In this month-long focus on the Work of Mercy of healing and comforting I’ve been focusing on the neglected theme of salvation as the proper home of the discussion of healing. This does not mean spiritualizing healing, i.e., God healing our souls and spirits but placing little value on healing our bodies and assuming modern medicine will do the trick instead.
Instead, it means concretizing our understanding of salvation, i.e., God saving us not only by forgiving us our sins but by healing us of them, in an earthy, extensive, real-time process that, frankly, is exponentially more grueling than physical therapy after a broken bone because it goes on for the remainder of our lives and extends to every corner and aspect of our selves.
I like to use physical therapy as an analogy in hopes that it might dispel the protests so many evangelical Christians lodge any time talk of the hard work of the Christian life comes up, namely, words like legalism, works righteousness, trying to earn the grace of God. Physical therapy is not a supererogatory act. It’s a restorative process of, e.g., getting the full motion in your knee back after you’ve had replacement surgery. Such physical therapy involves pain almost beyond imagination, to be sure, and it’s hard work. But getting your knee to give you between 0 and 117 degrees of motion is not a descent into legalism. Rather, it is a return to your knee’s normal range of motion. It won’t make you a world class athlete, but it will enable you to climb the stairs and get out of bed to go to the bathroom.
In the same way, God’s healing work in our lives is designed to restore to us the whole life range of motion we had before the fall. It really does occur on this side of heaven (because God is too gracious to forgive us our sin but consign us to rag doll status under its continued dominance), and it really does often involve pain almost beyond imagination: It take place over the span of a believer’s lifetime and involves so much more of our lives than we can even comprehend. That’s why Jesus’ question to the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5:1-17 is a good one: Do you want to get well?
Christians reading stories of healing understandably tend to focus only on the alleviation of physical distress, which seems to happen in an instant in these biblical accounts. But nearly every healing story in the Bible embeds that alleviation within the context of a much lengthier and arduous physical/spiritual therapy process, which readers carelessly (or wishfully) overlook. This is why some healing stories in the Bible aren’t even recognized as being healing stories at all.
But let’s return for a moment to the stories where explicit physical healing takes place instantaneously and, by all appearances, effortlessly. In the story of the healing of the lame man at Bethesda, for example, after the man’s physical lameness is rectified, Jesus says, “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” This is typical of Jesus, who seems to always be muddying the waters of physical healing with references to the healing of soul and spirit as well. This is not to say that sin is to blame for physical illness–Jesus dispels that rancid theological chestnut in John 9–but it is to say that healing is never solely or even primarily a physical process. “Go and sin no more” is not Jesus’ wishful and unrealistic benediction to the healing process. It is the healing process.
And thus we see that it is not that God sometimes heals and sometimes does not. It is that God sometimes starts in the body but sometimes starts elsewhere in the self. Wherever he starts, however, smart money says that the healing process will occupy you completely–body, soul, and spirit–for the rest of your life, and into eternity.
Are you sure you want to get well?