The Word Among Us

August 2010 Issue

Sickness and Sin

The Link between Forgiveness and Healing

By: Francis MacNutt

Sickness and Sin: The Link between Forgiveness and Healing by Francis MacNutt

The first and deepest kind of healing that Jesus brings is the forgiveness of our sins. He died for our sins and took them away, provided we do our part and repent.

This is salvation and healing at the deepest level. What I have come to see, though, is how intimately the forgiveness of sins is connected with bodily and emotional healing. They are not separate. In fact, I would go so far as to say that much physical sickness is a sign that we are not right with God or our neighbor:

For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:29-32)

The Sickness of Sin. This connection of sin and sickness is now being brought to our attention again remarkably, not just by the church but by psychologists and doctors who recognize that much, if not most, physical sickness has an emotional component.

Although there is a danger of our playing amateur psychologist and reading too much into a person’s physical sickness, scientists’ findings do show why Jesus got angry at sickness (“He rebuked the fever”—Luke 4:39). His anger is much more appropriate than the reaction of some later spiritual writers who saw most sickness as redemptive. In my experience, I have seen that sickness is often a sign that part of us is still in need of redemption.

The story of the paralyzed man who was let down through the roof by his friends is significant here as well: First, Jesus forgave his sins, and then he told him to pick up his mat and walk. It seems that Jesus was healing him by stages. Perhaps the sin needing forgiveness and the paralysis were interconnected.

In my own ministry, I have seen this connection borne out in striking ways. Once while giving a retreat at a Carmelite retreat house in Illinois, I gave a talk to about two hundred people stressing the need to forgive enemies. I then gave them the time to pray and forgive anyone who had ever hurt them. This was followed by a prayer for inner healing. Nowhere in this service did I mention physical healing. Yet two people testified immediately afterwards that they had received physical cures.

One was a man who had suffered constant chest pain since undergoing open heart surgery. During the time for forgiveness, he thought of his boss, a man he despised and regarded as totally unfair. At first, he didn’t feel like forgiving him but then, during a long time of silence, he finally entered into a prayer of forgiveness. At that very moment, all the painful effects of the open heart surgery left him.

Repent by Forgiving? Since becoming involved in the healing ministry, I have come to understand better why Jesus placed such a heavy stress on forgiving enemies when he talked about prayer. He doesn’t talk nearly as much about drunkenness and lust as he does about being hard and unforgiving. Furthermore, he often seems to connect forgiving enemies with the Father’s answering our prayers: “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25).

It’s as if God’s saving, healing, forgiving love can flow into us to the degree that we are ready to let it flow out to others. It’s all part of the great commandment in which loving our neighbor is part of the same commandment as loving God. Or to put it another way, I love God only as much as I love my worst enemy.

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. (Luke 6:36-38)

To paraphrase: If you forgive, you will be forgiven; if you are willing to heal everyone else, including your enemies, you will be healed.

Don’t Withhold Forgiveness! We often feel that we have a right not to forgive; in justice let there be an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We think we have a good reason for exacting vengeance. Yet we have the Lord’s words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil” (Matthew 5:38-39). Upon this, the noted Scripture scholar John McKenzie, SJ, comments:

This saying is probably the most paradoxical of all the sayings of the passage and has certainly been the object of more rationalization than any other. . . . It is difficult to see how the principle of non-resistance and yielding could be more clearly stated. The rationalizations of the words of Jesus do not show that his words are impractical or exaggerated but simply that the Christian world has never been ready and is not ready now to live according to this ethic. (in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 73)

I remember being asked by a woman to pray for an inner healing for her. When we talked about her childhood, she told me that her deepest problem, an unreasoning hatred of men, went back to the harsh treatment and derision that her brothers had heaped upon her as a little girl. Before praying for inner healing, I asked her to forgive her brothers. She refused. I told her that this would block any healing. She still refused.

When I asked her why she hung onto her resentment, even though she was being destroyed by it, she thought for a while and then replied that if she forgave her brothers, it would take away her last excuse for being the harsh kind of person she was—she could no longer blame them. After praying a short time more, she realized how contrary this was to her Christian commitment and to her professed desire to be whole. With tears, she forgave her brothers as best she could. Then she received the deep healing she was seeking.

Willpower Is Not Enough. The more I pray with people for healing, the more I discover how closely related all forms of healing are to each other. The churches have long known the power of Christ to forgive sins, but what I realize with increased intensity is that:

• Our physical sickness, far from being a redemptive blessing, is often a sign that we are not redeemed, not whole at a spiritual level.

• Physical healing often requires first a forgiveness of sin or an inner healing.

• The most important repentance is of bitterness or resentment, sins which Christians often do not recognize as sins.

• Again, love is the best remedy to break through the coldness, the hurt, and bitterness that block God’s healing power from flowing into us.

The major discovery I have made is that just using willpower is often not enough. We need to pray for God’s help, for God’s healing, in breaking whatever bondage keeps us falling back into patterns of sin. No matter what our problem is—bitterness, addiction, lust—prayer for healing will help us break free.

The most dramatic example in my own life was when our team was speaking to a group of college students in Costa Rica. We were not talking about sin or repentance but about the power of the Spirit. Suddenly, to our surprise, many in the group began weeping. Afterwards we found that they were weeping for their sins. The Holy Spirit had touched them from within.

Receive, So That You Can Give. I think it is usually humanly impossible to forgive someone who has hurt us deeply and unjustly. So I pray with the person and ask Jesus to pour his own forgiving love into the person’s heart. And, over and over again, it happens!

I now understand better than ever what Jesus was getting at when he pointed to the woman who had poured ointment all over his feet. Her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love. It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love (Luke 7:36-50). Somehow, the woman’s love had been unblocked, and her warmth made it clear that forgiveness, the healing of her spirit, had taken place. To Jesus, the flow of her love was the sign that she was receiving the forgiving, healing love of his Father.