The two big ideas Oord has offered so far in his book, God Can’t, are first, that God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly (God doesn’t have hands since God is Spirit, and God’s love is uncontrolling), and second, God feels our pain (and the more ways we open ourselves up to the Presence of God, the more likely we are to experience God’s empathy and compassion). Now, on to the third big idea from Oord: God works to heal. “God responds to evil by working to make things better. The healing God pursues for us can be emotional, physical, relational, or spiritual. Restoration takes many forms” (Oord, God Can’t, 57).
There are a number of stories that share accounts of God healing through Jesus. This one seems particularly relevant as we wonder about God’s work in the area of healing:
14 When they returned to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd surrounding them, and some teachers of religious law were arguing with them. 15 When the crowd saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with awe, and they ran to greet him.
16 “What is all this arguing about?” Jesus asked.
17 One of the men in the crowd spoke up and said, “Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. 18 And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid (weak). So I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.”
19 Jesus said to them (the disciples), “You faithless people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
20 So they brought the boy. But when the evil spirit saw Jesus, it threw the child into a violent convulsion, and he fell to the ground, writhing and foaming at the mouth.
21 “How long has this been happening?” Jesus asked the boy’s father.
He replied, “Since he was a little boy. 22 The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him. Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”
23 “What do you mean, ‘If I can’?” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”
24 The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”
25 When Jesus saw that the crowd of onlookers was growing, he rebuked the evil (unclean) spirit. “Listen, you spirit that makes this boy unable to hear and speak,” he said. “I command you to come out of this child and never enter him again!”
26 Then the spirit screamed and threw the boy into another violent convulsion and left him. The boy appeared to be dead. A murmur ran through the crowd as people said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and helped him to his feet, and he stood up.
28 Afterward, when Jesus was alone in the house with his disciples, they asked him, “Why couldn’t we cast out that evil spirit?”
29 Jesus replied, “This kind can be cast out only by [fasting and] prayer.” – Mark 9:14-29 NLT
Matthew remembered Jesus’ concluding comments to the disciples a little differently, saying,
“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” – Matthew 17:20-21 NLT
Have you ever prayed for something as hard as you possibly could, with as much faith as you could, maybe even trying to cut a deal with God to secure the outcome you wanted? Have you ever had that prayer answered with a “no” that you didn’t get the role in the musical or play you wanted, you didn’t get the position on the team you wanted, you didn’t get the grade you wanted, or accepted into the college you wanted? Or perhaps the “no” meant the relationship you were praying for was not going to recover to health and it was over. Or maybe it meant that you didn’t get the job you wanted, or the promotion, or the offer you put on the house. Or it meant that you didn’t get the results on your medical tests you wanted, and it means a really challenging future for you. Or it meant that someone you dearly loved did not heal from their disease or injury, and they died. Have you ever had this happen to you? I sure have.
Because I grew up in the church, I was very familiar with the story of Jesus healing the kid plagued by some condition that caused convulsions and grand mal seizures, which they attributed to demon possession (what else could they possibly imagine as the cause?). The disciples tried to handle it but were failing. Jesus rebuked them, calling them faithless, then went on to tell the father that anything is possible for those who believe. Jesus then healed the kid. The take home lesson many people walk away with? If you don’t get your prayer answered, it’s because you don’t have enough faith, or you didn’t pray or fast (enough). Some add to the equation unconfessed sins that are prohibiting God from healing: since you failed to tithe, or stop smoking or drinking or swearing or stealing or masturbating or lusting or dishonoring your parents or keeping the Sabbath holy or (fill in the blank), God is not going to heal your loved one from their disease, because God is that petty and God’s love and care are, therefore, conditional. Have you ever heard this line of thinking in some fashion? Have you ever struggled with this issue of God’s apparent healing of some and not others? I sure have.
In response, Oord offers Four Steps to Understanding God’s Healing Work. First, Oord notes that God is always present to all creation and always loves to the utmost. God is omnipresent and omniloving. He offers a great slap-in-the-face, wake up statement for those of us who are looking around, waiting for God to do something: “God never intervenes, because God is always already present!... The God who always loves is already working to heal. We don’t need to cajole, plead, or beg. No need to grovel or crawl on all fours, cowering in hopes that God will relent and come to the rescue. God doesn’t enter a situation from the outside as if previously away on other business… God is always at work everywhere healing to the utmost possible, given the circumstances” (63). Perhaps instead of wondering if God is present, we should learn new ways to recognize the presence and work of God that is always at hand.
The second step to embrace is the idea that God works alongside people and creation. Oord notes, “To say, ‘God works alongside’ does not mean God only works indirectly. God knows us personally and loves us specifically by working to heal directly… ‘God works alongside’ people and other entities in creation means God is never the only cause in any situation. Other agents and causes — good, bad, or indifferent — also affect what happens. We are relational beings in an interrelated universe, so we’re always affected by others. We live in a social network” (64).
The third step is to recognize that God cannot heal singlehandedly. Oord: “When we understand that God cannot heal singlehandedly, we solve the problem of selective miracles. If God always works to heal but cannot control anyone or anything, it’s not God’s fault when healing does not occur (65)… Because God can’t heal singlehandedly, lack of cooperation or inopportune conditions in creation thwart God’s restorative work” (66). Related to the healing passage we started with, Oord offers clarification regarding the “you lack faith” concern: “Believing that God needs creaturely cooperation or the proper conditions does not mean everyone ill, abused, depressed, suffering, sick, or dying does not have cooperative faith (67). When we or other creatures cooperate or when the conditions are suitable, God heals. Thanks be to God! When creatures fail to cooperate or the conditions are not suitable, God’s efforts are frustrated. Blame creation!... Prayer alters circumstances in our bodies and world. It presents new opportunities for God to heal. Prayer opens up new possibilities for God’s love to make an actual difference (68). ‘Instead of believing God is uninvolved, perhaps we should believe God is always guiding but never dominating, always influencing but not manipulating’” (72).
The fourth and final step Oord offers is to trust that God’s uncontrolling love extends beyond death. He notes, “We continue living beyond the grave because God’s loving presence empowers continuing experience after our bodies die. There is a future life free from our current bodies and physical conditions that resist God’s work. Our dream of existing without bodily pain, abuse from others, trauma, and other evils can one day become a reality” (69)! This is one of the gifts of the witness of Jesus’ resurrection – the unlikely Messiah who was defeated by the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire ended up being victor over death itself, and therefore took the championship! We are so accustomed to the idea of life after death that the entrance of such an idea for common people is lost on us.
So, what do we do, then, with unanswered prayers and people left unhealed? It depends. If I ravaged my body with alcohol abuse and ruined my liver, or chowed down an extra crispy bucket of KFC every day for 40 years and clogged my arteries, I can’t get too mad at anybody but myself for my failing health. In that case I have thwarted God’s efforts to heal me. Praying for global peace seems like a worthy cause (it is), yet peace is unlikely if the people involved are more interested in defending their territory to the death than extending life through mediation. We can have confidence that Jesus was known to be a healer, and that there are examples today where people experience healing. What is not known are the list of variables that factor into the equation. With this rubric, however, we can stop blaming God for not doing anything, because God is doing much more than we likely realize. How many people have had their lives extended because of medical breakthroughs from brilliant minds trying to understand how to be more helpful? Many breakthroughs require incredibly powerful paradigms to be shattered. Herculean effort in some cases. Don’t you think the Spirit of God might be involved in that kind of work? As for the passage we started with, how about we allow the writers (and Jesus) to speak from a First Century vantage point? Maybe the dynamic changed when Jesus got involved because he was the rock star and not just one of the groupies. Let us not forget that the healing didn’t last forever. Every single person Jesus healed eventually died.
Sometimes the healing prayers we lift up are related to our physical life. To get really practical on the physical dynamics of healing, I need to be aware of how I am cooperating with the healing nature of God in my body? I am asking God to do all the work while I continue bad habits that thwart God’s healing work?
Sometimes the healing prayers we lift up are related to our emotional life. How are we cooperating with God on that front? Are we choosing to be aware of what is happening inside, or are we hoping that ignoring our inner turmoil might somehow help? Are we seeking any help with this from professionals equipped to help us and God heal emotional pain?
Sometimes the healing prayers we lift up are related to our relational life. Casual, acquaintance-level relationships require little or not work to maintain because they are often confined to a very limited part of our lives (work, the gym, school, etc.). The relationships that mean the most, however, take work to deepen and grow. That’s because they do not allow for hiding our crap. We can get away with a lot in other relationships because they are sort of like Facebook friends who only see what we want them to see. In our more critical relationships, we are seen and we see – the veneer is off. Lynne and I are empty-nesters, except for summers when at least one of our kids will be home. We are more in love with each other than ever. But we dis not get here simply because the kids went to college. We have worked through a lot of stuff together, and have had to own a lot of our own crap on our side of the street. It is hard work. But this is our most important relationship with another human being. We have at times not cooperated with the healing work of God and have paid the price with times we did not feel very connected, or anger was swept under the rug, or frustration swallowed. Those were and are difficult times. When we have chosen to be humble with ourselves, each other, and God, however, we have experienced God’s Spirit softening us, opening us up, loving us into deeper love with each other.
Sometimes the healing prayers we lift up are related to our spiritual life. Do you sometimes feel distant from God, like God is just not around or caring? If we believe that God is always active and present, loving us and feeling our pain, and works toward our healing, we have to at least look at what we are doing in our lives that might be hindering or encouraging our spiritual relationship. What are we doing to foster our relationship with God? If we aren’t really doing anything differently than what has not worked in our past, why would be expect any different result?
Of course, we don’t always get our prayers answered during life on this plane. I’ve walked with hundreds of people through the grief of losing a loved one. I have lost people to death that I prayed for desperately. It is excruciatingly painful. The hope issued at the resurrection is real. There is a final healing that I believe really does take place for us which Jesus spoke into. While there remains a lot of unknown about what exactly that experience is going to be like, we can take from Jesus that it will be fully immersed in the Presence of God, which can only mean the reigning quality in the afterlife is love. Those whose bodies were ravaged, whose lives were cut short, who experienced horrible trauma yet have now gone forward are, I believe, truly at rest. Living with that hope gives me great strength. That hope is very strong in me because I have nurtured my relationship with God and have experienced healing in various forms in this life – why would I be any less confident that more and better await us in the next experience of life beyond this flesh?
How is this framework sitting with you? I am feeling freed. I am feeling like this makes a lot of sense. I am feeling more hopeful with this construct than those that may have felt more powerful but really didn’t deliver deep or lasting peace. I hope you are feeling freed as well.
Questions to think about (Oord, God Can’t, 75)
1. From your experience, what good arguments do the Deniers of healing make?
2. What good arguments do the True Believers of healing make?
3. Why might people feel inclined to add, “If it’s your will,” when praying for healing?
4. Why might people like or not like the claim God always works alongside creation when healing?
5. What’s at stake in believing God cannot heal singlehandedly?
6. Why does it matter to believe God can’t control our cells and other bodily members?
7. What importance does life after death play to understanding healing?
Fifteen Myths and Realities of Healing (Oord, God Can’t, 73)
1. Myth: God healed long ago but doesn’t any longer.
Reality: God always works to heal; this was true in the past and true in the present.
2. Myth: God may not heal until we beg or pray hard enough.
Reality: God works to heal even before we ask.
3. Myth: To heal, God supernaturally intervenes in our lives.
Reality: God is always already present and doesn’t need to “come into” our lives or circumstances.
4. Myth: We should add, “If it’s your will” to prayers asking God to heal.
Reality: It’s always God’s will to heal, so this add-on phrase is unnecessary.
5. Myth: Our pain, suffering, and abuse are part of God’s preordained plan.
Reality: God’s plan does not include causing or allowing evil.
6. Myth: God only loves sometimes and is only present in some places.
Reality: God always loves everyone and is always present working to heal.
7. Myth: God is the only cause of healing.
Reality: Creaturely causes — whether small or large — also play a role in healing.
8. Myth: God can heal singlehandedly.
Reality: God cannot heal singlehandedly, because doing so would require God to control creatures or creation. God’s love is inherently uncontrolling.
9. Myth: There is natural healing, healing by doctors, and divine healing.
Reality: All healing involves God and creaturely causes.
10. Myth: God selects whom to heal and whom will suffer.
Reality: God wants to heal everyone, but creaturely conditions or lack of cooperation frustrate God’s efforts.
11. Myth: Those not healed did not have enough faith.
Reality: Those not healed often have plenty of faith, but their bodies or other factors prevent healing.
12. Myth: God controls cells, organs, and larger entities in our bodies and the environment.
Reality: God expresses uncontrolling love to all creation, great and small.
13. Myth: Our prayers for healing don’t make any difference.
Reality: Our prayers alter the circumstances and may open up possibilities for God’s healing.
14. Myth: There is no hope for those whose healing is thwarted by actors, factors, and circumstances.
Reality: There is hope, but some healing must wait until after our bodies die.
15. Myth: God only heals in heaven.
Reality: God works to heal in this life. When we, our bodies, or others cooperate, or the conditions are right, we are healed now.