Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
Don’t answer this question, just think about it: why do bad things happen?
I don’t mean “Why do bad things happen to good people?”. Jesus says, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19), and “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
I mean, in general, why do bad things happen?
When a serial adulterer has his manhood mangled in an accident, every Christian father of girls thanks God and smiles, because, to them, t’s not an accident.
Now, that’s a hypothetical example. It’s not real. But here’s a less than hypothetical example.
According to the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 homosexual and bisexual men accounted for 83% of the estimated, new HIV diagnoses among all men aged thirteen and older. If homosexual and bisexual men accounted for 83% of men aged thirteen and over, that statistic wouldn’t matter.
Draw your own conclusions, but, in this specific example, there seems to be a direct relationship between the sin and the sickness.
So, the question is this: does God afflict us according to our sins? Regardless of whether it’s the serial adulterer, the homosexual, or you, does God afflict according to the sin?
And the answer is—maybe.
The Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, teach that God isn’t the author of sin (we understand that well) but the Scriptures also tech that God permits evil to occur.
When evil occurs, and we’re talking about any kind of sickness of the body, the mind, or the soul, there are, really, three possible sources.
First, sometimes, God issues a divine judgment on unbelief and sin. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, for example, was informed by Gabriel that Elizabeth will bear him a son, and his name shall be called John.
“And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’ And the angel answered him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time’” (Luke 1:18-20; cf. 1:13).
There, Zechariah’s inability to speak came from God’s judgment. So, yes, sometimes God does afflict according to the sin.
But then there’s this in Mark chapter seven: “They brought to [Jesus] a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).
For this man’s disability, there’s no reason given—and there’s no reason to assume. Perhaps he was kicked in the head by a mule. Perhaps he fell down a well. Perhaps he was sick as a child and never fully recovered.
The second source of sickness is this: we live in a fallen world. All we see and suffer has been and is effected by the Fall.
Eve’s pain in childbearing increased. That’s not just the pain of giving birth but the pain of watching children grow up and away from you. Or consider that only because of Eve’s sin would any mother ever have to bury her son. When Mary buries her Son and Lord, it’s as if God’s saying, “This is the pain sin brings—and for you all, I have dealt with it Myself.”
Sometimes, a specific evil or sin has its origin in the Fall of humanity. We are poor, miserable, sinners. By nature sinful and unclean, unable to reject the evil and choose the good, and so we produce the fruit of our enmity—evil, sin, and unbelief.
But there’s also today’s Gospel lesson. The first verse: “Now [Jesus] was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke…” (Luke 11:14).
The third source of sickness is satan: the man was mute because the demon oppressing him was mute.
So, there they are—the three sources for sickness.
God permits it or flat-out pronounces judgment against our unbelief.
We suffer it, because we’re sinners in a sinful world.
Or the devil just aims at us and fires.
Perhaps we have some difficulty acknowledging our sickness and our suffering. We like to look and sound strong, after all.
But the real difficulty is applying the specific care to the specific ailment.
Scripture, again, shows us that as there are multiple, potential sources for sickness, there are also multiple remedies.
If sickness is due to one’s sin, the proper response is repentance, confession, and the forgiveness of sins.
St. James writes, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him…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. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:14-16).
Consider, also, St. Paul’s warning concerning the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30).
So, if your ailment is the result of sin—repent! Confess! And receive the abundant grace of God in Christ.
You are forgiven.
But what if your sickness is due to being a sinner in a sinful world? Well, here there are two options: God could miraculously intervene. Elijah, calling out to God, raised the widow’s son whose illness led to death. Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the grave after his illness led to death.
That’s one option for how God intervenes—He uses miracles.
Here’s the other option—God uses vocation. He gives us doctors.
St. Paul writes to Timothy, instructing him to drink wine “for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23). I’m not saying that St. Paul was a medical doctor—I am saying that some doctors make that same recommendation today. Not every ailment can be cured with wine (and you get into trouble when you think so), but you should listen to your doctor. Take a pill. Have a surgery. Don’t have a surgery.
So, if your ailment is the result of being a sinner in a sinful world—God may deliver you miraculously—He makes the blind see, the deaf hear, and the mute speak.
He may also provide trusted friends and learned doctors who will care for you while you endure. Listen to them.
But what if your sickness is from the devil himself? Today’s mute man had a mute demon.
If sickness is due to oppression or attack by satan and his hosts, then Scripture teaches us this: the demon can be cast out in the name of Jesus Christ.
“A slave girl who had a spirit of divination…followed Paul…crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:16-18).
That’s one option for how God defeats satan. But that’s not the only way.
Sometimes, like Job, God doesn’t see fit to lift our suffering immediately. And sometimes, like St. Paul, he doesn’t see fit to lift it at all. “Three times [he] pleaded with the Lord about this, that [his thorn, a messenger of satan] should leave [him]. But [the Lord] said…’My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
So, if your sickness is from the devil—cast him out in the name of Jesus! Like Job, He may lift it, and like St. Paul, He may not. Regardless, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
Easier said than done, right?
As the real difficulty is applying the specific care to the specific sickness—how do you know the source of each sickness you suffer?
The answer is—you don’t.
So, apply all of them.
Maybe you are the problem. Repent! Confess your sins, and receive forgiveness for Christ’s sake. If there are ever sins on your conscience that are particularly troubling, confess them to your pastor privately, that he may hear your confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will. It’s marvelously comforting to do so—from experience, I know.
What is confessed can never be divulged.
And maybe your sicknesses are a result of being a sinner in a sinful world. Children can born addicted to drugs—sometimes, that’s the very first gift Mom gives. As innocent of that crime as the child is, you still treat the child as one who’s guilty of it. God may work a miracle. Or He may have provided doctors just for you. Pray. And listen to your friends and doctors.
You are not more faithful to God if you ignore doctors. You are not more obedient to God if you seek a cure to every ailment from the pharmacy.
Pray to God. Listen to the doctors He has provided.
And maybe the devil is at work, seeking to devour you.
Christians cannot be possessed, because the Holy Spirit dwells within.
From today’s Gospel lesson, who is the Strong Man?
It’s not Jesus—it’s the devil. The devil is the Strong Man. Listen to these verses again: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil” (Luke 11:21-22).
Jesus is the Stronger Man who abides in the Baptized, and we in Him. When assaulted by the devil rejoice in your Baptism—the Stronger Man keeps you safe. God may lift the cross you bear, and He may not. Job’s cross was lifted—and he was saved. St. Paul’s cross wasn’t lifted—and he was saved.
Rejoice that God has saved you through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (cf. Titus 3).
Bad things happen. They have. They do. They will.
When your hour comes, remember the Stronger Man who abides in you. Washed in His Blood, in sickness and in health, you are His and He is yours forever.
“The kingdom of God has come upon you…” And, “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:20, 28).
In Jesus’ name, Amen!