Why am I still ill? The pastoral response of Francis MacNutt and John Wimber…

When you are ill and suffering you really want to think that the person praying for you can either help you to get better or at least won’t make you feel worse while they give it a go.

We have already looked at the big questions of what would a healing actually look like and had a hard close look at people who think that God always wants to heal compared with those who think we can’t ever presume that he does.

In this post we two highly influential voices in the healing movement: Francis MacNutt and John Wimber and their take on whether God wants to heal and what can get in the way of healing if he does. 

MacNutt was a Dominican priest who became heavily influenced by Pentecostal theology. He has a PhD in theology and this combined with his twin Catholic and Pentecostal influences makes him an unusual contributor to the field of healing theology. In Healing MacNutt argues that sickness is an enemy of Christ, a result of the fall. He repeatedly argues that it is compassion, rather than messianic motives that drive healing in the Gospels. For him, ‘Jesus did not heal people to prove he was God; He healed them because he was God.’[1] Simply put God normally wants to heal us.[2] His two caveats are to avoid 1)  ‘erroneously deducing universal laws from particular inspirations’[3], and 2) telling God how and when he should act.[4] He is particularly trying to avoid promoting law over grace, and opposing those who would make healing a ‘ministry of wounding and condemnation.’[5]

It is with regard to faith, however, that Henry Knight sees MacNutt as ‘most’ original. This brings us back to where we started in the What is Healing post. In the past few posts we have been mainly considering one way of categorising the different healing theologies: – the extent to which they see healing as God’s free initiative or God’s duty through a divine law when all other conditions are met. The other way of categorising the charismatic healing movement is that of how much human response is needed though faith.[6] MacNutt allows that a person though confident in God’s desire to heal, may have doubts about the timing or about whether they themselves may have made a right diagnosis of a persons need. A suppression of these doubts is not good. All that does is to try and create a ‘faith in my faith’. ‘I believe, honestly God I really believe.’[7]

MacNutt notes that faith is a gift, and a gift to be focused on God’s faithfulness not the minister’s abilities. This gentler perspective also allows for the development of ‘soaking prayer’ which suggests a healing of degrees over time.[8] Under the umbrella of God’s love, God’s faithfulness and freedom are brought together. His love compels compassion. We can trust his character, yet the outworkings of his compassion are at his own discretion.[9] Also in this category is James Wagner, who goes further to disassociate lack of faith with failure to be healed, and also takes an increasingly holistic approach to healing.

In Francis MacNutt’s classic ‘Healing’ he is therefore able to point to 11 reasons why people are not healed:

  1. Lack of faith
  2. Redemptive suffering
  3. False value attached to suffering
  4. Sin
  5. Not praying specifically
  6. Faulty diagnosis (is it inner healing/ physical healing/ deliverance that is needed)
  7. Refusal to see medicine as a way God heals
  8. Not using natural means of preserving health
  9. Now is not the time
  10. Different person is to be instrument of healing
  11. Social environment prevents healing taking place[10]

With the exception of points 2 and 9 (which suggest that God may have a higher purpose for the individual in suffering for longer), all of these indicate that human response, by sufferer, healer or society is a major factor in promoting or limiting God’s will in healing. According to MacNutt God’s ‘normative will is that people will be healed unless there is some countervailing reason.’ [11] One such valid reason might be the furtherance of the Gospel. MacNutt quotes Galatians 4 to show that Paul’s illness led to the formation of the church there in Galatia. He is also prepared to say that a sufferer may be sharing in Christ’s redemptive work in mystic union.[12] However the main paradigm he is working with is that there are many more times when a person is not healed simply because of limitations on the part of one or more human agents.

So with MacNutt we have a sense that God is basically into healing in a big way, but we can get in the way. However as there may be all sorts of reasons why healing has not occured don’t beat yourself or anyone else up about it if it hasn’t happened yet. It may simply not be the right time so keep on praying and something might happen. 

The second bridging movement Knight identifies is the ‘third wave’.[13] This is inextricably linked with John Wimber and Ken Blue. Blue himself suffered for a long while with cancer. Knight sees the third wave movement as a development of the kingdom of God perspective of George Ladd. In this theology the Kingdom of God is the way whereby God invades and evicts Satan from his territory with works of power.

‘Power’ is the key word in this theology. Power is conditional upon obedience. It is not all for now (it is ultimately ‘eschatologically completed’ when the Kingdom fully comes). This means that current manifestations of healing are ‘signs’ of this promise, that demonstrate God’s compassionate character.[14] Faith confession as a movement is ‘harmful’, and there is ‘no strict cause-and-effect relationship’ between healing and faith, although it should be noted that Blue sees it as ‘significant and even determinative’ in the Gospels.[15] Both writers also try to integrate physical, spiritual and emotional healing, value doctors and medicine, and like MacNutt emphasise perseverance in prayer. They, like he, occupy this middle ground between faithfulness and freedom in Knight’s scheme, avoiding in Knight’s opinion cause and effect views that may ‘increase the suffering of those not healed’.[16]

Wimber and Blue however have not escaped more strict censure from other quarters. Benn and Burkill are noteworthy in that they claim not to tow a cessassionalist party line. They credit Wimber with a more nuanced theology than other well-known speakers,[17] and for grappling with ‘much more serious issues’ yet they accuse him of tendencies that ‘are in fact dangerous’.[18]In particular they suggest his theology is dualistic and reject the notion of ‘power evangelism’ that is that signs and wonders may play a crucial part in bringing someone to Christ.[19] What is really at work behind their criticisms however is a defensiveness concerning the doctrine of the sovereignty of God,[20] which they believe Wimber tends to play down or even avoid when he makes statements like ‘sickness is generally not beneficial.’[21] Especially when he suggests that Paul’s thorn in the flesh cannot have been a sickness,[22] they take exception. ‘Nowhere does Wimber take seriously the notion that it may be Gods’ will for the Christian to suffer’.[23] Indeed this is a strong unifying dynamic between all the writings so far considered – that God basically wishes to heal everyone. As Knight says:

‘While it is recognised that not all are healed, and that God’s will in the particular circumstance may be a reason, in the end the healing that does not occur is considered an anomaly.’[24]

In Wimber’s case, even after the death of his friend the renowned Anglican evangelist David Watson[25], he still believed that the reason most people were not healed ‘involves some form of sin and unbelief’.[26] Wimber himself had flown to the UK specially to pray for Watson.

Benn and Burkill’s assessment of the third wave movement is, I think, flawed.  In particular I have reservations about how they conceive of the notion of sovereignty, and the implications of the notion of a God who controls happily all the great and awful sickness that are daily visited on so many people. It seems better to imagine that what Jesus demonstrated in his ministry reveals some of God’s heart and purposes. In the gospels he seemed on regular and total collision course with sin and sickness and he invariably defeats and drives out against sickness and even brings inner healing to its roots. But, that being said, neither can I see this ‘third wave’ as an adequate summary of the whole perspective on Christian healing (and suffering). If we take the thorn in the flesh as an example, anyone who had been beaten as badly as the apostle Paul on so many occasions was likely to carry some physical knocks… perhaps it was no accident that he travelled with a doctor who later became his biographer.

But more fundamentally what if healing as physical cure is not the big story after all? What if in discovering this exciting ministry of the Holy Spirit (which has been arguably more active in the wider church since the Pentecostal church was birthed in 1906 than in most previous centuries) we have lost sight of the even greater thing? What if there is a bigger plan and purpose around ‘wholeness’? [see What is Healing].  How might the definition in that post of health as ‘a foretaste of wholeness to come’ be brought to bear upon the above debate? We still need to explore fundamental issues ranging from: are miracles really possible(?), to the more complex issues on when and whether physical healing may be either needed or desirable. What of disability theology and Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s words took on ‘dying well’? Is death the final healing?

But before getting to those grander questions there is still work to be done investigating the claims and methodology of the charismatic healers. Two lines of inquiry stand out: 1) Is healing our right through the atonement – [and if so is God after all compelled to heal us as is Son has already paid the price for that healing], and  2) How much healing can we expect now – and what do we have to wait for till heaven – [what is the relationship between healing and eschatology].

That’s the next post…

[1] Healing p. 110.

[2] Healing p. 86.

[3] Healing p. 141.

[4] Healing p. 137.

[5] Healing p.141. (see Knight pp. 78-79 for a simple expansion of these ideas).

[6] Knight p. 80.

[7] ibid.

[8] Knight suggests this term is borrowed from Tommy Tyson (p.81). With cancer for example MacNutt claims, ‘it may take time for the radiating power of Jesus to begin to dissolve.’ p.39.

[9] Knight p. 82.

[10] MacNutt Healing p. 248ff

[11] ibid. p. 249

[12] p.250

[13] A term originating with C.Peter Wagner to denote non-Pentecostal charismatics.

[14] Blue Authority to Heal p.69, p.72.

[15] Blue p. 78.

[16] Knight p. 86.

[17] In this case Yonggi Cho and Colin Urquhart

[18] Benn, W and Burkill, M (1987) p.101.

[19] cf. Power Evangelism p.107.

[20] Although they go on to consider his hermenuetics and the need for a spirituality that thirsts more for the living God than for supernatural experiences. (See summary) p.112.

[21] from a Vineyard healing course book cited in Benn, W and Burkill, M (1987) p. 102.

[22] Power Healing p.34. and p. 240 footnote 15.

[23] op cit. p. 103.

[24] Knight. p. 86.

[25] see Fear No Evil by David Watson for a moving account of this near tragic tale.

[26] Power Healing p.152.

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