2011 was not a good year for my health. It began with the diagnosis that I have Parkinson’s disease and closed with the discovery that I also have Chronic Lymphoctic Leukemia (CLL). At age 45 I was considered young to have acquired both these diseases. Parkinson’s is a movement disorder which has so far caused a tremor and muscle stiffness in my right hand and leg. Over time these symptoms will eventually spread to the rest of my body and become more severe. CLL is a cancer that causes a slow increase in white blood cells, eventually reaching the point where the bone marrow fails. The good news is that the progress of both these diseases is relatively slow. In the case of CLL most patients live for 20 years or so before requiring treatment. The bad news is there is no known cure for either. In the absence of any ‘natural’ cure the question of divine healing is no longer theoretical for me. What should I hope for? What should I expect?
I have already had two fairly dramatic experiences with divine healing. When I was a child I developed an irregular heartbeat. By the age of fourteen my heart difficulties took a more serious turn when my left ventricle ballooned to twice its normal size, leaving my heart weakened and on the verge of complete failure. The cardiologist I had been seeing since the age of eight was at his wits end and referred me to another world renowned cardiologist at Prince Henry Hospital, NSW, Australia. The referral letter indicated my cardiologist could see no hope for my survival. The new cardiologist immediately admitted me to hospital, refusing to allow me to go home to get my pyjamas. For the next three months a succession of drugs were fed into my body in an attempt to stop my ventricle growing. Discussions were held with surgeons about last resort options. Finally I was placed on a new drug, Amiodarone,which is known for controlling irregular heartbeats. My heartbeat was normalised and soon after the growth of my ventricle halted. Over the next 18 months my ventricle went back to its normal size and I have been fine and drug free for the thirty years since.
On my last visit to my cardiologist he commented that I was a “medical miracle”. This surprised me. I had assumed the amiodarone cured me, that it had controlled the irregular heartbeat, which in turn impacted the growth of my ventricle.
“Oh no” the cardiologist exclaimed. “There is absolutely nothing in the drug that explains what happened to your heart. In fact I have no explanation.” Nor did my previous cardiologist who I bumped into some years later and who confessed he was surprised I was still alive.
During my hospitalisation mum and dad never let me know how critical my condition was, but I do remember mum sharing that she believed God was going to heal me. We weren’t from a church that promised healing to whoever asked. In fact my recollection is we rarely talked about it. But it seems to me there are grounds for believing it was God who healed me. Certainly, there may be another explanation, a more ‘natural’ cause that is simply unknown to us. But on current evidence divine healing seems to me the most credible explanation.
This was not the only instance of remarkable healing I have known first hand. When I was a child my father decided to give up smoking. He tried and tried but was unable to kick the habit. One day he sat alone in our lounge room and prayed “Lord I can’t do it. I give up. Unless you change me I cannot give it up.” Dad walked out of the lounge room and never smoked another cigarette. When he went to work the following day, to a workplace filled with cigarettes and cigarette smokers (these were the days before smoking bans) rather than battling temptation he felt ill at the smoky smell. Again there might be psychological explanations for what happened to dad, but it seems to me it is credible to believe Dad received divine healing for his addiction.
Over against these experiences of possible divine healing towers the death of my grandfather from Motor Neurone disease. This is a terrible disease that gradually immobilises the body until it is too weak to cope with an infection such as pneumonia. I can remember praying regularly for grandpa to be healed but heaven seemed silent, the disease progressed and he died from it. I have watched the children of friends die from cancer, was with my father when he died in the advanced stages of Parkinsons, know young adults killed in car and plane crashes, have family members and friends who struggle with severe depression, and friends addicted to nicotene. In all these cases we have prayed for protection and healing, yet again to a God who has not stepped in to heal them as he once seemed to do for me and my father.
How do we read Scripture in light of these experiences and these experiences in light of Scripture?
We will be healed
The first thing to say is that I know I will be healed, along with all those who enter the kingdom of God. Contrary to popular opinion, the bible does not talk about our souls going to heaven when we die. Rather it looks forward to a time when heaven, which stands for God’s realm, comes to earth and remakes it. It speaks of a resurrection of our bodies and a renewing of our hearts and minds, of renewed human beings living on an earth released from all that is inhospitable, in communities freed from selfishness, greed, violence and idolatry, communities of love, grace, equity and justice, and of God being present and known in a way qualitatively different to the present. See Isaiah 65: 17-25; Revelation 21-22; Romans 8:18-25.
The foundation of this hope is the resurrection of Jesus. On the one hand his death and resurrection are the model for our future. Just as he was raised from the dead with a body fit for a life animated by the Spirit of God, so shall we be. See 1 Corinthians 15. On the other hand, his death and resurrection are the beginning of the future. At the time of Jesus, it was commonly believed that at the end of history everyone would be raised from the dead, the ‘wicked’ judged, the world remade and a new era in which God reigns fully and completely would begin. As NT Wright demonstrates in his magisterial works on Jesus, people of Jesus’ day might have expected to see a person’s spirit or ghost after they had died, but the notion that they would encounter someone physically raised from the dead was counter to every intuition they had. It could mean just one thing – the new era in which God was remaking the world had begun. See 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.
So will I be healed? Yes I will. The question is not if, but when. One day I will have a resurrected body, a renewed heart and mind and will live in renewed community on a renewed earth. My Parkinson’s and CLL will be part of the old order that has passed away. God may or may not heal me prior to the great resurrection of the dead, but heal me one day he will.
The Healing Ministry of Jesus & Healing Today
Jesus’ healing ministry pointed to this new order God was bringing into being. The unifying centre to Jesus teaching, healing and communing was his conviction that in his ministry the long awaited kingdom of God was emerging. In this new order people, communities and creation would be freed from all that made them dysfunctional. And so he healed bodies, announced God’s welcome and forgiveness, ate with those on the margins, restored people to their communities, challenged injustice, and built a community that embodied these values. In his ministry people glimpsed what life is like when God takes charge.
This framing is important for our understanding of healing. We tend to approach healing through a materialist/consumerist lens which sees the pursuit of comfort and happiness as supreme values. Jesus’ miracles certainly made life better for those who were healed but that was not the point. The point was that God was beginning to reign, which meant making us better people – reconnected in love to him and each other- and making our communities better – just, equitable, safe, graceful. It was a total package in which it would be tragic to be physically healed but not to be transformed in our character, values, relationships and connection with our Creator. Healings then were both a part of what it means for God to reign and a sign of something much greater, a sign that God was beginning to put everything in the world to right. This made healings both a central feature of Jesus’ ministry – here was one way God was beginning to reign – and peripheral – the healings were but one element of a much greater transformation of people, communities and creation.
The experience of healing today is very different from healing in Jesus’ ministry and that of the early church. Jesus healed all who came to him (see Matthew 4.24 and 12:15). Today healing is the exception rather than the rule. Some expect there should be complete continuity between Jesus’ ministry and ours, that we should experience healing on the same scale as in Jesus’ ministry. The fact that we don’t points to a failure on our part, of faith or method. I don’t believe this. Jesus healed as an act of grace. He healed people who had great faith, people who had little faith and people who had no faith in him as anything but a healer.
What I do think is that God chooses to build his kingdom in the manner he pleases and the important thing is to be attuned to that. After all, this was exactly what Jesus’ miracles pointed to. I long for the day God’s kingdom comes in fullness and everything on earth is as in heaven, and I trust that even now God is beginning to build his kingdom in me, in my church and in my world. So I ask myself am I becoming the person God created me to be? Am I embodying love, grace, forgiveness, faith, hope, justice? Is my community of faith embodying these values? Are we bringing this reality and this God to our wider community and world? Physical healing will come, maybe sooner, maybe later, certainly fully and completely in the new heavens and earth. It is an important part of God’s restoration of creation, but it is only a part. My call as a follower of Jesus is not to demand that God must build his kingdom in this way or that, but to seek God’s kingdom in whatever ways God chooses to bring it. And it seems that in the West at least, that is normally not through mass physical healing.
James’ prayer of faith
One of the most significant texts on healing is James 5:13-16
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make them well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:13-16
The book of James addresses a group of believers who have been seeking status and wealth. Failing to recognise that the rich were exploiting the poor, they aspired to wealth and so deferred to the rich, neglected the poor and engaged in bitter rivalry with one another. James calls them back to the way of Jesus, to humility and graciousness, to controlled speech and to care for the poor. It’s in this context that James calls them to commit their lives to God in prayer. This includes prayer for healing.
The word translated as “sick” can refer to weakness of any kind – physical, emotional, moral. It is possible that the passage doesn’t refer to sickness at all. The community is filled with people who have been ruthlessly exploited by the rich as well as those who are harming the poor in their desire to be rich. The advice may be that if you find yourself spiritually or psychologically weakened, call the elders of the church and have them pray for your strengthening. Those who have neglected the poor must confess their sin as an essential part of their spiritual healing.
It is equally possible the passage does have physical weakness in mind. Most scholars understand it this way. If so is the key to understanding the text the promise that “the Lord will raise them up”? This is the same language used in the New Testament to describe the resurrection of Jesus, making it plausible that James is alluding to the great resurrection of the dead. That is, the Lord will make them well, whether immediately or at the resurrection.
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
Any discussion of accounts of miraculous healing in the New Testament must also take account of descriptions of suffering. Perhaps preeminent here are Paul’s physical impairments. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of a painful “thorn in the flesh”, most likely some kind of physical impairment that is either embarrassing or physically painful.
Three times Paul pleaded with God to remove it to no avail. It was, he writes, to remain to keep him humble. Through this experience Paul learns that “my [God’s] grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. His weakness is an opportunity to learn greater trust in God and to see that God works in and through him even with his disability.
This passage is an important reminder that even in the New Testament era healing was not always experienced and that illness can be an opportunity for growth.
For me, the doctrine of the resurrection has taken on a new significance in the last 12 months. It provides me with hope for the future – the sure and certain knowledge that I, along with humanity and the creation, will one day be completely healed. It also gives me a sense that if the kingdom of God is arriving I should be open to being healed.
I have no idea on what basis God elects to heal a small portion of the population and to leave the rest yet-to-be-healed. Yet the fact that God does so makes it entirely appropriate for believers to pray for healing, trusting that God will bring his kingdom in the way he deigns best.
Yet at the same time I must be open to the fact that God probably won’t heal me. My diseases will be then an opportunity to experience God’s gracious strengthening to live the life to which he calls me.