Healing is a particularly fraught topic for Christians. We pray for it, and yet so many people suffer interminably or die young. How are we to make sense of our prayers, or even to feel trust in a supposedly loving and powerful God, in the light of illness and suffering?
Some reading I was doing recently gave me a new way of looking at the problem. Healing, it suggested, is intrinsically related to baptism. God’s saving work for us has dimensions which are about health and wholeness of body as much as of relationship. For St. Paul (said David J. Kennedy, lecturer in liturgy at Durham University, the author of what I was reading), baptism “stands at the intersection of two worlds, the ‘old’ world characterised by sin, corruption and death, and the ‘new’ world, characterised by newness of life.” In support of this view, he quotes 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
There is, no doubt, much more that could be said about Paul’s take on an already-inaugurated eschatology, but the relevant thought for this topic is that healing therefore becomes one dimension of salvation, and a proper hope for Christians. (It might be worth noting here that the New Testament words for “heal” and “save” are precisely the same verb in Greek, so that in translating into English the translator must make a judgement call about which sense of the verb is primary in each case).
What do we do with that, then, in the light of our imperfect experience? One thing to recognise is that healing is, in this life, only ever temporary and provisional. Our ultimate healing lies on the other side of death and resurrection. Which is why, when looking for healing, we do well to be alert to the idea that it may come in a number of forms; physical, yes; but it may also be a matter of the emotional experience of illness; or it may be a matter of the relationships with others impacted by illness; or it may be in the networks of social support and care (or lack thereof) of the ill; or it may be finally reserved for the nearer presence of God. All of these dimensions are a part of the Christian hope and possible arenas of the action of God at work in the world.
This can be seen as something of an unpacking of the Hebrew word shalom, (peace), which expresses the desire for harmony with God, with our community, and with all of creation. This understanding of wholeness also reveals the tension between the “already” and “not yet” dimensions of salvation; the kingdom breaks into the reality of a sinful, alienated and divided world, which knows too well injustice and social oppression.
It also follows that lack of healing can never be something for which a sick person is blamed. A person is not sick because they lack faith. Those who do experience healing are not somehow intrinsically better Christians thereby. Rather they become signs in whom God’s work may be revealed; work in which all believers can trust that they will ultimately be caught up to the full. Healing then becomes both present gift and eschatological hope, and places the prayer and desire for wholeness in the wider framework of all that salvation means.