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