One of the things I remember from Psychology class in college was the day our instructor, Mr. Beatty, talked about psychosomatic illnesses. Such illnesses, he explained, are not imaginary; the patient doesn’t just think that he or she is sick, there is a real condition with real physical symptoms. The example that Mr. Beatty gave was an ulcer. A person who had one was not simply imagining that he or she had a hole in his or her duodenum (it has since been discovered that the majority of ulcers are caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori but psychological problems, such as stress, can still cause physical illnesses). Illnesses which are caused by stress include hypertension, heart disease, insomnia, and headaches.
Earlier this year, it was reported that earthquake survivors in Haiti had begun exhibiting a variety of bizarre symptoms, including rashes, digestive problems, abdominal pain, deafness, blindness, and even varying degrees of paralysis (http://www.theworld.org/2010/04/13/haitis-traumatized-earthquake-survivors/). Physical ailments and injuries could be dealt with but these were symptoms for which there was no physical cause. The victims had been understandably traumatized psychologically. The only remedy was extensive psychological therapy. Personally, I’ve never experienced anything remotely like the Haiti earthquake but I can imagine that the victims have indeed been traumatized.
In spiritual terms, sin also produces symptoms. In Gal. 5:19-21a, Paul describes what he calls “the works of the flesh” or, in other words, the products of plain old human nature: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” Quite a list, especially items like strife and fits of anger. These particularly sound an awful lot like what we know today as stress. And, as I mentioned previously, we know that stress produces a variety of physical illnesses.
Linda Lange of Life Application Ministries says that “Disease is a curse. . . . The cause is sin and evil spirits.” (http://www.mindsync.com/lam/Session9.htm). She is not alone in this view. Personally, though, I seriously doubt that all illness is caused by “sin and evil spirits” but the Gospel writer Matthew repeatedly connects the exorcism of “demons” with healing from disease (Matt. 8:16, 10:1, 12:22). It could be that people who had physical ailments also had spiritual or emotional problems, which would be likely considering who Jesus was.
We know that sin or rebellion against God’s will for our lives produces stress or what Paul would call “strife.” It makes sense that this kind of stress would have physical consequences. If you or I knew someone who was physically ill, perhaps dying, and we knew the cure, we would certainly offer it without reservations. And yet, we are continually surrounded by people who are sick with sin but we do nothing. They are sick. They don’t simply think they’re sick—in fact they don’t even know they’re sick—but they are. They are traumatized by their separation from God. And we know the one who has the cure, Jesus the “Great Physician” (Matt. 9:12). We must tell them about the spiritual, emotional, and even physical healing that is theirs for the asking.
“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:17-25 ESV.)