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Miracles on prescription

19 April 2013

We have a commission to heal the sick; so should we actually pray for a cure? Terence Handley MacMath considers God's healing mystery


It is always moving to listen to someone's story of healing, and a surprising number of individuals will testify to it - a diagnosis reversed, cancer in remission, treatment that has worked against all the odds.

More public are the prayer ministries of some churches, groups, and individuals, who often teach about healing, laying on of hands, and anointing. Other churches content themselves with a quiet ministry of intercession: putting names of the sick on a list, for example, and leaving the outcome a mystery.

It can be a divisive issue - one that some Christians feel the mainstream Churches continues to duck. The majority feel constrained, perhaps, by the wish to respect sick or disabled people's vulnerability and privacy; raise no false hopes; induce no false guilt; and respect the mystery of God's work in individuals and their suffering.

The ministry of some individuals, groups, and Churches challenges this reluctance to pray for healing. But listening to their sometimes contradictory teaching only deepens the mystery, and, for many, adds to the reluctance to speak of it in public.

There have been some who have taught that healing is available to all, providing that prayer is made in the right words and the right spirit. But is this a trusting obedience to the gospel, or a mark of "toxic spirituality"? (Toxic spirituality has been defined as an abuse of power; control and manipulation; creating guilt; a false spiritualisation or demonisation of existing problems; psychological denial; and/or a spiritual veneer covering violent, psychological, or sexual abuse).

FOR many years, this question has led to an avoidance of the healing issue by the mainstream Churches. But neither approach does full justice to the mystery of God.

In addition, there is the bothersome mandate that Christ gave to his disciples to spread the gospel through healing all manner of sickness; and there is still, in many of us, the urge to pray for healing.

As a hospital chaplain, I feel this bother keenly. There is the theological puzzle why, if the gospel is genuinely preached in any hospital, the establishment does not quickly go out of business; and there is the personal cost of impotently watching others suffer.

Nor is the careful use of the word healing, instead of "cure", any help. When I am ill, I pray for a cure, and, so far, my prayers have been answered, albeit through different means: drugs, lovingkindness, the sacraments, time, reassurance, surgery - and sometimes a combination of all of these.

I hesitate, therefore, to tell patients and their families that they have no business to pray for a cure, or remission, and offer them the consolation instead that suffering is probably good for us, and brings us nearer to God. I do, indeed, believe that to be true, but it is cold comfort unless it is God himself who gives that comfort, with the love and sweetness that only those who experience it can know.

It is a truism that death is the ultimate healing, but which of us, when not in extremis, is eager to try it? And so we continue, with greater or lesser joy and conviction, to pray for the healing of the sick.

TRYING to understand the whys and wherefores of such a prayer may spring from a desire to control events. As people trained in scientific methods of cause and effect, it is our habit to look for common threads and causes, expecting to find a formula for healing prayer and ministry that can be taught and replicated.

But the point of a "miraculous" healing is that it is precisely that. It is not scientific; it is not repeatable. The cause or mechanism of the healing is unknowable. Is it possible to teach people how to make God heal them? It is a "mystery" in the sense that it is unfathomable, but there is always more to experience, because it is the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, who is personal, relational, supra-personal, and communal.

The founder of the Christian Science movement, Mary Baker Eddy - and, indeed, many Christians who have been active in a healing ministry - suggested that whenever Jesus preached the gospel in public, it was in the context of miraculous healing. Spiritual release and physical release seem to go hand in hand, and it is the commission that Jesus lays on his disciples.

The conditions of this, however, seem to vary throughout the Gospels. Sometimes, the disciples' faith is not "strong" enough. Sometimes, the villagers' faith is not "good" enough. There is even one instance where Jesus himself seems to have to try harder: "I see men as trees, walking."

Nor is it consistent to say that God's will for us - at least, post-Fall - is perfect health, as Christian Scientists and others have claimed. The experience of many Christians is that illness or disability has been the answer to prayer for God himself; for it has brought them closer to God, and they have experienced healing through continuing disability.

IT IS part of the mystery of our incarnation that we have bodies that are simultaneously self-revelatory and self-concealing. They teach us that we only know parts of ourselves - physically, cognitively, and emotionally - when there is a problem. Knowing our own pain, or need, is to know ourselves as creaturely, and to know ourselves as creatures is to begin to conceive of a Creator.

From the Bible, we might think of Jesus's comment about the man who was blind from birth, or St Paul talking about his "thorn in the flesh". A contemporary example might be the Christian Evangelical author Joni Eareckson Tada.

But it is not quite biblical to say that God's healing is dependent on our own prayer or encounter with Jesus. The Gospels contain many examples where Jesus heals people almost casually, or at someone else's request, as well as others where he says that their faith has been operative. St Paul talks of people with different charisms, and the New Testament acknowledges that some people have healing gifts which they do not attribute to Jesus, or God, but which effect cures.

Nor is it biblical to say that God's healing is dependent on our hearts' being "open" to receive it. Think of those biblical characters who were healed despite themselves: Naaman, the paralytic man, Legion, St Paul. Our hearts are required to be open to receive God - not any other earthly blessing, however good - but there is this thing called grace that breaks all kinds of barriers down. Is it unfair, unmerited? Yes, thank God.

The Bible's witness is that God is love, but love deals with us in many different ways, tough and tender. We know from our own observation that God created us mortal and fragile, and with the capacity to suffer.

We know that God created pathogens, a fragile earth, an evolving creation, genetic inheritance, and other things, and allows an open-ended freedom to his creatures. All life contains its trajectory of growth and decay. In such a universe, people were inevitably going to get hurt.

I BELIEVE that it is right to trust Jesus and ask to be healed. There are times when people have asked, in the name of Jesus, to be cured of something, and they have been cured. This is a powerful witness to the simplicity and love of God incarnated in our world. But not everyone is healed, for whatever reason, or not all at once. Persist in prayer (as Jesus says), but there are no guarantees.

Simplicity is a deceptive thing, being far more demanding and costly than it sounds. The simplest prayer - and the costliest, because it means renouncing all the other things on our wishlists, including our very identity and existence - has to be for God himself. To pray properly is to pray only for God.

"If I were to ask less, I should always be in want," Julian of Norwich prayed. She had her own experience of miraculous healing. "In you alone do I have all."

Lord Williams of Oystermouth has defined healing as a peace between body and spirit; and connection between self and body, past and present, physical reality and future hopes, creator and creation. This peace is not easily achieved between ourselves and our bodies, or between ourselves and our Creator. If we allow the sheer otherness of God to silence our clamouring need for a moment, we can discover this peace; but, again, it is a costly process, and we must be prepared for the otherness to take us up on an adventure beyond our dreams and desires.

The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote: "Every encounter with others. . . means the 'suspension' of one's own prejudices, whether this involves another person through whom one learns one's own nature and limits. . . always something more is demanded than to 'understand the other', that is to seek and acknowledge the immanent coherence contained within the meaning- claim of the other. A further invitation is always implied.


"Like an infinite idea, what is also implied is a transcendental demand for coherence in which the ideal of truth is located. But this requires a readiness to recognise the other as potentially right, and to let him or it prevail against me."

Jacob wrestles with the angel, and demands a blessing. He obtains it, although it takes all night, and he journeys on with a physical, lasting limp. If our theology is an "I-Thou" theology, we have to allow freedom to that "Thou", or "other", as we ourselves have freedom, and achieve our peace with that Other on more than just our own terms.

SO, HEALING is not limited to individual encounters with Jesus: the Bible describes healing by prophets and healers. It is not always instantaneous: Jesus's blind man seems to have needed two attempts before he saw clearly.

It is not always dependent on faith, or a particular act or prayer on the part of the sick person: it is friends who lower down the paralytic man from the roof, and parents who request healing for their children.

And it is not always a discrete physical illness: Legion, the woman with a haemorrhage, and Mary Magdalene were cured of a complex mixture of mental or physical illness, ritual impurity, and social isolation.

The effects of healing are not always unmitigated joy and a restoration of the status quo; for there is often a charge to make a radical change to our way of life: when we encounter God, it is often a searing experience in which our humanity and mortality are exposed. (Think of Isaiah, or Peter.) It is not even always permanent: Lazarus and others were brought back from the dead, but, we must presume, died eventually.

The forever-scarred resurrection body of Christ, the Other who yet shares a suffering human body, is an icon of the everlasting interconnecting mystery of life and suffering. It is a mystery that is held and embraced by love, demonstrated by Jesus's healing ministry on earth and devolved to his disciples through the Holy Spirit, but known in full as the loving indwelling of Christ within the Trinity.

This is a dynamic love, of course, not best pictured as a cosy, bodiless existence that is beyond the reach of pain, but a love that constantly flows between Father, Son, and Spirit, transcending the pain of self-emptying that Jesus demonstrates for us in the short span of a human life.

SOMEHOW, then, love, not fear, must be the solvent for the anguish of physical illness, disability, and dying, at each moment of our lives. Looking for the "how" to pray for healing - as if there were one fail-safe formula, if only we were good enough, or faithful enough, or simple-hearted enough to pray it, and escape suffering - misses the mark. The only mark we are aiming at is God (or love), even as incarnated, mortal beings.

In the mean time, healing can also come, not just through a personal encounter with Jesus, but through love of our neighbours and ourselves, through changing whole communities' living conditions (digging wells, education), and social attitudes (compassion, child protection, sexual relationships, welfare).

The recent BBC TV series Call the Midwife illustrates perfectly the way that healing can also be a matter of a community's improved education, housing, contraception, sanitation, and working arrangements, as well as individual care and cure.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's work on social equality in The Spirit Level (Penguin, 2009) shows that health and healing is fundamentally about relationship experienced at every level in human society.

Environmentalists would ex- tend that to include the whole of creation. Every time I choose not to eat meat, or buy unnecessary detergents, or use my car, I am positively adding to someone's well-being, somewhere. My tax contribution to the NHS (wisely spent) is a contribution to our collective health.

So, never cease to pray for healing; but never cease, either, from seeing how much healing power God has placed in your own hands.

The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is an NHS hospital chaplain working for the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.

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