Reflections on non-healing
Chris and Peter are two members of our congregation who have had long journeys with illness. I have asked them to reflect on a number of questions about non-healing and their answers are below. Peter commented that ‘I think a lot of what works for Chris works for me too, although there are some stark differences too.’
The purpose of sharing these reflections is not to draw attention to Chris and Peter but to provide insight to personal experiences, which I think will be helpful for us and for our interactions with others.
(Note: We have had some healings in our church recently and there is another article that reflects on how we might respond to them)
What are some of the things you have discovered in journeying with God through long periods of illness/suffering?
What have you wrestled with?
What has been comforting?
The journey of physical suffering for a lengthy period has profoundly affected my life. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. I cannot conceive now of what it would be like to be healed. I simply can’t imagine what that would be like now, on all of those fronts I‘ve just mentioned. I’ve had to adjust my living circumstances to accommodate accordingly in order to survive, and for a long time (10+ years).
I find it a sadness that people I meet now and become friends with only know me as the person with the disability – they never knew me as the capable and well-functioning person that I “was.” That they see me through the lens of disability. That’s all they know me as. I am whole on the inside.
I have found it an embarrassment that friends have to adjust their lives to accommodate our friendship – eg., social events have to be on my terms for timing, not theirs. I know that some people find this taxing as they have told me so. Guilt adds to my shame because their lives are affected by my disability. Sometimes I feel angry and want to sarcastically remark on how hard that must be that their lives are so affected but I also understand that that is only human nature. We are all basically self-interested. Only really good friends stick around – the fair-weather ones tend to drift away.
Only a few people can really handle the depth of despair one can feel and express to them (past tense – I don’t do this now). Many Christians just don’t know how to handle difficult stuff in people’s lives – Pollyannas. This would be true for all of society, and Christians are just a subset of the general population. Some basic training in empathy could be an idea to run… Ashburton Baptist did this as did my old church way back.
The main things I’ve discovered are to (i) be non-judgemental, (ii) be unattached - especially to a particular outcome, (iii) accept reality, and (iv) don’t expect much. It is truly said that the biggest source of disappointment is expectation. I used to struggle with ‘why’ questions. I now believe that God is partly knowable and partly unknowable. And I refuse to make up stuff. It is what it is.
While I can see value in talking with God about my physical condition, I can’t see a lot of value in prayer for my physical healing. I’ve been disabled for nearly 40 years. I’ve been to more healing sessions than I can remember. I have no doubt that God could heal me if God wanted to, but I have far more evidence to suggest that God does not want to heal me than I have that he does. Prayer, then, is about the person I am becoming; that is, my character, rather than my physical state.
And that’s OK. There is no obligation for God to heal me. Why should he? He never promised to heal me. If I ever get angry at God for not healing, it’s me that has the problem, not God. Indeed, the amount of anger I feel is a measure of how much further I need to grow. This might sound somewhat admirable. It is not. I’ve learned, over many years, that anger hurts only me and is, at least in my case, a forlorn attempt to enlist someone (including God) to rescue me. In the long run, resistance of reality is very self-destructive.
One of the consequences of my non-healing is that I have had to wrestle with my image of God. The men who wrote the books of the bible have portrayed God variously with regard to healing. At one extreme, God is described as healing all the diseases (Ps 103:3) of everyone (Luke 6:19). At the neutral point, God did not heal Paul of his affliction (2 Cor 12: 7-9). At the other extreme, God is portrayed as conspiring with Satan to bring about Job’s ill-health (Job 2:6) and even sanctioning physical harm upon infants (Ps 137:9).
Hence, I have problems with people claiming that healing is an expression of God’s goodness as an objective fact (rather than a subjective statement of faith). First, it could, for example, be an expression of God’s righteousness, or even an expression of some character of God we humans have no knowledge of. Second, I do not think that it is theologically sound for us to judge God as being good or otherwise. To do so would effectively elevate me above God. Third, and not inconsistent with the second point, if healing is an expression of God’s goodness, what is ‘not healing’ an expression of??? God’s badness. (And if God is not capable of being ‘bad’, how can we say that he is ‘good’ if he has no choice?) And what will we say of God if healing is partial? Is God ‘partially good?’ And how will we describe God when someone gets healed then loses the healing?’ I fear that such questions will generate a whole lot of well-meaning suggestions about why God does what he does. That is, that people ‘fill in the gaps’ as if they know why God does what he does.
As a long-term un-healed individual I have been forced to choose between becoming bitter and twisted, avoiding the question, or accepting that it is not my place to determine why God does what he does. Largely, I have chosen the latter. That way, I can enjoy others’ healings; and participate in them, and have peace in my state of remaining un-healed. I take comfort in Isaiah 55:8 “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.”
At different times when you have received prayer for healing and not been healed:
What have you found unhelpful?
Unhelpful – Christians giving lame “reasons” to justify why God hasn’t healed (some hidden sin (!), sins of the father (!), pride (!), unbelief (!) – fair dinkum – it’s hard enough to be physically unwell and to then have all this stuff heaped on – basically blaming me for not being OK enough either before God or in my character to deserve healing). Incredibly demeaning. As if I haven’t confessed everything I can possibly think of! And things I probably haven’t done! Hard not to see oneself as “lesser” when people come out with this stuff. Then I used to get angry. Now I just shake my head.
In fact suffering has deepened my faith and relationship with God to an extent that I doubt would have happened if I’d been “well.”
Others’ rationalisation and circular reasoning; presenting God’s position when they can really only guess why healing hasn’t ‘worked’. Giving legs to Chris’ words: One of the most ‘energising’ and unhelpful experiences I’ve had while being at EBC was the statement, made in the context of a small group, that our (Chris and my) lack of healing was the result of sin. The person who made this comment may have had our best interests at heart, but the person had no personal knowledge of the origins of our disabilities, the sins we had committed and confessed, the depths of our yearnings for God’s healing, or the lengths to which we had taken to make ourselves available for healing.
What have you found helpful?
I personally find it helpful to believe that God has an unknowable reason for my non-healing. In His infinite, timeless Wisdom – this is the way it should be for now. I have no doubt that if God wanted to restore me He could and would. That this has not happened yet suggests that there is a deeper purpose – possibly deeper empathy for suffering others, my capacity as a counsellor has deepened through my own suffering to connect with the suffering of others (wounded healer concept), stronger drive to connect with the Divine, to conceptualise life at a much deeper level beyond the material, to trust that all is well anyway. My spiritual life has deepened so much, yet I know that for some their suffering has turned them away from God. I have been graced with a turning toward.
To be non-judgemental, non-attached (to a specific outcome) and non-resistant (to what is). I agree with Chris, that God may have an unknowable reason (in this life-time at least) for my non-healing. Again, in concert with Chris, I have learned and grown in ways that would never have happened had it not been for my disabilities. (And then the tempting arguments start in my head: Now that I’ve learnt my lessons, why do I need to be disabled any longer???)
Outside of praying for you in the midst of illness, what words and actions from the local church/Christians have been helpful and unhelpful?
Helpful responses by “well” church people would include:
Regard for my condition (ie we need to take CC’s condition in to account for x to happen) but not condescension or pity (“lesser person” feel). Just be kindly matter-of-fact, please. E.g.,” let’s get a couch for Chris” would be helpful and not demeaning. Celia is terrific at this stuff.
Offers for continued prayer – not just on special prayer events like last Sunday. Celia has been the only person in EBC who has offered to pray regularly and expressed genuine concern to me that God has not yet healed Peter and me. I think others, understandably, “forget” that we are unwell.
I also like to think that physical unwellness is more obvious, but that there are many in the church with emotional unwellness which is hidden but needs healing just as much as my physical condition. We need to de-stigmatise seeking healing for emotional conditions as much as physical ones.
Ability for Christians to sit like Job’s friends did – in the pain of things but not have to have an answer. Silence when sitting with a person’s pain can be the most eloquent and fitting response and can convey so much empathy and “with-ness.”
Obviously the phrase, “God will…” God may not.
Disregard for diminished physical abilities. I know that I “look well” enough on a Sunday morning. But I have to go home and crash on the couch for about an hour or so to recover. And before I get to church I have to rest up about half an hour in preparation for a service and morning tea (which I don’t want to miss). People don’t see that and think that I’m ok. I’m glad that I’m well enough now to help with the morning tea roster or kids’ church or deeper youth, but to be put on a roster willy-nilly without asking would I be up for that has been unhelpful. I’ve most often just received an email roster with my name on it without consultation with me beforehand. I suspect that a number of people have all sorts of conditions where they may have some diminished capacity for serving but just struggle on anyway.
I think that Chris had it right; people can be helpful by making practical adjustments to accommodate our limitations.
What thoughts have you had about God’s promises of future renewal (at the resurrection) in light of your lived experience? How have you tried to connect the two? Has it been easy/hard, resolved/unresolved?
With regard to the future – can’t wait! So looking forward to a body that will be pain-free – unlimited capacity. My desire for this is probably just an extension of what all other Christians long for. Sometimes I just really want to go Home.
I don’t really have a fix on what God’s ‘promises’ are for a future renewal. And I’m a bit suss about anyone who claims that they know what the next life will be like. I hope that there will be a renewal and that whatever form it takes will be better than the current one. But I’m not so naïve as to think that an existence of any form will not be without it’s challenges.
What impact has your circumstance had on praying for others who are unwell? How have you found it when people around you have been healed (of smaller and/or greater things) and you haven’t? What insights have you gained from processing that?
I have absolutely no problem with praying for others to be made well by God. I fully believe God can intervene in a person’s life if God chooses to and my prayer may help facilitate that. No problem.
I sometimes get wistful when someone in church reports that God healed them from a sprained ankle/cold (ie pretty minor stuff) when its glaringly obvious that a bigger healing would be good here, folks! Those healings would probably happen anyway in the natural timing of things. We’re looking here, ultimately, for “untreatable” stuff to be healed. “Practising” on healing with minor stuff in anticipation for the bigger stuff.
I have no difficulty praying for others who are unwell. I used to do deliverance work, and I regularly pray for and with my clients. I am somewhat bemused that my prayers for others have a much better strike rate than my prayers, or others’ prayers, for me. Again, I cannot predict or explain God. It is what it is.
I think it’s wonderful when people around me are healed, although sometimes I can be a bit cynical when the healing falters and the person revert to their pre-healed state. I think that the mind can do some amazing things and that, at times, the ‘healing’ may not, indeed, be the work of God.
The key insights I get from these situations are ‘it is what it is’ and ‘who are we to know the mind of God?’ We are the clay, not the potter.