When you were a child and skinned your knee, so that it really hurt and stung, what made it feel better? Someone, probably your mother or father, picked you up and gave you a hug. Maybe they brushed the dirt off your knee and said, “There you go!” or maybe put a bandaid on it. Then you ran off and forgot about it. Your knee was not cured. There would be days of scabbing and in some cases you may have developed a scar. Nevertheless, you felt that the bad part was over. That is what is meant by “healing”, as opposed to “curing”. “Healing” is a matter of being made whole, “curing” is making the problem go away. I want to get back to that later, so hold onto that thought: “healing” is one thing and “curing” is another.
When someone goes into the hospital or is seriously sick, it helps if they or their family let the church know so that someone can go and visit them. Usually I do that, but there are times I might be unable, and there are a whole bunch of people who stop by to check in with the patient. When we do that, we’re doing nothing more than what the Bible says we should do. In Matthew 25, Jesus is recorded as having said that at the Last Judgment, when we stand before God and our lives are examined, one of the questions we will be asked is whether we took the time to visit the sick and those in prison. Visiting prisoners is a complicated process, but visiting the sick is not. James even gives instructions on what to do.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” [James 5:14-16]
Praying together is the central part of the visit, and the goal of the prayer is for healing.
That isn’t to say that praying will occupy the most time. A lot of any visit is people talking and listening to one another. Granted, some people may not be up to that, and if somebody needs their sleep or to be left alone for awhile, those are valid concerns. The same way, if there’s a medical procedure going on or a nurse needs to do something, that’s the sort of help the patient is there for, and I’m going to get out of the way. But when someone is sick, they often have things on their minds that they set aside when they are well, and if they need to talk things out, it can help.
James talks about that in terms of confessing our sins, and there is a sense of that sometimes. Illness is not caused by sin. God does not send someone cancer to teach them a lesson, or pancreatitis as punishment for drinking too much. But there are ways of life that can contribute to natural weaknesses that we all share. Lying flat on your back for a week with muscle spasms1 may make you question whether weightlifting is really your sport. Having dangerously high blood pressure or even a stroke may make you question how you handle stress or if you have to find ways to handle worry and anger.
So that’s where the illness becomes an opportunity for healing. Again, “cure” is something else. When I pray with someone, I will pray for all the caregivers around them who are working for their cure. I will pray with thanksgiving for the skills that the doctors and nurses and technicians have, and the insight that God has given them into how to restore the body to equilibrium. That is, for the most part, how God works. I’m not saying that God couldn’t do physical miracles, and I’m not saying that they don’t sometimes happen. I do remain skeptical when they take place up on a stage or when they are accompanied by commercials or when they draw attention to the person praying rather than to God’s grace. So, yes, to some extent I do pray for someone to be cured, but the main thing is for them to be healed.
Healing is to be made whole, and that happens apart from (if often parallel to) the physical cure. Healing is to be put back into a healthy relationship with God and with other people. James says that
“The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up”, [James 5:16]
which means far more than recovering quickly, or even fully, from a broken bone. To be clear, there is going to be a time for all of us when something physical will go wrong and we will not recover. Being human comes with a guaranteed 100% mortality rate. However, when our relationship to God is right, the rest falls into place and even dying isn’t such a big deal, when it means that we go to be with him.
In that context, a cure may become part of the healing sometimes. I was privileged to witness something like that one time. There was a woman who, through a series of events that took place over decades, had become estranged from her children. She also had developed more medical problems than anybody could really keep track of. Finally, she developed an infection that lodged in a kind of cement that had been used to fuse some of her vertebrae together, and it spread from there throughout her blood stream. It was going to be fatal. The doctors were sure. At the doctor’s request I got hold of her daughter, and let her know what was happening, because the patient couldn’t stay awake more than a few seconds at a time, let alone make any decisions. To everyone’s surprise, the daughter let us know that she would drop everything and fly across the country to see her mother. We told the patient, not knowing if she could hear the words, let alone understand. A few hours later, the infection was gone. It had disappeared entirely. There was no explanation for it, because even if she had responded to the treatment it should have taken a week to reach that point. She was fully free of it when her daughter arrived and spent a few hours with her that night. I don’t know what was said, but the daughter told me the next day that they worked through all their unfinished business and cleared everything up between them. She told me that because after she left for the evening her mother closed her eyes and got a good night’s sleep for the first time in years, but toward morning her heart stopped and she never woke up in this world. For them both, healing had come and, with healing, her life on earth could be completed.
Completion, rather than ending, is what that kind of healing brings. Healing doesn’t have to wait for that kind of dramatic intervention, though. Jesus said,
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” [John 10:10]
To be made whole by his grace is an experience available outside the hospital room, even outside the context of physical illness.
So I invite anyone who is moved to do so to come forward and kneel at the altar rail and lift up in prayer any part of their life where they are looking for healing, and I will come along the rail and pray quietly and briefly along with you, simply offering assurance that God hears our prayers, not because he is looking for wonder-workers, but because he knows and wants whatever is best for us. And I would ask that those who are in the pews would also be in prayer for one another and for all, anywhere, who look to the Lord for healing this morning.