Healing and the Church

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Anthony J. Sargeant

Miracles of Modern Medicine

Millions of women, men, and children, who just 100 years ago would have died premature and painful deaths following injury, disease, or as a result of genetic defects, have lived happy and fulfilled lives due to the creative drive of research scientists.

Insulin for the treatment of diabetes; safe smallpox and polio vaccines; X-ray, CT, and MRI for accurate diagnosis; beta-blockers and vasodilators for heart and respiratory disease; penicillin and the whole range of antibiotic drugs to treat life threatening infection; effective pain-killers and anaesthetics; dialysis machines to treat kidney failure; heart-lung machines to allow open heart surgery and transplantation; anti-depressants and other drugs for psychiatric illness; genetic counselling and therapy; the list goes on and on – ‘miracles’ of modern science – a wonderful tribute to the curiosity and inventiveness of humankind.

So wonderful indeed that, in the West at least, we seem to expect that there is a cure for every physical ailment. Yet the truth is that there are many diseases and conditions for which there is no cure, nor sometimes even effective palliative treatment. Some people still die too young or suffer pain. It is understandable and not surprising that when modern medical science fails, desperate people seek a ‘cure’ for their suffering elsewhere (but usually and quite sensibly only after they have exhausted conventional treatments!). They turn to a whole variety of ‘holistic’ and spiritual healing agencies, including of course the Christian Church, in search of a ‘cure’, paradoxically for physical ailments. What are we to make of this and how should Christians respond?

It seems a paradox that while modern science continues to reduce the incidence and effects of organic disease and disability the demand for ‘healing services’ in churches of all denominations has increased (it seems unlikely that this is directly linked to the supposed dire state of the NHS!).

Most people will have seen the dramatic ‘performances’ of so-called ‘charismatic healers’ on television, but at the other end of the spectrum there are quieter more restrained approaches to healing: these range from traditional prayers of intercession to an increasing number of special healing services in parish churches, as well as pilgrimages to centres of healing such as Lourdes.

Many people derive great spiritual benefit and sustenance from such opportunities. The laying on of hands, for example, can be a powerful and truly ‘wonder full’ expression of faith:  faith in the possibility of wholeness – wholeness for ourselves, wholeness for others, and wholeness for the world.

But what are we to make of the reported claims of ‘miraculous’ acts of physical healing? Are we to accept these uncritically and without question? Is there a need for caution and at least an acknowledgment of uncertainty, both for theological as well as pastoral reasons? Perhaps there is, if only on the grounds articulated by the French Novelist Emile Zola, who when visiting Lourdes famously observed that although there were piles of crutches discarded by those who had been supposedly cured of their lameness, there were no wooden legs!

Healing the curable … but not the incurable?

The central message of the Bible and especially the ministry of Jesus is a message about our spiritual not our physical health – It is a message about spiritual wholeness and the promises and possibilities of the Kingdom of God. Claims that God can be induced to intervene to cure our physical ailments and disabilities runs the risk of diverting attention from that message. Furthermore the confusion engendered between the spiritual and physical aspects of healing exposes the church to criticism, and even ridicule on occasion, and in so doing may undermine its capability to act as a spiritual resource for all in society.

The nature of the problem can be illustrated by considering the type of conditions for which there are modern claims for physical healing, as compared to many very severe conditions, such as a severed spinal cord, where no recovery occurs, or Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder which leads to progressive weakness in young boys and inexorably, death. Tragically, no amount of prayer, or laying on of hands, albeit by the well-intentioned and sincere will reverse these physical conditions.

What is the thoughtful onlooker to make of this? A God who may cure a sprained ankle but never intervenes to save young boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy? The idea is intolerable! Worse still, what is the onlooker to think of those individuals and churches that seem to promise the possibility of a physical cure to sufferers from such incurable conditions? It is surely no less cruel even if it is done unwittingly or in ‘blind faith’.

“God moves in a mysterious way…”

Perhaps a solution to that difficulty would be to tell those seeking physical healing whether their condition is considered curable or incurable. But how odd that would sound. It would be necessary to tell those suffering from medically diagnosed conditions with a well understood prognosis, no matter how awful, that God will not intervene – for example broken spines and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. On the other hand sufferers could be told that God might intervene if they have a condition in which:

The origin is unknown or the development of the disease is poorly understood;

Where spontaneous remissions occur;

Or where the eventual outcome is unpredictable within the limits of current medical knowledge.

Thus some individuals who contract meningitis will die while others will recover: In the latter case God’s intervention could be claimed if prayers had been said. If they die in spite of prayers refuge could be found in formulae such as that articulated in a line from a hymn of William Cowper’s, “God moves in a mysterious way …”(1). But this looks suspiciously like religious opportunism, when those of other faiths and none seem to die, or recover, in similar proportions to Christians.

Of course the Biblical Fundamentalist’s response to raising these difficulties will be to say, that one’s faith is weak and that we must simply put our trust in God – in this case no further discussion is possible. Nevertheless many of those promoting physical healing do apparently wish to appear rational and are obviously aware of the difficulties. As a consequence they are prepared to perform some curious mental gymnastics. Thus in response to questions about the ‘unhealed’ it is typically proposed, for example, in a book entitled Healing by Frank McNutt (1) that,

“There seem to be 4 basic time sequences in prayer for healing: 

Some healings are instantaneous; 

In some healings there is a delay; 

Some healings occur gradually; 

Some others don’t seem to occur, at least on the physical level.”

Well the sceptic might be forgiven for observing that this covers all eventualities and is simply another way of saying “God moves in a mysterious way” and we cannot understand God’s purposes. That may be true but such catch-all formulae are built on many unexamined and unargued assumptions and although they appear rational they can simply obscure real and very important questions about the nature of prayer, God’s action in the world, and the meaning of suffering.

Why do we need Hospitals if we have God?

Our hospitals are full of patients who are suffering from organic disease and dysfunction. To propose that they would not need to be there if; they only prayed for healing; had enough faith; and God was prepared to intervene in their particular case; seems frankly bizarre if not insulting – both to the patients and to God! If the proposition were correct then why should we go against God’s will and have hospitals at all? Or for that matter have our children immunised to protect them from infectious disease? Or allow them to have blood transfusions? There are of course some religious sects, which do indeed reach this awful conclusion. Most proponents of ‘physical healing’ however stop short of this logical conclusion, but without re-examining either the initial proposition, or the assumptions that underlie it.

The confusion is compounded by the media attention given to so-called ‘holistic’ medicine that emphasises the interconnections between mental and physical aspects of health. Doubtless these do exist in some conditions (for a recent review see (2)), but their importance should not be over-stated in relation to the overwhelming majority of organic illness and injury that fill our hospitals. Furthermore, the fact that there are such interconnections between mental and physical health is not in itself an argument for the possibility of Divine intervention. Indeed, the proposition that God’s action might be limited to this particular class of illness and disability, where medical understanding is still developing, could be seen as taking refuge in a Kantian ‘God of the Gaps’.

In any case, it helps nobody, least of all the individual patient to suggest that diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or Duchenne muscular dystrophy, for example, have a “spiritual” origin. Moreover, pathogenic agents that cause hepatitis, polio, tuberculosis, meningitis and other diseases are an intrinsic part of the natural order, just as is our inherited pre-disposition to congenital and degenerative illness.

Einstein is sometimes quoted as saying, “God does not play dice with the universe” (3) but Einstein was not a biologist! The fantastic and beautiful diversity of the life forms that we see around us is the product of an evolutionary process that depends on random genetic mutation. Ever since the first life forms arose in the primaeval ooze the lottery has been running, and is still running. Successful lines that find an ecological niche survive while others die out. Whatever happens before or after, this part of the process is a lottery.

The inevitable price that we have to pay for genetic diversity is the mutations that are not useful, nor even benign, but positively harmful. But make no mistake; in the world as created, you cannot have one without the other.

Healing, Hegel, and History

To paraphrase the 19th century German philosopher, Hegel,

“The only thing that we ever learn from history 

is that we never learn anything from history” (4).

Well that may be so, but perhaps the organised church should cast a critical eye over its own history in relation to physical healing. Throughout history there have been individuals and organisations that have promised ‘miraculous’ cures for a variety of motives, many sincere, many for profit, and some for self-aggrandisement, but often with a mixture of all three. To quote just one of thousands of examples, cited by Patrick Collinson (5) in The Oxford History of Christianity.

“In Regensburg in 1518 the demolition of a synagogue in an episode of anti-Semitic violence and its replacement by a Christian chapel had been accompanied by a miracle when an injured workman was restored to health by a vision of the Virgin Mary. Within a few months ‘The Liebfrau of Regensburg’ was attracting pilgrims by the thousands. In 1519-1520 more than 12,000 tokens were sold to those who flocked to participate in this instant cult, and in 1521 no less than 209 miraculous cures were recorded by the church authorities.”

Most modern readers of this account would view these events with deep and justifiable scepticism, not to mention profound disquiet given the anti-Semitic element. But even today many religious shrines, and faith healers of all religions and of none, continue to attract the desperate and the sick who are in search of physical healing.

The pre-scientific faith of the pilgrims to Regensburg can be understood and forgiven, although we might have reservations about the 16th century church’s very efficient ‘marketing’ of the initial miracle, which seems to owe more to Mammon than to God!

What though of a 21st century church that allows the active promotion of physical healing by some elements within it – overtly or covertly with the message that if you have faith in Christ (and, by implication, come to our church!) you may be cured of your physical ailments? By remaining silent in the face of such promotional activities does the church compromise itself in the eyes of many thoughtful people at the beginning of the 21st century? And does it do so at the cost of the true Gospel message, which is about spiritual wholeness and the possibilities and promises of the Kingdom of God? A kingdom based on, and in Love.

Does God answer prayers for healing?

In some ways it seems curious that the church should think it necessary to have separate services with special liturgies for healing. Logically speaking the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the possibility of being healed – of being made whole. “The peace of God which passes all understanding,”  is peace in the sense of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ – meaning not just the absence of strife but conveying the sense of something more positive, which is wholeness.

Thus it is to state the obvious to say that every act of worship is about healing, about recognising the possibility of being made whole by turning to God, by amending our lives, and thereby ending our separation from God’s love and the love of those around us. It is that separation which is sin and The Good News is that we are offered the possibility of overcoming that separation and being healed, being made whole, becoming fully human – God’s glory in the world.

Clearly that is to speak of healing and wholeness in terms of our spiritual being. Regrettably, as John Habgood (6) has pointed out, in a materialistic world many people, even within the church, seem to subscribe to the view that anything that is not ‘physical’ is not objective and therefore not real or important. Fixation on physical healing points to a disturbing incapacity to handle the notions of spiritual reality, the inner reality of persons, and by implication the reality of God.

Moreover it is clearly possible to be ‘whole’ even while suffering from severe illness and disability. One is struck time and time again by the example of individuals who, in comparison with those who are physically healthy, seem more complete, more at peace, and more fully human – even in the midst of the most devastating physical problems.

But what of physical healing?

There are many reasons why the church should at the very least be cautious in the area of physical healing. Moreover it is outrageous, nonsensical, and a denial of The Gospel, a denial of ‘The Good News’, to suggest as some commentators have done that physical illnesses are punishment meted out by God for sin, either their own or their parents. A God of such arbitrary and quixotic retribution is impossible to reconcile with God who is Love. In the words of one of the great 20th century Archbishops of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all”. (Which is not, by the way, to say that when we do sin we will not suffer from our estrangement, until that is, we turn once more to God).

The need for caution with respect to physical healing should not be seen however as diminishing the belief that God is active in the world: Nor should it be seen as diminishing the importance of prayer.  Although as one of the Fathers of The Church, Origen wrote in the 3rd century, it is no use praying for the heat of the summer in the cold of the winter (or was it the other way round?). God who is Love cannot do the impossible and destroy the created world order and the laws of nature – that act would be a denial of true unconditional love expressed in the gift of creation and a denial of the continuing process of creation in which we are invited to share and collaborate. It would be to take back the gift – which then would be no gift – it would be an act of  “Indian Giving”. Accordingly, although God cannot prevent our suffering, God is alongside us in our suffering, reaching out and sharing our pain and grief. It is that act of sharing that is God’s atonement with the created world.

But Finally, as the late Peter Baelz (7) wrote in a small book entitled, “Does God Answer Prayer?”, we need to enter into communion with God in prayer and we should not be ashamed nor inhibited about expressing our real hopes and wishes – not in the form of a ‘shopping-list’ but as part of true communion. At that moment we must present ourselves openly and completely, and we should not feel inhibited to cry out in pain, and sometimes anger, and sometimes in fervent hope. Whatever the case we need to enter naked into God’s presence to find understanding, hope, comfort, and support. Without that surrender and emptying, without that stripping, that turning inside out, “you do not pray – you attend services” (8).  It is at that moment of surrender and nakedness that we are truly healed – made whole – by the Grace of God shown to us in Christ Jesus.

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Notes

McNutt, F. Healing, (London: Hodder, 1989) p.25

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, McGuire L, Robles TF, and Glaser R. Psychoneuroimmunology and psychosomatic medicine: back to the future. Psychosomatic Medicine. 64(1): 15-28 (2002)

Jedenfalls bin ich überzeugt, dass der nicht würfelt” (I am convinced that He [God] does not play dice). Albert Einstein. Letter to Max Born, In: Einstein und Born Briefweschel.(1969) p.130.

“What experience and history teach us is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons that they might have drawn from it”. In G.W.F. Hegel. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction. (1830, translated by H.B.Nisbet, 1975).

Collinson, P. The Late Medieval Church. In: The Oxford History of Christianity. Ed., McManners, J. (Oxford: OUP. 1993) p. 265.

Habgood, J. Making Sense. (London: SPCK, 1993) pp. 212-215.

Baelz, P. Does God Answer Prayer? (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1982)

Blue, L. My Affair with Christianity. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998) p.30.

Anthony J Sargeant

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