What is “healing”?
Doctors tend to emphasize one aspect of healing: physical healing. Counselors and therapists focus on a different aspect: psychosocial and emotional healing. Pastors and pastoral counselors are concerned with the spiritual well-being of individuals and communities – and even, in a kingdom sense, with the healing of the world. Most healing practitioners, as well as most individuals seeking healing, are aware of the overlapping dimensions of healing – that is, that healing is a holistic concept involving body, mind (and emotions) and spirit.
The “New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible” defines healing as “a restoration to health by any of a number of health care options, including but not limited to the body’s capacity to self-heal, prayer and other forms of divine entreaty, and a range of bio-medical interventions.”
Jill Snodgrass, assistant professor in the department of pastoral counseling and spiritual care at Loyola University of Maryland, notes that spiritually integrated caregivers, such as pastoral counselors, identify a clear distinction between “healing” and “cure.” Snodgrass, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ, states, “Being cured entails elimination of disease and related symptoms, while healing occurs when one is restored to wholeness and well-being. An individual may be free from disease, and yet lack true healing, whereas another may experience a restoration to wholeness along with spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being even in the midst of ongoing illness. Healing, along with guiding, sustaining and reconciling, is one of the core functions of spiritual care and pastoral counseling.”
How do “faith” and “healing” come together?
How does faith influence healing? Certainly, there is something mysterious and miraculous about any kind of healing, be that the body’s ability to recover from the common cold virus all the way to metastasized cancer; the mind’s ability to heal from psychological trauma; or the spirit’s ability to move beyond victimization caused by any of the myriad forms of sinful wrongdoing to forgiveness.
The Bible specifically rejects recourse to magic with regard to healing. However, theologically, all healing practices are guided by the recognition that God alone is the source of life and, therefore, the source of renewed health. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is portrayed as a healer. In the New Testament, Jesus is God’s agent of healing. Scripturally, even healing that comes about through the interventions of others is attributed to God.
Different cultures have different understandings of health and sickness because they have different understandings of human wellness and well-being. People in biblical accounts did a better job than we have done, at least until more recently, in thinking of sickness holistically. They included physical disease, of course, but also thought in terms of others’ social environments and even of the larger cosmos.
Jesus, for whom healing was an essential part of ministry, the role of faith in healing was prominent (“Your faith has made you well” in Matthew 9:22, Mark 10:52, Luke 17:19). In addition, Jesus did not ask God to intervene, but assumed the authority to pronounce healing directly. Later, Jesus’ followers would be careful to pronounce healing in Jesus’ name, aware that they themselves did not have the source of divine power.
Snodgrass provides a contemporary expression of the essential role of faith in healing. “Most pastoral counselors view faith as a requisite component of healing,” she says. “This is because healing requires one to make meaning of their experience, and for Christians, that meaning is made through faith and in relationship with God. In addition, decades of research have demonstrated the positive outcomes that can be achieved by incorporating patients’ and clients’ faith and beliefs in the provision of both physical and mental health care.”
What is the role of lament?
The Old Testament provides abundant examples that show that God’s people have a history of turning to lament when they are navigating pain and suffering. The major illustrations are found in the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah and Lamentations. A lament is not merely an expression of grief, pain or frustration, and it is not whining, complaining or moaning about life’s hardships rather than facing them (cathartic as that may be). Heath Thomas, dean of the College of Theology and Ministry and professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Baptist University, points out in his commentary on Habakkuk that lament is properly understood as a prayer to God in a time of distress.
The theological understanding of how lament “works” comes down to the mystery of God. How is it possible, as Thomas asks, to persuade a perfect, unchanging, omnipotent, impassable God to do anything, much less move God to act? In the end, Thomas notes, it is both difficult and speculative to determine the mechanisms of the inner working of God. Scripture simply does not disclose God’s inner life in full. When and how God answers, Thomas says, is on the basis of God’s divine prerogative. That God hears and knows our distresses and our prayers is foundational to our faith. But God is not bound to our requests.
In the end, when people of faith express their pain or suffering through lament, they are, as Habakkuk did (1:2-4), honestly and fearlessly placing their distress at the feet of God and awaiting God’s response.
Some experiences with faith and healing
The mystery of how prayer and faith come together in the pursuit of healing and wholeness is revealed in the experiences of these Presbyterians.
The mystery of prayer. Robert J. Barrett, now serving as pastor of Yachats Community Presbyterian Church in Yachats, Oregon, was ordained to the position of chaplain in the Wesley Medical Center Clinical Pastoral Education program in Wichita, Kansas, and served there for several years.
Barrett lifts up some of the questions associated with the interplay of prayer, faith and healing: “I have always had an awkward relationship with prayer. I’m not certain I believe in it, it simply doesn’t make sense, at least not intercessory prayer, not prayer for healing. The problem for me is: How and why does God decide which prayers to answer? Why answer the prayers of one but not another? Is it the faithfulness of the pray-er? The number of people praying? The faith of the person being prayed for? What do we say to the person whose prayers weren’t answered? What do we say when others are healed?”
He continues: “And yet I pray. I pray because we are commanded to. I pray because that’s my job.”
Once, while working as a chaplain, Barrett received a request from a husband for prayers for his wife, who had been hospitalized for months with sepsis. Barrett had not met the couple before that day. He learned that their background was Baptist and Pentecostal. The husband was requesting “a powerful prayer of healing – total healing.”
Barrett recalls that he prayed “a powerful Bapticostal prayer” and left for the evening. The next morning, while making his rounds, he saw the man and his wife walking in the hall – the woman’s first time out of bed in months. When the woman saw Barrett she began crying, saying her fever had broken and she had slept through the night for the first time in memory. The husband thanked Barrett and asked him where he had learned to pray like that, certain that God had heard his prayer. To this day, Barrett remains at a loss to explain or understand how or why that prayer “worked.”
The eyes of faith. Joshua Andrzejewski serves as chaplain for pediatrics and women’s health at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. Andrzejewski observes: “I’ve come to realize that, while physical restoration may not be possible, healing always is. Healing takes place when the parents of a dying child, who were previously unable to be in the same room, can come together to hold and comfort him in his last moments. Healing takes place when a grieving wife is able to agree to donate her husband’s organs mere moments after he is declared dead. Healing takes place when an 8-year-old says, ‘Cancer is like Goliath, and I’m like David.’”
Faith, Andrzejewski believes, gives us the eyes to see these different types of healing. He comments: “I often encounter situations in which a family is insistent [that] ‘God will heal our child.’ The family will pray fervently, quote passages of Scripture, perhaps even speak in tongues. The medical team, knowing the devastating diagnosis and poor prognosis, worries, ‘What will happen to their faith when this child dies?’ In my experience, families who draw on faith to cope with a child’s illness will draw on that same faith to cope with a child’s death. The flurry of religious activity is a ‘spiritual code.’ Just as the doctors do everything they can think of to resuscitate the child, the family does everything they can think of to care for the child’s spirit. Having done all they can, the family – while devastated – is not left wondering, ‘What if we had prayed more?’”
God is healing. Suzanne Stewart currently serves as clerk of session at Andrew Riverside Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. Though not a “healer” herself, while serving on the session at the former North Como Presbyterian Church (now, after a merger, New Life Presbyterian Church), in Roseville, Minnesota, Stewart listened to what she calls “the best sermon on healing I ever heard.” The sermon, titled “The God of lost causes,” was based on Mark 5:21-43 and preached in 2003 by church member Kate Wolfe-Jenson.
Wolfe-Jenson notes that her reaction to finding out that she would be preaching on the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with a hemorrhage was: “Not a healing story! Don’t make it a healing story!” Part of the reason that Wolfe-Jenson wanted to “run” from healing stories was that she was confined to an electric scooter, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that had progressively gotten worse over the years. In her sermon, Wolfe-Jenson dutifully pointed out the lessons to be learned from these passages: God calls us to move beyond the limitations we think we have; if we are caught up in our own importance, God challenges us to humble ourselves; if we are hiding from uncertainties God call us to get up and accept nourishment. But then Wolfe-Jenson says she had to confront a question: “The people in the stories are healed. ‘Why do I still have MS?’”
Wolfe-Jenson remembers pondering her sermon before she preached it. Pulling into her garage one evening, she turned off the engine and paused in a second of silence. And God spoke to her: “You are healed. That is what I have been doing.” Wolfe-Jenson realized that healing is not something God does. “Healing is something God is – that wonderful, baffling, bright source and advocate of goodness and love – that is the cure. If we live, and move, and have our being in that Source, we are cured. If I focus on creating and recreating a close relationship with God, I am whole. Right here, right now, in this body.”
JUDY THOMSON is an honorably retired member of the Presbytery of the James in Virginia. She served most recently as associate pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Kilmarnock, Virginia. Prior to that, she was a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts.
Presbyterian resources for seeking healing and wholeness
Directory for Worship. The Directory for Worship notes that Presbyterians recognize that healing was an integral part of Jesus’ ministry and that the church has been called to continue that ministry as one part of its concern for the wholeness of people (W-3.5402). Prayer is a primary element of healing/wholeness services because prayer is a time of waiting in faith for God (W-3.5403).
Book of Common Worship. The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship includes several services for wholeness and healing. The “pastoral liturgies” section contains several resources for outreach for those in need of healing. The “ministry with the sick” section is a collection of sentences of Scripture, suggested Scripture readings and prayers. Two “services for wholeness” (one for use with an individual and one for use with a congregation) are included. A “service for repentance and forgiveness” may be used separately or as part of the services of wholeness. Anointing with oil and the laying on of hands – those ancient Christian practices of enacted prayer – may be included in these services.
Hymnals. The Presbyterian hymnals, “Glory to God” and “The Presbyterian Hymnal,” offer ways to approach healing and wholeness through music. “Glory to God” includes 31 hymns under the general heading of “healing”– including “For the Healing of the Nations; “When We Must Bear Persistent Pain” (written in response to Ruth’s Duck’s experience with migraine headaches); “Why Has God Forsaken Me?”; and the classic, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
A “lament and longing for healing” section in “Glory to God” contains another 25 hymns on consecutive pages. These include “We Cannot Measure How You Heal”; “There Is a Balm in Gilead”; and “God Weeps with Us Who Weep and Mourn.”
“The Presbyterian Hymnal” includes five hymns under the heading “healing,” including “We Walk by Faith and Not by Sight” and “O Christ the Healer.”