If you’ve been a Christian for long enough, you’ve likely posed this question in your heart when you or a loved one has suffered physically, mentally, or spiritually. Sure, in the abstract everything is possible with God. But at some point, hope bleeds into delusion, doesn’t it?
It’s not always easy to swallow the line from scripture: confess and pray, that you may be healed (James 5:16). Yes, James encourages us, you should pray for healing.
As a lifelong Christian, I know that there’s never a situation when it’s wrong to pray. But when prayer seems like asking God to violate the limits of the possible, it can feel distasteful, even soul-wrenching.
What is hope?
This question is raised quite powerfully in the deeply moving When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by Paul Kalanithi (Random House, 2016) about finding life’s meaning as a young neurosurgeon dying from metastatic lung cancer:
The word “hope” first appeared in English about a thousand years ago, denoting some combination of confidence and desire. But what I desired, life, was not what I was confident about, death. When I talked about hope then, did I really mean “leave some room for unfounded desire?” No… So did I mean “leave some room for a statistically improbable but still plausible outcome—a survival just above the measured 95 percent confidence interval?” Was that what hope was?… It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed when I became one…. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.
Indeed, if a change in circumstances is the object of our hopes, then we may well fall victim to delusion, or search in vain for solace in the numbers. Christians of all people should be realists.
But if pain, disease, and death are certainties of this life, the Christian also has the certainty of resurrection, the restoration of all creation. God raised Jesus from the dead. So now, the clock of history ticking until Jesus’ final victory over suffering and death.
And occasionally, God reverses the ordinary flow of time by letting the resurrection life of the future break into this present world of pain, disease, and death. When we entreat God to heal us or our loved ones, we ask Him for no less than this, to give us a brief taste of life in the world to come by physically healing our bodies and minds right now.
The Lord will raise you up
I take this to be the lesson of James 5:15-16:
The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
It sounds like James is promising far more than he can deliver: guaranteed healing. But if we look closely, his language is open-ended, giving us grounds for hope but not presumption. “The prayer of faith will save…the Lord will raise him up.” That is indeed a guarantee. But does James mean that a sick person, prayed over in faith, will be saved and raised up at the end of all things, at the resurrection, so she should fear neither death nor adversity in life? Or does James mean to extend hope for concrete healing in this life? I have a feeling he’d reply to the either/or with a hearty “yes!”
Come to the Healing Eucharist Service
We will be gathering here at Restoration Anglican Church on Tuesday (March 1) at 7:30 pm for a Healing Eucharist liturgy. All are invited to lay hold of this hope for healing—that God would give us an advance on the resurrection life by restoring us now to physical, mental, and spiritual health. The Eucharist itself is an image of this hope. We physically eat bread and drink wine, and by faith we share not only in the grace the crucified Christ won for us in the past, but also the future grace of the resurrection of our bodies.