the shape of leadership

When Healing Doesn’t Come

Lessons learned from chronic illness

George P Wood on March 22, 2017


The young woman walked to the altar at the close of the worship service, knelt, and began to pray. As she did so, she experienced a vision of Jesus Christ on the cross. In her vision, she reached up to apply the blood from Christ’s wounds to her eyes. In reality, she had taken her glasses off and thrown them across the platform.

To understand what was happening at that moment and why it is important, you need to know three things: First, the young woman had worn thick glasses from an early age to correct extreme nearsightedness. Second, when she flung those glasses across the platform, she could see clearly for the first time. Third, the young woman is my Aunt Doris, whose vision God healed at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, in 1951.

Aunt Doris Stories
I grew up hearing that story. It’s one of the reasons I believe God has the power to heal.

And I am not alone in this belief. 

In its 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Research Center reported that 79 percent of all Americans agreed with the statement, “Miracles still occur today as in ancient times.” Even 78 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds affirmed the reality of miracles, though they are members of generational cohorts that are less religiously affiliated than their elders.

Nor am I alone in knowing someone who has been healed. Pew reported that 36 percent of Americans say they personally have “experienced or witnessed a divine healing of an illness or injury.”

In 2011, New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener published a two-volume academic study titled Miracles. Over the course of 1,248 pages, he made biblical, historical, and philosophical arguments for the credibility of New Testament miracles. To me, the most interesting parts of his study were the 388 pages devoted to contemporary accounts of miracles, all duly footnoted! 

In other words, a lot of us have Aunt Doris stories. I want more than an Aunt Doris story, however. I want a healing story of my own. 

My Story
In 1990, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. AS is a chronic inflammatory disease of the spine, so it’s often called spinal arthritis. I first noticed something wrong in college when my low back pain and neck stiffness didn’t go away. Since then, my posture has become stooped, my neck has fused, and I have lost considerable range of motion in the affected areas. 

Those developments are bad, of course, but the worst thing is the chronic pain. Pain is exhausting. I experience it daily and take prescription pain medicine to alleviate it. Most of the time it is low grade and manageable. On occasion, though, it becomes so fierce that I find relief only through high doses of prescription pain medicines and lots of sleep. My worst inflammatory episode lasted three weeks. I slept 15 to 16 hours a day and felt mentally foggy (due to the medication) during the few hours I was awake. 

I’m not alone in my unhealed state. I think of the young man who sits behind me at church, crippled by cerebral palsy from birth. And the godly woman I had known my whole life who died from a painful cancer that grew on her neck. I think of two friends paralyzed after accidents who have been wheelchair-bound for decades. My guess is that you too are aware of stories like this, stories of the unhealed.

God’s Story
There’s a third story we need to take into account, one that makes sense of the other two. It is God’s story. God’s story is the story of life in all its fullness — spiritually, relationally, and physically. It is the story of life given, life lost and life restored through Jesus Christ.

We see this story in the Bible’s opening and closing chapters. The Bible begins in a garden, at the center of which is the tree of life (Genesis 2:9). This tree represents God’s intention for us, to live and not to die.

Unfortunately, Adam and Eve disobeyed God (Genesis 3:6). This resulted in an immediate rupture in Adam and Eve’s relationship (3:7,16) and in their relationship with God (3:10), as well as in suffering and death (3:16,17,19). In judgment of their disobedience, God banished humanity from Eden and from access to the tree of life (3:24). We live under a curse (3:14,17).

Between the Bible’s opening and closing chapters, however, we witness our good and loving God work to reverse the curse. This begins with the election of Abraham and his descendants to be a channel of “blessing” to “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12:3). God fulfilled His promise through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:8). 

So, in the Bible’s final chapters, we see “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2). At its center is “the tree of life,” whose leaves provide “the healing of the nations” (22:2). In the new Jerusalem — the restored Garden of Eden — there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (21:4). There is no more sin to separate us from God or one another (21:8). “No longer will there by any curse” (22:3). In the words of Isaac Watts’ magnificent hymn, “Joy to the World”:

He comes to make His blessings flow
far as the curse is found.

That is God’s story. Through Jesus Christ, God’s blessing runs farther and deeper than the curse, healing us spiritually, relationally and physically.

Scenic Views of the Kingdom
God’s story helps us understand our own stories, whether they are stories of healing (like my Aunt Doris’) or of unhealing (like my own). How so? The answer involves Yosemite.

The Lord’s response to Paul requires all of us — perhaps especially those of us who are chronically ill or disabled — to look deep inside ourselves and ask whether God’s grace is enough for us. Is He enough for me, or am I looking for something more than Him?

The first time I went to Yosemite was a few months after I married my wife, Tiffany. We took Interstate 5 north towards Fresno, then cut over onto Route 41 East. My wife knew the way by heart because she had been there before, but I had to use a map and follow the signs.

After you enter the park, you drive mountain roads for miles until you enter the Wawona Tunnel, which runs through one of the mountain’s spurs. When you exit that tunnel, Yosemite Valley lies before you in all its majestic beauty. To the left is El Capitan, in the middle Half Dome, to the right Bridalveil Fall. On a clear day, you can see for miles.

The view from Wawona Tunnel is not always clear, however. It’s never clear at night, for example. Storms blow through the area and limit visibility. Sometimes, a dense fog settles on the valley, wrapping Yosemite in an impenetrable shroud. 

Healings are like the scenic view of Yosemite Valley on a clear day. In an instant, we see a vision of God’s ultimate will for us. As Jesus said of His earthly ministry, “if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). A scenic view is not the valley itself, of course. Still, healing shows us our destination and inspires us to continue down the road.

What about the unhealed? You’d be a fool to conclude that Yosemite Valley doesn’t exist because you can’t see it from Wawona Tunnel. Just so, healing is real even if it hasn’t happened to you yet. If night, storm and fog obstruct your vision throughout this life, continue to consult your map and follow the road signs anyway. As Jesus said, “[B]lessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). You will arrive at the new Jerusalem, even if you can’t see it till you’re right on top of it.

False Trails
The thing about walking in the dark (or through a storm or in a fog) is that you’re especially in danger of going down a false trail. You begin think to yourself: 

God desires to heal me. I have not yet been healed. Since there is no lack of power on God’s side, there must be some deficiency on my side. Perhaps I do not have enough faith. Or perhaps I have unconfessed sins. Once I increase my faith or confess my sins, God will certainly heal me right away! 

People who think this way find biblical proof texts for their thoughts quickly enough. 

Regarding deficient faith, for example, Matthew 15:38 says, “[Jesus] did not do many miracles [in Nazareth] because of their lack of faith” (emphasis added). Regarding unconfessed sin, James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (emphasis added). 

And yet, these verses do not present the whole biblical story. Take deficient faith. In Mark 9, Jesus exorcized a demon who had caused a boy to be mute and apparently epileptic. Interestingly, the boy apparently expressed no faith in Jesus at all. (How could he? He was possessed.) Rather, it was the father who expressed faith, and his faith was mixed. “I do believe,” he exclaimed; “help me overcome my unbelief” (Verse 24). 

Or again, take immorality. In John 9, Jesus healed “a man blind from birth” (Verse 1). His disciples misperceived the cause of his blindness, asking, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Verse 2). Jesus’ answer? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Verse 3). In other words, sin had nothing to do with this man’s sickness ... at all.

The path to the new Jerusalem requires us to trust and obey God, who made the path, so it’s always a good time to grow in faith or confess your sins. If you’ve asked God in prayer to heal you, don’t stop. Ever! But faith and confession don’t automatically produce healing. “Lack of faith” and “unconfessed sins,” then, are false trails, and it’s best to avoid them.

A Long, Hard Slog
Sometimes, you see, the journey God has laid out for us is just a long, hard slog. Paul wrote something in Romans 5:3,4, that is both counterintuitive and instructive: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” This remark is counterintuitive because we don’t naturally glory in our sufferings. It’s instructive, however, because it shows the road from suffering to hope.

Paul was talking about the sufferings believers experience as a result of following Christ in a spiritually hostile world. But what he says applies as well to suffering more generally. Everyone suffers something to some degree for some reason at some time and place in their lives. The important issue, then, is not whether we suffer but how. Does our suffering break us or make us? Does it cause us to turn back on the journey, or does it strengthen us for the road ahead?

The answers to that question are not automatic. Suffering breaks some and makes others. Because of suffering, some backslide while others move forward spiritually. The crucial difference is the response each makes to Christ in the moment of suffering.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul shared the high-low moment of his life. High: he experienced “visions and revelations” (Verse 1). Low: he experienced “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan” (Verse 7). He pleaded with the Lord to remove the thorn three times, but received only this reply: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (Verse 9).

The Lord’s response to Paul requires all of us — perhaps especially those of us who are chronically ill or disabled — to look deep inside ourselves and ask whether God’s grace is enough for us. Is He enough for me, or am I looking for something more than Him? If I have Him, I have healing, whether in this age or in the age to come. If I don’t have Him, having health, wealth, and success are worthless. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).

“Only Stand and Wait”
In his mid-40s, the English poet John Milton began to lose his vision. If you’re a reader, writer or editor, you know what a devastating loss that is. Sonnet 19 was written during this period and concluded with these words:

" ... thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The word wait here has a twofold sense: patience, as in waiting for something to happen; and service, as in waiting on a table. Milton, I think, intended both senses. I certainly feel them. I know God will heal me; I’m just waiting on Him to do so. As I do so, I remember that even in pain, if nothing else, I can be of service to God and others in prayer, a listening ear and encouragement. And that fills me with hope.

Today, if you’re suffering from illness or disability, will you stand and wait with me?

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 print version of Vital Magazine and has been adapted with permission.

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