The dark side of healing

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.’

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

18 thoughts on “The dark side of healing

  1. The incidents that Stephen refers to at my bible school are very important examples of the dark side of healing. The people that nearly lost their lives to the absolute assumption that, “You will be healed” need to be remembered.
    I also give the account of one ‘Student,’ who was repairing the roof of one of the large building that belonged to the college, falling off that roof and breaking his back. He is in a wheelchair for the rest of his life!
    I distinctly remember the prayer meetings for healing that took place in the assembly hall. They would go on for hours and become emotionally out of control.
    I have to think that the healings recorded in the New Testament were just for that dispensation, otherwise, the memories would drive me mad.


  2. Thank you for this post opening up such an important subject about which there is so much to explore. I’m really sorry for the terrible experiences of your fellow students, Chris. On the other hand, I think some parts of the church just like to ignore the subject really because they don’t know what to make of it and are suspicious of this dark side. Therefore a vital part of the gospel is cut off. After all, Jesus is recorded as making healing one of the central facets of his ministry.

    Just a couple of slightly random thoughts. One, I think we should try to avoid making “healing” another word for “miracle”. There is a lot more to consider about healing than that. Two, I can vouch for the importance in my own case of the positive aspect faith in healing can have for suffering individuals. I might not know what it would mean, or how it would happen, but just believing that God wants to help me in my troubles is a source of hope, and that is a factor of healing in itself.

  3. You are right haiku to query any conflation of miracle and healing. I hope however you can see that I do allow healing a place in the church today. It is just that it should not be turned into a money-raising trick, performed to order or made the basis of power controlling technique. I moved from an interest in Christian healing, on which I wrote two books, to an interest in Christian abuse because I could see how easily the one could slip into the other. The theology of health and wealth is pernicious and this is the theology that penalises the poor and sick, as Chris knows very well. Yes I do acknowledge healing in Christian circles but without the manipulative showman aspects which cheapen it and give it a thoroughly bad name for many people.

    1. yes I see that thanks. Actually I’m still at square one because I’m not sure usually what people are talking about when they use the word healing. We tend to have an assumption sometimes that somehow it’s what’s left over when medicine has done it’s best (worst), but I’m not sure I see it that way. What are the books you wrote?

  4. What I was taught, please forgive the sound bite, is that healing is not the same as cure. But we do know of course that “healing prayer” doesn’t always “work”. Just as Jesus didn’t heal absolutely everyone who was sick in Israel in his time. I think I’d pretty much go along with you, Stephen. It happens, but not to order, and perhaps not that often. And also with you, haiku, it’s not always miraculous, or maybe it is, but it comes through skilled and gifted people and takes time. I do think we should pray for it, and have healing prayer offered. Even apparently stodgy churches will often find that people will come for it if offered in the right way. Sometimes after communion, sometimes in a separate service. Discretion is important. We had one incumbent who used to pray in a nice loud voice! Until the quietly tactful Team Vicar turned up with a ghetto blaster and some nice CDs. Chris, during my training, we were told not to be naïve about the effect of prayer on people, just because we were in a religious situation. Never close your eyes, be ready to catch and lower someone to the ground if necessary, have someone behind them. One lady, we were told, had broken her arm when in the grip of “Toronto blessing”. So some people do do this sensibly. You seem to have had such a terrible time. It’s right to try to help those who are suffering the same way. But it is also right to thank God that quite a lot of healing ministry goes on peacefully and lovingly. If not necessarily very showily!

  5. Thanks EA

    For me the whole concept of ‘Christian Healing’ has become a circus. Memories of people like Trevor Dearing, Don Double, and the 70’s travelling circus, where each of those men acted the part of the, ‘ Circus ringmaster,’ who brought on the Testimony performers backed up by hernia of the eardrum chorus’s.
    The vast amount of people leaving the ‘Meeting’ broken by not receiving the healing they so desperately sought.
    I believe there should be (Must be!) a response from the organised church, which secures some framework where these horrors can never happen again in the name of Christ!

    The Slanderous way that the Name of Christ has been used in these mausoleums of delusion seeps into my soul each day, and the active part that I have played merges into a finger pointing parade at me where memories are my judge.
    I see graveyards full of victims and I plead guilty. For those victims; the “Christian’ world will always be their Asylum.



    1. hi Chris

      all of us are or have been complicit in something, and probably always will be, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember what it says in the Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” That means that Christ has set you free from all that.

  6. Thanks haikusinenomine,
    Can’t let myself off the hook, does it not talk somewhere about the “Fruits of repentance”? I haven’t even touched my foot on that road.


    1. Dear Chris,
      I can hear your heart and its sorrow in the words you write and I find myself hurting for you. What Haiku says is so true, there is always forgiveness and if God holds nothing against us, then why would we hold it against ourselves? As for the fruits of repentance – they are plainly evident in your words. If there was no repentance, you wouldn’t care. The fact that you do is the fruit of repentance! I don’t believe that fruit is speaking of anything that we do necessarily. If we were required to do something, then forgiveness wouldn’t be free! Please don’t beat yourself up about what you may have done in the past when God doesn’t. I understand it is a difficult place to come to and it is an area that I still struggle with. But I now know that what I am feeling is the effects of being in an abusive place for so long and being convinced of my own worthlessness. I am slowly learning for a reality that there is peace available to me. I would like to say I live there, but that would be a lie. But I can say that I visit that place as often as I am able to allow myself. My goal is to one day live in it.
      As for the original subject of this post, I agree that healing ministries can easily turn into revenue generating circus’ run by charismatic ringmasters set only on their own self promotion. But I have also experienced healing and by that I mean a sudden, miraculous healing. It was in a regular church service and was low key and peaceful and beautiful. I was also the sign language interpreter for a world famous healing ministry and I have been privy to what goes on behind the scenes there. So I guess you could say I have seen both sides.
      It’s so sad to me that such a beautiful part of what Christ died to give us has been so twisted and morphed into a weapon used to inflict further damage on hurting people. I’m sure it does not please the Lord.
      Just my thoughts…..

  7. God does forgive, Chris, even where we cannot. Ask him, and believe in your head that it is so, even if you cannot believe in your heart. Doing what you are doing is good, even vital. But it doesn’t tend to work as absolution.
    The other point you make, about the organised church doing something. You’re right, but in some cases, the churches that are misbehaving, are not connected to the Church of England, say, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Baptists. But when they are, yes, they should intervene.

  8. Thanks huik, EA and Anonymous.

    huik, I think the scripture reference is Matthew 3-8?

    You’re all great supportive people; I am humbled by your kindness.
    I think my problem goes back to the type of Evangelical Fundamentalist programming that I received when I was uneducated.
    The purpose of this blog is to reach out to all those who have had their brains injected by the Fundamentalist “Brain Police”. I say that this horror took place during the (So Called) Christian Revival of the 70’s 80’s. It was then that what Stephen has called; ‘The dark side of healing’ was used to achieve that horror. Stephen has written about this in his book, ‘Ungodly Fear’. This book changed my life and was instrumental in bringing some measure of ‘Healing’.

    When it comes to ‘beating myself up’ I can only say that The “Love” you speak of is yet to find me. I am responsible for telling people “You were not healed because you don’t have the right kind of faith!” Some of those people eventually took their own lives. To have been a part of that well, beyond wicked.
    This goes way beyond where Chris Pitts is at the moment. I believe that a great number of people are where I am?

    Finally, I could never understand the rhetoric that that allowed a concentration camp Commandant to be ‘Saved’ while the victims (Presumably) went on to Judgement.

    I appeal to Stephen to help me communicate more (If necessary)

    I hope for this year to bring change and help for all the people from whose ranks I have come.


    1. hi Chris. Thanks for giving me your reference. Matt 3.8: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance”. Let’s consider: these are not the words of Christ. They are the words of John the Baptist. We know from the rest of the story that John wasn’t completely clear about everything, and doubted Christ at times, just like the disciples did. What Matthew is reporting is his preaching, not the final word on healing and salvation.

      If we need to bear these fruits, what would they be? I agree with anonymous who says they are evident in your words. But there are other options we can look at if we like. We can turn to Luke 3 to get a fuller picture of what John the Baptist preached. When the crowds are cut to the heart just like you, he tells them to share their food and clothing, be honest financially, live modestly and not abuse the vulnerable. All these things I know you are doing. Think about it.

      Another line might be to consider that the “fruit worthy of repentance” might be equivalent to Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit”. So, Galatians 5.22-3: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”. All these things you have and/or are growing more in you.

      Don’t forget that Jesus died on the cross for you as well as everyone else! You have been through many ordeals, and this is how you wash your robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. It can be hard in the midst of all that to remember that God loves you, but he does.

  9. Chris, there are terrible stories come out of war zones. Of children being forced to kill one of their number, for example. These children would be damaged beyond belief. But as an outsider, would either you or I actually blame them? And however much they will probably blame themselves in later life, surely, God has forgiven them, on the grounds they are vulnerable. This applies to you, too. We can see it, even though you can’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.