One particular proclamation of the Christian gospel which is made in many places is that it is God’s will to heal the sicknesses of those who follow in the Christian path. The example of Jesus in his earthly ministry will be pointed to as well as the words recorded in St John, ‘greater things than these will you do’. There are also the instructions of Jesus which occur in Mark’s gospel in chapter 16. Although these words do not occur in most of the original manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, it is clear that the early Christian church took seriously the command that healing was to be a continuing and important aspect of the church’s life.
Throughout the 2000 years or so there has always been a somewhat ambivalent relation with healing in the Church. Some Christians claim that healing continues to be part of the church’s ministry while others take a different line. They justify the fact that healing, if it happens at all, is a very rare unusual occurrence. This reticence about healing is expressed in a doctrine called ‘cessationism’. This, in brief, states that although miracles happened in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, this is no longer the case. Miracles belonged to that early period in order to get things going, but once it was established, it is no longer needed for later generations.
In some evangelical circles Christians are invited to take a stand and declare whether they are on the side of the cessationists or those who oppose them. This debate is a bit like the one that goes on between charismatic-evangelicals and non-charismatic evangelicals or between Arminians and Calvinists. From the outside, which is where I stand, I can see positives on both sides in all these debates and thus I would refuse to place myself on either side of these positions. In the case of the cessationists and those who oppose them, my position would be to say that both are right and yet both are wrong.
To explain what I mean by such a paradoxical statement I want to look at the arguments of the cessationists. They would claim that healings in the name of Christ belong only to the years of the early church. For myself I would argue that they are wrong in their assumption that healings do not happen today and have not taken place across the ages. I have in my possession a two volume book which relates the accounts of the miracles that took place at the tomb of Thomas Becket soon after his death in 1170 at Canterbury. The accounts of miracles and healing were written down at the time and were carefully recorded by monks who were chosen for their accuracy and probity. The details of these miracles is remarkable. If miracles of healing happened then, why should we doubt the miracles at Lourdes or many other places today? The issue of how the mechanics of these healings works is one that we must leave to one side for now. The cessationists are however right in some of their claims. In particular they are right to be suspicious of the instant miracles that are manufactured to order by big named healing evangelists across the world. There are just too many stories of fakery and dishonesty in this world. The cessationists can thus be forgiven in part for being cynical about any reported healing in Christian context. The truth within this debate lies, I believe, in a process of exercising careful discernment. Neither side seems to be very good at this. The one side, I shall call them the enthusiasts, seems to be guilty of exaggerating the occurrence of healing, while the other side, the cessationists, is guilty of downplaying it. Christian healing happens, but not with the regularity or tidiness that the enthusiasts would claim for it.
It is in this world of debate between those I call cessationists and enthusiasts, that a dark side of healing emerges. It is a memory that comes from Chris’ time at Bible College in the 60s that has reminded me how the enthusiasts’ arguments can result in enormous amounts of suffering for the sick. We have, over the blog posts, looked at the issue of poverty in the context of Health and Wealth teaching. Poverty is, according to this teaching, caused by not exercising sufficient faith. The poor may have not given enough to the church to harvest the material riches that God wishes them to have. The same thing will apply to sickness. If anyone is sick then that is a result of failing to exercise faith. Chris told me over the phone how the practical outworking of this teaching meant that fellow students tried to ignore, not just coughs and colds, but quite serious illnesses. In one case a student nearly died in the attempt to exercise ‘faith’ and deny the possibility of sickness. The dark side of a culture that exaggerates healing, is the dangerous inability to deal with sickness and physical or mental weakness of any kind.
No doubt we will be returning to this theme again. But this blog post simply wants to draw attention to a style of teaching that once again puts disadvantaged people into a place of despair because their poverty or sickness ‘proves’ that they are failures in the sight of God. The Christianity of Health and Wealth teaching succeeds in pushing already disadvantaged individuals further into a pit where they feel abandoned by God and unworthy of his attention and support. What a hideous contrast with the message of the actual Jesus of the gospels who said: ‘Come unto me, all you who are burdened with heavy loads.’