“See, you are well! Sin no more…”
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool … which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years… Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked…
Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” (John 5:2-14 RSV)
Often, when we hear this passage, we immediately recognize that there is a connection between sin and illness. Commenting on this passage, the Fathers note that the paralytic may have committed some sin for which he was then punished with a bodily affliction (see, for example, Saint Theophylact of Ohrid). And equally as often, we misunderstand the nature of this connection. We envision a child who is spanked by the parent for being naughty, and we think that when we do something bad, God “spanks” us with an illness. Perhaps, this image works well so some people and keeps them from being naughty, just as a child can be fearful of the punishment. This is also how the ancient Jews understood their relationship with God: if they did something bad, God punished them, and if they did something good, He rewarded them. But as the Apostle Paul said to the Hebrews, children get milk, but those who are mature eat solid food–a deeper understanding of the teaching (Heb. 5:11-14).
The Church teaches us a deeper truth about the connection between soul and body, the spiritual world and the material, sin and bodily illness. Secular education trains us to separate the physical world from “personal belief.” It teaches us that the physical world is real, and that the spiritual world is not, and that is why scientists do not study it. But this is not how God created the world–a “real” physical world and some separate fantasy land to entertain our imagination. God created one world with both the physical and the spiritual dimensions. Spirits do not live in a spiritual world; they live in the one created world in which the spiritual and the physical interact with each other. Likewise, humans do not live only in a physical world. We have body, soul, and spirit, and we live in both the physical and the spiritual dimensions at the same time.
As humans, we are not a mechanical composition of separate parts, but a wholesome organism. Just as the Holy Trinity is not three separate Gods but One, in the same way, body, soul, and spirit are not three separate pieces but one human nature. In an organism, what happens to one member affects all others. If I have a toothache, I will also be grumpy; and if my soul is joyful, the toothache may go away or become more tolerable. But this connection is not limited to our teeth and emotions. A spiritual illness or injury may affect our mind and even our body.
God did not invent commandments just for the sake of inventing something. Just as any good parent strives to protect his child, God warns us about the dangers of breaking the laws of the spiritual part of our world. If a parent tells his child not to jump off a roof, it is because the child might break a leg; and if a parent warns the child not to stick his finger in an electric outlet, it is because the child might get electrocuted. If the child ignores the parent’s advice and breaks a leg, can we blame the parent for punishing his child with a broken leg for disobeying the parent’s commandment? And if we disobey the laws of the spiritual world–which are just as real as the laws of physics–and get hurt, can we blame God for punishing us? The state of our spiritual health directly affects the whole of our nature. Breaking spiritual laws may directly affect our mind, or body, or both!
We are made aware of this direct connection between body and spirit when we fast. Through the exercise of the discipline of the flesh, we are trying to elevate the spirit and affect the soul. We do not fast because we want to lose weight, nor do we make prostration because we want to get some physical exercise. Rather, we do both because we know that what we do to our body affect our soul.
The Apostle Paul made this connection very clear when he noted that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). When Corinthians, following the teachings of Plato and other Greek philosophers, argued that they can remain spiritual while giving in to the passions of the flesh, Paul insisted that there cannot be a mechanical division, that the flesh and the spirit are two parts of one indivisible human nature (12-13). But Paul was not the only one to outline this principle. Ancient Romans wondered whether there could be a healthy spirit in a healthy body, and a well-known saying proclaims that cleanliness is next to godliness–once again, tying the material to the spiritual. The Christian monastic tradition refined this proverb to highlight not just any cleanliness, but the purity of the body and of the life of the body.
So, does God smite us with ailments of the flesh? He, certainly, could, if this would be for our salvation. But it seems to me that more often than not, we suffer injury to our flesh because we fail to heed the loving advice and warning that God offers to us. When God says “Thou shalt not,” it is a warning meant to keep us safe. Let us obey spiritual laws as we obey physical ones. Let us keep ourselves from sin to avoid injury to our souls, mind, and bodies. Let us remember that sins of the flesh destroy the soul, and that sins of the soul can affect the health of our flesh. So, let us keep far away from every sin; and if we happen to fall, let us hear the call of Christ: “Rise up and walk, but sin no more, that nothing worse befall you!”