For the past several weeks we have been treated to a discussion of God's divine agency in the world. We've explored the question of whether divine power is unilateral or persuasive, whether we can envision the resurrection as being more than metaphor, and whether God is engaged in healing. In this week's column Bruce Epperly returns to the question of healing, exploring a passage that reminds us that sometimes healing is a gradual process. I invite you to consider Bruce's contribution and join in conversation.
The Gift of Gradual Healing
Bruce G. Epperly
In some ways, all theology is healing theology. By that, I mean that the aim theology is not just armchair speculation, but the transformation of our lives and communities. Healing goes by many names – salvation, conversion, curing, reconciliation, wholeness, unity, forgiveness. All of them point to a change in our hearts, often reflected in a change in our social relationships, vocation, emotional well-being, spiritual priorities, and physical condition. Over the past several weeks, I have been pondering the healings of Jesus and the healing vocation of moderate and progressive Christians. Healing is about meaning (and I hope to address the interplay of meaning, imagination, and truth later this summer), but it also about whole person transformation that may literally change the cells of our bodies as well as our spiritual lives. The postmodern world is about connectedness, relationship, and holism, in which the transformation of the body changes the mind, and the transformation of the spirit or social location has an impact on physical existence.
Now, the strange story of the man who was healed gradually (Mark 8:22-26) is perhaps one of the most helpful healing stories for contemporary persons; perhaps, it was transformative in the first century as well. I have a strong sense of the literary and imaginative power of scripture: there are no throw-away lines or unnecessary stories in the remembered history (Borg) of Jesus’ life. But, why would this story be included? There is no dramatic healing; in fact, it begins in failure and disappointment. Jesus touches the man and he can see a little bit, but not yet well enough to see clearly. Jesus touches him and his sight is restored.
In a time in which healing and curing are dominated by quick fix technologies and quick fix televangelists, this story reveals the everyday realities of God’s healing movements in our lives. Most of us are not healed immediately, but need to go through a process of transformation until the wounds of body, mind, and spirit are healed. I have often noted that the flamboyant healing ministries of Benny Hinn, Richard Roberts, Gordon Robertson, (Pat Robertson’s son) and others may do more harm than good to the average congregation seeking to initiate a healing ministry. The televangelists only show us the successes – the people who get up from their wheelchairs, the cancer cures, and the glasses tossed away. While I do not wish to challenge the integrity of these televangelists, these programs present an inaccurate picture of divine healing that often prevents people from trusting God’s gentle, naturalistic healing over the long haul. The majority of people who attend televised healing services do not experience dramatic healings; and, for some, the cures are short-lived. Often, participants in congregational healing liturgies in moderate and progressive churches wonder why their healing services don’t produce such dramatic results; indeed, people can feel guilt and failure when a dramatic cure does not occur after an anointing or laying on of hands. (For more on progressive and moderate healing services, see Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice and God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus).
I believe dramatic changes can occur in the mind, body, spirit, relational, interdependence of life. I believe that God moves toward wholeness within all things, but most of the time, the divine quest for abundant life is revealed in gradual, almost imperceptible ways. Our health and illness, and the healing process occur in the context of factors such as DNA, physical condition, economics, health care accessibility and treatment, faith, and community support, along with our prayers and the prayers of others and movements of God in our lives. When a cure occurs, God is always the ultimate source, even though God works relationally and persuasively through the many factors of life, from meditation to medication, and contemplation to chemotherapy.
In the story of this man’s gradual healing, a cure emerges, but not immediately. When the man is not immediately cured, Jesus does not blame him. Rather, he continues the healing process. This is an important healing moment for the man and his culture: Jesus defies the acts-consequences approach to health and illness and success and poverty. People are not always sick because of immorality, negative thinking, or inadequate faith. Though these factors enter into our health and well-being, they are part of a larger psychosocial-physical-spiritual-economic matrix.
Jesus continues the healing process, ministering to the man’s spirit as well as to his eyesight. Freed from guilt and blame, the curative processes continue to operate, bringing healing and wholeness of body, mind, and spirit.
The story ends with Jesus sending the man home, with the admonition, “don’t even go into the village.” Perhaps, like the story of Jairus’ daughter that we explored last week, this man needed to return to an environment where he would be known as healthy and whole, rather than in terms of his blindness. Perhaps, he needed to gently grow into the cure that he had received. Moving too quickly physically, relationally, and spirituality can actually impede the healing process.
This story of gradual healing is important for people today. First, it portrays God’s aim at healing as naturalistic, occurring within the causal interdependence of life. Second, it portrays Jesus using a first-century healing media, saliva, which reminds us that we can take our medication prayerfully and that God is working not only through Western technological medicine, but also through prayer, global healing techniques, laying on of hands, energy work, and social transformation to restore persons to well-being. Third, it reminds us that gradual healing and curing is just as revelatory of God’s grace as dramatic healing. A God who works for wholeness in all things primarily works gently in the world, using the media of our daily lives; but, God also works persistently to transform our lives, body, mind, and spirit, lovingly and without blame.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.
Persons interested in progressive approaches to healing and wholeness may consult his God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice; and Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus, written with Katherine Gould Epperly. He can be contacted at email@example.com.