Isaiah 53:3-6 James 5:13-18
1. The Controversy
Today I want to touch on an issue of great controversy. For most of this century there has come to the fore a debate over “Divine Healing.”
There are those in the church that have said that all the miracles ended with the death of the last apostle. Miracles of healing do not take place anymore. Healing comes through a combination of good nutrition, healthy exercise, the skill of the medical community and positive thinking. In the ancient world where all doctors were witch doctors, the words from the book of James to the early church were: “Is any sick among you, Let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him.” But in the modern world the words can now read “Is any sick among you, let him call for the doctor and let her give you a prescription.” That is one position.
Of course, there are other voices who take the contrary view. They say, God has not changed. He did miracles of healing in the Old Testament. He did them throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, He did them in the time of the apostles, why on earth then would we think that God does not do them now as he has always done. God has not changed. Divine Healing still takes place today.
To that debate there have been added even stronger voices, that not only affirm that healing takes place today, but have gone further and insisted that Divine healing is not only possible, but that Divine healing should be the norm. No Christian need suffer from disease or illness. God is willing to grant healing directly, to those that have faith. Of course, that position has heated up the debate to furious intensity.
In this controversy Biblical texts have been extricated from the Bible to use in the arguments against one another. Some focus on the passages that connected our healing with the death of Jesus, and used the phrase “Healing is in the atonement” and thereby inferred that not only are all of our sins forgiven through his death, but all of our illness were healed too, and we will receive forgiveness and we will receive healing, if we only have enough faith.
Those on the other side of the debate have focused on the Biblical passages that reminded us that God can say “no” to our prayers for healing. And Paul’s thorn in the flesh, Timothy’s frequent illness which needed wine and not water for his relief, the sickness of Trophimus, the friend of Paul and Elisha’s death by illness, are all quoted in evidence that God does not heal all.
I must confess that I feel fairly uncomfortable with any of these positions. If you argue for one side of this teeter totter of debate, I will take the other side. If you take the other side, I will move to the opposite position. For the truth always lies half way between the two extremes.
This may be unwise of me, but let me reveal what I think is the position that best expresses the truth of the matter.
1. God is God and can do whatever He wills.
2. There are times when God heals people miraculously.
3. Most of the time people find healing through what we call “natural means”, through the use of medicines, through a change of lifestyle and through the skills of science and medicine. Of course, all of these are the gifts of God to the human race too.
4. There are times when God chooses not to intervene in the healing of a person, by any means, whether natural or supernatural.
5. We cannot discern the reasons why God chooses different outcomes for different people. There is no pattern which says, if you are deeply spiritual you will get healed, but if you are a barbarian you don’t have a prayer. We just do not know why one person finds relief and another doesn’t. We will just have to live with the mystery of His ways.
But after saying all of that can I enter a bit deeper into the debate. I do have some moments of anxiety about the issue of Divine healing.
2. Our Culture’s preoccupation with healing.
We are all aware that there is a preoccupation with health in our culture. We spend a major part of our national wealth on health care. We spend enormous amounts insuring ourselves against the high cost of ill health. We spend billions on vitamins and supplements and health enhancing exercise equipment, making sure that we eat the right cereals, and the right fat free products. And all of that is fine. It makes sense to stay healthy. But here is the problem. Very rarely is there any similar attempt to ensure the health of the mind and of the spirit. Very little is spent to ensure the health of human relationships. Very little is invested in spiritual health.
The body is the focus of our contemporary culture. Health for the body at all costs. And then we add a few billion more to make the body not only healthy but beautiful. We try to procure the most efficient shaving cream, shampoo, deodorant, cosmetics, and then buy the right clothes and jewelry that will add to our physical attractiveness. And pretty soon we are healthy and beautiful, at least in our bodies.
But we are more than bodies. We have minds. We are spiritual beings. We live in relationships. To have our bodies healed, but to leave our minds ill, to be sick in spirit, to live out our lives in fractured relationships, is to be ill at the center of our lives. And much of the illnesses of our bodies is due to the deeper illness within. Science has been telling us that for decades. Much of what happens in our bodies is due in part to what happens in our spirits. We have heard the words spoken in anger “You make me sick.” It’s true. We know that worry and anxiety can chew on the digestive system and cause illness. We know that anger can increase blood pressure and stress can take its toll on our bodies. We know that feelings of guilt can wreak havoc in our health.
Internal unhealthiness can poison the body. And so, to cure the body and not the spirit would be a very hollow victory. If much of our illness is caused at the psychological and spiritual levels, we will need to be healed there first if any degree of physical wholeness is to be maintained. Jeremiah the prophet (6:14 / 8:11) complained about the leaders of Israel in reference to the wholeness of his people. He says it twice, “They have healed the hurt of my people only slightly.” They have not gone far enough. The healing has been superficial.
God wants to heal from the center to the periphery of our lives, and not simply let us settle alone for a health on the outside.
3. Is Healing in the atonement?
But back to the great question that has been raised, “Is healing in the atonement.” Does the death of Jesus Christ affect our health? There are two passages of the scriptures that leave that impression.
Listen to the words of St. Peter (I Peter 2:24)
“When Jesus was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the one who judges with justice. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds we have been healed.”
It is obvious that the last words are taken from the prophet Isaiah’s words about the Suffering Servant of God.
“Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases….
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
bruised for our iniquities,
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his stripes we are healed.”
What Jesus did on the cross that day broke the back of illness and human suffering as it did human death and human evil. That does not mean that sin and death, suffering and illness have been eradicated from the face of the earth. Obviously not. But it does mean that the antidote was released into the world.
Then how does his suffering & death help us in our suffering.
1. First it tells us that God has suffered along with us.
Injury and illness have always been shared by God. The cross tells us that God has never stood aloof from our hurt. Richard Jefferies in his novel Bevis writes about a young boy who in perusing a book came upon a picture of the crucifixion, “The picture of the crucifixion hurt his feelings very much; the cruel nails, the unfeeling spear: he looked at the picture a long time, and then turned over the page saying, ‘If God had been there, He would not have let them do it’.”
But God was there, in Christ, at that very moment. God had always been there, feeling along with us the slings of outrageous fortune. When we are ill, it is not a sign of God’s absence, but the promise of His presence.
2. His suffering helps put our own sufferings in focus.
He suffered and died. But out of that experience great good came for all humanity. His suffering brought great value into life. And our suffering need not be seen as absolutely meaningless either. Our own suffering may also end up being helpful in our own lives and that of others.
Listen to Wordsworth the poet: He writes
“How strange that all
the terrors, pains and early miseries,
regrets, vexations… interfused
within my mind, should ever have borne a part,
indeed a needful part, in making up
the calm existence that is mine….”
Wordsworth became aware, like the Apostle Paul, that suffering and illness can we used by God to make us more whole. Strange conundrum! But illness can be the means to a healthier end.
3. Sin & Sickness are connected
But that is not the whole answer to the question, how does his suffering help me in mine? There is another response. There is, all the way through scripture, a very close connection between sin and suffering.
Before Jesus came the theology of the nation of Israel had always insisted that “Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.” Therefore, if you are suffering it must be the judgement of God. They felt that when a person does something bad, God zaps them with a mini version of the Egyptian plagues. Suffering was seen then as the punishment sent by God.
But Jesus began to change that. During his ministry they came upon a man who had been blind from birth. The super-orthodox disciples ask the question, “Teacher, who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “neither this man nor his parents, but since he was born blind, let the mighty works of God now be revealed in him.”
But the feeling was that God brings judgement down on those who sin, in the form of illness or tough circumstances. The New Testament answers that question quite differently. Our sins bring their own hurt into our lives. Our anger does its own kind of damage. Our fear brings its own paralysis. Our grief wears down the health of our bodies. Our own selfishness damages our relationships. And the Bible may want us to examine our hearts and the way we live our lives if our bodies remain sick. That is not to add guilt on top of grief or add insult to injury, but to probe beyond the physical illness to see if its roots might go deeper. Why do I say this? Look at the tendency of the scriptures.
When Solomon is praying God says to him, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will Forgive their sins and heals their land.” Forgiveness first, which will then lead to the healing of a nation.” (II Chronicles 7:14.)
In Psalm 103:3 the psalmist sings that God “Forgives all our iniquities, heals all our diseases.” He desires to forgive the wrongness of our lives, and healing will also result.
When Jesus is teaching in a house, a man who is paralyzed is lowered down by his friends for Jesus to heal him. Jesus first words are “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And then later he is healed of his illness. There may be a connection between the inner and the outer.
The most crucial passage that deals with healing in the New Testament is a passage found in the book of James. To the early church he offers this counsel:
“Are any among you suffering, let them pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call the elders of the church, and have them pray, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed, for the prayers of righteous people are powerful and effective.”
But did you notice the intertwining of taking sin as well as health with utmost seriousness.
Does the death of Christ bring healing? Oh yes. Healing from the terrible things that cause us hurt and injury to one another. Healing for the internal fracturing that takes place. Healing for the attitudes that chew up our lives, rob us of peace. God wants to bring healing to the nations. Healing to our families. Healing to our relationships, and healing to our lives.
So what do we do when illness comes? We are not masochists who take delight in suffering. We should take steps for its removal. See the doctor. Take the medicine. Eat right. Live right. Ask for prayer from those who take prayer seriously. Illness is not the preference of God for us. The life of Jesus gives evidence for that. He went about and brought healing to the hurting.
But when the medicines do not work, and the prayer does not seem effective, commit the whole matter to God with prayer, and pray something like this: “O lord, do not let me waste this difficult time in my life. If health doesn’t come, let your grace come instead. Let some good come out of this. If healing does not come for my body, then please bring it to my spirit.” For this we know about God, The Christ who transformed the cross can transform our hurt so that it does not bring us harm, but brings us healing at the deeper levels of our life.
Can God use the illness of our bodies to accomplish that end? Oh yes! Can God use our suffering to bring wholeness into life? Oh yes, as he brought great good out of the great evil of the suffering and crucifixion of His Son.
As the Kingdom of God grows in the world, the toe hold of evil is weakened. And what does not get resolved in time, will be fully resolved in heaven where the healing of the nations will be complete.
But the death of Christ released into the world an entirely new understanding of the purpose of our lives.
If God loves us that much, then surely we can become workers together with him for the healing of the world.
If he cares that much about us, why not listen to his instructions on how to live life better.
If Jesus cares that much for us, then it is right to care for one another. If he would give his life for our healing, let us give ourselves to the binding up that which is broken in our world.
For there flowed from the cross, a community that began to bring healing to the hurt, healing to the sickness that came from the distrust of God. There came a resurgence in concern for the well being of all persons, with widows and orphans being given special care, with the homeless and the hungry being looked after. With the impetus of the Love of God expressed in the Cross, the followers of Jesus went out to create hospices and hospitals and clinics. And just as the church of Jesus was at the forefront of the move to educate the mind, and to free the slaves, and to bring a new dignity to marriage and family and childhood, so from the cross, through the servants of God, there came an impetus to bring healing to the world.
Hymn #405 “My Faith has found a resting Place.”