This isn’t the post I was expecting to write. I’d started a different one and stalled. Then yesterday I read this very interesting article about disability theology and I immediately felt compelled to write about my own unhelpful experiences of healing prayer (there have also been many good ones). I fear it is maybe more of a rant than a considered, thoughtful piece on the topic. But it is what came, unexpectedly and all at once, the words tumbling out of my head, and friends have encouraged me to share it anyway.
As a sick/disabled person you are apparently fair game for well-meaning Christians who are keen for God to heal you, and convinced that their prayer will be the means by which he does it. After all didn’t Jesus spend his time on earth healing all those who asked him (and even those who didn’t)? And aren’t we told in the Bible that ‘anything we ask in his name’ he will do? And that we will perform greater miracles than he did? That a prayer of faith will heal a sick person? And even, according to certain theological traditions, that physical healing is as much a part of the atonement as forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with the God who loves us?
I was once nobbled by a piano tuner determined to pray for me, and to tell me that God would heal me the following week, after coming to the house to tune the piano. It seemed ungracious to refuse prayer so I said ‘yes’ (to be honest I didn’t feel I had much choice), but I was exhausted, barely coping with him being there, waiting for him to leave so I could rest, and my heart sank when he said he wanted to pray for me. I could have done without it. It left me unsettled and vaguely resentful. I was a sitting duck and hadn’t felt able to say ‘no’. After all, what if this was the time God was actually going to heal me and I missed it?
Another time I went to a wedding and had gone outside to lie down and rest somewhere quiet between courses when an elderly gentleman – a complete stranger – turned up and felt it was ok to ask me about why I was lying down, and then quiz me about my faith and the state of my spiritual life, before insisting on praying for me. It seems slightly churlish to resent or reject offers of prayer but I was pretty annoyed that even at a friend’s wedding I was targeted, interrogated to see what I was doing wrong (there was a clear implication that there must be something since I was still unwell and hadn’t got myself healed yet), and couldn’t just enjoy the occasion and try to forget about being ill as far as possible.
I confess I now tend to avoid those Christians who are determined to ‘find the key’ to my healing, to establish exactly what I am doing wrong to still be ill 34 years on, and to advise me on what I should be doing to get better. Or who feel they somehow have the right to pray for me without even asking permission. Not, you understand, that I wouldn’t love to be healed. But I have spent a lot of time over the years seeking healing and trying to make it happen with the help of many mature (and immature) Christians, and healing ministries of just about all persuasions: going to healing services, healing meetings, healing conferences, reciting healing scriptures, repenting of all my sins, and those of my ancestors (whatever they may have been), renouncing (denouncing?) evil and the occult, accepting deliverance for things I’d probably never even done or encountered, believing, praying, saying, doing all the ‘right’ things – and, because I’m human, almost certainly some of the wrong ones -, reading books on healing, listening to talks, praying prayers, claiming my healing, stepping out in faith – and sometimes apparently being a bit better for a while, before falling flat on my face again – being prayed for by anyone and everyone, being told that God is definitely going to heal me and believing it, being interrogated about my life, and my past, and my family with suggestions that I have somehow allowed the devil to steal my health in the first place and any healing I’d subsequently had, and, to be frank, I’ve had enough.
I do not doubt that some of these things have led to healing for some people. But I have been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Again and again. Much of it, though done with the best of intentions, has huge potential to be harmful and abusive to the person who is sick. It starts from a position of ‘You are somehow failing because you haven’t been healed and, as a sick person, your life is second best, not how God intended, in need of fixing, and I am going to sort you out (or I’m going to get God to).’
The rollercoaster of hope and disappointment that accompanies the constant search for physical healing (in either spiritual or natural form) is emotionally and spiritually draining, and not in any way conducive to a meaningful and fulfilled life, physically, mentally or spiritually. Not when it goes on for years, robbing you of any joy you might have in the present by keeping your focus on an apparently unattainable future healing which will solve all your problems and, in the words of someone who used to pray for me regularly, ‘enable you to be the woman of God that he created you to be.’
Well, I have had long talks (aka arguments, rants, sobs, moans, words, heart to hearts) with God and have concluded that I need to work on being the woman of God he wants me to be right here and right now and to believe that whatever my state of health he can use it and use me in it. I firmly believe that the last 34 years do not count for nothing and my whole adulthood has not been a waste and a failure because I have been sick and unable to live the life I would have had, had I been healthy. With God nothing is squandered and nothing is wasted. Maybe he can use me more powerfully sick and ill than if I were well. I’m not happy about that and I don’t like it but if, for now at least, that is the case, I am willing to do my best in a difficult situation.
And so, a few years ago, I decided to shift my focus. Not that I wouldn’t welcome physical healing. I would love to be well. But I will not squander all my limited physical and emotional energy trying to make it happen. God is big enough and powerful enough to do it without my help. If he needs me to do something he can let me know. In my experience he’s pretty good at getting through to me when he wants to. I’ve seen people healed who didn’t know God and who have continued to live life without him once healed. It isn’t about ticking all the right boxes, earning our healing, and being rewarded for our good behaviour. God doesn’t work like that: he is a God who offers us undeserved forgiveness, limitless grace, unending love, and relationship with him. Living life to the full is about following him despite not always getting what I want and being able to proclaim, even from the depths, that I believe he loves me, that he is Lord, and that I will continue to trust and worship him regardless of my physical state. Maybe that is a greater miracle than physical healing.
I do still accept prayer for healing. But I am careful about who I allow to pray. Some people see me more as a project than a person. I am fortunate to be in a church where this is the exception rather than the rule. I am told repeatedly by my church family how much I am valued and loved, even when I cannot do a thing. But it still hurts when it happens. ‘You’ve been slimed.’ said a wise Christian friend who also has severe ME, when I was in pieces a while back after someone who was praying for me had spent the time trying to discover what I was doing wrong in order explain why I hadn’t yet been healed. I cried for days afterwards. It was quite the opposite of healing prayer. I felt violated. Again. I guess maybe one of the reasons I find this so hard to deal with is that when I am physically and mentally low I torture myself with the same question. Blame myself for still being ill. I know in my head that it is nonsense. But in the absence of concrete answers it is tempting to believe that if I could only do, say, believe, or pray the right thing I could be well. Because then I would have control and could change things.
In reality, when I’m having a particularly hard time, the most healing prayer is the one that acknowledges the pain and the suffering, sits with me in the darkness, assures me that God, and his people, are there in it beside me, holding me, supporting me, loving me no matter what. Reminding me that our God is a God who shares in our pain, and that I am loved and valued by him and by those around me for who I am, regardless of how ill or well I am.
There is a place for prayers of faith for physical healing and I absolutely believe that God heals today. But there is also a place for prayers that weep with those who weep, accept people as they are, acknowledge the pain, the frustration, the grief, the mystery, the not-knowing, and admit that there are no easy answers.
Last night at church I was prayed for by a stranger – a visiting speaker. I suspected from her talk that she was wise and sensitive, and decided to take the risk. There is always a risk, but if I have asked for prayer I am going into it knowing that, and am more able to handle it, rather than having prayer imposed on me without so much as a by-your-leave, (which already feels like spiritual abuse before someone has said anything at all). She prayed a beautiful and sensitive prayer which included prayer for physical healing but which was so much more than that, acknowledging my value and worth in my current situation.
Suffering is part of living in a broken world. Ultimately all that is broken will be restored, healed and redeemed. Until then we are called to walk by faith, not by sight; to trust in a God who loves us, but whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, whose ways are higher than our ways, even when we cannot make sense of what he is (or isn’t) doing in our lives.
Called too, in the same Bible which abounds in stories of miracles and physical healings, to visit and care for the sick, and to weep with those who weep – to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and we can’t always fix things.