Rev. Shane on Prayer (Part IV)
When I was in high school, doing impressions of highly animated faith healers was wonderful sport. I was really pretty good a mimicking their bodily gyrations and odd vocal inflections. I remember watching television as people threw away their crutches, ripped out their hearing aids, sprung from their wheel chairs and testified of miracle cures. When a few of the more visible but unprincipled conduits of healing power got sliced, diced, simmered and fried by the media, it was just all the more funny. Faith healers were cartoons in a cartoon graveyard for me. I believed in God but I did not believe in them.
I observed that more serious prayers for healing were conducted by far less animated and celebrated servants of God but always ended with the phrase, “Your will be done.” That bugged me. It seemed far more a cop out because if God didn’t heal the pray-ee, the pray-er could always invoke the “Will of God” clause and move on without blinking. It seemed this approach was tentative and frankly, I thought expectations were low. I determined right there that if I ever needed someone to pray for me, I was not going to get one of these “Your will be done” guys, I would want someone praying for me who actually believed God could heal me. Keep the cautious deacons and tentative preachers and give me Oral Roberts for heaven’s sake. If Oral wasn’t available, then bring in a child who just heard a Sunday School story about a lame man who went “walking and leaping and praising God” right off the flannel graph. Or one who is planning to go home from church after hearing a sermon on Moses and the Red Sea, raise a stick over the farm pond, fully expects to watch it part before his eyes and has every intention of walking across on dry land and picking up the catfish. Let that kid pray for me.
After high school, our family moved closer to a tradition that believed God healed people most of the time and went at prayers for healing aggressively, rather than passively. Clearly not everyone for whom we prayed got healed but more were healed than with the “escape clause” prayer method. Though I struggled with parts of the theology, I really liked being the arrow and not the target. A problem with this approach was the idea that if healing did not occur, something must be wrong. It could be a lack faith of the person praying, a lack of faith of the person for whom they were praying, sin in the life of almost anyone or the devil. The devil was clearly taller, meaner and more muscular in this tradition than in the one of my earlier years. They needed him big to plug holes.
These days I fall somewhere in the middle of the “if it’s your will” and “cant imagine what went wrong” traditions. I often pray for people to be healed and if you ask me, I will pray for you right on the spot. I am not animated and when I blow people don’t fall down but I clearly have more pop than the “escape clause” crowd. I have seen miracles. I don’t always know how to talk about them without you thinking I am three fries short of a Happy Meal but I do believe.
Back in the roaring B.C.’s people didn’t think like we do at all. That is part of why the Bible healing accounts are so difficult to get our heads around. In ancient Jewish culture physical illness was seen as divine retribution for sinful actions. The world did not run by natural laws that God occasionally suspended to make space for miracles; the rich and healthy were blessed because they were good and the poor and sick were cursed because they were bad. When Jesus healed someone, not only was their disease gone, not only was their life restored but their sins were forgiven as well. To healed was to be saved and to be saved was to be healed. That is why Jesus’ miracles of healing sparked attention of the priests, theological debate from Pharisees and Sadducees and the adulation of the people. For Jesus, physical healing was the proof that he had the power to forgive! We read a healing story and wonder what Jesus saying, “Your sins are forgiven” has to do with it. The reality in the religious atmosphere of ancient Israel was that it had everything to do with it!
For most of us a primary focus of our prayers consists of petitions for physical healing despite the fact that such prayers are theologically problematic at best. Since the spiritual element of healing has largely been disconnected from the physical element of healing in our culture I suspect physical healing would not be a primary feature of Jesus’ ministry if he were to come to earth today. Today we often petition for healing with great physical hopes but without spiritual implication. Praying, “Dear God, please heal my irascible, immoral and unbelieving uncle Ed so he can be pain free in his irascibility, immorality and atheism” is frankly not a prayer that would garner a lot of interest from me if I were God. For Jesus, a physical healing was public evidence of a spiritual awakening to an eternal relationship with God. Healing was a high profile but temporal means to the ends of a more subtle but eternal relationship with God. If prayer is simply a reactive exercise concerned solely with improving physical quality of life and delaying death; we may do as well to advise people to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
Now let’s boldly wade into three healing stories told by Luke. Each has Jesus bringing salvation to situations that were hopeless without him. We have a story of a leper being healed, a paralyzed man being restored and a demon possessed boy being set free. I chose these from Luke’s Gospel because Luke was a doctor who accompanied an ailing Paul on his missionary journeys. Unlike the other Gospel writers, Luke uses Greek medical terms and has a professional as well as a personal interest in Jesus’ ministry of healing. Perhaps because he was trying to understand how God could use Paul to heal so many when God would not heal Paul. Problematic indeed!
Healing Story Number One: Man with Leprosy
Leprosy in the Bible times was a highly stigmatized and misunderstood disease. There were essentially two classifications of leprosy. One was some sort of lesser skin disease and the other was the disfiguring and non-curable variety we call Hanson’s Disease today. The problem was that you initially never knew which kind you had so the worst was assumed unless you could prove otherwise. Those with leprosy had to live outside of the community so they would not infect others. Leper colonies formed and it was standard practice in Jesus’ day that if you approached a leper, the leper was bound by law to shout, “Unclean, unclean.” Though there is nothing scandalous about how one contracts leprosy, the ancients figured people got what they had coming. A person with a horrible disease like the Hanson’s type of leprosy must have committed some reprehensible evil.
Healing Story Number Two: Paralyzed Man
Paralysis most often occurred in ancient times through falls by people in building trades and there were no such things as disability insurance, civil law, workman’s compensation or government assistance to heal soften the blow. If a paralyzed individual did not have pre-existing wealth or family to care for them, they not only lost their ability to make an honest living, they were reduced to beggars. Not only were they incapacitated but people believed they must have committed some nefarious sin to summon such misfortune upon themselves.
Healing Story Number Three: Demon Possessed Boy
Since there was no distinction in ancient Jewish thought between the physical and the spiritual, it should not surprise us that what we generally call mental illness, they exclusively called demon possession. Today we clearly draw distinctions and if the ancients erred on the side of labeling everything demon possession, we err on the side of calling everything mental illness. One thing is for sure, an ancient person who could not function within the norms of society was a feared outcast.
I have set up three healing vignettes. Each features an affliction for which there was no cure, an encounter with Jesus, healing in a physical sense and salvation in a spiritual sense. The incredible thing is that the texts view physical healing and spiritual salvation as one and the same.
There are three questions we must ask at this point in our discussion: 1) Does God care when I or people I know are sick? The answer is, “Yes.” I believe God constantly asks us to always cast the nets of our prayers every further toward the world and the Kingdom but God still loves us. I care about people dying here at Christ Church but I also care when my grandson scrapes his knee. Though your bursitis may not have quite the punch of global Malaria, I believe God cares about you and your concerns even if they are earth shattering only to you. 2) Does God still heal people today? The answer is, “Yes.” Jesus healed people in his ministry and empowered and entrusted the church with the ongoing conduct of his ministry. If God could heal then, God can heal now. I have simply seen too much for anyone to convince me that miracles don’t happen today. 3) Why is everyone not healed? I think there are many possible answers. First, we must realize that everyone is going to die of something. Second, the Bible clearly states that faith is a factor in healing. Third, Jesus didn’t heal everyone in Israel; healing comes at the discretion of God. Fourth, healing must primarily be seen spiritually. The physical parts of every Biblical healing were impressive but temporary; the spiritual aspects were more subtle yet eternal. Though everything in the stories mattered, don’t confuse what mattered most with what mattered least. The healing of a soul trumps the healing of a body every time.
James 5: 14-16 reads, “Are any of you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick and make them well and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results.”
My conclusion? Bring the sick to me and some anointing oil. I am happy to give it a shot. The rest is up to God.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Senior Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois.