Preaching the good news is a clear priority in Christian churches, but the accompanying commands – to heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons – receive mixed responses.
I’m sympathetic to Christian scepticism, having become so frustrated with healing books that skim over the failures that I wrote my own (‘Healing for Life’). But I’m confident of the reality of healing by prayer alone, having been healed years ago of a serious medical condition with a pessimistic prognosis and, recently, of the pain of a cracked rib - and nobody doubts their own experience.
In my present church Vera, in her sixties, is embarking on a sponsored walk in thanksgiving for the anniversary of her healing by prayer, when doctors had told her she wouldn’t walk again without support.
The total healing of physical injury or disease may seem irrefutable, but truth needs to be tested. Does the healing last? And, even if it does, could the prayer have been a placebo, psychologically kick-starting the body’s ability to heal itself?
Lazarus was healed of death, so his healing can hardly have had psychological factors - but then presumably he died again in old age, so would you argue that his healing failed or lasted?
It seems important to distinguish the aims of medical cure (to remove physical suffering and avoid death) and of medical treatment (to manage symptoms), from the aim of healing by prayer (to bring God’s definition of ‘the fullness of life’).
Being healed is a joy, but also disorientating. I can understand people avoiding it. For every person who rejoiced in my freedom after so many years of illness, there were more who watched for an off-day and were quick to say nothing had changed.
When it was obvious I was well, as never before, they said the illness must have been psychological. When I showed operation scars and told my medical history, they said then I couldn’t be well and should go back to hospital. When I did, 11 years later, I was affirmed as healthy.
In the meantime, God healed me of much more, including emotional scars. I don’t understand the insistence on separating ‘real’ physical healing from the psychological. It’s certainly easier to see someone has been healed if there are before-and-after X-rays, whether the healing has been medical or by prayer alone. But surely healing is only ever partial if it doesn’t include the emotional and spiritual as well, and we should expect God to heal more comprehensively than human methods, not less. If healing is not psychological or spiritual, only physical change, is it real? Will it last, or will the sufferer just get something else, possibly worse?
An online international Christian newsgroup posted an email from a lady with health problems, and fellow members recommended healing ministry, medical treatment, alternative therapies, or simply having ‘more faith,’ according to their own preference. She resisted: ‘If I’m going to be healed, it has to be in my own way.’
I posted the question, ‘Has anyone been healed, not in their own way?’ A Danish pastor replied, ‘Yes. God healed me of cancer, but first he turned my life inside out.’
Vera’s sponsored walk is celebrating more than physical healing. The muscle weakness that caused her legs to give way had not responded to prayer, at the first few requests. It was only when her sister mentioned that a lady known to them had been cursing neighbours, who had suffered coincidental disasters, and was voicing resentment of Vera, that she questioned whether there might be a spiritual element.
Jesus said anyone who harbours hatred of a brother is committing murder - causing real harm.
Vera consulted her minister, who prayed the power of the cross between her and any possible curse. She felt tingling and ‘movement under the skin, like worms wriggling - like I’d had before when a broken leg was mending and the nerves were coming back to life.’ She walked home without crutches and hasn’t needed them since.
Is it possible, as some wonder, that healing could be wish-fulfilment, a person’s conviction that they will be healed in certain circumstances?
Debbie had no such conviction. A keen trampolinist, her knee problem began at 16. The diagnosis was chondromalacia patellae - flaking cartilage. At 20, just married, she had the first of six keyhole surgeries to clear the recurrent accumulation of debris from the knee joint. More radical surgery followed - an operation to sever the muscle, which left her with swelling, pain and stiffness. Debbie gave up sport and took a desk job. At 24, unable to run about with her toddler son, she saw a new surgeon.
‘I had grown up in a free church and knew God could heal: friends in the youth group prayed when I broke my finger and in ten minutes it was fine. But I was taught that, although God is the Great Physician, he raises up physicians to heal, so not going to the doctor seemed like doubting God.’
The surgeon said her knee was misaligned. He cut away some bone in the kneecap and realigned the tendon. ‘Afterwards I got circulation problems and the muscle wasted. I was off work for seven months. After nine months, even with physio twice a week, I could hardly bend my knee.’
At 34, there was another arthroscopy, another surgeon and another decision - to reverse the tendon-moving operation, with nine months of reduced mobility during recovery, then further treatment. ‘He said I’d be in wheelchair if it progressed as it was. I asked for some time to think and he gave me two months.
‘I slipped into depression. I was recovering from a miscarriage and had M.E. I didn’t know if I could face any more.’
Debbie’s husband, meantime, had done an Alpha course, and began to believe in the Holy Spirit ‘as more than words on a page.’ When Catch The Fire ministry led by John and Carol Arnott came to a local church he and their son wanted to go.
Debbie agreed. ‘Reluctantly. I’d given up praying for myself. Privately I told God, “If I don’t come out feeling just slightly closer to you, I’m done; I can’t cope with more disappointment.”
‘The church was an old cinema. The only seats left were up in the gods - five flights of stairs. It took me 15 minutes to climb.
‘Carol Arnott said God had shown her a lady with a leg problem, and asked that lady to come forward. The invitation was repeated at intervals through the evening. A lot of people with foot, hip and back problems were prayed with but Carol kept saying, “You’re not the lady I’m waiting for.” My husband and son kept digging me in the ribs but I sat with my arms folded. It couldn’t be for me. I didn’t deserve it. Others were in more need. And what if I went up but nothing happened?
‘People were getting healed but a girl sitting in front of me said to her friend, “Yes, but the person they originally asked for hasn’t come forward, so what does that say?” And I thought, how awful if this girl doubts everything because of me. So I got up.
‘It took me ten minutes to get down all the steps, then I couldn’t get through the crowd; I just stood there. A team member came over and I said, “I think I’m Carol’s leg!” and he took me to her.
‘She didn’t ask what the leg problem was, just cupped her hands round my knee, without touching it, and prayed. I felt cushioned, warm and content. I must have fallen back, because I woke up on the floor and said, “That’s not possible - I can’t bend my knee at that angle!”
‘I ran up the five flights of stairs and my family were hugging me, laughing and crying, and the girl sitting in front said, “Okay, it’s real!”
‘I went back to the surgeon, carrying my crutches, and told him I’d been healed at a Christian meeting. He called me “a foolish young lady - I’ve looked inside your knee and it’s a wreck” - and said he expected to see me back within six months.
‘Over the next six months, my faith got challenged. The Arnotts had spoken about claiming healing for yourself, not allowing Satan to get back in, and said sometimes just uttering the name Jesus is enough. The first time I drove to work, at the point where my knee would normally lock, I had a very sharp pain and said aloud, “Jesus, deal with this! Satan, get lost: I’m healed and you’re not going to rob me of it."
‘My dad didn’t believe I could have been healed. But at my niece’s birthday party I couldn’t resist going on the bouncy castle, and he videoed me, and kept watching the video. Then he believed it.’
By contrast with Debbie’s initial disbelief, Andrew never doubted he would be healed. As a missionary he had witnessed, and prayed for, many successful healings.
So when, at 47, an ulcer on his tongue was diagnosed cancerous, he flew out to a country with a well-known international healing ministry.
He came home exhausted, confused and in pain. He tried another. Then a known ‘prophet,’ who accused him of negative thinking and lack of faith – which was a shocking misrepresentation of healing prayer to inflict on anyone. At the same time, family, friends and local churches were also all praying for him.
He had laser surgery and chemo. The tumours grew rapidly and spread to his lungs and bones.
Five minutes after he died, his three-year old son looked into his face and said, ‘Daddy’s better now!’
Isaiah described the archetypal ‘suffering servant’ as ‘taking our sins and sicknesses on himself.’ I wonder if sometimes the sins and sicknesses diagnosed in individuals who are resolutely and clearly following Jesus Christ are not in them, or in their bloodline family history, but carried on behalf of others, even a whole community.
The Baptist minister who prayed for Vera’s healing, recalls, ‘I went to a Bible college where the "party line" for failing to be healed was either sin or lack of faith on the part of the sick person. This smacks of spiritual abuse - to throw the responsibility for lack of healing onto the person already struggling with their pain, and add guilt and failure to them.
My own experience is that I often allow fear to stop me speaking out in faith: fear of failure, fear of looking stupid, fear of nothing happening … it cripples us and robs us of expectation.
‘I can pray for people and some may not be healed - but some may receive healing. If I don't pray for people, no one will receive healing. Isn’t it better to pray and see some healed than not to pray and see no potential for healing?’
Personally, I’m happy for Vera, in her thanksgiving walk, for Debbie in her active life, and for myself, freed from a grim prognosis at 28.
I’m desperately sad for Andrew’s family, of which I am a member. For a while, struggling to see God’s will in what happened to him, I had an aversion to praying for healing - but God still commands us to heal, not just to preach about Jesus’ healing.
It’s not acceptable to fail to ask for healing, through fear of failing to heal.