Healing

Below we posted another resource prepared for the retreat of the Polish Episcopal Network which will be held in Lazy near Krakow. We decided to include a prayer for healing with anointing in the program of the retreat, and we think that the topic of healing is so interesting and important that it is worthwhile to devote a moment of reflection to it. A fragment of Grace upon Grace, a splendid book written by our friend from Texas, the Rev. Dr. Gregory S. Neal, is a good point of departure. We would like to remind you also that we recently posted another fragment of this book. You can find it here. Because topics of these excerpts are closely related, we believe it is worth reading the other one as well.

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 — James 5:14

 Evelyn was a dear woman. Every time I visited her it was always a joy to be greeted by her smile, her warm embrace, and her gentle laugh. Of all the elderly shut-ins whom I visited on a regular basis, she was the one whom I always looked forward to seeing. Visiting her wasn’t a chore, nor was it depressing. She always had a happy, positive, expansive outlook on life and the future, and never gave in to the depression, self-pity, or bitterness that would be understandable given her condition.

You see, for many years Evelyn suffered from the painful ravages of cancer. Breast cancer, lung cancer, bone marrow cancer … no sooner had she beaten down the cancer in one area of her body than it would rear its ugly head in another area. Long before I met her, and long before she had become too ill to get out and come to church on a regular basis, Evelyn’s life had become one long, continuous battle with a body which was rebelling against her life. Just about anyone else might have given up long before, but not Evelyn. No, for this powerful woman of faith, each and every day of struggle had become an opportunity for expressing it.

I’ll never forget the day when she went into the hospital for her last intensive round of radical chemotherapy. I knew she was dreading it, but she never let on how afraid she was. In the past the chemotherapy treatments had been harsh; this promised to be the worst yet. Be that as it may, when I saw Evelyn, her eyes were bright and her smile was broad and real. I remember sitting down next to her, taking her hand, and spending a wonderful half-hour just waiting for them to come and give her the treatment. Toward the end of our conversation she got quiet, looked directly at me, and said, “Let’s pray.” And then, rather than waiting for me to begin, she opened her own mouth and began to offer up her words to God. She prayed for her doctors, her nurses, her family, her friends, and for me. She prayed for everyone … everyone but herself.

I couldn’t stand it. I began to cry as she prayed, and as I listened to the deep concern that she had for everyone else, I grew to comprehend the grace that she had been given. It was beautiful; it also gave me a little bit of an insight into how she had managed to hold up under the constant stress and strain of being ill for so long. Rather than obsessing upon her own pain, her own fears, and her own sickness, she focused upon the needs and concerns of others. She didn’t ignore her own condition; rather, she was more concerned with how other people dealt with her condition.

As she fell silent, I began to croak out a prayer for her. I felt so inadequate, but I prayed that Jesus would be with her, touch her, and heal her. I took out a vial of oil, made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and then closed off my prayer for her by thanking God for the powerful grace of Jesus Christ, which God had honored me to see in her. I then gave her a hug and she, smiling up at me, said, “That was beautiful, honey, but Jesus has already healed me. This cancer …it’s annoying, and it hurts, and I’d like to be cured, but I’m already healed.”

With tears flowing, all I could say was, “Praise God.”

Evelyn was cured a few weeks later when Jesus took her home to be with him in heaven. But Evelyn was right; long before she was cured, she had been healed. Long before her physical suffering had come to an end, God had healed her.

It is easy to become caught up in the conditions of life. It is easy to focus upon our illnesses and the immediacy of our pains and discomforts. This is only natural; when I am sick, all I want is to be made well. I can wax long and rhapsodic on the virtues of healing that exist above and beyond the physical manifestations, but when I’m sick I really want to be cured. Indeed, no one can be blamed for wanting to be cured of an illness; no one likes being sick. However, we can be so narrowly focused upon physical curing that we rarely remember that healing is far more than just a physical phenomenon. It includes, but is not limited to, physical curing.

To be healed means to be made whole. It means to be made complete. It means to be made at peace with God, with creation, and with oneself. Healing is the re-establishment of a right relationship with God, a relationship for which we were made and from which we have strayed in our sins and our unwillingness to remain open to the love and presence of God in our lives. As Martin Israel, physician and Episcopal priest, writes in his book Healing as Sacrament:

Healing is not a patchwork repair; it is a re-creation of something that has strayed from the image that God originally conceived.[1]

We were created to live in a relationship with God, and part of our susceptibility to illness follows from our unwillingness to live according to God’s will within this relationship. We think we know what is always right for us, and so we end up abusing our bodies and our minds and our spirits through overwork, overeating, overstressing, and under-maintenance. Part of being made whole is being returned to the relationship that we are called to have with God. This return, this “re-creation” of the image of God in us, does include the curing of physical, emotional, and mental illnesses; but curing is not all that there is to healing. And that is, quite frankly, one of the most difficult aspects of the sacramental means of grace in healing.

“If God promises to heal me, why am I not healed?”

Few questions are more painful to hear, and more difficult to answer, than this one. It is very much like the classic question: “If Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, why isn’t everyone saved?” These two questions are not only similar in terms of being difficult to answer, they are also closely related. Healing and forgiveness are, in many respects, two sides of the same coin.

Ever since the early days of the Church, Christians have looked to the Old Testament to provide them with an interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus. After all, the Jewish concept of the Messiah didn’t include the idea of him suffering and dying. The Messiah was supposed to be victorious over the powers and forces of evil in the world … he wasn’t supposed to be killed by them! Hence, early Christians were faced with a serious dilemma. They were still Jews, and yet they followed a Messiah who had died! How were they going to deal with this serious inconsistency?

They found their answer in the pages of the prophet Isaiah, and specifically in the concept of the “Suffering Servant.” While the Jews didn’t view the Suffering Servant motif as being fulfilled in an individual person, and they certainly didn’t connect this person with the Messiah, Christians found in this concept a key to unlock the theological significance of the suffering and death of Jesus. The passage of critical importance is found in the fifty-third chapter:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.[2]

Christians, down through the centuries, have found in this passage a powerful theological interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus. This interpretation has two important aspects, both of which deal with healing.

Firstly, it says that Jesus was “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities.” In these words we find a direct connection between our sins and Jesus’ sufferings. Christians proclaim that Jesus came to take the sins of the world upon himself and then to end the division between God and humankind by dying in our place. This is known as the doctrine of the “Substitutionary Atonement.” This understanding of the suffering and death of Jesus is never properly spoken of without reflecting upon the love of God, which can be comprehended in our Lord’s death for our sins.

We can’t restore the division that we put between God and ourselves, so God did it by giving up himself for us. In the death of Jesus on the cross we are reminded that God loves us so much that he is willing to stand in our place …and that he actually has faced death for us. All the sins of the world – past, present, and future – were paid for on the cross in that holy moment. Nothing more needs to be done to pay for them, or to break down the wall of separation between us and God. However, just because our sins are paid for doesn’t mean that the gift has been received and applied on our behalf. We have the responsibility of responding to God’s offered grace with faith. Then, and only then, are we saved. And truly, then and only then are we healed.

Functioning from within the context of forgiveness, we find that divine healing is also referenced in the Isaiah passage: “and by his stripes, we are healed.” Our Lord’s “stripes” were the places in his flesh where he was whipped to the point that his blood flowed. Our sicknesses are like his stripes … our life flows out through our illnesses, and the ravages of sickness beat us up. In and through Jesus’ sufferings, he was beaten by life and death for us.

Both salvation and healing come when we accept the gift he offers. And what is healing? Sometimes it is physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual, and sometimes relational. Sometimes we know healing here on Earth, today, and sometimes we must wait for it in glory.

Why isn’t everyone healed, visibly, here on this earth? That is a difficult question, and one for which it is difficult to put forward an answer. Suffice it to say that no one should ever allow anyone to tell them that they’re not cured because they don’t have faith. Few things make me more angry than the guilt-trip that some want to place on those who are not always and immediately cured here on earth! Physical healing may come in this life, but it’s not a lack of faith which causes people to not be cured here and now. The promise, and God’s grace, is still ready and available for any and all to receive; and healing does occur, even if it’s not seen in the physical life. The healing may not be manifested until we enter Glory, or it may be manifested in ways that we least expect – emotional and spiritual rather than physical – but the promise is sure and true and we can depend upon it. We should give thanks to God that the healing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is present to make us whole again. That is the true essence of healing … it’s not just the mending of broken bodies, it’s the “making whole” of lives that have been torn asunder and separated from God.

The Body of Christ is authorized to proclaim healing in Jesus’ name. Just as we have been called by Christ to forgive the sins of any who come seeking forgiveness, so also we are called to offer the healing grace of our Savior to the last, the least, and the lost. We are called to extend the hand of peace and to proclaim the reconciling love of our Savior to the whole world. Even if we fear that there may not be a “cure” to be seen in any given circumstance or instance, we are still called to proclaim healing. Scripture is clear:

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.[3]

The gift of divine healing is seated in the grace of God, active in the community of faith and functioning through prayer. All Christians, who offer their prayers to God, are granted the wonderful privilege of participating in the healing actions of God’s grace. The gift of healing is fundamentally part of the ministry of the Body of Christ, carried forward by all believers and by the leaders of the community. Due to the clear link between healing and forgiveness found in Scripture, we also believe that healing is an extension of the wonderful gift of our Lord’s death on the cross.

When it comes to healing and forgiveness, sometimes we have a problem accepting that God has really given himself for us, and accepts us regardless of what we do. We want to rip the sins off of our Lord and put them again on our own backs; we want to take our illnesses and act as if God can’t or won’t heal us. We deny the gift of forgiveness, and the healing power that the gift brings, and we try to take back the sins and the infirmities that Christ has already died for long ago. This is actually a form of sinning, and is a direct denial of God’s desire to give us his powerful grace. Jesus offers us so much in his grace, and it begins with the healing that comes in forgiveness!

Evelyn knew that she was healed. She knew it long before she entered the hospital for her last chemotherapy treatments. Even though she wasn’t cured, she knew that through the grace of God she had been “made whole.” For her, the reality of having been healed was just as certain as the reality of her salvation. Indeed, as we have seen through the insight that we have gained from Isaiah 53, forgiveness and healing really go hand in hand as a blessing to all of God’s children.


[1] Martin Israel, Healing as Sacrament. (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1984.), p. 8.
[2] Isaiah 53:4-5 KJV
[3] James 5:14-16

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