Thoughts on Healing

In the early 1990s I preached parish missions which included a healing service on the third night. It was always the most difficult talk for me to give. Don’t get me wrong–I certainly believe that God heals; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been in such a ministry. Yet healing is a difficult and easily misunderstood subject, and there is no end to conflicting opinions on it.

For some, healing is a purely materialistic thing, little different than fixing a malfunctioning machine or clogged plumbing. The holistic healers of the New Age, on the other hand, would have us believe we can heal ourselves because we are part of the divine reality of the universe; we just need to channel our energy properly through use of crystals, perfumes, massage, meditation and soothing instrumental music.

I’m even more concerned by some things I’ve seen among Christians. Maybe you’ve seen faith healers on television, or been to a “healing service.” Believers go up for an anointing or laying on of hands and often fall down in a faint (“sleeping in the Spirit,” they call it). Maybe you’ve seen exposes of some of of these healers on “20/20” and “60 Minutes,” documenting the reality that there are many dealers in snake oil who take advantage of people’s expectations and emotions. Oh, it makes for a dramatic show when we see people jumping out of wheelchairs–but in many cases they actually walked into the auditorium, and were given a wheelchair or a brace by the staff of the so-called evangelist.1

That kind of sideshow charlatanism makes me angry. It gives people false hopes that can be dangerous. People have gone into “revivals” and thrown their medications onto the stage and thought they were healed because the evangelist said so, and have ended up worse than they were at the start. Or–and this is very common–when people aren’t healed, they’re loaded with a guilt trip. “Well, you just didn’t have enough faith,” they are told; “Maybe you should pray harder.”

Of casts and plastic bags

When our daughter Aimee was 18 months old, we found out that she had been born with a dislocated hip. Somehow her doctor had never noticed. But when she started walking late, and with a pronounced limp, it was obvious. A Methodist pastor friend helped us get her into the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The ordeal she underwent was unimaginable. She was in traction for a month, to stretch the muscles so that the hip could be eased back into position. She was then put into a cast that went from her waist to her knees, her legs spread apart frog-style. She spent her days and nights on a metal frame with a bed pan underneath. We had to tuck plastic bags into the opening in the cast between her legs so that the cast wouldn’t get wet. (Of course, she kept pulling these out, and the cast kept getting wet!) When we took her out of the house, we had to put a feminine napkin into the opening (or an adult bladder control pad), then tuck a newborn diaper in, and then cover her in an adult diaper. I received some very strange looks whenever I went to the store for supplies–looks that could probably be best translated as, “Your poor wife!”

After two months Aimee’s cast was replaced by a lighter, plaster-wrapped brace that kept her legs in that same frog-like position for another month. Finally the big day came when she got a new brace, one that could be removed for a couple of hours each day. We were home two days when we noticed something was wrong. We headed down the Interstate for another three-hour trip to Springfield to be told that her hip had popped out again. Back she went into a cast–this time one that went from her armpits to her toes, with a bar between her legs. For three more months. And endless plastic bags.

Through this we prayed. My parish and my wife’s church prayed. Our Seventh-day Adventist families prayed. Lutheran pastors and churches prayed. Priests and deacons prayed. Bishops and a Cardinal prayed. And yet, there we were. Back to square one. And then, after more progress, it happened again! Perhaps you begin to see why I get angry when someone says, “If you aren’t healed, you just don’t have enough faith”–or, “You haven’t prayed hard enough.”

I also found myself getting angry with God. We’ve gone through enough, I cried. Why do this to a little girl? You have your pound of flesh. When will you be satisfied?

But no answer came.

Our story is not unique. As a pastor and chaplain, I’ve ministered to many suffering families. One family’s experience will always be with me. Their son had a head injury, and was in a coma. They were so confident at first; deceived by so many TV movies, they expected him to wake up any day as if nothing had happened. As the months went by, their hopes slowly flickered away. He was transferred to a VA hospital, where cockroaches crawled across his face, and his tracheotomy went uncleaned. They got him into a nursing home, where, two years later, he died of respiratory infections. The strain led the parents to divorce. One attempted suicide. It was years before they stopped blaming themselves.

Any view of healing that places the blame on the sufferer in such a time is monstrous.

God’s silence

What does God’s silence in such a time do to our faith? How can we continue to believe that he is all good and all powerful when our prayers bounce off of the ceiling and come back mocking us in our face? For centuries theologians have wrestled with that question, but in our generation the question has received new urgency in light of the unspeakable tragedies we have managed to inflict upon one another. It is one thing for God to be silent when one little girl suffers because of a dislocated hip; it is something entirely different when millions of people are incinerated in an effort to eradicate a race.

What answer can we give to the Jewish author and theologian Elie Wiesel, who, in his haunting book Night, recalls his arrival at a place called Auschwitz:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.2

Faith in a hidden God

The optimistic, candy-coated faith of a religious Polyanna must be shattered in such an experience. But so can a mature faith that has suffered much in the past–one truly hellish experience like this can be the final straw. Times such as ours require a different sort of faith than that conveyed by cute pictures of angels watching children cross a rickety bridge; we need a faith that can believe God is good and loving even when he fails to do good–even when he seems to do evil.

I like the way Martin Luther describes faith in his book, The Bondage of the Will:

. . . [F]aith has to do with things not seen [Heb. 11:1]. Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it. . . .Thus God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under iniquity. This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love.3

Luther’s powerful diatribe will not tolerate a view of faith which sees it as a magic key unlocking treasure stores; that’s probably why few Protestants know this book as well as they know his commentaries on Romans and Galatians.

Many other authors have also been drawn to this subject. One of the most popular books of the last decade was When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It grew out of his own struggle to comprehend his son’s death from progeria–essentially, dying from old age as a young teen. When I first read it, this book offended me like no other ever had. It seemed to me to put God in a box. It seemed to tie his hands. It seemed to leave me with a distant, powerless God like the watchmaker of the deists. But that was before I watched my own children suffer. That was before I was a pastor; before I was a hospital chaplain. I reread it recently, expecting the same sense of outrage that I felt a dozen years ago, supposing that Kushner would provide a nice foil for what I wanted to say in this chapter. Instead, I found myself nodding in agreement.

One of the key points of the book is that sometimes there just is no reason for the things that happen. There is randomness in the universe. Sometimes the roll of the genetic dice means that a child will be born with a terrible disease or defect, and neither God nor the parents can be blamed. “Some people cannot handle that idea,” Kushner says. “They look for connections, striving desperately to make sense of all that happens. They convince themselves that God is cruel, or that they are sinners, rather than accept randomness.”4

And yet, Kushner argues, there are also laws of nature; these laws make science and medicine possible. God set them in motion, and he cannot stop them. The law of gravity means that when a teenager tosses a cinder-block off of a highway overpass, it will continue to fall, even if a car is underneath carrying a young soldier home to his family.

And what if God did intervene? What if he protected every good person from harm, so that, as Kushner puts it, if I didn’t want to wait for the elevator, I could simply jump out the window and not have to worry about harming myself? Would that be a better world?5

God also “leaves us room to be human.” He created us with the freedom to choose between good and evil, and that is one of the essential traits of our humanity. Were he to intervene to stop someone from carrying out an evil intent he would negate that freedom. This is how Rabbi Kushner responds to the Holocaust–“it was not God who caused it. It was caused by human beings choosing to be cruel to their fellow men.” God’s compassion was aroused, he suffered with his people, but he could do nothing to stop it without taking away the freedom which both made it possible and which makes us human.6

The freedom of God

A faith healer, of course, would counter all of this by pointing to the stories of Jesus’ healing, and to his promise that miraculous “signs will accompany those who believe: . . . they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). But even Jesus did not heal everyone; nor did he eliminate every injustice.7

The fifth article of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession says this: “To obtain such [justifying] faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.”8 Not everyone will believe; God “works faith, when and where he pleases.” As a parent and an evangelist, I find that comforting, for that means to me that while I am responsible for presenting the word of God to others, the results are up to him.

I think God heals the same way: when, where, and how he pleases. Sometimes he may perform miracles–a tumor may inexplicably vanish–but more often he heals through the natural means he has created. We also need to see ourselves as instruments of healing. We are part of the Body of Christ. We are the means through which he works in the world. We cannot simply pray for the hungry to find food, says St. James; we need to give them food (James 2:15-16). We are to be instruments of God’s peace, says the apocryphal Prayer of St. Francis; we must actively sow love where there is hatred, joy where there is sorrow.

Becoming whole

We also need a much broader sense of what it means to be healed. Even in the years I wandered away from the Seventh-day Adventist faith in which I was raised, I appreciated the fact that Adventism recovered the Bible’s concern for the whole person–and it did so a century before mainline European theologians such as Paul Althaus began raising questions about how Greek thought’s emphasis on the immortality of the soul may have distorted primitive Christianity’s concern for the resurrection of the body. For Adventists this was not an academic debate, but was motivation to proclaim a vibrant message of healthful living which included not simply healing of sickness, but also its prevention. Seen in the Biblical context, healing can never be mere relief from physical suffering; to be healed is to be made whole.

Over the past hundred years other Christians, Catholic and Protestant, have come to the same conclusion. It is a conclusion rooted in our central affirmation: God showed us how valuable life is by becoming one of us. He took upon himself our flesh and blood. He was born, he lived, he suffered, and he died, as one of us. He was concerned about the whole of people’s lives, and so he healed them, he forgave them, he fed them, he clothed them–and he said we should do the same. For our God truly loves us, and is therefore concerned with making us whole people–emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and socially.

How we need to hear that, and take it to heart, in this age, in this society, in which fragmentation is the norm; in which marriages are temporary contracts; in which sex is a means for self-gratification; in which faith is for Sunday, and not to interfere with life on Monday; in which people are hurting, having been wounded by others, having been betrayed by people they trust–even in the church–even by leaders in the church; in which people are sick, or grieving, hungry or homeless, jobless; in which society discards its unborn, its aged, its infirm.

God gave this promise to the exiled nation of Israel, which was scattered like a flock of sheep:

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

God is going on a “search and rescue” mission. He promises to find all who are lost, to bring together all that is scattered. He promises to restore, to protect, and to heal. He promises to make us whole.

So, what happened . . .?

Let me get back now to my story about my daughter, who spent years undergoing treatment for her dislocated hip. We prayed; to no avail, it seemed. We got angry with God. And yet, through all of it, Aimee had the time of her life. She loved her visits to the hospital, and wished she could be there more often–it was like Disneyland to her, especially when the Shriners came to visit wearing Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck costumes. She was generally patient, and happy, and thought that her casts and braces were the neatest things. And–best of all–when she was immobilized in the cast, she got to watch “Barney” tapes all day long.

It’s amazing what a two-year-old can teach an adult about patience in adversity. We experienced healing . . . a different sort of healing. A healing that touches the heart. A healing that teaches patience and hope. A healing that lets us put ourselves in God’s hands, knowing that he will heal, in his own ways, through the processes he created. And in surprising ways, like the laugh of a little child immobilized by a cast.

The day did come when Aimee could walk without a brace. And we’ve rejoiced in all the little milestones since: running, hopping, skipping, galloping, jumping, climbing. People see her today and can’t believe the stories we tell until we show them the six inch scar on her hip.

Healing isn’t some trick, like a sideshow gimmick. It isn’t some magical incantation that will replace a severed arm, or a dislocated hip, instantly, in a puff of smoke and a display of sparkles. Healing is a becoming whole. And that’s what God wants. God wants us to be whole people.

Some questions will always be with us, though. As long as one innocent suffers, we must cry out, “Why?” The passage I quoted from Elie Wiesel earlier was written over thirty years ago. In his recently published autobiography, Wiesel provides this additional commentary: “I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it. . . . Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it.”9

Wiesel recalls the prophet Jeremiah, who has God himself say, “I shall weep in secret.” Perhaps that can apply to the Holocaust. Perhaps God wept in secret, sharing his people’s suffering. “Is that, at last, an answer? No. It is a question. Yet another question.”10


1See especially James Randi, The Faith Healers (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1987).

2Elie Wiesel, “Night,” in The Night Trilogy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), p. 43.

3Martin Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” Luther’s Works 33 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), pp. 62-63.

4Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon Books, 1981), p. 46.

5Ibid., pp. 58-59.

6Ibid., pp. 79, 81, 84-85.

7In John’s gospel, Jesus performs only seven miracles, and none after chapter 12. They are signs or symbols, which are no longer necessary when Jesus’ “hour” has come. In including them in his narrative, John is not concerned with giving sensationalistic details; rather, he is concerned with their spiritual significance (spiritual life and sight, etc. The miracles may lead to faith in Jesus as messiah, but those who believe without seeing are praised more highly (John 20:29). Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John, The Anchor Bible, vols. 29 & 29a (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966), pp. 525-531.

8Theodore G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 31.

9Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995; New York: Random House, Schocken Books, 1996), p. 84.

10Ibid., p. 105.