Recently when I was visiting one of our teams, a small group of us gathered in a lounge room where lights were down, a candle burned and a tiny plate of oil sat on a table. We talked for a few minutes and asked some questions of the one who had requested special prayer for healing. Then gentle hands were laid on the shoulders and head of the one in pain, prayers were offered and tears flowed in this place of deep stories. Some of those who wept would probably have been remembering their own pain that had never quite gone away, others may have been gratefully recalling when their pain left for good, and all of us were lifting up this one we loved to the One we were sure was hearing our prayers.
Welcome to what I call Embarrassment #1: our pain, which often leaves us with a sense of shame and an impulse to hide it. Sometimes this is out of a sense of courtesy to our fellow human beings and sometimes it’s because we feel judged by a universe that has some secret and awful information about us and how screwed up we are.
The problem with such imaginings is that they give a foothold to our shadow-self1a and can weaken our soul until we get to the stage where we may be a bit like the cripple who needed the faith of his friends to get him the help that he needed. These men loved him so much and were so sure of God’s love that they were prepared to make a public spectacle of him and of themselves by cutting a hole in a roof of a stranger’s house just so they could get their sick brother close to Jesus.
Talk about embarrassment! But they were confident because they knew the sort of things Jesus had already been saying. Things like, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’1
This journey with Jesus and pain can be a long one. It requires determination but it also takes a bit of pluck, an attitude that says, ‘OK, you say you love me, well I’m coming to find you no matter what it takes.’ Why the determination and the pluck? Isn’t Jesus always present? He is, but sometimes there are obstacles to overcome. Daniel for example prayed for weeks before the angel arrived with news of his answer: “Don’t be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you began to pray for understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your request has been heard in heaven. I have come in answer to your prayer.’2 The angel went on to say that a demonic agent, ‘the prince of the kingdom of Persia,’ had fought with him and tried to stop him. Fascinating in that Daniel’s prayer was for understanding and was an attempt to humble himself and that the evil spirit wanted to obstruct humility and understanding.
Then there are the obstacles in our own soul (sometimes of our own making but sometimes not of our own making) that need to be broken down and disassembled one piece at a time, for this is not just a matter of you finding God, it is also a matter of letting your entire self be found by God: a self—described by CS Lewis as resembling an estate—that is so large we will only ever be able to be familiar with a small fraction of it. Hence the need to allow yourself to be found by God.
Yes this is sounding like spin-doctoring on behalf of heaven. What about those who claim to have gotten their healing and now they’re happy? Well, they might be happy but there are countless examples of those who experienced a miraculous healing and then went ‘happily’ on their way down the road of smug, self-centred living.
Problematic? Yes, especially if you are in agony and are just so ‘over the whole thing’. But be on your guard here, because God, like any other doctor, needs your utmost co-operation, and reckless behaviour can have tragic consequences. In particular, a good dose of patience on the part of the ‘patient’ is required. Losing your nerve, expecting a ‘sudden miracle’, or demanding that this happen in a hurry is usually not a good idea. And in particular, beware the instinct to demand that you first know where this will all lead to before you embark on the quest for healing.
It’s important to remember too that healing is frequently a pathway or quest of stepping stones across a swamp (usually only able to be seen one at a time) and can involve a long period of time as various obstacles are removed or overcome via the help of all kinds of people or situations: learning processes, special prayers for healing, embarrassments, confessions, hospital time and even awkward helpers who arrive at crucial moments. Remember Namaan the proud Syrian General who’s pride almost caused him to contemptuously dismiss Elisha’s instruction to wash seven times in the muddy Jordan? There may well be many who are still unwell in this world because they demand that the only healing they will accept will be one that allows their pride to stay intact—’Heal me with style or forget it.’
So, today might be a good day for you to ask yourself if you you missing out on the ‘I will …’ of Jesus, simply because you are too embarrassed to allow your pain to be seen in public.
Lastly, keep in mind that healing, like everything else with God, cannot be separated from your family, your friends, your church community and the entire story of you that’s unfolding with God. Amy Carmichael for example was a gifted healer and many would come to her every day for healing. But one day the Lord said to her, ‘Amy, they don’t want the gospel anymore they just want to be healed. I’m taking this gift away from you.’ The gift was gone and then sometime later she herself became crippled and remained that way for the rest of her life.
Physical suffering (and/or healing) always involves your whole life (body, soul and mind) and the lives of those around you. And this is a hard saying, but sometimes it is largely for those others. So whatever you do, do not assume that this is primarily because of some problem you have, some lesson you have to learn. Of course you will—if you allow it—grow and learn through it, but this particular wounding might mostly be about a need in someone else’s life. When we choose to fast for example, we have chosen a kind of suffering that could be described as a ‘hunger strike against evil’ that somehow assists in our prayers for others. Lewis says in one place that it can be helpful to think of a suffering that falls upon you as if you had consciously chosen it in the same way that you might decide to fast. And in your situation there may be others not too far away who are going to be saved through this. As Charles Williams says, ‘Sometimes an altar must be built in one place so that the fire of heaven can fall somewhere else.’3