none.

“Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in Him’” (v. 3). Jesus did not explain the why of the man’s blindness; instead, He focused on the opportunity it provided. The expression so that may indicate the purpose of a thing, or it may just indicate its result. This man was not necessarily born blind on purpose so Jesus could heal him, but that would be the outcome.

Jesus’ answer teaches a valuable lesson: rather than speculating about why things are the way they are, use existing circumstances to spread God’s light (see verses 4-5).

One more thing. While the Bible indicates that it is possible for a person to suffer some consequences of another’s sin, it is emphatic that we are not guilty because of another’s sin (assuming we did not cause it). “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

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