Towards an understanding of Healing

Over the past few weeks I have been putting together my thoughts on the topic of healing. It is now 31 years since the first book of mine on this topic was published. In the intervening years since 1986 I have had plenty of opportunity to think and read further on this topic.

The fact that I am trying to produce some fresh ideas on the subject now is connected to the fact that I am due to give a paper on healing to the International Cultic Studies Association conference at Bordeaux in twelve weeks. I have chosen the topic because there seems to be among many students of the cult scene a great deal of scepticism about whether non-medical healings ever occur. Many, if not the majority, of cults and charismatic groups practise some form of healing ritual. To write them all off as trickery or placebo does not do justice to this widespread phenomenon. The problem for many commentators is to reconcile two facts. One is that you may have an utterly unscrupulous cult leader who causes a great deal of harm to his/her followers. This same leader also appears to have a potentially valuable skill. This is to enable on some occasions dramatic reversals in mental or physical disease. Long-term readers of this blog will know that part of the appeal of Michael Reid at Peniel in Brentwood was the fact that he claimed to be able to heal people. Acceptance of these claims had a great deal to do with the way that many stayed loyal to the church when the utter dysfunction of the leadership that Reid offered was clear to all. It is also apparent from the investigations of journalists that at least some of these miracles were faked. I have, however, no reason to doubt that at some point genuine miracles may have taken place. Healings and miracles seem to happen whether or not the agent of such events is holy and morally honourable.

In the paper I am writing I am trying to explore what I believe to be the mechanics of healing. To do this I am looking beyond the boundaries of might be described as religious or indeed medical healings. When we look at what is being accomplished by medical science, we see one enormously important dynamic at work. This is the natural tendency of the body to try to repair itself and return to an equilibrium of health. When I talk about healing I am referring to any of the settings created by religious, medical or psychological means that may enhance the self-healing potential of the human body. Some of these healing environments can in some circumstances lead to something dramatic and even miraculous.

The most basic form of healing is that which takes place naturally in a baby bonded properly with his/her mother. In this interaction, we see all the essential ingredients of a setting which will promote healing of a kind that owes nothing to medicine. In the first place, we have touch. Then we have an almost psychic communication between mother and child. Although we talk about love to describe this bond, there is in fact a virtual fusion of two personalities. The one appears to sense and anticipate the moods and pain of the other. When the toddler experiences a fall and rushes back to the mother for comfort, we see how there is an almost miraculous relief of pain as the mother embraces the child. The mother through her touch and bonding is providing all that is needed to relieve and soothe the child’s pain.

My paper is going to explore the theories of one Heinz Kohut who was active in the 60s and 70s in the States. He was a proponent of what has come to be described as Self Psychology. This is a theory that describes how some people miss out through a failure of bonding with the mother. What comes to be lacking in the affected adult is a secure sense of self. Psychoanalytical treatment is needed to give back to the individual something of what they are lacking through these failures in parenting. This deficit in maternal care especially has left the child, and later the adult, fiercely hungry for affirmation. Such people are described by Kohut as narcissistic, people who crave the attention of others. In describing the way such people should be treated, Kohut speaks of the role of the psychoanalyst as being like a parent for the deprived individual. Therapy in short is a kind of re-mothering process.

How does this help us to have a model for healing? Kohut has described a kind of merging of personalities as being crucial to the repair of a faulty upbringing. A similar merging of personalities appears to occur in many healing encounters, especially in those which involve charismatic and high octane healing events. People fall to the ground and engage in what may only be described as primal behaviour. There seems to be, at least sometimes, a kind of speeded up version of a resetting or recalibrating of relationships that had been lacking or faulty in the past. Kohut had described in his books the way that a narcissistic individual may, as a child, have failed to make a normal identification relationship with an adult. The charismatic encounter seems to allow such a powerful identification with the leader to take place. Regardless of whether that leader is a person of integrity, the sick person may, in making the act of identification or merging with him/her, activate powerful mechanisms of healing within themselves. When something mysterious happens in the depth of the psyche, it can be immensely powerful and at the same time hard to understand. We do know that the body does have a remarkable capacity to heal itself. Sometimes, in an almost random way, that capacity is activated by external events and able to work effectively.

Cult leaders and charismatic ministers are seldom the most reliable of people. They will be very quick to claim credit when a miraculous healing takes place. A lack of wisdom or insight in understanding what has been happening may go on to damage the individual. Thus, the newly healed will perhaps be prevented from experiencing this healing properly. A leader may also claim inappropriate spiritual authority over the one who has experienced a measure of healing. This may enhance the self-conceit or narcissistic tendencies in a self-proclaimed ‘healer’. To become bound unhealthily in this way to a cult leader will prevent the healed individual being released to live their life as a free individual.

There is of course further detail which I shall be exploring in my paper at Bordeaux. I wanted here to convey a flavour of what I want to present. To summarise, two essential ingredients for healing to occur will be in place every time someone recovers health. The first is the power and the potential of the body to regulate itself and secondly, we need an optimal setting for this to take place. There is, as we have suggested, a wide range of these. Christians with their insight into such things as forgiveness, reconciliation and love, possess a whole range of tools which can foster the possibility for healing to take place. The contribution of charismatic Christianity is to reach what I call the more primal aspects of the personality. These sometimes can be activated in a way that reaches much deeper and more powerfully into the areas of ill-health. There is so much more to be said. Perhaps in what I have conveyed is sufficient to show that healing is never a matter of one person doing something to another. It is rather, providing a setting in which the inherent healing power of the body can be allowed to be given expression. Sadly, this is not always allowed to happen benignly. The act of healing can sometimes provide the setting for the worst expressions of power abuse.

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.

20 thoughts on “Towards an understanding of Healing

  1. I had to have an emergency Caesarian for my first son’s birth. I was in agony. As soon as they said they were going to operate, the pain eased. A great deal of pain, in particular, is caused by fear. The child rushing to its mother is an example of this. Reassurance causes a great deal of the pain (and surprise/shock) to disappear. Putting a plaster on an invisible wound has the same effect!
    A friend of mine was miraculously healed. She had had a growth on her womb for some years. She had all the tests. She was to be admitted to hospital for a hysterectomy the next day when her mother took her to a healing meeting. She experienced a great feeling of peace, which she interpreted as God’s healing touch, but had no expectation of a cure. She just felt at peace about what was to happen. What happened was they opened her up, found a pink and healthy womb, and sewed her up without removing it. She went on to have three children. So it does happen.

  2. Stephen, I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea that many complex factors influence the body’s ability to heal itself. But this is really outside my knowledge.

    However, as an ex-charismatic, I am very much one of the sceptics when it comes to faith healers claiming to be able to perform miracles. I have spent a lot of time researching this subject, and there seems to be a total lack of credible evidence for such miracles. Combine that with the use by these healers of techniques of psychological manipulation which are now well-understood, and I regard the conclusion as virtually unshakable. However, I wouldn’t seek to deny the mechanisms you describe, but these cannot go beyond the body’s natural ability. The result of a charismatic encounter is never going to be an amputated limb that regrows, for example.

    I am totally happy with a God who does work miracles, and with the value of praying for people to be healed – it’s just the claims of healers that I strongly dispute.

    One question that has to be answered is, assuming God gives healing gifts today, why would He give such a gift to an individual who is immoral, an abuser, a crook, or a heretic ? Why would God want to draw attention to such a person ? The damage these people do (as evidenced by Michael Reid) is immense. Surely God would only give healing gifts to those people with the highest levels of integrity ?

  3. Peter I agree with you that many, if not 90% of so-called miracles are false when claimed by charismatic leaders. It is the ones that are not fake that interest me. Although I have never been a ‘card-carrying’ charismatic, I see just too much that allows me to write everything off. If there are, as you claim, ‘techniques of psychological manipulation’, why has no one bottled them and marketed them? It may be that the processes that Kohut is describing are indeed ‘techniques’ but no one seems to have done much about understanding them at depth. That is what my paper is attempting to do. Note that I never got involved in the argument about what God is or is not doing in these processes. That brings in another language or terminology which at this point confuses the thrust of what I was trying to say. I did mention in passing relevant Christian insights in things like forgiveness and reconciliation. These are relevant to both Christian and secular healing. I too dispute the claims of healers for the most part. It is just that sometimes, even very occasionally they have stumbled across something that they do not understand but which is powerful and even life-changing for the patient! That may be a ‘technique’ but it still feels wonderful to the one who experiences it. For the present I want to thank nature for this process as it seems to belong to nature rather than to a interventionist God. I have nowhere appealed to such a being. Anything I might say about God in this context would have to be nuanced to avoid any crude misunderstandings. That is why I leave him out for the time being and certainly avoid the word ‘miracle’.

  4. I used the word ‘miracle’ when talking about Michael Reid his claims -Expect a Miracle. I revert back to the neutral word healing in the next paragraph.

  5. Stephen, we are on the same page, although I would take the view that 100% (or something very close) of miracles claimed by charismatic faith healers are false.

    In response to your question “If there are, as you claim, ‘techniques of psychological manipulation’, why has no one bottled them and marketed them?”, in some ways the answer is yes. There are many courses teaching people how to be a hypnotist, for example. Many of the charismatic churches run training events, in some cases even a full-time college (eg Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry). But I guess if you advertised a course on “how to manipulate an audience” it would destroy your credibility as a legitimate speaker!

    Here’s a fascinating interview with an ex-faith healer. Note how he says he copied the techniques of the big names:

  6. My motive for healing the sick by a word of command in Jesus’ name is as follows. He told his followers to heal the sick. Matthew chapter ten. He told his followers to teach the disciples who would come to obey everything that he had commanded them. Matthew twenty-eight v 20. I therefore feel called. Same with all the other 180 commands of Jesus I have unearthed in the gopsels.
    I seldom receive feedback, but I observe that I don’t operate in a miraculous or striking way, I.e. there is seldom dramatic evidence of improvement at the time, but there may be over time. I feel somewhat challenged over this.

    1. David, the disciples Jesus who commanded to heal the sick in Matthew 10 became the apostles. And 2 Cor 12:12 indicates working miracles was one of the marks of an apostle. The apostles’ role was to lay the foundation of Christianity before the New Testament had been written. Doing miracles was how they proved their divine authority. And once the foundation was laid, there was no further need for people with miraculous gifts. This is standard cessationist theology.

      The key thing is that, despite the claims of charismatics and Pentecostals, people with a gift of healing just don’t exist. Note that God can still work a miracle if He chooses – I’m simply saying that miraculous gifts have ceased.

      1. I was taught this, too. But I have come to believe it is not so. God can and does work through human beings. That doesn’t of course mean that everyone who makes such claims is telling the truth. They often aren’t.

  7. Thanks Peter. Well argued. You and I take a different view on this. I think all believers re called to do all that the apostles were asked to do. This gets us into the realm of the gifts as in one Corinthians chapter twelve where Paul advises that some are more gifted than others in e.g. miracles.
    My own experience is that I have seen one clear miracle, where my friend Bill who had been sent home from hospital with an impossibly large portion of his gut removed expecting to die within a few weeks then lived for another seven years following an evening of prayer with the laying on of hands. His widow told me after he died that the hospital had explained to her that he couldn’t live, because they had had to take so much away.
    However, that was in 1987 and I haven’t seen anything like this since. My day to day experience is that people come wanting help with problems, and following prayer and compassion and practical help, some make excellent progress, some do well, some do poorly and some get nowhere!
    My friend Bob in California, a church pastor of unusual gifts, says a large part of his work is to keep the peace between two groups of people, the ones who are instantly healed and so tend to look down on the ones who have a struggle, and the others who have to struggle for months or years, e.g. To quit smoking or drugs who tend to be envious of the ones that get free instantly. I like that!
    Another thought is that the book of Acts may read like miracles every few months, but it seems more likely that it covers a period of a number of years, so even then miracles were not two a penny.
    So personally, I am not happy with cessationism, but I don’t expect miracles every five minutes, but I am prepared to receive the gift of faith when God is doing something special and give a word of command or whatever.
    A final thought is that we tend to get worked up about signs and wonders, but “without faith it is impossible to please him”, in other words, what God wants from us is faithfulness not drama. So I hope to keep at it today, being a person of integrity and love and generosity.

    1. David, we do indeed differ on the idea that all Christians are called to do the same things as the apostles. Many of the apostles were called to write scripture, for example. That era is over.

      What happened with your friend Bill may have been a miracle, but equally plenty of people live longer than doctors predict (and vice-versa). Medicine is not an exact science. But, as you say, that was once in 30 years. And millions of other people have been prayed for and not been healed in that time.

      The simple fact is that, throughout history, Christians have not demonstrated the miraculous gifts that we read about in the Bible. People like John Wimber have argued that miracles should be commonplace in the church, yet when his claims of healings have been examined, they have been found wanting.

      I have absolutely no problem with praying for healing and exercising faith, and I think this an important way of loving and caring for people. But we have to be careful not to encourage false hope of miracles.

  8. I’m sorry to bring in a wind of scepticism here. I think an evasion of the truth is taking place, let me explain: The miracles that Christ did were instant, the unction of grace and power he bequeathed to the apostles were achieved by a sovereign act of God. I have no doubt that this was for the duration of the apostle’s lives.
    The only objection that can be raised from scripture is, Matthew 13: 58 (This is were Christ refuses to work a miracle, not a hint that he was unable?)

    The misery caused by Pentecostal ministers and others is in my opinion wicked.
    An answer to prayer is not in the same category as the Apostolic miracles.

    Because this is not faced head on, untold misery has been left behind in thousands of broken hearts and broken people.

    1. Totally agree, Chris. Those who promise healing (the Pentecostal and charismatic big names) are evil people who exploit the vulnerable for their own gain.

  9. Interesting, Chris. I think what you are saying is that there is a distinction between the signs and wonders, which make people gasp, and the sort of thing that seems to happen when I pray, namely that there tends to be an improvement, but not necessarily straight away, and not always immediate.
    I note that Jesus told them in Matthew 10 etc to heal the sick, and did not instruct them to work miracles. Interesting.
    Same with casting out demons. Sometimes there is something to see, and it can be dramatic, but sometimes it is much less so, e.g a response like “I felt something heavy lifting off me.”
    Personally, I don’t want to disqualify gradual healings and deliverances because they are not instant. To me the question is, has the person had benefit from our prayers?
    I think the verse “without faith it is impossible to please him” is important here in that when praying, let’s say when declaring forgiveness of sins, I need to have faith in the verse “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” and can say to the person I am ministering to, “you have just confessed this sin, and God declares that there is forgiveness for you, so in the name of Jesus, you are forgiven.” That person also needs to accept the forgiveness by faith, you observe. Faith all round.
    I don’t claim to have answers here; it is an interesting and important subject and I appreciate the chance to discuss it. Thanks!

  10. Peter, I spotted Matthew 24:24 yesterday, where Jesus says that in that day, false christs and false prophets will perfom great signs and wonders to deceive us. So was the cessation only partly successful? Or are signs and wonders by the godly now over, but deceptive signs still around?

    1. David, I am aware of that verse. We need to define the terms.

      Firstly, “great signs and wonders”. I can think of two possibilities: (1) genuine miracles, effectively enabled by the powers of darkness. (2) false miracles – for example the mind tricks that faith healers excel at. I prefer the first option – genuine miracles – I think that’s the natural reading of the text. I have a hard time believing that temporary symptomatic relief produced by psychological manipulation in an emotionally-charged meeting is any sort of sign or wonder, let alone a great one.

      Secondly, cessation(ism). I take this to mean that miraculous gifts enabling Christians to do miracles almost on demand have ceased. I would never deny that God can still work miracles today if He so chooses, including in response to prayer. As far as I know all this is the standard view. Charismatics tend to misrepresent cessationism as that belief that God doesn’t do miracles any more, which is why we have to be careful to be clear on the meaning of terms.

      So to answer your questions, I would say no to the first one as I believe miraculous gifts have ceased completely, and no to the second one as well.

      However, in the future, I think the answer to your second question will change to yes. The context of Matt 24 is the “end times”, so I suspect that evil people who are able to perform genuine miracles will appear and deceive many. I do not believe we are at that stage in history yet.

  11. Peter, thanks again. It’s interesting that since 1986, I have been moving from a cessationist position, which I inherited as part of coming to Christ in the late 60s, to a copy-the-twelve position, as it were. As I understand it, you have been making the opposite journey.
    I find it possible to pray for people in a way that does not encourage a hope which may then be unfulfilled. Most of what I do is to point people to the relevant verse in the Bible for their condition, e.g. someone in chronic worry and fear I tend to give them Philippians 4:6 and help them to apply it for themselves.
    My biggest difficulty with what you advocate is in the closing verses of Matthew 28 where the twelve were told to teach the converts everything that Jesus had taught them, but you say omit Jesus’ instructions to them to do the miraculous. Do you have thoughts on this?

  12. Another thought Peter – how much has ceased? If I were to adopt this view, would I need to make a mental note when reading the gospels that some of Jesus’ words don’t apply to me today? Presumably “greater things than these shall you do” is out (John 14), and also the encouragement to move mountains by faith (Mark 11). Love God and love your neighbour would still be encouraged, as there were addressed to Saducees and Pharisees, Matthew 22:34, so that’s good.
    Personally, I think this doctrine uses something Paul wrote in a way that undermines Jesus, so I am not happy with it. Thanks again for raising it and giving me the chance to think it through, and best wishes.

  13. Peter, a final thought. Paul had been diffident about his apostle status in 1 Corinthians 15:9, and is now faced by people claiming to be apostles who are really agents of Satan (2 Cor. 11:13-15). His reply is, don’t let’s boast; it’s our weakness that forces us to rely on God which is our strength. I think this is wise advice for us today: let’s get on and do the work of God without boasting about it. If we are apostolic in our ministries, spreading the faith and not just preaching to the converted, then we can expect the Holy Spirit to be with us, with all that that implies.

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