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Month: February 2018

When Prayers for Healing do not Seem to Work: Part 1

When Prayers for Healing do not Seem to Work: Part 1

When Prayers for Healing Do Not Seem to Work: A Pauline Perspective

A few years ago we prayed fervently for a beloved colleague that was diagnosed with cancer. Her journey was long, painful, and accompanied by the prayers of her church and work colleagues. Eventually we gathered together at her funeral. Many of us felt sad and deflated that God had not answered our prayers for physical recovery.

Certain New Testament texts give the impression that God heals diseased and broken people based on a criteria involving the quality or the measure of the faith of those who turn to him.

  • In Mark 5 a woman is healed because of her faith while a synagogue leader with a dying daughter is encouraged to have faith.
  • In Mark 9 a father, pleading for his son, states that he has some faith but asks for help to overcome his unbelief.
  • In Mark 6 Jesus’ healing power is limited in Nazareth because of the lack of faith of people in his hometown.

Christians who pray for physical healing and see no positive results may be inclined to blame themselves for deficiencies of faith. Some may attempt to purge, refine, or expand their belief in God’s power to heal in order to reach the threshold required for a miracle.

The story of St. Paul’s struggle with a chronic illness provides a helpful correction to an exaggerated interpretation of the Biblical texts associated with the “name it and claim it” tendency current in some quarters.

St. Paul and the Thorn in the Flesh

God’s power to heal the sick was clearly evident through the apostolic witness of Paul. He makes reference to signs, wonders, and mighty works that accompanied the Christian proclamation (Rom. 15.18-19; 2 Cor. 12.12). It is important to notice that Paul is reticent about describing this aspect of his mission. No descriptions are provided. He prefers to draw attention to the message of the gospel with particular reference to the cross and resurrection. A reading of Romans 1-8 should convince any reader of Paul’s motivation to communicate the content of his message rather than to promote himself as a healer or wonder-worker.

When we turn to the letter called 2 Corinthians, we recognize the context of contested leadership. Paul was challenged by a group of detractors that he called the “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11.5). Taking advantage of Paul’s absence, these critics publicly dismissed him as deficient in speech, unimpressive in personal presence, lacking in “spiritual” experiences, and wanting in demonstrations of power. There is not space to canvas the full nature of Paul’s defence. In this blog I want to draw attention to 2 Corinthians 12.1-10.

Paul begins by speaking of a mystical experience of faith that he had fourteen years previously. He was conducted into the very presence of God around the time of his conversion. His desire not to use the visionary event for personal boasting or prestige is evident in the way he attributes this occurrence to an unidentified man. Paul then shifts the theme by stating that he deliberately chooses to speak of his weaknesses. The thorn in the flesh kept him grounded in humility and seemed to almost accompany the out-of-body experience and has been used to keep him grounded in humility.

There has been robust debate about the metaphorical expression “a thorn in my flesh.” The secondary description “a messenger of Satan” suggests that it was an obstacle and impediment to his missionary vocation. I agree with Ernest Best (1987) that the condition appears to have been chronic and episodic. Audrey Dawson (2008) is a New Testament specialist and a medical doctor. She proposes that Paul suffered from malaria, chronic brucellosis, or epilepsy. During relapses, he was weak and dependent on other people. In social settings that valued honor, Paul could be treated with contempt or scorn (Gal. 4.14).

The description of praying three times for healing and release probably means repeated prayer for a period. I appreciate how Best describes the answer from God. Paul was not told that it was noble to suffer. He was not told that he would discover a silver lining in the dark clouds. He was not told that he should learn to be content with his good days in order to deal with the bad. He was told that God’s grace would give him the resources to deal with the condition and its consequences. Through his illness, Paul would find that God’s power was perfected in weakness.

I agree with Dawson that people afflicted by a chronic illness are profoundly influenced by their pain and the reactions of others around them. The psycho-social impact of the thorn in the flesh has not received the kind of attention it merits. Paul may have developed skills as a writer of letters because the chronic illness restricted his movements at certain times. The misery and embarrassment drew him nearer to the suffering of Jesus (Phil. 3.10). In fact, Paul was convinced that his own sufferings, related to his calling and his health, were a way of completing the suffering of Christ for the church (Col. 1.24; 2 Cor. 4.10). Even though his body could be described as wasting away, he experienced a form of renewal that came from God (2 Cor. 4.16). The triumphant words of Romans 8 would be untested theory if not written by a man who had experienced hardships in his body and his vocation. One wonders if his understanding of the cross was made more profound through the years of living with an unpredictable chronic health condition.

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When prayers for healing do not seem to work: Part 2

When prayers for healing do not seem to work: Part 2

Did God Answer Paul’s Prayers for Healing?

I neither want to say that God did not answer Paul’s prayer nor that he answered “no.” Earlier I wrote about seven dimensions of health that are integral to well-being. I argued that the bio-medical dimension is often given exclusive attention with the result that other components are overlooked.

The seven dimensions are:

  1. Biomedical
  2. Mental health
  3. Supportive relationships
  4. Security of basic needs
  5. Intellectual (freedom of thought)
  6. Harmony with the created order
  7. Spiritual

These seven dimensions work together for personal health or well-being. We may experience healing in one dimension but remain wounded in others. I ask the question: Did God’s grace bring healing to Paul outside of the biomedical dimension?

I ponder if the combination of Paul’s conversion and the chronic illness were used to bringing healing to the apostle. I begin by drawing attention to the fact that, notwithstanding his illness, he was able to travel, evangelize, and work with Christian congregations in the Roman Empire. He was slowed down but not stopped. Those of us that live with chronic illnesses have experienced grace in our bodies although we are never free from the pain and limitations.

The warm references to friends and colleagues in Paul’s letters are evidence that the persecutor of the church had learned to build strong and supportive relationships with a wide variety of people. The arrogance and intolerance of the past were replaced by a genuine tenderness evident in his description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. The intellectual health of Paul is beyond question. Perhaps the enforced periods of “downtime” caused by illness and imprisonment gave Paul the intellectual freedom to enter more deeply into the profound nature of God’s salvation and the ministry of reconciliation.   The insecurity of his mission was more than matched by the security he found in God’s love. “Who shall separate us from the love of God?  … in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom. 8.31-39). Paul’s understanding of salvation extended beyond people to include the creation that will be liberated from its bondage (Rom. 8.18-22). We need to be reminded that by the first century deforestation and exploitation of land had decreased soil fertility in parts of the Mediterranean basin.

Finally, I propose that Paul’s chronic illness led him into deeper experiences of peace with God. Paul wrote about the love of God being poured into our hearts. These words occur in a paragraph that deals with suffering that produces perseverance, character, and hope (Rom. 5.1-5). Please be assured that I am not attempting to place all the weight of this passage on Paul’s health. I am simply stating that many of us who live with chronic illnesses can testify that God has worked through our relapses and discomfort to lead us to a place of deeper peace and trust.

As congregations, we should regularly pray for the healing of members of our community as journey with illness and disease. Paul’s example reminds us that our petitions to the great healer should not be confined to the biomedical dimension of health. The words of 2 Corinthians 12 invite us to consider that God comes to us in grace when our bodies fail. Like Paul, we may discover that his power is made complete in our weakness and dependency on him.

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The Theme of Faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 2

The Theme of Faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 2

Faith is an important theme in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus entered Galilee announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. Listeners were encouraged to repent and believe the good news (1.14-15). I think this statement represents the starting point for faith. It is the conviction that the Creator God has entered the world in a new way through Jesus. The healing stories help us to understand God’s intention to bring wholeness to all areas of life. As we journey with Jesus, we also learn that the healing of the world requires suffering and death on the cross. Additionally, his followers are called to walk in the way of the cross.

Faith precedes healing in several passages (2.1-12; 5.21-43; 7.24-30; 9.14-29; 10.46-52). We can also say that faith is implicit, although not specifically mentioned, in other stories and summary passages. Think of the leper in Mark 1 who breaks the purity code and falls on his knees before Jesus. It is important to observe the extreme need of those who seek Jesus’s healing power and their intuition that he is their only hope. This is exemplified in the account of the woman with a vaginal flow of blood in Mark 5. She has spent all her savings on physicians that offered no help. She is convinced that she will be healed if only she touches his garment.  Jesus stops to listen to her story. He affectionately calls her his daughter. He tells her that her faith has saved her. Here we see that salvation is related to our wholeness in this life and beyond into eternity.

Two other passages merit comment. Jesus returns to his hometown in Mark 6. The villagers denigrate the local boy whose family still lives nearby. Jesus marvels at their unbelief and is unable to do mighty works apart from healing a few sick people. This story suggests that people’s faith gave Jesus a space in which to operate with God’s power. Conversely, the lack of faith placed limits on his mission of healing. I am reminded of a comment attributed to Phil Yancey: “God does not go where he is not wanted.”

In Mark 11, Jesus speaks about faith that can move mountains. This statement, on its own, might be interpreted to mean that miracles are possible provided that there is sufficient faith. The corollary is, of course, that the lack of miracles, including healings, indicates that the threshold of faith has not been achieved. We blame victims for being stuck in their need.

We need to be reminded that Jesus earnestly prayed that the cross would be removed from his vocation. In the garden of Gethsemane, he was strengthened to face death but faith did not give him a “pass.” In alignment with their master, faifIthful disciples will be betrayed by their closest loved ones, face persecutions, endure hardships, and be brought before hostile authorities. Faith does not get us what we might want. Faith brings us into communion with the Father to whom we belong even as we go through periods of suffering and brokenness.

I wish to make two final comments. God responds to people that desperately recognize their need for grace and healing. Too often our congregations have demanded an approved doctrinal statement for inclusion rather than the deep recognition that our lives are broken and wounded apart from God’s healing. Christians, in North America, are often middle class professionals at home in the world of ideas. There are people on the margins who will come to us demonstrating their faith by expressing an urgent need for God. Some of their actions will be as unwelcome as the digging through a roof to bring a friend to Jesus. Will we make room for these people in our fellowships? Will we start where God meets them in their needs and lead them into the deeper faith of being followers?

The story points to the role of friends and family that desire to see the healing and restoration of loved ones. The gospel narrative encourages us to pray faithfully for these people and to find compassionate ways to bring them to the God of grace and new beginnings.

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The theme of faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 1

The theme of faith in Mark’s Account of Jesus and the Paralytic Part 1

The story of the healing of the paralytic offers a rich opportunity to engage in narrative theology. In this piece, I explore the theme of faith. I have written it in two parts for ease of use by readers.

Part 1

The western tradition, to which I belong, values intellectual thought and concepts. Faith is often defined as the content of what one believes. Accordingly, there are basic doctrinal statements about God, Jesus, and the Spirit that are define the orthodox Christian faith. Select passages of scripture are used that support this way of approaching faith. A classic text comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom. 10.9).

The story of the healing of the paralytic requires us to consider faith from another perspective for two reasons. First, the faith that Jesus recognizes is attributed to the four friends of the paralytic. Second, the doctrinal content is vague and ambiguous. These men simply believe that Jesus has the power to heal. We do not meet them in the narrative as disciples that sit at the feet of Jesus.

I am intrigued by how human tragedy and urgent action interrupt a theological conversation. The description of the scribes (the official interpreters of Torah) seated inside the house implies that they have taken an official position. Their intent is to investigate and debate the prophet from Galilee whose teaching has popular authority. Jesus represents a threat to their honor and influence.

The sound of men digging through a thatched roof would have been disconcerting. The sight of a paralytic being precariously lowered on a stretcher must have been riveting. One can imagine how eyes moved between the men on the roof, the paralytic, and the anxious owner of the home.

The description of Jesus seeing the faith of the four men is important. One does not see intellectual beliefs or doctrines unless they are printed on a page. Jesus is a witness to the urgent and desperate actions of four men. They have faith that Jesus can help their paralyzed friend. They know that his announcement of the in breaking of God’s rule has been accompanied by healings and exorcisms. He has restored health, dignity, and freedom to broken and wounded people.

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The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

The Healing of the Paralytic Mark 2.1-12

I want to reflect on the healing of the paralytic in the next few posts. One of the intriguing features of Mark’s narrative is the connection between the forgiveness of sin and the physical restoration of the man that was carried to Jesus by his friends. This passage represents the only time in Mark when Jesus explicitly tells someone that they are forgiven and released of their sins.

The pronouncement of forgiveness is controversial here because Jesus acts with the direct authority that belongs only to God. The scribes in the audience are outraged and harbour accusations of blasphemy. This crime would be punishable by death. In fact, Jesus is accused of blasphemy in the trial that leads to the crucifixion. It is also controversial because there have been no signs of repentance and no indication that sacrifices will be offered by the paralytic in the temple.

I want to make two points here for preachers, Bible study leaders, and lay theologians.

First, even in our modern secular society the burden of guilt can be a destructive force. Unresolved guilt impacts on spiritual, physical, and emotional health along with networks of relationships. The pronouncement of God’s forgiveness gives individuals the opportunity of a new beginning.  In the case of the paralytic, the experience of forgiveness is part of the healing process.

Second, forgiveness can be controversial. We are most comfortable in a world where people get what they deserve (ourselves being the exception). We are uneasy when the church pronounces the unmerited grace of God’s forgiveness to people that have harmed others through violence or deception.  Forgiveness without punishment can seem scandalous.

Perhaps the best route to understanding the controversial nature of forgiveness is through human stories that can serve as representations of the greater miracles of God’s grace.

  • Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964. The trial judge was Percy Yutar. Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He was released in 1990 and was elected president of South Africa in 1994. He invited Yutar to have lunch with him in the president’s office. Mandela stated that he was trying to model the reconciliation that his country needed. Yutar, after the luncheon, described Mandela as a saint. The lunch meeting was severely criticized by people associated with Mandela that wanted some measure of justice rather than forgiveness.
  • In Rwanda, a woman went to a prison to witness the baptism and offer forgiveness to a young man who had killed her husband (an Adventist pastor). She invited him, after his release, to come and live with her and her children so that he could study at an Adventist Secondary School. She was criticized by people that felt she had dishonored the memory of her husband and disrespected the fundamental standards of justice.
  • Malcolm Gladwell wrote that his faith was renewed by Wilma Derksen of Winnipeg. Derksen’s daughter was murdered in 1984. Wilma Derksen drew deeply on her faith and the Mennonite tradition of meeting violence with love. She forgave the man accused of her daughter’s death and was able to experience her own release and healing. Gladwell compared Wilma Derksen with other families that have lived with bitter wounds and the unresolved desire for justice.
  • Anthony Berry, a British MP, was killed in the Brighton Bomb blast of 1984. The man responsible was the IRA master bomb maker Patrick Magee. Jo Berry went to a church to pray when she learned of her father’s death. She realized that she was being called to work for understanding and peace. She made several trips to Northern Ireland and entered the alienation and resentment felt by Irish Catholics. Sixteen years later she met Patrick Magee. They went on to work together to promote peace, understanding, and reconciliation. Jo Berry received death threats and was accused of being a traitor to her nation and the memory of her father.
  • On 17 June 2015 Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, entered a Bible study in an African American church in Charlestown, South Carolina. He took out a gun and killed nine people in a racially motivated crime. The situation, which could have erupted in violent confrontations, was defused by family members that offered forgiveness in their pain. One woman spoke of her deceased sister: ” she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

We live in a broken and wounded world. The road of the cross requires us to be people that proclaim and demonstrate forgiveness for the healing of individuals and our communities.


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