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Recovering Healing Prayer

by Gordon Dalbey

Gordon Dalbey is pastor of the Seaside Community Church (United Church of Christ) in Torrance, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 9-16, 1982, p. 690. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from dreaded skin diseases are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life and the Good News is preached to the poor. How happy are those who have no doubts about me! [Matt. 11:4-6].

Even after baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist was not convinced that he was the Messiah. When John sent his disciples to ask, Jesus held up his ministry of physical healing as clear and emphatic proof. The ministry of physical healing therefore stands in the center of our Christian faith. And yet though the Gospels are filled with stories of healing, and the church itself is born through an act of healing (Acts 3), most church people seem anxious to dismiss these stories, as though they embarrassed us.

This business of healing bodies through prayer seems to upset us. But why? It is central to Jesus’ ministry, and we claim to be the modern-day body of Christ. Could it be that we do not take Jesus’ healing ministry seriously because we are simply too proud or afraid to enter the unfamiliar territory of the spiritual world, where we feel inexperienced and without control?

To believe in healing prayer, one must first believe that the spiritual world is real, that powers in the spiritual world affect things in the physical world. We believe that the Word of God has become flesh in Jesus Christ, that God reaches to us from the spiritual dimension with power to change our lives in the physical world. We proclaim this in the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

But because the realm of the spirit is at once powerful, largely unknown and beyond our control, it threatens us. Perhaps no frontier has challenged our pride more than physical illness. We can make a space shuttle land on a dime after circling the heavens, but we have no cure for the common cold; the strongest athlete can be struck down by an invisible microbe.

Certainly our rational intellect is a gift from God, intended to help us remove suffering from the world. Scientific medical research is an important avenue by which God’s healing power can enter this world. But it is not the only way. Anyone who has experienced “butterflies in the stomach” before a momentous task knows that there is more to illness and healing than germs and pills. The doctor can set the bone, cut out the tissue, or administer the drug, but only the mysterious life force itself can join cells back together again and restore chemical balance.

Magazine editor Norman Cousins, in his best-selling Anatomy of an Illness, narrates his struggle against the medical establishment and his eventual “self-healing” through a curious mixture of megavitamins and sustained belly laughter. The book’s introduction speaks of “the natural defense mechanisms of the patient, which are the indispensable agents of recovery,” and concludes:

The only trouble with scientific medicine is that it is not scientific enough. Modern medicine will become really scientific only when physicians and their patients have learned to manage the forces of the body and the mind that operate in vis mediatrix naturae.

A theology of healing prayer amplifies this notion in stating that human hands can set, cut and administer -- but only God can heal. When we forget this, medical science becomes a headlong attempt to reinforce our human pride.

But even if God can heal, we must ask, “Does God want to heal?” Most often we reason, “Since God is all-powerful, sickness is God’s will. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that it exists?” Yet a Christian can never say, “Everything that exists is the way God wants it to be.” For Jesus came to us precisely because the world did not exist according to God’s will.

The will of God is clearly described for us in the biblical ideal of the Kingdom of God: peace, justice and mercy -- when the captives are set free, the oppressed liberated, the blind healed, the poor ministered to. Surely this does not describe the world as it exists. Because some people kill others does not mean that it is God’s will; in fact, God has commanded us not to kill. Similarly, because sickness exists does not mean that it is God’s will; in fact, Jesus has commanded his followers “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). God’s will for this world has been set forth in the life of Jesus Christ, and through him God has commissioned us and given us the power to transform the world as it exists into the world God wants it to be.

Once a leper came to Jesus:

He threw himself down and begged, “Sir, if you want to, you can make me clean!” Jesus reached out and touched him. “I do want to,” he answered. “Be clean!” At once the disease left the man [Luke 5:12-13].

J. B. Phillips translates Jesus as saying here, “Of course I want to.” Healing prayer is not an effort to change God’s mind, which has already been revealed to us in Christ. Rather, it is an effort to change our minds, to draw us closer to God and make us more willing to receive what God has already given to us in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Healing prayer also threatens us because we fear losing faith and losing face if it doesn’t “work.” Underneath our misgivings about healing prayer lurks the fearful question. “What if we pray and the person is not healed?” Translation: “We wouldn’t want to find out that, as we have quietly feared, God’s promises are just our fantasy; God does not really care about our needs, and either does not want to heal us or has no power to do so. Better to stay comfortably ignorant and just go through the motions, praying in eloquent generalities, so you can never tell if your prayer is heard or not.”

This fearful reasoning assumes that we have no role in God’s healing process. Episcopalian Agnes Sanford, perhaps the most widely acknowledged authority on healing prayer, notes in the opening chapter of her 1947 classic The Healing Light:

If we try turning on an electric iron and it does not work, we look to the wiring of the iron, the cord, or the house. We do not stand in dismay before the iron and cry, “Oh, electricity, please come into my iron and make it work!” We realize that while the whole world is full of that mysterious power we call electricity, only the amount that flows through the wiring of the iron will make the iron work for us. The same principle is true of the creative energy of God. The whole universe is full of it, but only the amount of it that flows through our own beings will work for us.

For Christians, faith is not simply believing that God exists. That is a fact. Rather, Christian faith is believing that God is good and ultimately powerful, and acting accordingly, even when events are going badly. That is the faith which led Jesus to the cross, and to resurrection. As Sanford continues:

When Thomas Edison had tried some hundreds of times to find a wire that could transmit a continuous flow of electricity, and had failed some hundreds of times, he did not say, “It is not the will of electricity to shine continuously in my wire.” He tried again. He believed that it was in the will, that is, in the nature of electricity to produce this steady light. He concluded, therefore, that there was some adjustment to the laws of electricity that he had not yet made, and he determined to make the adjustment. For more than six thousand times he tried again. And he succeeded in making electricity shine continuously in a wire. That is faith.

Similarly, if our prayer for healing does not work, we must re-examine and reset our procedure yet another time, and try again. It is childish to blame God for every misfortune; we must begin to take responsibility for our part in the cooperative venture of healing through prayer.

God does not will sickness but does allow it -- perhaps because, like any lover, God wants us to respond of our own free will. In this interim age, when the Kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ but not yet fulfilled in the resurrected body for us all, our prayers for healing will not always work. But God’s success increases as we study, practice and persevere with all the tools of our faith: from the Bible and our own experience to the written reflection and experience of others to communities committed to bringing God’s Kingdom to earth.

Medical research itself reflects the agony of living in this interim age. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman has written of one surgeon who, after comparing respective survival rates, decided to stop doing radical mastectomies altogether, in favor of lumpectomy and radiation. “What do you tell the women you performed radical mastectomies on in the past?” Goodman asked the surgeon.

If they hear that I’ve changed and ask, [he replied,] I tell them that I did what I believed was best at the time. . . . What should I do? Go on performing new mastectomies because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the women who have had them?

Goodman sighs:

Life and death can be a matter of timing. . . . If Ted Kennedy Jr., had contracted his form of cancer any earlier, he might well have died of it; if be had contracted it a few years later, they might have excised the bone area instead of amputating the leg. . . . The doctor who elicits trust now isn’t the one prescribing certainty, but the one who acts as a guide through the thicket of difficult scientific information -- forcing and helping us to be partners [Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1980].

Similarly, the minister who elicits trust in healing prayer isn’t the one promising perfect results, but the one who acts as a guide through the thicket of the spiritual world -- urging and helping others to accept their responsibility to work as partners with Jesus Christ, who respectfully and lovingly stands at the door and knocks, but waits for us to open.

The continuing presence of sickness in this world is a sign not that God is uncaring, weak or absent but that we human beings have been unfaithful. Still, failure is not something we need fear as those who have no hope for restoration and renewal. At every Sunday morning worship, we confess that we have missed the mark set for us in Jesus Christ, and we are assured of God’s pardon and power to go back out and try again with renewed strength. To someone who sees sickness as God’s will, this notion of human responsibility is cruel and burdensome; heaping guilt upon suffering. But to those who see God as a loving parent who wants our healing, our responsibility is the avenue of hope. If God is struggling to channel us power to heal, we can work to remove the obstacles in our lives, so that we are moved to act.

Furthermore, the biblical faith says that it is not precisely your own fault if you get sick. Certainly you can choose illness by smoking, eating harmful foods, ignoring stress and the like. But each of us is born into a world in which the powers of sickness and death have been given rein. The name “Adam” in Hebrew means “humanity”; as separation from God, sin and its deadly effects -- including sickness -- always have a community dimension.

For others, resistance to healing prayer may not signal a fear of losing control or face, but a fear of losing prophetic roots in peace and social justice issues. However, the Good News is that in embracing healing prayer, the Christian social activist embraces the fullness of the Kingdom of God. For the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven includes both social justice and physical healing; we are called to “set free the oppressed” and to “heal the blind.” Yet all too often, the body of Christ has become polarized: the social activists shun healing prayer as too ingrown, and those practicing healing prayer shun the activists as too worldly.

The essential connection between prayer and activism can be found in the answer to the question “Does our society value physical healing as God does?” Jesus said that where one’s treasure is, there shall one’s heart be also. Where do we spend our money as a nation? We have proposed in this year’s national budget to spend billions of dollars on weapons and arms to destroy bodies; yet those in need of physical healing go begging for handouts. Have you ever gone into a bowling alley or liquor store and seen on the counter a poster with a picture of a crippled child above a coin slot saying, “Please Give”? What if Jesus had answered John the Baptist’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you see: billions of dollars are being spent on killing and destruction, and the crippled children are begging for dimes at the liquor stores and bowling alleys”?

Of course God wants to heal us. But bodily illness continues to be prevalent because we have not chosen to make healing a priority among us -- not in our national budget any more than in our prayer life. Anyone who has struggled to bring God’s Kingdom into this world knows the bittersweet truth that God wants to heal us more than we want to be healed. Every doctor knows what that means: you can tell your patient to stop smoking, eat less, get more exercise and deal with stress, but all too often the patient just is not willing to pay the price in upsetting an established lifestyle, and chooses instead to continue in self-destructive habits. Similarly, in Jesus Christ, God has spoken the Word of power to bring both social justice and physical healing into this world, but we choose to continue in our habits of injustice, destruction and physical illness -- withdrawing from the fullness of God’s Kingdom -- because we really don’t want to pay the price of uprooting our lifestyle or entering the fearful desert wilderness of the spiritual realm.

And so healing prayer is just as upsetting, risky and prophetic as working for social justice -- because both require us to let go of control and let God reshape us in the divine image. After the church began with an act of physical healing in Acts 3, those who did it were arrested at once by the authorities in Acts 4. The powers of the world are just as threatened by God’s power to heal bodies as by God’s power to establish social justice. Unfortunately, those of us espousing the social gospel have wanted others to be upset by God’s power to establish social justice, but have not allowed ourselves to be upset by God’s power to heal bodies. We have recognized only that portion of the Bible and God’s Kingdom which reinforces our own perspective  -- the very same sin of which we accuse the oppressors of the world.

God’s power to heal bodies shatters our prejudice that healing prayer is only for the more emotional, less intelligent folks; that the Bible stories of healing are merely “symbolic” and “not really true” and that the way the world is (comfortable as it is for us) is God’s will. These prejudices are stumbling blocks to the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth, as inimical and counter to God’s intention as any race, sex or class prejudice.

Healing prayer, in fact, falls properly under the rubric of liberation theology. For the kingdom of God means liberation from the powers o! death, freedom from the powers that squelch life -- whether through war, social injustice or physical illness. Like other facets of liberation theology, healing prayer draws upon faith as process, our own human responsibility to restore God’s rule to this world and the corporate dimension of sin.

The kingdom of God is therefore not a disconnected cluster of events, but an interconnected and interdependent whole. The absence of healing prayer weakens our faith, and thereby weakens our conviction as we Christians work for peace and social justice.

Similarly, our prayers for healed bodies are inhibited by the presence of nuclear warheads and warmaking everywhere, and by all forms of social injustice. A community willfully engaged in sin, in cutting itself off from God by investing in weapons and the power of death, or in rejecting fellow children of God, cannot expect to receive God’s full healing power. Even those who may not participate directly in the sin are deprived, just as a community that severs its water main cannot expect to have water flowing from its faucets -- not even those who disagreed with severing the main.

Years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had a battery-powered tape recorder which amazed and frightened the villagers where I lived. “It’s magic!” they exclaimed upon hearing their own voices mimicked by the “wheel box.” Our Western-scientific reaction is, “Tape recording is not magic; it is something we have developed by applying the laws of the universe properly.” Yet in the spiritual realm, our Western-scientific mind is patently primitive.

We tend to think of healing prayer as mumbo-jumbo. But this response is simply a defensive label meaning, “Keep out! To allow the full implications of this phenomenon into our lives would upset our securely ordered world.” We so-called modern, scientific peoples are as frightened of the spiritual realm as “developing” peoples are of scientific advances. And rightly so, for healing prayer has the same radical potential for upsetting our lives as science has upset their lives.

As one sign of God’s Kingdom, healing through prayer is no more magic than peace and social justice are magic -- and no easier to achieve. Both require the same dedication and commitment against the powers that separate us from God: the powers that Jesus Christ has overcome and which we are in the process of overcoming through the power Christ is giving us even now. God’s Kingdom will grow only insofar as we allow God’s power to work in us and through us both personally and societally. We must learn how to live in this interim age by accepting not only God’s amazing task, but also God’s amazing grace. When we are at last called before God to account for our lives, we will be asked not, “Were you successful?” but rather, “Were you faithful?” -- that is, “Did you do everything you could, given the limitations of yourself and your era, with every gift I entrusted to you?” Let us prepare to answer Yes then, by saying Yes now to healing prayer.


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