I always approach our month devoted to the Work of Mercy of healing and comforting with at least a small amount of trepidation. After all, no other Work of Mercy produces anywhere near the number and magnitude of eccentric beliefs, attitudes, and actions as healing and comforting. No one argues, for example, that sharing your bread is a practice confined to the apostolic age. No one wags their finger accusingly and shouts that if you try to open your home and fail, you lack the proper faith. There are no controversial shows on television where charismatic preachers urge the homebound to come forward to receive the gift of visiting and remembering.
But healing–that’s a horse of an entirely different hue. Google the word and at least 9 of every 10 links will make you feel a bit ill. Healing just brings the eccentric out in people.
And I use the word eccentric very intentionally. Eccentric is Greek for “out of the round.” Envision your life as a circle; to be eccentric is to have a life that looks like someone sat on it and distorted its perfect sphericity into something embarrassing, like a hot dog shape. Lust is love gone eccentric. Gluttony is stewardship gone eccentric. And much of what has been written or believed or practiced by Christians about health and healing–I do not feel it exaggerative to peg the figure north of 90 percent–may be the most eccentric form of eccentricity of all.
And I am not speaking here merely or even primarily of the much maligned Christians who explain quite insistently about how all illness indicates a lack of faith on the part of the one illing. I am speaking here equally of the far too seldom maligned Christians who unconsciously accept that illness is simply a part of life and that God need not get overly involved in the matter (other than to “be with” the person who is sick when we politely pray that he do so), unless, of course, things get quite serious; then we may need him to “guide the surgeon’s hands” or have his will be done in this matter, which, hopefully, won’t be too unfavorable to us.
Truth be told, I’m not certain which approach creates the more eccentric life of faith.
The idea that a lack of healing equates to a lack of faith should be dismissed, though less derisively than it usually is. The virtual certainty of the matter is that God does heal today, and has, quite miraculously, in every age. The problem with believing in a stone cold lock binding faith and healing, then, is not believing that God heals; it is believing that when healing does not occur, that God’s actions are best described as “not healing.” Joni Erickson Tada, in her masterful book, When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter To The Almighty, puts it this way:
Everyone who takes the Bible seriously, and many who don’t, agree that God hates suffering. Jesus spent much of his short life relieving it. In scores of passages God tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit inmates, and speak up for the helpless. So when we feel compassion for people in distress, we know that God felt it first. He shows this by raising sick people from their beds—sometimes to the wonder of doctors—in answer to prayer. Every day he grants childless women babies, pulls small-business owners out of financial pits, protects Alzheimer’s patients crossing the street, and writes happy endings to sad situations. Even when he has to punish sin, he says it gives him no pleasure (Ezekiel 18:32). In heaven, Eden’s curse will be canceled. Sighs and longings will be historical curiosities. Tears will evaporate. Kleenex will go broke. But it simply doesn’t follow that God’s only relationship to suffering is to relieve it.
In the end, the eccentricity of the faith healing crowd and the “God-please-work-in-a-dignified-and-not-spooky-manner-through-this-bottle-of-Excedrin” crowd is identical: The eccentricity is in failing to see (or believe, in the absence of seeing) that God is as fully and passionately present in our moments of mildest discomfort as he is in his grandest miracles of healing. Back to Joni Erickson Tada:
God’s heart intent is to alleviate suffering. He is bending over backward to make it happen. God is moving heaven and earth to dry the tear, lighten the load, ease the burden, take away the pain, stop the wars, halt the violence, cure the disease, heal the heartbroken, mend the marriage. God is straining to feed the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, adopt the orphan, comfort the grieving, console the dying, defend the children, bandage the battered, give to the poor, care for the widow, uproot injustice, clean up pollution, prevent abortion, right the wrong, protect the animals, rectify racism, support the elderly, sustain the downcast, stamp out crime, stomp out pornography, help the disabled, prevent abuse, cease corruption, muffle the cursing, get rid of gambling, turn stone hearts to flesh and dead men into living ones. He rallies us to his noble cause, but we fall behind. If God is weeping, it is because he has made his heart intent regarding suffering abundantly clear, but few—even of his own people—are moved into action.
Healing and Not Healing, in other words, is an insidious pairing when it comes to describing the work and character of God. More than anything, this month’s Work of Mercy reminds us that the stone cold lock bound together in God’s work and character in each of our lives is Healing and Comforting.
As we’ll be reminded of anew this month, there are things that are only possible to learn about the work and character of God through his presence in our illnesses. (Notice that I didn’t say we learn from illness. We may, but that’s no Work of Mercy. Works of Mercy are always windows into the character of God. The learning always comes from his presence in the circumstance, not the circumstance itself. That’s why we don’t glorify or lionize suffering. Suffering is suffering. God’s presence in suffering–now you’re on to something.)
The problem with the idea of a God who hates illness so much that his only move is to zap it (provided enough faith is present) is not that it is completely inaccurate but that it is woefully inadequate–or, to use my preferred word, eccentric: it distorts his emphasis and the comprehensive work he is about in our lives, every day, in every circumstance, wasting and impeded by nothing. Says Joni:
The core of his plan is to rescue us from our sin. Our pain, poverty, and broken hearts are not his ultimate focus. He cares about them, but they are merely symptoms of the real problem. God cares most—not about making us comfortable—but about teaching us to hate our sins, grow up spiritually, and love him. To do this, he gives us salvation’s benefits only gradually, sometimes painfully gradually.
To both the faith healing crowd and the illness-tolerating crowd, he longs do a work far greater than either can imagine–or tolerate: He longs to impart himself.
God, like a father, doesn’t just give advice. He gives himself. He becomes the husband to the grieving widow (Isaiah 54:5). He becomes the comforter to the barren woman (Isaiah 54:1). He becomes the father of the orphaned (Psalm 10:14). He becomes the bridegroom to the single person (Isaiah 62:5). He is the healer to the sick (Exodus 15:26). He is the wonderful counselor to the confused and depressed (Isaiah 9:6).
In this month-long focus on healing and comforting we will see again and anew that a gift greater (and, yes, frequently other) than healing is available from God. And the gift isn’t just wisdom and maturity and insight and patience. You sometimes get those things, too (and sometimes not). But there’s a greater available gift from God whenever illness and suffering are present (even when healing and wisdom and maturity and insight and patience are absent).
God is available from God.
We’ll let Joni close it out. (Make sure to read the book already, alright? Excellent choice for the month. It is accessible and yet doctrinally deep and explicit. Heart and head–an exquisite and exceedingly rare combo in the world of literature on healing.)
We must never distance the Bible’s answers from God. The problem of suffering is not about some thing, but Someone. It follows that the answer must not be some thing, but Someone. “Knowing our Lord Jesus Christ” is keeping your eye on the Sculptor—not on the suffering, or even suffering’s benefits.