Recently I listened to a seminar given by a young woman who seemed to indicate that the church had dropped the ball when it came to preaching the whole gospel. I was cautiously optimistic, hoping there might be some discussions about the sad neglect of truth in our age.
The gospel for this, and a growing number of individuals it seems, is only fully realized as we unlock its potential for physical healing in our lives and and in the lives of others.
What makes thinking through this subject complicated is that I am not a hard-line cessationist – I believe God has healed miraculously and continues to do; nor do I want to establish any kind of wrong dualism between the priority of the spiritual over the physical. Where I get anxious is when expectations of physical healing usurp gospel priorities and prevent our acquiescence to the sovereignty and goodness of God in our lives – both good times and bad.
The following, then, are a few particular concerns I have with “healing theology.”
Jesus’ ministry was primarily a ministry of the word.
Jesus stated that he came to “preach the gospel to the poor” – not to start an insurrection among them, or even to give everyone a tax-free bag of denarii. He proclaimed forgiveness of sins to the paralytic, and healed him only to prove his authority to do so. Among the multitudes languishing besides the pool of Bethesda in John 5, he healed only one man. In the first chapter of Mark Jesus decided to go somewhere else to preach, even though desperately sick and hurting people were looking for Him.
In these and other instances, we see that Jesus Him places a clear priority on the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins because sin, not physical sickness, is our primary problem.
An Under-Realized Awareness of the Real Problem
Throughout the entire seminar I kept listening for any clear reference to sin – but it never came. When there was discussion of Jesus becoming a curse, it was primarily in terms of Him taking on our physical illnesses, not our treason – as if the main reason Jesus left the glory of paradise, submitted himself to the insufferable demands of selfish people, and finally endured the agony of the cross is so that we wouldn’t be sick.
In case we’re hazy on this, let Paul remind us of the true reason Jesus came: “Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” Jesus’ ministry goals were not to initiate pain-free lives for His disciples, but to make atonement for their sins.
An Over-Realized Eschatology
Proponents of healing theology often talk about “inviting the Christian to demonstrate the realities of the Kingdom of God on earth.” At this point I want to say in my best Spanish accent, “I do not think the kingdom of God means what you think it means.”
Now I want to be clear about something. Jesus absolutely inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth with His coming and work on the cross. The kind of revolution that Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the entire Old Testament predicted is realizes finally in a people who have “the law of God written on their heart.” A people whose hearts have been transformed and can finally love God and their fellow men with more than lip service. .
I say all these things because I don’t want it to sound like I’m overlooking the massive privilege believers now enjoy under the New Covenant. But as Christians, we also need to affirm two things: 1. We are going to suffer. 2. This fact doesn’t dilute the potency of God’s kingdom, present now in a mustard seed, one hairsbreadth.
The overthrow of all suffering will not happen today, it will take place in the world to come. Until then, we may live in holes in the ground or be sawn in two, we may go without sleep or food, we may suffer stomach ailments, we may lose family and friends to cancer, we may succumb to a late-life bout of pneumonia. Our hope is that this is not the final word. One day the tears will be wiped away, the curse will be bundled up and set out with the blue bins, the body, with all it’s sin and decay, will be reforged – never to rust again.
But it is not today.
You can’t make the unique ministry of Jesus and the apostles paradigmatic for all Christians at all times.
Proponents of healing theology often point to the earthly ministry of Jesus in the gospels as irrefutable proof that we too must expect a large part of our ministry to involve healing ministry. But Jesus, as God, loved His Father absolutely, comprehended His will perfectly, knew exactly what His mission was and never deviated one moment from it. Christians on the other hand, though forgiven and transformed, cannot claim such evanescent perception into the secret will of God. We are not Jesus.
How many of our prayers have been driven by expediency rather than the glory of God – how often do we assume our comfort (health, finances, etc.) naturally dovetails with the will of God for our lives. But how often has the providence of God defied our pragmatism – to the praise of His glorious grace.
Though we cannot see beyond the immediate spectrum of few seconds, God sees the end from the beginning. This being the case, we cannot infallibly claim that someone will be healed while miles away from them, as Jesus did with the centurion. We cannot pray over some fresh-baked kaiser loaves and necessarily expect them to multiply. We cannot, with any degree of confidence, tell someone to rise from the dead and expect compliance. We cannot tell someone with migraines it is necessarily God’s will for them to be pain-free.
Misplaced Optimism Concerning the Power of Miracles
While in Corinth, Paul was faced with two kinds of individuals. There were the Greeks – these were the guys who wanted some elegant principles and doctrines that would make them look smart. Then there were the Jews, who wanted great demonstrations of power – signs and wonders; the spectacular and indisputable.
And Paul confounded each of them.
His ministry strategy was almost staggeringly simplistic: “We preach Christ crucified.” Why? “To those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” There it is. At the end of the day, beyond miracles and healing – what do you think about Christ? This is the absolute bedrock of the gospel – you can have a healed body but a hell-bound soul!
Because the human heart is dead, any amount of cajoling won’t help it – fireworks don’t impress a corpse. Before any of that, they need to be resurrected. Spiritually speaking, that means of resurrection is in the atoning death of Christ and His resurrection. This is the message that will transform a generation. If it doesn’t sounds all that spectacular – well, God is not beneath using apparently unspectacular means to confound expectations. God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Healing Theology has only one category for physical suffering.
Namely – it’s bad. It is categorically outside of God’s will for your life. It is an obstacle which prevents you from living a full and free Christian life.
But the Bible itself never talks about suffering like this. David speaks of the benefits of affliction in Psalm 119:67, and Paul speaks of the God-given thorn in his flesh that, whatever it was, was God’s means of keeping him dependent on His grace. Peter talks about the reasonableness of expecting “fiery trials” and Paul reminds the Philippines that we have been given the privilege not only to believe in His name, but to suffer for his sake. The writer of Hebrews tells his readers, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, for He has said, I will never leave you or forsake you.” Our comfort in life is not that we will avoid the valleys, but that He will walk with us through them.
If your theology of suffering is that there is no theology of suffering, you are swiftly going to find yourself rail-gunned by life, and completely confused by most of the New Testament. What the Bible is clear about is that all trials, whatever they are, are small potatoes compared to the weight of glory that is in store.