Isaiah 53:4-5 portrays two aspects of what the Suffering Servant - our Lord, Jesus Christ - has done to our great benefit. He has "borne our infirmities" and "was wounded for our transgressions."
Sins and infirmities. These two categories of human experience pose questions that call for wisdom and discernment. What counts, in God's eyes, as sin? (This question has dimensions that resist easy answers.) What does he regard as infirmities? What does God forgive and what does he heal?
A first-step answer is pretty straightforward. "Infirmities" obviously refers to diseases. This Isaiah passage says, "He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases." Yes. True. Is this the end of the story for understanding infirmities? No.
The Bible also describes sickness of soul, which overlaps with physical illness but also goes beyond it into thoughts, feelings, and resulting behaviors. Infirmities are in some ways crippling limitations whose cause is harder to identify. Infirmities lie in murky territory, but, given the cost associated with them, all the more reason to gain understanding so that we can grow.
The reason some discernment matters is that God exhibits different responses and has differing expectations for us. With sin, God expects repentance and offers forgiveness. With infirmities, God exhibits patience, offers healing, and gives us grace to live godly lives even if we may do so, as it were, limping Jacob-like.
John Wesley preached a sermon, titled, "The End of Christ's Coming." "End" means goal, or final purpose. The scripture theme is 1 John 3:8, "For this reason the Son of Man was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil" (KJV). The final purpose of God in Jesus Christ is to correct and heal everything that has gone wrong with his creation because of sin. All wrong, including sins and infirmities, anything that hinders or opposes God's perfect will for human good.
Mr. Wesley explores this distinction between sins and infirmities as he unpacks in what manner we are to understand God's work in destroying the devil's works. Wesley says, "But it may be observed that the Son of God does not destroy the whole work of the devil in man, as long as he [humanity] remains in this life. He [Christ] does not yet destroy bodily weakness, sickness, pain, and a thousand infirmities incident to flesh and blood" (emphasis added).
"A thousand infirmities incident to flesh and blood" covers not only physical illness or ailments. It includes what I mentioned before, a soul sickness - ignorance and woundedness combined and accumulated, the devil's slings and arrows that come in myriad ways and scratch and scrape and tear at our souls, even when we don't realize it. God in his grace and mercy offers healing and grace to endure. Wesley's point is that God, in his mysterious freedom, does not free us from every single infirmity this side of heaven. Even people who have been miraculously healed of a dread disease or freed from a terrible addiction will continue to feel the impact of infirmities.
What about sin(s)? Once again, a good understanding requires recognizing some careful distinctions. On one hand, everything that goes counter to God's will fits appropriately within the scriptural description of sin. All wrong can be traced to sin, whether we are perpetrators or victims, and God has shown himself determined to overcome all sin. In one important sense, then, we identify infirmities as within the larger problem of sin.
But we need to press further. Of which responses are we guilty? For what does God hold us accountable as sinners? What calls for repentance? What requires God's forgiveness? Once more, I think John Wesley's insight here is very valuable, even though, like many good insights, it also brings the risk of misunderstanding and twisting to selfish ends. Wesley teaches that, in those actions for which we stand guilty and need forgiveness, our willfulness is always involved, in which we know God's will and we hardheartedly do our own thing anyway.
Sometimes Christians are just plain guilty. Perhaps, often. We turn a deaf ear to God's voice and barge ahead with what we are determined to do. We therefore must (and will) answer to a holy God. We would do well to ponder much more than we do on this matter of our hardheartedness.
How about an example from social media interactions? If you spend any time there, you see how badly Christians bite and devour one another. If I knowingly ignore the Christlike standard for loving our enemies and I go ahead with belligerence and character assassination so that my "side" or my viewpoint can "win" for the sake of some purportedly larger good, I am guilty of sin. I need forgiveness, from God and from my opponent.
Infirmities, on the other hand (leaving aside physical infirmities), come short of willfulness. They lie in that murky area of the sub-conscious, perhaps, or simple lack of knowledge. Warning: we need to proceed very carefully with this line of thinking. We must not overlook willfulness, ever, and begin to excuse ourselves. But thinking about infirmities brings the possibility of wise insight.
An example of an infirmity? Let me ask you to think about your life. Think about a characteristic attitude or behavior or response to a situation that you recognize in yourself. You likely have a picture of the best Christian life you want to live. In the grind of the day-to-day, however, you find yourself stumbling in the same way in similar circumstances. On thinking about it, you realize that you find yourself acting without really thinking. You're not responding willfully, even though you recognize that you are responding poorly.
What do you need? Forgiveness or healing? Repentance and forgiveness could be warranted, at one level, but as you think about how this situation grabs you and trips you up emotionally (spiritually), you have the opportunity to dig deeper into your soul. You might find something for which you need healing.
Sins and infirmities often mix together, which is why we need wisdom. We must not excuse sin. Ever. We seek understanding. We ask God for grace. We remember that his power is made perfect in our weakness. With confidence we can take everything to the throne of grace, for forgiveness and for healing. With prayerful reflection and the help of wise Christian community, we can gain understanding and begin to experience healing in our infirmities and victory where they cause real problems.
And we can also come to realize, with the Spirit's insight, that, again like Jacob, we're probably going to walk with a limp through life. We need not be ashamed of our infirmities, so long as we transparently open our whole hearts to the Man of Sorrows. We can trust God to heal us of our infirmities and, where they remain, we can live with the peace of Christ that surpasses all comprehension.