Faith, Healing, and Medicine
Mark 5: 21-43
The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
1 July 2018
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Most of us who listen to this Gospel story in Mark will come away with the message that if you have faith in Jesus, then you will be healed. We are told about a woman who, in desperate hope of being healed of her bleeding disorder says, “but if I just touch his clothes, I will be made well.” If we were to put her thought process into the form of propositional logic, it would be something like, “If I believe in Jesus, then he will heal me. I do believe in Jesus. Therefore he will heal me.” In the story, Jesus does, of course, heal the woman. He even confirms the direct connection between her faith and his healing when he says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
This connection between faith and healing is reinforced in the next sequence of events when Jesus proceeds to attend to Jarius’ daughter. While Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the house, someone comes to Jarius and tells him not to bother Jesus any further because the girl had died. Upon overhearing this, Jesus says to Jarius, “Do not fear, only believe.” If we were to put Jesus’ statement in the form of propositional logic it would be something like, “If you believe in me, I will heal your daughter. You do believe in me. Therefore I will heal your daughter.” Once again, the outcome seems to confirm the necessary connection between faith and healing, since the girl gets up when Jesus commands her to do so. And, of course, we cannot also help but to infer that the converse also seems to be implied in these two stories, that is “if you don’t have faith, you won’t be healed.”
We get ourselves into very serious difficulties, however, when we try to extrapolate universal truth claims about the relationship between faith and healing based on these two very discrete stories about specific individuals. Does the author of this story really intend to tell us that every human being, in every condition of sickness, everywhere on the planet and in every moment of history since the Incarnation will be healed if only they have faith in Jesus Christ? Or to be less global, but still pretty expansive, is the text really trying to tell us that “Every person who believes in Jesus will be healed from all maladies that doctors cannot cure?” Or that, “All children will be healed if their parents have faith in Jesus?” The answer to these questions, I think, has to be “No.” Yet these universal claims have been made in the past, causing all sorts of problems as a result.
We cannot with any amount of confidence convince people that if only they have faith they will be healed because our own concrete experience reveals that this simply isn’t true. We don’t see a lot of evidence that Christians are more prone to heal from diseases than non-believers. Or that non-believers come down with diseases more often than Christians. Indeed, there are people who possess a deep and abiding faith who ask for healing, but who die from diseases. There are children of faithful parents who die, in spite of their parents’ prayers. So, if we hold on to the universal truth claims that we will be healed if we have faith, but are then confronted with the stark realties of life, we find ourselves in a crisis of faith. And, as a result of that crisis, we then have to create a whole new set of different explanations about why our concrete experience doesn’t seem to match up with the truth about what we think these two Bible stories seem to be saying to us.
Our responses to this crisis can go in different directions. One direction might be, “Well I guess I don’t believe in Jesus enough or in the right way. So if I prayed harder or better then I would be healed or my child would be healed.” Individuals with this point of view can suffer with extreme guilt and blame themselves for their child’s death or even for their own cancer.
Another response might be, “Well I do believe in Jesus and am praying hard and in the right way, but God is not answering my prayers. Therefore God must be punishing me or my child for something.” This view of God makes him look like a capricious and arbitrary being, whose economy of grace can be deduced simply by reading the results of medical lab reports.
Perhaps the most common response for men and women of faith is this one, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that every illness has a simple material cause. Praying to be cured is simply naïve and scientifically unenlightened. I’ll just leave faith and God out of it completely so I don’t run into this spiritual conflict any more.” This response is also a problem because it completely severs the relationship between faith and healing.
So, where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with the very real and genuine question about the mysterious relationship between faith and healing. Jesus does heal people. This is a Biblical fact and an important one that I think we need to accept as true. But just because Jesus heals the woman with hemorrhages or Jarius’ daughter does not mean it will always be God’s will to heal each of us from all of our sicknesses whenever we ask him, no matter the depth of our faith. God’s will is inscrutable. We do not have complete insight into the will of God. And, we have to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions if God doesn’t answer our prayers. If God does not answer our prayers for healing this does not necessarily mean that 1) our faith is inadequate; 2) God is punishing us; 3) that the Bible is just quaint fiction, 4) God doesn’t heal people, or 5) that God doesn’t exist at all. Accepting the fact that we do not have complete insight into the will of God is part of what it means to live as one of God’s creatures and also what it means to have faith.
So, if I am suggesting that we should resist extrapolating ironclad universal truth claims about faith being the prerequisite for healing from the text, then how else might this passage speak to us? I think there is actually a very important messages embedded in this text. One that is perhaps more relevant to us now in the 21st century than it was in first century Palestine. The message is that medicine should never usurp the role of faith.
Recall the following verses: “Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better but rather grew worse.” The text points to the very real fact that physicians cannot cure every disease that confronts them, but it also seems to indicate that the woman is coming to Jesus only after her medical and financial options had failed.
The story of Jarius’ daughter is similar. The girl was dying, and the urgency to get Jesus seems to imply that he had already exhausted every other option. In other words, the text seems to suggest that both the woman and Jarius came to Jesus in desperation as a last resort, rather than relying on their faith as their starting point for confronting their sickness.
Faith in Christ can not be thought of simply as something that resides on the shelf of our life that we reach for only in moments of great desperation, like a stop gap measure when science, technology, and medicine fail us. Rather, our faith in Christ provides us with the framework to interpret the meaning of our life. It is our faith in Christ that tells us that our ultimate goal is to be in relationship with him, that sin and death, do not have the last word, and that the totality of our lives, in sickness and in health, belong to him and to him alone. It is not without significance that Jesus, addresses the woman as daughter. This is the only place in the New Testament where such a relationship is spoken of directly.
It is only in the context of our faith and as sons and daughters of God can we understand the proper limits and role of medicine, which is ordered to help us live our lives faithfully as creatures of God. Medicine should never marginalize our need for God or become the means by which we constantly try to overcome our creaturely limitations. Health can never be an end in itself. Nor is sickness an absolute evil that must be conquered at any cost.
We can love God and love our neighbor in all sorts of conditions of sickness and health. Even those who are severely incapacitated and whose personal agency is severely limited can teach us how to love them and what the virtues of generosity and compassion entail as we learn how to care for them.
It is also important to remember that as Christians, our moral and spiritual tradition tells us that illness and death are not alien to us. They are natural and normal parts of our creaturely existence, which God, through the person of Christ, has himself experienced. God does not ask us to endure anything that he himself was not willing to undergo. Illness and death can be events, as painful and as sad as they are, which do not have to destroy the integrity and meaning of our lives.
To confront our illnesses from the starting point of faith is to proclaim that our lives do not proceed in the direction of some meaningless fatalism, mere victims of the relentless march of time and human biology, and where medicine is our only hope. Rather, integrating both our successes and misfortunes into our lives is part of the task of the Christian faith. Every aspect of our life is taken up in its totality in the person of Christ. God promises to live with us and empower us in sickness and in health, and finally even in our own death. Learning how we will be called to die faithfully is also the task of every Christian.
As helpful and as important as it is, we cannot allow medicine to usurp the role of faith. Science, technology, and medicine cannot tell us what it means to live an integrated existence as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. It is a mistake to let science and technology tell us that we do not need to appeal to God or a transcendent being to integrate our lives. That is the role of faith, and that should be our starting point. It is from this starting point that we pray for healing, grateful if it is granted to us, so that through the gift of health we may be empowered to love God and be of service to others. But, if we pray for healing, but do not receive it, it is also an act of faith to accept God’s decision. In such a case we must ask him how we can witness to his grace and love, even through our infirmities, and ultimately in our deaths.