The Stumbling Block of Healing

Last March, during the final weeks of Lent, as the wind howled over the snow-strewn city streets, a group of close friends gathered in our living room to pray for healing. It was both a most biblical and a revolutionary step. It was also terrifying.

We gathered to pray for the lifting of my covenant partner’s depression. It was, in many ways, a move of desperation. The disease had shadowed his brilliant spirit and mind for four years. Certainly, in that time, we had prayed—constantly. We had also tried most of what the medical world had to offer—extensive counseling, therapies, retreats, medications, and more medications. Still the dark, anxious thoughts dogged his spirit and shadowed the life of our family.

Some family members had urged us to travel to sites where charismatic preachers and healers worked miracles of healing—Toronto (site of the Toronto Blessing), a charismatic healer’s ministry for family healing in Florida, a small church on the West Coast. We never made those trips. Though I firmly believe that mysterious, unexplained healings do occur, in those places and elsewhere, something in me rejected the idea that certain people or places have an “edge” on healing. Another part of me was skeptical of the mindset that complex illnesses such as mental health or addiction and psychological damage are resolved after one prayer or conversion experience.

We often ask others to “pray for us.” It is a different, more vulnerable, and more terrifying level of prayer to intentionally gather people to pray with the expectation of healing for a specific condition. (Particularly if one’s medical illness carries a stigma—and depression is such an illness.) If the prayer fails, that failure can become an even more significant defeat to carry in your body along with the unhealed illness.

That snowy night, as the wind howled around our small house, the deepest part of my partner’s depression did lift. All present felt the power in the room.

After the service and subsequent lifting of the depression, I was bursting to share the news. I was unprepared for the mixed response.

Despite the fact that those I shared with were convicted and faithful Christians—most of whom had been praying for us over this issue for years—many were clearly resistant to the idea that the prayer service had made the difference. “The medication is finally kicking in.” “A lot of people have depression lift as the days get longer.” “You know, these things always go through cycles—hope it lasts.”

The Bible is rife with healings. Healings are the core of Jesus’ ministry. But there’s no getting around it. Scientifically unexplained healing is a big problem for many North American Christians. Too pentecostal, too miraculous, too—well, scientifically unexplainable.

I’ve begun to regard healing as one of the issues that splits the church. At one pole are Christians who focus on individual encounters with God’s grace and power and believe that the change God wishes for, social and personal, happens only this way. Salvation is a cure-all as well. They are suspicious of long-term therapeutic programs or social programs, arguing that such programs attempt what conversion would accomplish.

At the other are Christians for whom the Enlightenment legacy of science and rationalism has become their primary theological lens as well. They see flash healings from the sky as the stuff of manipulative evangelists and followers too swayed by the emotion of the moment to think clearly. Instead, they work to put in place safety nets, medical interventions, and programs that support people in their healings. Convicted and committed people of faith fall all along this continuum.

It is rather startling that some of today’s most significant modern Christian theologians and teachers on the radical social vision of the gospel have almost nothing to say about healing, even though healing is indisputably one of the primary focuses of Jesus’ ministry. His healing powers drew the crowds to him, and his ability to heal also lent credibility to his radical, socially transforming teachings.

Most of us are quite at home with the idea that prayer facilitates healing. But we like to imagine the vehicle of that healing as the best available medical work aided by unexplained resiliency on the part of the patient. It is this unexplained resiliency that we like to attribute to prayer. Put that recovery in a fervent prayer service and we get a little antsy. Take away the medical care, put the healing in a tent meeting, and make the condition a bit more difficult (congenital blindness from birth, say), and you can cut the skepticism with a knife.

THERE ARE GOOD reasons, of course, to question miraculous healing. The most compelling is this one: Not everyone is healed. This is the great stumbling block.

Every day, a friend telephones. Lydia (not her real name) has struggled with mental health issues all her life. She hears voices, battles severe paranoia, and carries intense anxiety. Her illness has estranged her from family, worn out her friends, and put her on the streets. Many committed Christians have prayed for her, supported her, and yearned for her healing. She has not been healed. Why a healing in our house while she is not healed?

A middle-aged pastor I know had a cancerous tumor diagnosed that was so advanced that surgery was scheduled for the next Monday. Prayers stormed heaven, and on Monday morning, the entire tumor had disappeared. Decades later, it has never returned. She sits now by the bed of a 4-year-old girl, the only child of poor, immigrant parents, who is dying of a brain tumor. They pray. The family is certain of a miracle. The child is not healed. The seemingly arbitrary grace of healing is one of its problems.

There is no rationale to these losses and omissions. We invent our own rationales, many of them quite thoughtful. Among these truths: What if our image of healing is not God’s view of true healing? What if healing at a later date would do more good? What if the illness, prolonged, will lead to fruitful introspection and a new spiritual awareness? These and other questions are ways that we grapple with the mystery of healing when all do not receive it.

For most of its history, the church has linked healing and belief. The Bible often does the same. Those who believe are healed. But the nagging correlation is this: Those who are not healed must not really believe.

In such a theological perspective, a “failed” healing actually carries with it the stigma of spiritual inadequacy. The suffering person continues to live with the condition as well as carrying an indictment of their own faith. One of the more haunting scenes I remember is the life-scarring disappointment of a young man named Keith (not his real name). A host of his newly converted, evangelical friends were certain that God wanted Keith to walk away from the altar, leaving his wheelchair behind. They prayed over him fervently. He prayed with them, waiting for the anticipated new feelings in his body that would signal his release.

Minutes passed, the prayers grew more intense, but nothing ultimately changed in Keith’s physical body. The entire group finally left the altar, totally defeated and secretly wondering whose lack of faith had thwarted them. Keith, as the person who was not healed, carried the greatest sense of responsibility and the deepest sense of wounding. I never knew him to approach the church again.

The hope of healing can be cruel. This is our great fear—if we really stake all our hope on healing, what happens if that healing fails?

There are many accounts in scripture that tie success to faith. Jesus himself explicitly ties faith to miracles several times (see Mark 5:25-34, Luke 7:1–10, Matthew 13:57–58). The only recorded account where Jesus’ healing power was significantly compromised (though not entirely shut down) is in Mark 6:1–6. In that text, the shutdown is attributed to disbelief by the community. It is significant that the skeptics quoted here are specifically placed in the synagogue. Various disparaging voices are quoted, and the gospel writer inserts the terse afterword “and they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3).

I DO SEE A connection between the social expectation of healing and the actual occurrence of healing—but I don’t see that connection as simple or self-evident.

When I began researching the phenomenon of healing worldwide, I was stymied. Material on “faith healing” is voluminous—and most of it is highly polarized. Though certainly there are some healings that have been confirmed by science’s entourage of medical testing as “not scientifically explainable,” the vast majority of healings are experiential and anecdotal—hence subject to questioning. The personality factions around specific healers or the cultish nature of some healing movements further cloud—and even discredit—the daily presence of the mystery of healing.

One thing the research seems consistent on, though, is that while prayerful healings occur in every part of the world, they predominate in cultures that are less influenced by the scientific, rational, and technical mind. Which is to say that at the moment, more healings and more-dramatic healings seem to occur in the global South. It isn’t just that some of the “healing evangelists” from the North who go South testify that they heal many more people in that setting. Even smaller bands of ordinary Christians like those from my own church who have had the opportunity to travel and pray for healing in different settings have experienced a different receptivity in some of the cultures of the global South—with more dramatic healing results.

It is not coincidence, in my opinion, that many of these cultures also have a deeper belief in the spiritual, supernatural domain than do the North and West. I believe that the community’s expectation of intervention does affect the degree to which such intervention comes. While it in no way ensures such intervention, it creates a climate of expectation and openness that makes it possible. This is why the disbelief of the community—and its ultimate disparagement—noted in Mark 6 had such an enervating impact on Jesus and on his ability to do miracles there.

The question of disbelief is a question for the faith community—not the individual seeking healing. Individuals who had no belief in healing or Jesus or the existence of God have been suddenly and inexplicably healed. And individuals who have believed with their entire lives have not been healed.

WHILE IT IS A challenge, I do not believe that there is an inherent and irresolvable tension between embracing what science and technology offer while still maintaining a deep sense of spiritual power—and powers—in the world and a belief in the miraculous intervention of God.

Jesus’ miracles were often referred to as signs. If so, signs of what? Most of Jesus’ healings had social dimensions and social ramifications. They worked to reweave the social fabric.

That his healings took place primarily outside synagogues—outdoors in streets and deserts—is no surprise. There were practical reasons rooted in social divisions. The priestly code made many of those with illnesses (leprosy, bleeding, deformed parts of the body, lameness, blindness) social outcasts. If Jesus was a healer, his ministry would necessarily focus on the most marginal and powerless members of the social order. His healing challenged the assumptions of a society that drew lines around who was in and who was out. It redefined community and social class. This attention to societal and communal wholeness is a challenge to conservative healing theologies that pay no attention to social placement and do nothing to challenge marginalization in our communities.

Yet liberal theologies must address their own, often-unconscious culture of disbelief. I believe that God, through the Spirit, intervenes directly and miraculously heals, and that God uses such healings to remind us how deeply and actively we are loved. These Christians need to be more bold and outspoken in calling on and expecting this power, individually and especially as communities. Healings might seem arbitrary, but they also serve as powerful signs of God’s involvement and love, and they are always life-altering events.

Many contemporary U.S. Christians need to reclaim the tradition and possibility of miraculous healing in this ill and reeling world. We need to expect it and pray for it. We need to confess and repent of our skepticism. Expectation of healing does foster a climate in which healings are more likely.

Yet even deeper than Jesus’ message of healing is his message to love one another. Ultimately, the two messages are the same. In Jesus’ ministry, healing was both restoring the individual and bringing them back into the whole as a precious and loved member. In my own experience, I have never prayed for anyone’s healing without feeling a deep increase in love, compassion, and active commitment to that person.

I hope for a church that grows stronger in its belief in the possibility of miracles, a church that asks for them with more assurance. I hope for a church that also works relentlessly to heal social injustice and division.

Yet in the final accounting, the fruit of any authentic church community has less to do with signs and wonders than it does with love. Love, after all, is the daily miracle that transforms our lives. And perhaps only love, with its rich, complex, and ever-open heart, is large enough to contain the mystery of healing in all its shapes.

Dee Dee Risher was a writer and editor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when this article appeared.

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