O YHWH, rebuke me not in thy wrath / Neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure (Psalm 38:1).
Illness exposes our weakness and fragility in ways we would rather deny or forget. We would rather figure out reasons why we surely would not be called upon to thus suffer and explain the illnesses of others as somehow based upon their particular plight or as the consequences of their behavior. Far more seem ready to provide some kind of ready-made cure than to sit in lament with the one enduring illness.
At some point in his life David experienced great distress from some kind of illness, or gave voice to the people of God to express great distress from illness before God, in Psalm 38:1-22. The psalm is reckoned as one “to bring to remembrance,” begging God to pay attention and to deliver. David called on YHWH to not rebuke him in His wrath or to chasten him in His displeasure (Psalm 38:1). David acutely felt affliction, and he deemed it as having come from God; in his flesh there was no soundness or health in his bones because of his sin (Psalm 38:2-3). His sins were many and too heavy a burden for him; he has infected wounds on account of his foolishness (Psalm 38:5). David felt numb in the crushing weight he experienced, crying out with moaning in heart (Psalm 38:6-8). David appealed to God who understood his heart and heard his groaning: his strength was failing, and even though his adversaries plotted against him and friends and family avoided him, he was as a deaf or mute man, incapable of making a defense (Psalm 38:9-14). David waited for YHWH, expecting a response: he prayed for deliverance lest his enemies gloat over him and taunt him (Psalm 38:15-16). David felt great pain and was concerned he was about to stumble, thus he confessed his sin (Psalm 38:17-18). David begged for God not to abandon him or remain far from him, but desired the Lord to hurry to help and deliver him (Psalm 38:20-22).
It would not be wise for us to attempt to ascertain exactly when or how David experienced this affliction so as to identify what sins David might have committed to lead to his condition. No such information is revealed; even if it had, we must always remember that David never spoke only for himself in the psalms, but wrote to give voice to the people of God to bring their distress, concerns, and praise before Him. We can imagine many Israelites having reason to come to the Temple and proclaim Psalm 38:1-22, or most of it, before YHWH: afflicted terribly with some disease, looking for deliverance and healing from God, and thus humbling themselves in lament and confession of sin so nothing would come between them and God.
David strongly considered illness the consequence for sin and iniquity. He had good reason to do so. David numbered Israel and saw God’s plague cut down thousands of his people in response (2 Samuel 24:1-17). In the Law Israel was promised they would be protected from sickness and would not suffer the plagues YHWH imposed upon Egypt if they remained faithful to the covenant (Deuteronomy 7:15); the curse which would come for disobeying the covenant included sickness (Leviticus 26:16). In judgment YHWH sent plague against Israel, but they would not listen (Amos 4:10); plague would be among the means by which YHWH judged Jerusalem and Judah (Ezekiel 5:12). To this end Jesus’ disciples simply conveyed the normal assumptions and expectations of Israelites during the Second Temple when they asked Jesus whether it had been the man himself or his parents who had sinned, leading to his blindness (John 9:2).
Such a perspective about illness does not sit well with us today. We are uncomfortable with those who to this day make the naïve proclamation that health displays the favor of God and illness God’s disfavor, and for good reason. Plenty of wicked people maintain good health throughout their lives; many righteous people have suffered terribly from sickness and illness. According to Jesus neither the man born blind himself nor his parents so sinned as to lead to his condition: his blindness was given as the means by which God’s actions would be revealed to the world (John 9:3). Illness might come about from a host of reasons not directly connected with any given transgression by its sufferer: environmental conditions, a pandemic, a result of stress or trauma, and so on. Few sights prove as devastating and heart wrenching as seeing small children undergoing treatment for cancer or other major illnesses: they suffer greatly and yet have not personally participated in any sin or transgression.
Yet perhaps modern Westerners have proven a little too eager to disassociate illness from sin. Illness is part of the corruption of the creation introduced with sin (cf. Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-23). We have no quarrel with germ theory; we appreciate the benefits of modern epidemiology and the greater quality of life made possible by the elimination or significant reduction of many diseases. And yet, as we live in a more sanitized culture, we see the development of autoimmune conditions and “superbugs” which are becoming antibiotic resistant. As long as we live in the broken, corrupted creation of the present, illness will be with us in some way or form.
Christians do well to take another look at Psalm 38:1-22 as they consider illness, themselves, and others. We might be far removed from David’s worldview, and that might be at least partly to our own harm. We tend not to think much of illness until we suffer it ourselves or hear about the suffering of others. When we are confronted with the prospect of illness, we have a tendency to respond in shock, anger, and bitterness; we rarely look to ourselves the way David did.
Yet perhaps the greater warning from Psalm 38:1-22 ought to come to those who do not presently suffer as much from illness. After all, why is it that so many people are invested in attempting to ascertain what sin it might have been that led to an illness? Why do so many seek out the right behavior, supplement, or oil and regard them as having almost magical powers? We humans desperately look for reasons to explain why “they” are ill to reassure ourselves that “we” will not succumb. Jesus addressed a similar challenge in Luke 13:1-5 when informed of recent news about how Pilate mingled the blood of some people with their sacrifices, with the intent to understand that such people must have sinned in some way so as to bring that fate upon them: He declared that they were no more or less sinful than anyone else, and if His audience did not repent, they would likewise perish.
So much of what we do in the face of illness is a reflection of our deep anxiety about the prospect of suffering and/or death. We do not like the cold, hard reality: we are all sinners and all have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and we may suffer from illness no matter how healthily we live, eat, or behave. We may go through our lives without enduring many difficult or challenging illnesses; our lives might prove to be a never ending parade of various illnesses or marked by a chronic condition. No one automatically deserves health or illness; if we escape, we may be fortunate, but if we suffer, it is part of the corruption of the creation, and it is our lot.
In all such things we do well to return to the words God has given us to speak to Him. David is giving us a voice to beg God for forgiveness of our sins and to acknowledge that our illness is a result of sin, even if it is not the result of any individual specific sin we may have committed in Psalm 38:1-22. David understood the most important thing in the face of illness is to maintain relational unity with God and to clear out any sin, foolishness, or difficulty which might get in the way of that relationship. Note well that David never associated his illness with any specific sin: his illness reminded him that he did have sin and transgression, and did not want to have to stand before God in His fierce anger. Neither should we.
In the “new heavens” and the “new earth” John envisioned no more death, and no more pain, crying, or mourning anymore; in such a place illness can have no place (Revelation 21:4). We eagerly await that day. Until then, we do well to turn to God and put our trust in Him whether in sickness or in health, and seek healing from Him in all things!
Ethan R. Longhenry