Just as I was sitting down to write about the Christian practice of healing—the theme of the eleventh chapter in Practicing Our Faith—I got a call from someone I love, telling me that someone they love is in the midst of a serious health scare. The someone I love is, as a result, clearly frightened.
And suddenly, I realized, I was too. Because as we chatted, I felt my heart sink, crashing into my diaphragm. A lump developed in my throat. I remained outwardly calm, but inwardly, I heard my brain hollering,“Nooooooooooooo!”
By the time the conversation was over, my adrenaline was pumping, so much so that I had to get up and take a little walk. If you’ve ever received word of a scary diagnosis for yourself or for a loved one, you no doubt know the feeling.
“Illness, injury, and psychological distress dog virtually every step of our daily walk through life,” observes John Koenig in his essay on “Healing.” Were truer words ever written?
Maybe it’s my age and stage of life
I seem to be hearing such news more and more frequently. I know of several people who are battling disease or dis-ease of one sort or another. Fortunately, we live in a culture that makes excellent medical care widely available. I’ve visited places in the world where hospitals go days or even weeks, unable to perform life-saving or life-giving surgeries for lack of such basics as clean water, sutures, and bandages. That is an injustice, a global inequity that cries out for change.
Here in our culture, it’s easy to take good health for granted. We have access to plenty of clean water and a wide variety of nutritious foods. When we get a cold we can take over-the-counter medicines to ease our symptoms. When we get an infection, we can take antibiotics to make us well again. Got a crick in your neck? Visit a chiropractor. Sore muscles? Find a massage therapist. Dealing with anxiety or depression? See a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor. As a result, we tend to define healing “as an activity that takes place largely between patients and their physicians or nurses,” Koenig writes.
But, he goes on, “Christians understand the practice of healing as something much larger than this. The central image for us is not cure but wholeness.”
If I ever knew that thought—that my Christian faith points towards wholeness instead of simple cure—I’d forgotten it. But I liked it when I read it in Koenig’s essay. It made sense to me and called to mind a conversation I had with a friend several years ago, at a dinner party. Sometime between the main course and dessert, my friend who, I think, had been doing some reading on eastern religions, asked me, “Do you consider yourself a spiritual being with a physical body? Or a physical being with a spirit?”
I remember having to hide my surprise, because the answer struck me as obvious; it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would ever think otherwise. “I consider myself a spiritual, physical, and emotional being,” I remember saying. “You can’t separate any one out from the others.”
Healing towards wholeness
Koenig concurs, explaining that the Christian idea of healing towards wholeness involves “the whole person—spiritual, physical, and emotional.” It is an idea we can trace to the very beginnings of our faith, because the gospels reveal a Jesus who devoted a large part of his ministry to healing people from physical, spiritual, and emotional ailments.
It’s also an idea that the early Church embraced. “In early Christian communities and for roughly the first three centuries of the church’s life, Christians regarded healing by prayer and the laying on of hands as a normal part of the church’s mission,” Koenig writes.
The Bible spells it out:
“Are any among 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. 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, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14–16)
James is clearly talking about more than just physical healing. And Koenig makes a compelling argument for this kind of prayer, saying that “Particularly in this time of anxiety and distress … the diverse healing ministries of the church need to become a more integrated, more normal, and more public feature of our mission.”
My aching heart—that worries for the one who is loved by my loved one—tells me he’s right. I believe deeply that God uses good doctors and medicines to heal people. But maybe actually looking to God in prayer can provide a kind of healing and wholeness that doctors can’t. And maybe that’s important too.
Practicing My Faith, Part 12 – This post is twelfth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.