Monday, July 15, 2013

praying for healing

our faith community praying for each other (mosaic effect)
Part of what we do in our church community is pray for people who are sick.  I have prayed for people for many years regarding all kinds of physical, emotional, and circumstantial problems. I still find it difficult.  Usually I manage to ask the Holy Spirit to come, invite Jesus to intervene in the specific problem, and blubber something about the goodness of God being all-pervasive.  Sometimes I feel a sense of God's nearness, but many times I just feel lost.  Over the years I have heard many people pray for healing. Some command different parts of the body to be made whole and sound. Some claim healing based on Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. Others pray by referencing various scriptures which imply that healing is available if one just asks. Some invoke God's supernatural healing power while others ask for an awareness of God's presence and everything that goes along with that. Some touch the ill one; others pray from a distance; some like to anoint the sick with oil.  I have not only seen and heard all of these different prayers for the sick, I have participated in most of them, and I must confess that I don't know what the "correct" way is.  To me, simply mimicking someone else or trying to duplicate the words and actions I read in the stories of the Old and New Testaments makes healing into a system (do A and B and then C and voila...healing appears!).  Some have observed that in the stories we have about Jesus, he never healed the same way twice. He responded to each sick person with compassion, but in a way unique to their particular situation.  So how do we pray for the sick?

Closely tied to the question of "how" is the question of "why?"  In other words, does anything really change when we pray for healing?  I have no doubt that God wants to heal people (he is a good and loving God, after all) and that he has the ability to heal (all authority and power are his), but how often does it really happen?  In the past few weeks I have been asking myself how much I really embrace the idea of miracles. I used to hunger and long for them and speak of the supernatural often, but these days when I hear someone claiming healing and commanding illness to leave the body, I tend to cringe.  I know that part of the reason is that I have seen too many charismatic Christians turn the ministry of healing into a sideshow, a power trip, an adrenaline rush, or a cash grab. Not that I can judge people's motives and I most certainly cannot question someone's sincere desire to see God help a person in pain, but some healing prayers seem to come dangerously close to telling God what to do, and that makes me very uncomfortable.

For me, the ultimate model of healing is to be found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is only natural that many of us want to jump straight to the resurrection (of which healing is a foretaste) without going through suffering and death.  Didn't Jesus suffer and die so that we don't have to? Yes. But we are also invited to share in the sufferings of Christ (see 2 Corinthians 1, Romans 8, 1 Peter 4). What's the deal? The way I see it, the alleviation of illness and death are by-products of being restored to a loving relationship with our heavenly father.  We, who were outsiders, are invited to become part of the family of God, to participate in the kingdom of heaven, and to become members of the body of Christ.  This is what the sacrifice of Jesus accomplished and keeps accomplishing in all who respond to his invitation to "Follow me." This means that we come close to him and keep on sticking close.

In the kingdom of God there is healing from sickness, there is resurrection from the dead, and there is alleviation of suffering.  But the kingdom of God is not completely here yet (Jesus said it is "at hand" or very close).  Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again.  People who were healed by Jesus from their various diseases eventually died when their bodies could sustain life no more.  Healing is not complete until the kingdom of God is fully realized. So here we live in the now and not yet. We are moving from brokenness to wholeness, and sometimes we see outbursts of divine intervention (like the lepers that Jesus healed); at other times there is an invitation to walk with Jesus in suffering (like the martyrdom of John the Baptist and the many martyrs after him). We are not to be like the crowds who followed Jesus, clamouring for bread, fishes, and miracles. While Jesus generously lavished these divine gifts on those who were hungry and in need (he had much compassion for the broken and hungry), he also knew that many of these "followers" did not have staying power.  When things got tough, the crowds thinned considerably. Even his disciples were not prepared for the lack of divine intervention when Jesus was captured and tortured.  Disillusionment and disappointment and even desertion are not uncommon for those of us who think that Jesus is our ticket out of suffering. There is much more to Jesus than miracles which make us temporarily more comfortable.

Yes, followers of Jesus heal the sick and cast out demons, but we are also called on to suffer courageously and lay down our lives for the sake of others.  I am embarrassed that we are so ready to claim healing and resurrection from Jesus and are not willing to suffer and die with him. I am embarrassed that we turn healing into a show, a system, or a power trip. I am embarrassed with how little we identify with the sick and poor and suffering. I am also embarrassed that we don't have more hope for God to perform grand miracles. I am embarrassed that I don't ask God to heal the sick and hurting that I come across daily. However, I am confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God. I am confident that God is calling us to wholeness in every area of our lives through partaking in the body and blood of Jesus and by identifying with his life, death, and resurrection. I am confident that God deeply and constantly loves us, has compassion on us, sees all our suffering and pain, knows our weaknesses, and walks with us in all our disappointments and hardships. This is the God who knows suffering, who does not turn a blind eye to it, who not only lived through it but overcame it. And through him, we also overcome. So let us not give up praying for the sick and hurting. Let us ask Jesus to come near to them, to touch them with his compassionate, healing touch, and to let them know that he is present and able to help them.

Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this?
The servant grew up before God - a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried -
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him - our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.   - Isaiah 53, The Message

2 comments:

Shelley said...

Me too. I cringe and whither and hesitate too.

And I agree whole-heartedly. It's already and not yet; both/and. I don't understand it either, but I have seen His power and presence more in His comfort, transformation, redemption and beauty for ashes exchange in our suffering, than I have in miraculous physical healing. Not only there, but just more often.

Anonymous said...

Well said! I couldn't agree more. In this post you are basically challenging Kingdom Theology, although you have not fully problematized it. It's so
American to believe that a few mumbles moans and waves will bring
wholeness. In my opinion the Vineyard confuses feeling and group psychology with God's actual presence. God is. God's presence is. But that might not have anything to do with our feelings.

It seems to me that what we are offered in Christ is not a relationship with the divine. What we are offered is a difficult path, the promise of
the kingdom. Our duty, our cross, is to die with Christ before the kingdom comes. Our duty is to try to incarnate the hope and love of Christ, because he can not operate in this world. This is not the path of the generous, but that of the selfless. Instead of justice it seeks sacrifice. Instead of health and wholeness, it requires the cross and self denial. Instead of governance and law it demands love and forgiveness. Instead of institutionalism it offers freedom. Instead of status
and riches it celebrates the lowly & poor. The Christian path is pretty much the complete inverse of the middle-class evangelical wet dream. It's the promise of God without the spoils of the Kingdom or the spoils of this world.

I have a different answer to your "why?". The purpose of associating the presence of God with the human feelings that come from ritual prayer is dubious: the purpose is to confuse the will of the group (or group leader) with the will of God. God's will in principle is well established; His will in the specific can be almost unknowable. It is by such association that Christianity has become inverted and twisted to serve the purposes of the kingdoms of this world.