Four years ago, when Johanna was first diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, she began a trial of two very common medications. These extremely common medications are used for a variety of over-the-counter needs and are widely available at any grocery store or pharmacy. The first ones she tried came in bottles filled with small, white, round pills. When Johanna started taking these medicines, she noticed an odd combination of reactions. Although there were a few minor improvements, most of her symptoms became worse! We were baffled by this. How could a benign, over the counter medication make someone feel worse? Our answer came when we learned about excipients. Excipients are the inactive ingredients listed in small print on the back of medication bottles (if they even have their ingredients listed). They are added to pills to make them bigger and easier to pick up. If pills were made only of pure medicine, many would be smaller than grains of sand. These excipients were hurting Johanna, and she was unable to benefit from the actual medicine in the pills! In a similar way, for myself and many others, our views on faith and healing come packaged with excipients – ideas and beliefs that can be unintentionally harmful.
One of the phrases we heard when Johanna became sick was “You can be healed if you have enough faith!” or “If you believe, you will be healed!”. We knew these sentiments were intended to encourage and support us. Yet the statements always unnerved and bothered me. My faith is far from perfect, but I didn’t believe Johanna was still sick because of a lack of faith. For example, three years ago, Johanna went in to the hospital to receive a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (PICC line). Our physician’s hope was to have medicine continuously pumped into her bloodstream with the aim of drastically improving her symptoms. Before the operation, our pastors prayed over us in person. We asked others for prayer too, and spent time praying ourselves, believing God could make the medication safe and effective. But within the first few days of receiving the PICC line, Johanna had dangerous heart arrythmias, trouble breathing, and needed to be rushed to the hospital emergency room. The continuously infusing medicine almost killed her!
Did this happen because we did not have enough faith? Did this happen because our pastors’ faiths were weak? Was God withholding healing from Johanna because of something we weren’t doing?
As I’ve been recently studying the book of Luke, I’ve been struck by an interesting story about healing and faith. In verse 12 of Luke Chapter 17, Jesus greets ten lepers on the outskirts of a city. These lepers were social and religious disasters. Lepers were unclean according to Jewish law, and they were feared and shunned by the general populace. These ten cried out to Jesus, obviously having heard of his amazing ability to heal the sick. Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the Jewish priests of the city. As they went, they were healed! Interestingly, only one of the ten lepers came back to Jesus. This leper fell at his feet, thanking Jesus for his healing work. Jesus then makes a startling and remarkable statement. He says to the healed leper, “… rise and go your way, your faith has made you well.”
This got my attention because the man had already been made physically well. All of the ten lepers had, and Jesus had made no comment about their faith. It wasn’t until this former leper came back to thank Jesus that Jesus linked healing with faith. What did Jesus mean when he said that the man’s faith had ‘made him well’?
I’ve been wrestling with the matter of faith and healing for years. The struggle has been intensified by the close nature of having a wife with a severe, relentless illness. As with the mystery of excipients and allergens, there are no easy answers. We have to be careful to not jump to conclusions too quickly, thinking we know exactly what Jesus means or what’s true and untrue.
After pondering Jesus’ words in this account, I can only conclude that there is a wellness that is separate from the wellness of the body. This leper had discovered that Jesus was not just a source of cosmic intervention for physical health, but as a person worthy of praise and thanks. But while gratitude is a virtue, there have been many people throughout history worthy of high praise. If this man had came back to thank Jesus simply because he was happy to no longer be a leper, would Jesus have linked faith to wellness?
I’ve read this passage countless times but recently noticed the link between the former leper’s praise and whom he bowed down to. When the ten lepers first saw Jesus, they attributed authority to him, giving him the title of “Master.” But the one former leper “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet.” The text doesn’t say “praising Jesus with a loud voice-he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet.” Rather, the distinction is made that the leper was praising God while bowing down before Jesus. Jesus reinforces this as he responds, ‘Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ The leper could have thanked God for physical wellness without returning to Jesus. The fact that he came back to Jesus to give praise to God indicates that he was recognizing Jesus as God and worshiping him accordingly.
The way we view Jesus changes how we approach hard, unanswered questions and the conclusions we make about faith and healing. It is important for me to keep that in mind as I think about the long and painful years of Johanna’s illness. I need to remember that there is a wellness which transcends physical health. A wellness that comes only when we recognize Jesus as not only a powerful physical healer, but as God, worthy of worship and praise. This wellness is available to everyone, whether healed from their illness or not. In spite of Johanna’s continuing illness, she has indeed received healing, a kind of wellness that transcends her body’s brokenness and which no disease remove. The kind of healing that comes when we fall at Jesus’ feet and worship him for being God.
True healing is the healing of our soul and sometimes physical illness is necessary to bring about that healing. There is no doubt in my kind that God could heal Johanna or me if He chose to do so, but apparently He feels our physical health problems are actually medicinal for our souls. It is very wrong for someone to say that if we just believed and had faith, we would be healed. That’s an extremely shallow version of Christianity that results from not reading the writings of the holy Fathers of the Church. Unfortunately, Protestantism is not familiar with the full history of the Church or the rich teachings on Holy Scripture available to us from the many great saints who lived prior to the reformation. It’s as if that 1500 years after Christ simply doesn’t exist. But I can tell you that they would never condone such a simplistic interpretation. You might enjoy the Jean-Claude Larchet’s book The Theology of Illness.
I think there is a balance to the necessity of healing and illness. In one respect, the entire Genesis story, and thereby the whole arc of the Holy Bible, is predicated on our separation from God, beginning in the garden. This separation broke our world and our bodies. In this respect, the resurrection of Jesus, which inaugurates the beginning of something new, of a new creation, is the reversal of these things. You are absolutely right that it is simplistic that faith always equates to physical healing. The reality is much more nuanced. There is tension. We should be seeking, praying, and striving towards healing, but also recognize, at the same time, that suffering is inevitably coupled with the Christian experience. We see this in the lives of not only Jesus, but in the lives of some of the very people you mentioned – the early church’s bishops, evangelists, and apostles. Thank you for responding so thoughtfully to my post. I appreciate your thoughts and comments greatly!
Wow – yes and amen! Thank you for sharing candidly about your own experience and also for pointing us to scripture as the authority. This line in particular struck me: “The way we view Jesus changes how we approach hard, unanswered questions and the conclusions we make about faith and healing.” Man, that’ll preach!
Thanks Heather! This was such a hard topic for me to write about, precisely because of the hard and unanswered questions. Thanks for the encouragement!
Hi Scott: You don’t know me, and Im not even sure how I stumbled upon Johanna’s caring bridge site to begin with, however, I have kept up to date on her illness and have found myself weeping at times and sometimes for the pure , wholehearted desire to see her walk out of that house healed, and sometimes I cried because your strength and commitment to her is nothing short of inspiring. We do not know the end of the story….well, we do know in heaven:-) , but on this side of heaven, I know without a shadow of a doubt that this story that you are living out WITH our GOD will be used far beyond you can imagine. God asks for faith of a mustard seed, but you my friend, have faith in this journey far beyond that size.
Thanks for your encouraging words. Yes, I often wish I could go down into my wife’s space and whisk her away on a long vacation. That we could go outside and enjoy a walk together. We eagerly await the day we can do these things. I’m happy you’ve found your way here, regardless of how you came across our story!
Scott (& Johanna), your story and expressed faith in Christ have been an encouragement since I became aware of you through Johanna’s article on TGC. I, too, am homebound because of reactions with too many things to count. And, I have also been given the “if you have enough faith…” pep-talk. For a time I tried to live it out, but alas the healing didn’t come. My heart was broken. But then by the grace of God, He began taking me through His Word in a more in-depth study and pondering on what is happening in passages just like you shared here. I began to see that there was more nuance, as you said, to the meaning of healing that comes through faith. I believe the women of 12 years of bleeding has the same kind of commendation from Jesus as the leper here. Learning to love, praise and even fear the Lord has been the greatest gift in the midst of my illness and I don’t want to trade knowing Him more intimately for the world, even the world of health. Yet, I agree with you, it is good to continue to pursue improved health through prayer, seeking medical helps, etc., but that we do so first seeking righteousness and the kingdom of God! I thank Him for using your blog to encourage my somewhat weary heart today!
Hi Diana. Thanks for sharing so personally. It is hard when people say things like that. I’ve found they often share it with a warm heart, but it nevertheless stings. Praise God that he is near the brokenhearted! He is bigger than our circumstances!