The Jewish rabbis had a saying, “No sick person is healed until all his or her sins have been forgiven.” The Jews of old linked suffering to sin: if a person was suffering, that was proof positive that he or she was a sinner. When Jesus healed the man who had been lowered through the roof (Mk 2:1-12), he was not just ridding him of physical symptoms; he was turning his whole life around. He told him, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
Today we make a clearer distinction between sin and suffering; in fact we tend to make a separation between them. We say sickness and suffering have nothing to do with sin. We say, quite truly, that good people often suffer more. Are we right?
Yes, very good people often suffer more – partly because they don't protect their own interests so well as others do! A much-read book in recent times, by a Jewish author, is called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Not all suffering is due to sin, certainly; but who will deny that some of it is? To live a life of sin is to “miss the mark” (which is what the Greek word for sin means) and to lose the meaning of life. That surely is a deep wound in any human life – unless we have defined life as having a good time in the short term. Have you ever noticed that you are less likely to get sick when you are passionately involved in some work that possesses you totally? We are at our best, even physically, when we are beyond ourselves. But when we fold up into ourselves we think only about germs and viruses, we believe we have caught every disease whose name we hear, we bring disease on ourselves by thinking disease. I know of course that not all sickness is self-induced, but let’s not be on the side of sickness!
In English the words ‘health’ (mostly used of physical health) and ‘salvation’ (health of the soul) seem unrelated. This is because ‘health’ is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin, while the word ‘salvation’ comes from Latin. But in other languages the words are from the same family. English thus gives the impression that physical and spiritual health are unrelated. But when we dig a little we discover that in English they are related after all. The word ‘health’ and the word ‘holy’ are from the same root. (Other related words are ‘hail’, ‘whole’, and the newly-coined word ‘holistic’.) In New Testament Greek the one word ‘soteria’ is used for physical and also for spiritual health. This reassures us that our physical (and mental) health is not a matter that has nothing to do with our spiritual health. These are not separate compartments.
But then we are in danger of over-compensating to the point of identifying them. This would be equally unbalanced. We have to know that God is equally present to us in sickness and in health. Indeed we can sometimes be more present to God when we are sick than when we are in the pink of health. Poor physical and mental health is not just bad luck or something spiritually neutral. See Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul. It is in sickness that many people find God for the first time in their lives. When we are in full health we could be living a superficial life, never thinking beyond the immediate. But when we are sick we are nearer to the end of our own resources, and then we are more likely to look beyond ourselves to God. Sickness can sometimes be a manifestation of God's mercy: it may be the only way left to God to slow us down!
To sum up: we shouldn’t separate physical and spiritual health; but neither should we identify them. Rather they are related to each other. St. Augustine wrote that human beings are fleshly even in their spirit and spiritual even in their flesh.
In marriage two people take each other “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, until death.” Through the Incarnation our loving God has married us to himself forever. Like every marriage our life with God will have good days and bad, but our loving God reaches out to us “in sickness and in health.”