This past week I have been teaching a class on church history in one of the Bible schools we work with in Lusaka. And I love church history, because it reminds me that for every person who has ever represented a gross corruption of the Gospel, for every big–haired, dollar–eyed, televangelist who has confused “take up your cross” with “take out your wallet,” there have been thousands over the centuries who did indeed do the former, and gave everything for the sake of proclaiming Christ.
Yes, there have been the horrible chapters in Christian history of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, but there have also been many, many glorious chapters of transforming hope, and selfless sacrifice.
On the last regular day of class, after we had reviewed for the final, we decided that we needed to go to the home of two of the students and pray for them and their wives. Both of their wives have been very sick, one since February, the other, since 1987!
I had mixed feelings about the outing, because, my experience has been that God doesn’t always heal those we pray for. Now, some claim that that is due to a lack of faith in the person being prayed for, that If only they believed a little more, then God would heal them. Others say that God only heals through medical doctors nowadays. That healing in the New Testament was a mere sign, pointing to the arrival of God’s kingdom. And, they would say, since that kingdom has come (at least in part), then healing miracles are no longer necessary.
The problem with these two positions is that the first seems to make God a servant of faith. And if a miracle is dependent on my faith, then God hardly seems sovereign. The second position likewise, denies God’s character. It says that God only healed in order to make a point. Not because he loved people, not because he had compassion on them, not because he hated their suffering even more than they did.
But Jesus said that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed...that is, really small faith...then we could do, or rather, he would do through us, rather amazing things. We could metaphorically move mountains, he said. And any arguments based on the New Testament text that miracles were for a limited time only, are desperately thin. One might achieve some (limited) success arguing philosophically or scientifically that miracles are a thing of the past, but to make such a claim based on the New Testament is a hard sell indeed.
At any rate, I had mixed feelings. I wanted to see God help these people, who unlike most Americans, have few other options. And yet, I was afraid of the outcome if nothing came of it. What if they weren’t healed? What would be the effect on the students? On those we prayed for? On me?
At the first house we went to, we prayed for a lady who for the last 22 years has suffered varying degrees of mental illness. In America, of course, we would promptly load such a person up on Prozac and whatever else is the anti–depressant du jour. And occasionally, we would do so with good cause. But in Zambia medical care for the mentally ill is virtually non–existent.
At the second house, we prayed for a lady who had been sick since February with fevers, headaches, coughing, bloodshot eyes and itchy skin.
As we gathered at the second house, which was in a busy compound just off the main market, in earshot of noisy bars and foot traffic, my fears about our prayers not being answered were quickly swallowed up in the reality of being there. In that tiny house, with its bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and its tin roof and chipped plaster walls, it occurred to me that we pray for healing, not only because God can and does heal the sick, but also because when we pray we become what we could never be otherwise.
By that, I mean that in praying for those who are hurting, we lose something of our earthly and fatal perspective – a perspective that fears prayer because of what might not be, and enter into God’s divine perspective – one that embraces prayer because of who God is. We turn from a temporal, results-centered living, to an eternal, Person-centered loving. And in that, we find that prayer for healing is never about us, and it is even only partly about the person being prayed for.
And this is what both of those positions I mentioned above get right. It is ultimately about faith, and it is ultimately about the Kingdom. But neither of those, biblically speaking, is ever about us. Faith comes not from our will power, but from God’s all power. And the Kingdom of God that has burst in upon the kingdoms of men with the coming of Christ, is not about God making a statement, but about God making us whole. It is in the Kingdom that we are healed because it is in the King that we “live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:28).
This last year, it seems there has been an abundance of opportunities to pray for a number of our friends who have faced, and some who still are facing, major health issues. And at times, I have found myself wearied by the news of yet another beloved friend in desperate need of a touch from God. Because the truth is, to care, to really care, is exhausting and dangerous. It’s exhausting because it shatters all notions of a world in which things are just fine, and in which every malady is solvable with a Band–Aid or Ritalin. And its dangerous because it violently reminds us that despite our memberships at the gym, and our IRAs and 401Ks and all the degrees and placards hanging on our walls commemorating our accomplishments, that we ultimately are as dependent and helpless as little children.
And when we pray for the sick, I think somehow, we too find healing that we never even knew we needed. We might, I suppose, think of it as holy healthcare reform. When we come to God in faith and in recognition of our complete dependence on Him, we finally are able to, not only understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you change (reform), and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” but more importantly, we are actually enabled to do it!
So maybe we need to be praying for the sick more often because, 1) God can and does heal, and 2) because it is in doing so that we ourselves are cured of our greatest ailment, the disease of self–sufficiency.