Is there any point in pain?

One of the hardest things in ministry is sitting with someone who has recently suffered a tragedy and knowing that there’s nothing much you can say. CS Lewis famously wrote a book called The Problem of Pain where he gives an intellectual defence of suffering from a Christian perspective. But when his wife was dying he admitted he found his own book useless.

In my next post I’ll be looking at some views and insights of those living with sickness and disability, and in particular focuses on those who have found gems are there to be mined in the depths of the darker nights of the soul. But first in this post I want to do a little bit of groundwork by asking three key questions:

Firstly – how common should we expect healing to be?

In contrast with the ‘Benny Hinn’ type approach of ‘Believe for a Miracle’, many of the theologians and practitioners of healing see the miraculous as relatively rare. Francis MacNutt for example considers that miracles in the true sense are creative acts of God, which is the rarest type of healing. Other types include: purely natural forces released through prayer; spiritual and emotional healing; natural recuperative forces of healing speeded up through prayer; natural forces used in manner out of ordinary e.g. disappearance of tumours in front of eyes; and preternatural forces (i.e. occultic powers)[7]. He prefers terminology such as ‘healings’, ‘signs’, ‘works’ ‘acts of power’ instead, noting that we should not be too insistent that a miracle has taken place. He is prepared to admit that there may be ‘more or less direct divine involvement’,[8] but maintains that release from an illness that has psychosomatic roots is as important for that individual as a physical cure may be for others, and so should not be deemed less valid.[9]

Arguably Jesus makes a similar point in Luke where he reminds the disciples of a widow in Zarephath who got a special help and miraculous healing:

I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.” Luke 4:25,26

There were many widows but only one was helped. 

Just to make it a bit more clear he adds:

“And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian” Luke 4:27

These two outsiders got their miracles… but many went without… For pointing this out people try and kill Jesus. It’s hard to imagine it being a great selling point today if he was a preacher on a name it and claim it TV healing show… It’s like him saying on God TV: “The Afghani terrorist and the gypsy lady were healed, but none of you westerners have been…” – and yet strangely isn’t it exactly people like that where we still hear most reports of God’s dramatic healing…

Maybe divine healing isn’t a marketable commodity to make comfortable insiders even more comfortable. 

Second: Is there a purpose in suffering?

A key question is whether there is a theological ‘excuse’ or rationale for suffering. Writers like Irenaeus, Schleiermacher and more recently John Hick seek to identify any justifying reason for God to allow illness (and evil) to permeate the world. The solution is usually bound up in eschatology [how it works out in the end] and a high view of humankind’s potential relationship with God. In order to advance that relationship humans are given this life. It may be ‘a vale of tears’, but it can also ‘fit us for heaven to be with him there’. Crudely put: It makes our souls better to suffer. Evil is therefore justified in the infinite and eternal good God is bringing out of the process.[1] It also relates to the concept of a necessary quotient of suffering (Paul writes: I fill up in my flesh whatever is lacking with regards to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church) and Jesus’ command to ‘take up your cross and follow me’.

However George Hacker (The Healing Stream) sees the rise of modern medicine as the undercutter of this belief, as it caused people to question the origin of sickness.[2] If disease was caused by germs and not directly by God or by sin, His relation to any benefits derived from it is less obvious. The notion that God may just ‘dump’ sickness upon his Creation is hugely problematic, and although I’ll come back in the next post to W.H.Vanstone’s book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense to show that a redemptive theodicy is not without some merit, there aren’t many people who want to go around saying ‘God made you ill for your own benefit’. 

Is the Christian Healing Revival a product of this age?

Why do we have the CHR now? To what extent is it is socially conditioned? Pattison suggests that if we think God gave this ministry and then took it away for most of the second century until the twentieth it leads to unanswerable questions as to why God may have allowed it to stop.[14] If physical healing now is a priority for God it also raises large questions about how his will can be so easily thwarted. So many people do not get healed. We have to ask whether the emphasis on healing now if a symptom of a society that has grown intolerant of sickness, and a society that wants and demands results now.

Pattison is convinced of God’s healing power at work today but many of the reasons he gives for the CHR’s success make a potent and important critique of the movement. As a movement it as a product of a consumerist age. It is entwined with advertising techniques, mass media and secularisation.[15] In the UK you can see billboards advertising events where you can ‘come and get your miracle’. TV shows will link healing to ‘sowing into a ministry’ – i.e. funding the preacher.

This is a far cry from the religion where compassion is the key ingredient. Furthermore the uncritical reflection given to Christian healing is for Pattison hugely problematic,[16] and he is clearly right in this concern.

As I see it these problems manifest in the teaching of someone like the previously mentioned New Wine speaker Roger Sapp. Sapp was single mindedly focused on ‘getting the job done’.[17] To achieve healing he believes that doubt is the principal thing to eliminate. This means he is not prepared to countenance examples or give valid reasons why God may not heal. Indeed it seems the ultimate anathema to his cause is the suggestion that ‘suffering, pain, disability, and untimely death might somehow be a better and mysterious blessing from God.’ [emphasis added].[18] Sapp needs to single-mindedly pursue his personal conclusion that the Father always wants to heal everyone, because Jesus always healed everyone, and Jesus perfectly reveals the will of the Father.

Yet Ralph Waldo Emerson once pointed out ‘foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds’. What if it’s a whole lot more complicated than that… to go deeper into thinking about healing we turn to the perspectives of some of those living with severe illness and disability… what does God have to say to that?

[1] See further Hick pp262-3.

[2] Hacker p.26. see also Woolmer and MacNutt.

[3] Martin Percy in Theology Jan/Feb issue 1997 p. 9

[4] Percy p.9

[5] See Sarah Coakley, Is the Resurrection a Historical Event’ in Paul Avis (ed.), The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Darlton Longman and Todd, London 1993).

[6] See Percy p. 10

[7] MacNutt The Power to Heal p.75????

[8] ibid. p.76???

[9] ibid. p.79

[10] Pattison p. 46.

[11] see… Hick p 262-3 for a detailed breakdown of two major types of theodicy (Augustinian and Iranean).

[12] Pattsion p. 49.

[13] Hacker p. 24.

[14] Pattison p.55.

[15] Pattison p.56-58.

[16] ibid. p.69.

[17] His term for seeing someone healed.

[18] Sapp (2000) p.26.

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