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.