Healing Christian Healing

Moving beyond the cheap hope of miracle cures to a more honest—and more biblical—understanding of Christian healing

by Katherine Willis Pershey

Illustration of Matthew 9:18-22

Terri Scott

When I hear the word healing, I think of it in medical terms. I think of doctors who diagnose sickness, treat injuries, research diseases, and work to prevent the onset of pain and illness. I think of state-of-the-art cardiac units and Doctors Without Borders. I think of amoxicillin (despite the fact that it gives me hives).

When I hear the phrase Christian healing, however, my mind switches channels to the worst of what religious broadcasting has to offer. A lot of hucksters out there dangle the promise of miraculous cures to those who would just summon the faith to buy them. There is never a lack of suffering in this world, and with the right balance of illusion and charisma, con artists can make big bucks by exploiting it.

Likewise, I fret about the theologies that have inculcated in believers a distrust of traditional medicine. As much as I want to tolerate—or better yet, honor—different faith traditions, I am always saddened by stories of people refusing basic health care interventions because they believe their sicknesses are part of “God’s plan”—that God, not the physician, should be the one to determine whether or not they will be made well.

Healing as a practice of the Christian faith—well, it needs to be healed.

At the heart of the Christian story is this conviction: God wants us to be whole. God wants us to be restored, redeemed, reborn into the fullness of who we were created to be.

God wants this for each of us, and God wants this for all of us, for all of creation. We know this for the same reason we know who God is: because God’s Son, Jesus Christ, revealed it through his life and ministry.

Jesus was a preacher, a teacher, and a healer. Jesus challenged demons to flee and commanded wounds to close. He empowered the eyes of blind men to open and leprous skin to be restored. Though Jesus’ reputation as a healer was like a magnet for the suffering people of Galilee, he resisted easy fame. Jesus had a God-given authority to heal through words and touch, and for a very important reason.

Over the years I’ve heard several preachers declare that Jesus healed for the same reason he shared parables with the people: he was showing the nature of God’s kingdom. Just as the kingdom of heaven is like the smallest seed that grows into the largest tree, so is the kingdom of heaven like a woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.

The woman’s affliction (Luke 8:42–48) affected much more than her body; her culture had strict guidelines for cleanliness, and a bleeding woman was considered unclean. She could not participate in the religious life of her community. What’s more, anyone who came into contact with her would also be considered ritually unclean. She had been living in the margins for 12 years. Barred from religious expression, denied any human touch, and always on the brink of death, the chronic hemorrhage had metaphorically—and almost literally—drained the life of out of the woman.

And then she was caught in a radical act: her hand reached out, clutching the edge of Jesus’ garment. Her bold move posed a threat to Jesus. Because he had been touched by an untouchable, the very Son of God could be labeled unclean. But the healing power flowed from him to her, and the woman’s life was saved. Her body and her role in the community were restored. Through her faith, Jesus healed her. The blood that had flowed from her body for 12 years slowed and stopped, freeing her from a life of physical and social anemia.

It bears repeating: the kingdom of heaven is like a woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.

Perhaps, then, the kingdom of heaven is also like a psychiatrist who helps a patient find the right combination of antidepressant medication.

When theologians talk about the kingdom of God, they often lament that it is “already but not yet.” Through his life and ministry, Jesus planted seeds of God’s reign and expected his followers to nurture those seeds. We see glimpses of the kingdom of God in the Scriptures, as Jesus moved among the people. We see glimpses of the kingdom of God when faithful disciples embody the compassionate wisdom of Christ. And we see glimpses of the kingdom when we discern God’s work in the world. Already, but not yet.

The promise of the gospel is that we will be healed: body, mind, and spirit. The human community will be made whole. Suffering will cease, and sins will be wiped away. Creation will be restored to a realm of justice and beauty. This is the great work that God began through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. And in the fullness of time, this vision of shalom will be a reality.

As Christian people endeavoring to live a way of life shaped by our Savior, we have work to do. We are called to participate in the unfolding of God’s great plan. We are called to be healers, even as we are still wounded by loss and pain ourselves.

The practice of Christian healing is not about magic, and it is certainly not about trickery. Not every disease can be cured. Not every life can be preserved. Healing is never about cultivating false hope.

One of the most humble healers I’ve ever encountered was a pediatrician at a local hospital whose specialty was hospice care for children. Every young patient he treated had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He never saved a single life. His job was to find ways to alleviate his patients’ physical pain. It was grueling work that could easily scour away all hope. Yet even in a context where physical cures were out of the question, healing happened.

Healing moments take place every day, in ordinary and extraordinary ways. As John Koenig says in the book Practicing our Faith: A Way of Life for Searching People, “When we embody God’s healing presence to others through touch, concern, or liturgy, we take part in God’s activity of healing the world.” Sharing a plate of cookies with a grieving family. Listening to a stranger in crisis. Comforting a feverish grandchild. Praying for a friend fighting cancer. This is all holy work, healing work. And these healing ministries, woven with the power of the Holy Spirit, invite the kingdom of heaven to take root even in the soil of creation.

Mere moments after his encounter with the hemorrhaging woman, Jesus was pulled into another moment that cried out for healing; the daughter of a synagogue leader had died before Jesus could intervene (Luke 8:49–56). Yet when Jesus arrived, clearly too late but still inexplicably offering healing, the mourners gathered around the dead girl’s house laughed. They laughed at Jesus. I can only think of one other time in the gospels when Jesus was so blatantly mocked—when he himself was on the edge of death, when his own body and spirit seemed a million miles from wholeness. And yet the wounds of the cross were healed. Jesus was made whole again, restored, resurrected into new life.

Our God is a lover of life. God will transform every tear of grief into a tear of joy. God will forge a new beginning out of every ending. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we will be redeemed, we will be saved, we will be healed. In the meantime, we hope and pray and work for God’s gracious will to be done on earth as it is in the kingdom of heaven.

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