Prayer and Physical Healing by Philip Yancey
All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.
Behind me he says, `Your sins are forgiven. ‘
I think `That’s good but not why I came.’
I turn and say ‘Am I also cured?’
He comes close but looks down. He says `That too …
More than half the spontaneous prayers I hear in church pertain to the sick. In the broader picture of prayer, that gives the same imbalance as a pastor preaching from the Book of Job every Sunday. At the same time, it also shows how instinctively we turn to prayer when illness strikes.
When asked to speak to my church on the topic `What I Have Learned About Suffering’, I went to a filing cabinet drawer and pulled out the thick folders of letters I have received in response to my books on suffering. On Sunday I set the letters on a table on-stage beside me. They made a large pile, perhaps a thousand letters in all, each one representing a story, usually a tragic story, most of them asking poignant questions about physical healing.
One of the letters comes from a couple who were leaders in their church. In 1991 their 21-year-old son, a scholarship athlete and youth leader in the church, fell asleep at the wheel while driving a green Datsun pick-up truck. The accident severed his aorta and caused paralysis from the waist down. Thirty thousand people in the close-knit community prayed for divine healing, elders anointed him with oil, and a national television minister prayed over him. Fifteen years later, the young man is still paralysed. `Where was the answered prayer that I longed to share with my friends?’ writes the mother. `Where was my Father in heaven who sees the sparrow that falls and loves my son even more than I?’ The father minces no words. `What is the value of prayer?’ he asks.
A woman in New Zealand tells of her eighteen-month-old son who has Down’s syndrome. Like a small percentage of others with that affliction, he suffers from an incurable condition called megakaryoblastic leukaemia, which thickens the marrow so that his body cannot produce blood cells. His spleen enlarges, filling the pelvic area so that he cannot sit up. Already the toddler has had nine complete blood transfusions. She prays, yes: pleading to God for mercy while she holds her son tight against her body to control his convulsive sobs as the doctor probes for a vein.
Two different letters describe the onset of Huntington’s chorea, a nerve-destroying disease that afflicts 50 per cent of the carrier’s offspring and leads to a slow, debilitating death. One woman first learned she carried the gene when her thirty-year-old daughter came down with the disease. Now her twenty-seven-year-old son has begun to show symptoms. He is very angry at God, she says. He knows exactly what will happen to him because for three years he has been watching his sister deteriorate. Another man writes that his brother was just diagnosed with Huntington’s, which means he has a 50 per cent chance of getting it too, and his three teenage children likewise have a 50 per cent chance. So far, he has declined to be tested. Does prayer carry any weight against a defect scripted into the genes at conception?
Most of the letters tell of judgment and confusing messages received from the church. Some Christians, it seems, presume that suffering betrays a flaw in the afflicted person: either the sufferer is being punished for some sin or lacks healing because of inadequate faith. These suggestions, reminiscent of Job’s comforters and coming at a time of such vulnerability, may hurt worse than the physical pain itself.
I would never want to dampen someone’s faith, because bold faith surely impressed Jesus. Yet the stack of letters from my filing cabinet convinces me that we can do equal harm by holding out false hope of physical healing. Believe me, there is nothing I would rather say to parents of a Down’s syndrome child or to families waiting on edge for Huntington’s chorea to manifest itself than, `Just believe, and you will be healed.’ But I know of no miraculous healings of those conditions, and to offer false hope would be even more cruel.
I am left to struggle with the dilemma of prayer and physical healing. Many books and articles report physical healings and hold out extravagant hope. However, I mostly hear from earnest believers whose prayers go unanswered, and for this reason I present a perspective that may well seem unbalanced, focusing on those who do not readily find healing.
From Cultic to Mainstream
In my lifetime a sea change has taken place in American society: physical healing has moved from the realm of cultism, the domain of Pentecostals and superstitious Catholics, to mainstream acceptance.
During my childhood, each summer `faith healers’ would come to the suburbs of Atlanta and set up tents. Posters promised deliverance from disease, and sometimes I would stand at the edge of the tents listening to the strange sounds of tongue-speaking and slayings in the Spirit inside. They spooked me, and I regarded the healers as urban cousins to the snake-handlers operating in the hills of northern Georgia just up the road. I also remember, as a tourist in my twenties, visiting shrines in France and Mexico where pilgrims had hung tiny metal replicas of body parts—eyes, ears, legs, lungs, kidneys, breasts, stomachs—as tokens of their prayers for healing. In earlier times Catholics had designated particular saints to address particular ailments: St Apollo for toothache, St Roch for plague, etc.
As a young journalist I had encounters with faith healing both farcical and tragic. In the heyday of the PTL Club television programme, I heard Tammy Faye Bakker tearfully describe the trauma of her little dog Chi Chi, who ate too many lima beans and fell over dead. `I thought my world had come to an end,’ said Tammy Faye. When her prayers that God raise Chi Chi from the dead went unanswered, Tammy Faye came to terms with it by realising, `The fact was that Chi Chi was a naughty little dog … God knew that if He took him then that would be the end of wetting all over the room.’
Later, I interviewed parents who attended a Faith Assembly church in Indiana and accepted the church’s teaching that faith alone can heal any disease and that to look elsewhere for help—for example, to medical doctors—demonstrates a lack of trust in God. Two such parents, Larry and Lucky Parker, watched their eleven-year-old son die of diabetic complications, which led to their arrest for involuntary manslaughter and child abuse. (They later renounced their theological error in a book, We Let Our Son Die.) Medical researchers determined that the infant mortality rate for Faith Assembly churches was three times the normal—at least 126 children died after medical treatment was withheld—and the mortality rate associated with childbirth was a hundred times greater.
In the 1970s and 1980s, mainstream media pounced on such stories. National magazines did profiles of remorseful parents and dutifully reported the court cases. CBS television made a movie about the Parkers’ tragic story. The news programmes 60 Minutes and Frontline highlighted abuses by Benny Hinn and other prominent faith healers.
A remarkable shift has taken place in recent years, however. In the last decade each of the three largest US news magazines has featured a cover story detailing the effects of prayer on health. Books by prominent physicians such as Larry Dossey, Herbert Benson, Harold Koenig and Bernie Siegel have climbed the best-seller charts, touting scientific studies that prove the relation between prayer and physical healing. Seventy medical schools, with prestigious Duke and Harvard at the forefront, now offer courses examining the role of spirituality in health.
A 2003 survey reported 500 clinical studies documenting correlations between religious practices, including prayer, and better health. Eight in ten Americans believe that miracles can happen today, and more than half of all doctors report observing miracles in their patients that defy medical explanation.
What happened to bring faith healing from the cultic to the mainstream? And does the new appreciation for spirituality in the healing process offer any hope to those—like the people who wrote me letters—who have seen no results from their prayers?
The Inbuilt Miracle
The change in attitude came about because for the first time researchers applied the research techniques of double-blind studies to measure the effect of prayer on health. Volunteers agreed to pray for one set of patients but not another, with neither patients nor medical staff knowing who was being prayed for. To the astonishment of medical researchers, one study after another indicated that even anonymous prayers organised for an experiment have an effect. In one famous study, volunteers prayed for half of the 393 heart-attack patients at a San Francisco hospital. Among the group prayed for, significantly fewer died, most had a faster recovery requiring the use of fewer potent drugs, and none had to be put on life support.
Not everyone finds these studies convincing; some are methodologically flawed, and other studies have yielded contradictory results. One statistic seems incontrovertible, though. It `blew my socks away’ says an epidemiologist who reviewed the various studies. `People who regularly attend church have a 25 per cent reduction in mortality—that is, they live longer—than people who are not churchgoers.’
Dr Harold G. Koenig, a psychiatrist who directs Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, reports on many of these findings in the book The Healing Power of Faith. Selected chapter titles alone signal his conclusions:
• Religious People Have Stronger Marriages and Families
• Religious People Have Healthy Lifestyles
• Religious People Cope Well with Stress
• Religion Offers Protection from Depression and Helps Those Afflicted to Recover Quickly
• Religious People Live Longer, Healthier Lives
• Religion May Protect People from Serious Cardiovascular Disease
• Religious People May Have Stronger Immune Systems
• Religious People Use Fewer Expensive Hospital Services
As Koenig acknowledges, many of these results show the overall effect of religion on health rather than the specific impact of prayer. Lifestyle choices account for much of the benefit: regular churchgoers smoke less, drink less alcohol, engage in less promiscuous sex and drug use, and have a supportive community to rely on in coping with life problems.
Yet prayer can indeed help a person cope with stress and have a greater sense of well-being, more hope and a readiness to forgive—all of which affect health in positive ways. And machines that monitor brain waves, breathing, heart rate and blood chemistry record dramatic changes when a person prays. How we think and feel has a direct effect on bodily health because the mind regulates the body’s natural healing systems. People who take quiet times during the day and force themselves to relax learn to control stress in a way that fosters health. A sense of gratitude calms the heart. (On the contrary, fear, loneliness, hostility, worry, grief and helplessness are enemies of recovery.) We are still learning how the brain accomplishes these feats, in part by producing endorphins that control pain and alter body chemistry.
Sceptical scientists and physicians use the word `psychosomatic’ to explain away reports of supernatural healings, implying the recovery was due more to auto-suggestion than to any miracle. I wrote three books with the renowned surgeon Dr Paul Brand, who said,
It doesn’t diminish my respect for God’s power in the slightest to realize that God primarily works through the mind to summon up resources of healing in a person’s body. The word psychosomatic carries no derogatory connotations for me. It derives from two Greek words, psyche and soma, which mean simply mind (or soul) and body. The cure of such diseases demonstrates the incredible power of the mind to affect the rest of the body.
In fact, Dr Brand coined a new word, ‘pneumapsychosomatic’, adding the Greek word for `spirit’ to acknowledge the role of the spirit in health. A person experiences maximum health when all three, body-soul-spirit, are aligned in a way that expresses the will of the Designer. Brand comments,
Those who pray for the sick and suffering should first praise God for the remarkable agents of healing designed into the body, and then ask that God’s special grace give the suffering person the ability to use those resources to their fullest advantage. I have seen remarkable instances of physical healing accomplished in this way. The prayers of fellow Christians can offer real, tangible help by setting into motion the intrinsic powers of healing in a person controlled by God. This approach does not contradict natural laws; rather, it fully employs the design features built into the human body.
A person who is at peace, surrounded by loving support, will quite literally heal better, drawing on the resources of body, mind and spirit. Such healing is not inferior to a direct intervention by God that reverses physical laws. Rather, the Spirit uses the natural milieu—the mind, nerves and hormonal systems that govern all cells—to accomplish the work.
I can predict the reaction of some Christians to crediting the `inbuilt miracle’ in our physical bodies: `Yes, yes, I understand all that. But what about miracles? What about the times when a disease is incurable, when the doctors give no hope, when the science of medicine has nothing to offer. Does God intervene then? Does God overrule nature to answer prayers of faith?’
First I must say a few words in defence of the laws of nature. Scientists and theologians alike agree that the universe runs by faithful, consistent laws. The sun always appears first in the east, low pressure systems bring storms, species give birth to their own kind, the planets follow dependable orbits. Because of its very predictability, the natural world allows us to adapt to it. Build a house on an earthquake fault line or in a flood zone, and the odds of being a victim of nature rise exponentially—just as they rise if you smoke tobacco or drink alcohol to excess.
In many instances of human suffering, if we look carefully enough we can trace the problem to a basic cause and effect. Suffering may stem from something I do wrong, such as overeating, or something another does wrong, such as driving while drunk. Or perhaps I sit too close to a person coming down with influenza and a germ flies into my mouth. To avoid influenza entirely I must shun all people or wear a mask, as many Japanese commuters do.
It puzzles me that some Christians who accept the regularity of natural laws in other areas resist them when it comes to health. For example, I have heard extreme faith healers encourage people to pray and not seek medical treatment in the event of illness. But I have heard no one recommend planting a farm in the middle of the Sahara Desert. If a farmer plants rice in the Sahara and prays for rain, he simply has a wrong view of the way God has ordered the world.
Each of us learns to adapt our prayers to natural laws.1 A child may pray that a dead cat be brought back to life, that the teacher cancel a scheduled test, that his team win the World Cup or the Super Bowl, that she suddenly will have green eyes rather than blue—but over time learns that God is not a magician who rearranges life to fit our whims. In terms of physical health, you could say that the power of prayer has limits: no prayer will reverse the aging process, banish death, or eliminate the need for nourishment. Or, you could say that God has set certain rules in motion and within those rules there exists much potential for physical healing.
According to the Bible, on occasion God did intervene spectacularly. For example, God provided manna to the Israelites for a time and Jesus supplied loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd. But I know no one today who refuses all natural sources of food, waiting instead for a similar miracle. Jesus did not waste miracles; I doubt he would have provided food for the 5000 if food stalls had been readily available nearby.
Some twenty years ago I co-authored an article on physical healing with Dr Paul Brand which was published in Christianity Today magazine. In it he remarked, `From my own experience as a physician I must truthfully admit that, among the thousands of patients I have treated, I have never observed an unequivocal instance of intervention in the physical realm. Many were prayed for, many found healing, but not in ways that counteracted the laws governing anatomy. No case I have treated personally would meet the rigorous criteria for a supernatural miracle.’
Dr Brand had, after all, devoted his life to the treatment of leprosy, and had never met a single patient who claimed to be cured miraculously of leprosy. Fortunately, excellent drugs can halt the progress of the disease, and as a surgeon Brand worked to reverse some of its worst effects. Usually it required two or three years of successive surgeries and gradual rehabilitation to free one hand from a frozen, useless state into something more usable. Not once did a missing finger suddenly grow back. `If all that the television evangelists claim is true, then I am in the wrong business,’ he wrote. `Have I wasted my life doing slowly and painstakingly what could have been done in the twinkling of an eye?’
We received many letters in response to that article. Some commended Dr Brand’s honesty while others, outraged, accused him of deficient faith. A few physicians wrote in to report miracles of healing, such as the complete disappearance of all signs of bone cancer in one patient, and in another a spinal cord injury that should have led to quadriplegia but did not. Following up on these cases, Dr Brand concluded that some indeed appeared to represent supernatural intervention. Before he died, in 2003, he was working on a revision of his philosophy of physical healing that began with praise for the inbuilt miracle designed into the human body and also allowed for miraculous exceptions.
Most doctors acknowledge cases that appear to defy the normal course of nature. The book Spontaneous Regression of Cancer by the former president of the American College of Surgeons details 176 such cases. Even so, these remissions represent a very small percentage of the people with cancer who have been prayed for. The medical literature now estimates that perhaps two or three out of every 1,000 people with cancer will experience such `cures’ apparently unrelated to treatment.
Many times I have asked Christian doctors if they have seen a supernatural miracle. Most think for a few minutes and then describe one or two cases that may qualify. Like Dr Brand, they allow for the exceptions while stressing their infrequency. A famous faith healer confided to me that he had seen only two or three cases he would classify as true miracles. A medical board supervising the shrine at Lourdes in France has examined nearly seven thousand claims of healing in two centuries, and has authenticated only sixty-seven as miraculous cures, only one since 1987.
What Makes the Difference?
Reported miracles are far more common in developing countries. As I have mentioned, the Church in Nepal grew dramatically as a direct result of physical healing. I interviewed several European doctors in Nepal, and each one told me accounts of healings that defy explanation: a baby born dead who began breathing, a woman’s severed facial nerve that still functions normally, a withered hand that straightened, an inoperable tumour that disappeared. Similar things happen in China.
Confronted with a serious medical condition, Christians in the developed world pray for divine intervention just as passionately. What makes the difference? Could it be that we in the West, with a scientific world view, lack the faith necessary for miracles? Could the explanation lie with the spirit world, a deployment of resources in which supernatural forces concentrate in some places but not others? I do not know.
Nonetheless, I do believe that what many people think of when you say the word `divine healing’—supernatural interventions in the laws of nature governing our bodies—are extremely rare. They are miracles, not ordinaries. However we present divine healing, let us not stir up false hopes so that a suffering person stakes his or her faith on belief in miraculous healing at this level.
In Jesus’ day miracles abounded. He changed the weather at least once, and performed many miraculous healings. I notice, though, a selective quality to Jesus’ miracles. In his first miracle he turned water into wine in order to salvage a wedding celebration. Why this occasion, this particular use of his powers? He brought a young girl back to life, but how many others died in Israel that day? He healed a paralysed man by the pool of Bethesda, but John says nothing of what happened to the other disabled persons lying around the same pond.
As I read the Gospels, I keep wanting Jesus to be more systematic. I want him to solve world hunger, not just feed 5000 who happen to be listening to him one day. I want him to destroy the polio virus, not merely heal an occasional paralytic. Such thinking only leads to frustration. Clearly Jesus did not come to earth in order to reverse the laws of nature and establish better laws—not in his first coming, at least. Indeed, Jesus resisted that temptation as posed by Satan in the wilderness.
I have come to see the very selectiveness of biblical miracles as a sign of God’s personhood. Jesus healed people he encountered in the course of a day. He may have set out to accomplish one task and the people he met along the way presented new challenges. I understand this tendency, for the same thing happens to me nearly every day. Though I begin with goals to accomplish, interruptions along the way cause me to modify those goals. Jesus had access to power that allowed him to overrule natural laws on those occasions.
We keep expecting God to act in immovable, fixed patterns, but the Bible shows a tendency for God to act in a way that seems almost arbitrary. God chose Jacob not Esau, and David not his older brothers, for reasons that defied comprehension at the time. God miraculously rescued both Peter and Paul from prison, yet eventually both were re-imprisoned and executed. I question any system that attempts to explain each of God’s acts in suspending the laws of nature. God showed preferences that, if made by anyone but God, would seem, well, quirky.
I have concluded that our strict division between natural events and supernatural miracles—or general and special providence, as the theologians term it—have much more significance to us than to God. Biblical scholars diagram levels of God’s interventions on earth. The top level includes such obviously supernatural events as the burning bush and the ten plagues of Egypt. A middle level includes dreams, messages and even visitations to people like Abraham and Jacob, who didn’t always recognise their celestial visitors. A bottom level would include `natural’ events accomplished by human beings. Deborah led an army, Solomon designed a temple, Nehemiah supervised a construction project, Paul preached in synagogues—all these and many more carried out God’s will in normal, everyday ways. I suspect, however, that as God reviews history, any such distinctions seem insignificant. If anything, God delights in delegating the mission to human agents.
Checklist for Healing
When I fall sick, or learn of physical suffering in a friend or loved one, I bring that request to God, whom the Bible describes as `the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort’. Sickness, not health, is the abnormality that Jesus came to expose. While not solving all the problems on earth, Jesus’ miracles gave a clear sign of how the world should be, and someday will be. His acts of healing restored to specific individuals what had been spoiled on the planet as a whole.2
At the same time, I have seen great damage that results when we presume upon God. The Bible gives examples of prayers answered and unanswered, of illnesses healed and unhealed. We dare not raise expectations so high as to virtually guarantee a crashing disappointment. In search of the proper balance, when I desire and pray for a miracle I ask myself a series of questions.
Am I expecting a miracle as an entitlement?
I think again of the letters in my filing cabinet, many of them from people who prayed urgently for a miracle. One couple joyfully announces that God has answered their long-suffering prayers for a baby while another gives up and begins the arduous process of adopting a Chinese baby. My pastor once heard a woman stand in church and breathlessly tell of her two-year-old son who fell in a swimming pool, was revived by artificial respiration, and recovered completely. `Isn’t God wonderful!’ she exclaimed. Sitting in the audience was another woman whose son also fell in a swimming pool, was pulled from the water, and never regained consciousness.
God neither protects Christians with a shield of health nor provides a quick, dependable solution to all suffering. Christians populate hospital wards, asylums and hospices in approximate proportion to the world at large. I asked Dr Vernon Grounds, a theological college chancellor and one of the godliest men I know, `Have you ever seen an undeniable miracle of physical healing?’ Without a flicker of hesitation he responded, `No, but I’m still hoping!’ He told me of a friend diagnosed with an untreatable kidney condition. Grounds prays daily for the man’s miraculous healing, fervently believing in God’s power to perform such a miracle even though in ninety years he has never observed one.
I prefer Vernon Grounds’s approach of humble, expectant faith to one that promises too much. Consider an incident from the 1990s, a scene described to me by a church leader who had witnessed it first-hand. A faith healer from the US scheduled a crusade in Cambodia, a country with a tiny minority of Christians. Posters went up promising healing and deliverance for any problem. Peasants sold their cows, even their houses, and travelled to Phnom Penh for the rally. As a result of land mines left from the Vietnam War, one in two hundred Cambodians is an amputee, and many of these flocked to the crusade as well. When the amputees were not healed, a riot broke out in the soccer stadium. The evangelist had to be rescued by an army helicopter, which whisked him to the safety of a hotel. When the angry crowd poured out of the stadium and surrounded the hotel, the faith healer departed the country and returned to the US.
`You cannot imagine the impact on the struggling Church in Cambodia,’ said the church leader. `It has set us back at least fifty years. We may never recover credibility here.’
Am I using the benefits of God’s `common grace’—the healing built into our bodies and the medical knowledge we have gained?
One disease, smallpox, killed 500 million people in the nineteenth century—many times more lives than are threatened by AIDS today. In the next century it became the first disease ever to be eradicated fully, thanks to the dedicated work of researchers and medical professionals. Sad to say, some prominent Christians opposed the smallpox vaccine when first released because they thought it interfered with `God’s will’. In direct opposition, I see brave souls like Edward Jenner, developer of the vaccine, as fulfilling God’s will by bringing healing and wholeness to people whom God loves.
Jesus held up the example of a Good Samaritan (note, neither Jewish nor in any sense a `Christian’) who bandaged the wounds of a robbery victim, poured on him oil and wine, and took him to an inn. The Samaritan did not simply pray for the victim, but ministered to him medically in the best way known to that day. In doing so he loved his neighbour as himself, fulfilling one of the two most essential commandments.
I see the Good Samaritan as a prototype of the doctors and scientists who dedicate their lives to bringing health. Only in the last century have we discovered treatments effective against the great scourges of history: polio, bubonic plague, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, yellow fever and many others. In some diseases, Christian missionaries led the way in discovering the best treatments, for they alone were willing to risk infection by living among and ministering to patients.
The studies I’ve cited on faith and healing demonstrate that the best healing takes place when a person lives so that a properly aligned soul and spirit can direct the bodily healing prompted by good medicine. In the words of Dr Paul Brand,
My profession of surgery depends entirely on the body’s own healing system. When I set a fracture, I merely align two ends of bone properly; the body must lay down the calcium needed for them to rejoin, or my work would prove futile. The Christian heals because he or she has the kind of body that was designed by God to be equipped to overcome injury and infection. The non-Christian body is likewise equipped, but may be more misused so that its healing functions may not be as well focused. Yet, like the sun which God makes shine on the righteous and the unrighteous, so the osteoblast heals righteous bones as well as unrighteous bones.
The real direction of prayer for the sick and the suffering should be, first to praise God for the wonderful mechanisms of healing and recovery that God has designed and placed in the person’s body, and then to pray that God’s special grace will take hold of his or her whole person and give the ability to use these resources to their fullest advantage; and also that the church will rally round and lay their healing hands on the one who needs support, faith, hope, and love.
Do I wrongly blame God for causing the suffering?
I have met many people who torment themselves over some tragedy. To mention one recent example, the rate of sudden infant death syndrome dropped 40 per cent in the US in fifteen years, mainly because doctors began cautioning parents to place their sleeping babies on their backs, not their stomachs, lest they suffocate. I think of all the parents in past years who cried out to God after losing a child, Why did God take my child? That is the wrong question, I believe. The babies’ deaths came about simply because we did not know the danger of babies sleeping on their stomachs.
Similarly, during the worst years of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, long-haired prophets roamed the streets of London—eerily empty as a third of the residents had died and a third had fled the city—and pronounced the plague as God’s judgment on wickedness. For half a millennium, in fact, prophets pronounced such judgment on Europe. In the end, rat poison made the dreaded plague disappear.
A similar advance in knowledge exposed the danger of tobacco-related illnesses. The Dutch once considered smoking healthy, a sign of a spiritual Christian, and only the rebellious refused to smoke. Now we know that smoking harms the body. Pious Dutch Calvinists who accepted their lung cancer and emphysema as God’s will could, in fact, have prevented it by dousing their pipes.
I know a missionary whose wife and seven-month-old daughter were killed by a single bullet when the air force in a South American country mistook their plane for that of a drug runner and opened fire. `God guided the bullet,’ the surviving husband and father said to the press. We have held long discussions about that quote, because I do not believe the `Father of compassion’ guides bullets into the bodies of babies. Jesus himself refuted those who blamed human tragedies on God.
At the church I attended in Chicago, the pastor would sometimes offer a time for people to come to the front for prayer. `The worst thing that can happen to you is that you will have an experience of being profoundly loved. That’s not so bad, is it? And you just might hear the Master’s voice, “Your faith has made you whole. Go in peace, freed from your suffering.”‘ Each time, he emphasised that we in the church should offer love and support to those who suffer, not guilt and self-doubt. Over the years, many people reported healings, not just from physical conditions but from addictions and sexual wounds. And all of us went away with an important reminder that God is a source of comfort, not torment.
Am I prepared for the possibility that physical healing may not take place?
The apostle Paul had the power to heal a man crippled from birth and even raise another from the dead. Yet three times in the New Testament he refers to friends (Epaphroditus, Trophimus and Timothy) who suffered from serious illness, not to mention his own ailment. One friend he left behind, ill; for another he counselled treatment. We have no record of their physical healings.
In its most detailed passages on suffering, the New Testament moves the emphasis to what we can learn from the difficulty and the good that can be produced. By such a standard we should honour, not demean, the disabled and chronically ill. Jesus never promised to erase all poverty, all suffering, all human need. Rather, he announced a kingdom that values the needy above the beautiful and powerful and self-sufficient. In my own experience, those who most readily recognise their dependence on God are the ones who have no other choice: the disabled, the suffering and those who care for them.
Whatever we conclude about physical healing, we must not add to the burden of guilt and sorrow borne by those who do not find healing. Many Christians who roll about in wheelchairs, who awake each day to the scarred stumps of amputated limbs, who cope with debility and chronic illness, have prayed for healing. Some have attended healing services, felt a sudden rush of hope, and kneeled for an anointing of oil—yet still they live unhealed. For them, divine healing feels like the cruellest joke of all, a taunting accusation that in spiritual as well as physical health they do not measure up.
Some television and radio preachers promise that healing is always available for believers. If that were true, need any Christian wear glasses, grow bald, or show other signs of aging? Disease and lowered cellular efficiency is leading each of us—including every faith healer—toward death, and no amount of prayer and faith will reverse the process. Despite much prayer, the nerves controlling author Joni Eareckson’s legs have not spontaneously regenerated. And I have never yet read an account of miraculous healing of pancreatic cancer (which has a 100 per cent mortality rate), or of cystic fibrosis, or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
I have heard from Christian leaders in Africa that `health and wealth theology’, once widespread on that continent, has undergone a sobering change since the onset of AIDS. There are no verified instances of AIDS being healed either, and in some African countries the infection rate approaches 40 per cent. The Church has had to change its message from `Simply believe you’ll be healed’, to a more difficult message of preaching against risky behaviour, caring for the sick and dying, and looking after the millions of orphans resulting from the disease.
One of the most revealing scientific studies of illness focused not on suffering people themselves but on caregivers. Researchers who studied parents of young children with chronic illnesses—juvenile diabetes, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy and spina bifida—found that the parents’ ability to derive comfort and strength from religion was the single most important factor in their coping ability. From the very beginning, the Church has honoured this calling: the first Christians distinguished themselves by remaining behind to nurse victims of the plague, rather than fleeing it.
I will never forget sitting in the bedroom of a tiny house in Columbia, South Carolina, watching Robertson McQuilkin feed home-made soup to his wife, spoonful by spoonful, laughing, talking to her, stroking her cheek, wiping off the spilled food. She could still raise one arm and wave it, though she made no sounds and showed no sign of recognising her husband of forty years. McQuilkin had resigned as president of a Christian college to care for Muriel, a teacher and media personality in her own right before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. For twenty years he took on that responsibility, cancelling most speaking engagements and interrupting his own projects to remain available to her. Why? `I took a vow before God,’ he told me. `In sickness and in health. Isn’t this what love is about?’
A woman in Ontario gave me her family’s journal of caring for her husband during his seven-year bout with ALS. His brother, mother, grandfather, aunt and cousin had died of the same disease, so he knew well what lay ahead. He knew, too, that there are no reports of healing from the disease.
`The Lord is my shepherd, and so I lack nothing,’ the family wrote in a paper given out at the funeral, and just across from it, `My God!, My God! … Why have you forsaken me.’ Words from the two adjacent psalms, 22 and 23, summarised their seven years of care giving.
The daughter’s journal entries record the progression of the disease. `Dad can’t tie up his own shoes anymore … Dad can’t sign his name anymore. Dad breaks his collar bone and stops going to work. Dad falls in the parking lot and has to wait on the ground until someone picks him up … Dad can’t have his corn flakes for breakfast anymore. Dad can’t put his arms around us anymore … Dad has trouble swallowing pureed peas … Dad can’t hold his head up anymore.’
After seven years comes this entry: `Lying beside Dad as he sits in his chair working for breath. Praying for peace. Wiping his nose. Rubbing his shoulders. Watching Mom love Dad. Saying goodbye. Hearing Dad express his love for Mom and his love for their life together. Watching Dad gaze heavenward and take his last quiet breath … The Lord is our shepherd.’
In the midst of the man’s suffering, and their own anguish, his family was able to provide the strength and comfort that he needed in order to die gracefully. `The God of all comfort’, one of the most beautiful descriptions of God, appears in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. God offers us a minimum of protection and a maximum of support, as one minister wryly put it. Paul, however, moves the emphasis to us: God `comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.’ [240-258]
1. I have prayed about the direction of winds driving a forest fire, as smoke filled my Colorado house and rescue helicopters clattered overhead, but I have not prayed that God suspend gravity. George Buttrick expresses this difference in a general principle: ‘The greater the apparent constancy in nature, the less the power of petitionary prayer: we cannot change the tides by praying.The greater the apparent variability and flexibility, the more instant our prayers: we shall continue to pray about the weather and about physical health.
2. A third of the healings in the New Testament involved exorcism of evil spirits, and the Bible often presents illnesses as afflictions of Satan; even Paul’s malady is termed ‘a messenger of Satan’. In the words of James Kallas, ‘We see polio or crippling and we piously shake our heads and cluck all the trite absurdities of a non-thinking people by saying “it is the will of God … hard to understand … providence writes a long sentence, we have to wait to get to heaven to read the answer.” … Jesus looked at this and in crystal clear terms called it the work of the devil, and not the will of God.