Sick with sin: is the ‘sin as sickness’ model true or helpful?

It is frequent in Christian circles to speak of sin as a deadly illness or sickness from which we need God’s help, healing, and deliverance. 

The Bible is not unfamiliar with this concept. For instance, sin and righteousness are often conceived of in terms of pure and impure. And pure and impure are often connected to leprosy and other diseases of the body. 

So it’s not unreasonable to think of sin in terms of illness or disease. But, as I’ve read some of Thomas Szasz‘s work on the “illness model” of psychiatric disorders, I’ve had to rethink things a bit. He argues that viewing observable behaviors primarily as illnesses creates several philosophical, legal and practical treatment problems in his own field, psychiatry (Szasz):

  1. Mental illness is a medical metaphor for persistent disturbing behavior.
  2. But it’s not medical in itself insofar as mental illnesses cannot be found on the coroners’ table, in blood tests, microscope slides, or even in brain scans. 
  3. Doctor declarations of incompetence make people’s non-illegal behavior into ‘diseases’ that allow them to be institutionalized by government power only to be released upon their recovery. 
  4. Outside of drug use, psychiatry uses conversational methods of healing more similar to philosophy, education, or religion. 
  5. Identifying too closely with one’s illness can lead to finding excuses for negative behavior as though it were something for which one cannot take responsibility, but are viewed by the patient as endemic to their person. 

That summary of Szasz’s book is too simple, but I think it’s good enough for my purposes here. You don’t have to agree with any aspect of the argument with respect to the fields of psychiatry or psychology. But what is useful is the parallel to the way we speak of sin.

Usually the Bible speaks of sin in terms of human failure to pursue the good (accidentally and on purpose). And most of the time that failure is precisely spoken of in terms of rebellion against the good (on purpose). The exception to this might be Romans 6-8 where sin is conceived of as a sort of cosmic power which has extreme influence upon the human person by nature of the habits they have appropriated into their bodies. 

My read on things is that seeing sin as a disease is useful insofar as we’re speaking of having a problem that cannot be solved solely by the person who has it and if we perceive as a disease for which the patient is still responsible for following doctor’s orders. And Jesus’ orders are to deny yourself, sin no more, seek first the kingdom of God, cut off that which causes you to stumble, and so-on.

But I think that seeing sin as a disease has a few disadvantages, as it distances us from sorry for our misdeeds (they’re just a state I am in), it removes notion of rebellion for which we deserve punishment from the equation, and while it could help us see the need to incrementally change our habits, it tends to decrease the importance of individual sins in the psychic radar of our minds. 

So, is sin a disease? No. Disease is one metaphor among many, but it is perhaps best to define sin the way John does, ‘sin is lawlessness.’ In other words, sin is any deed which goes against God’s law or any habit of being which disregards it altogether. If we see sin as a crime I think there is a much more urgent inner need to repent.

References

Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness. Perential, 1974.