Upon request, Jesus taught us how to pray, giving us the Lord’s Prayer. It contains everything needed to communicate with God as God would do it. A brief prayer, not much like so many of our long, rambling semi-coherent efforts, it begins with the thought that God’s will should be done, His Kingdom come, and His name held holy. It covers our needs, food, forgiveness and resisting temptation.
It does not directly address healing or health. Yet the majority of people petitioning Jesus were looking for help with health issues, mostly physical healing. Jesus usually accommodates them, and the Gospels suggest he did much more than the specific incidents recorded by the Evangelists.
The requests for physical healing still form a large percentage of our prayer requests. From personal experience, I have no doubt that these requests are often granted. Yet in asking for healing, we ought to note the discrepancy between our prayer requests and those suggested by Jesus.
He has a different concept of healing, health and well-being than many people. Folks generally want particular results. They want the cancer to go away, the surgery to be successful, the pneumonia to subside, the infection to pass, the wound to heal. In short, they essentially ask God to heal them in the same way as they ask of a physician. It can lead to dramatic scenes; the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame can walk, as well as less dramatic, but just as real, remission of cancers, recovery from stroke, disappearance of pain. There is no way to “prove” that God has done this. Likewise, there is no way to know for sure that you would not have recovered from an infection without the pills the doctor gave you. By definition, it has to be taken on faith in both cases.
Wonderful as such direct-response healing is, it misses an important point. Physical healing is only part of the story. Further, eventually all of a physicians’ patients will die, as did all of the people healed by Jesus, even Lazarus. If prayer requests for healing are not in the context of a larger picture, they can rightly be accused of using God as if he were a magic pill which will eventually fail. It is a view which assumes that the world centers on me and that I can exploit God just as I exploit other people and the Lord’s earth. Once I have what I want, I can simply discard anyone or anything in my environment, including God, that I do not currently need. Notoriously, people often try to bargain with God if the sickness is desperate enough, promising anything from lifestyle changes through increased giving. God, “of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service” (Collect for the 13th Sunday after Trinity), is unlikely to need the bargaining chip being offered.
That is a good place to begin on perceiving what God’s will might be. Although Jesus says we should bring all our needs to God, the progression and resolution of those needs only matters in the context of God’s will. That and “true and laudable service” are the ultimate and universally necessary prayers. It isn’t “about me,” after all. I recently listened to a bishop pray to God “to mightily move the course of Irma away from Florida and out to sea,” apparently abandoning Cuba, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico to the unrestrained forces of nature. He offered no reason to God why Florida should be spared. God, as we now know, chose not to heed the demand. When that happens, many see an indifferent God. When the cancer does not go away and the heart attack is fatal, many lose faith.
In such cases, they have lost faith in a god who will deliver on demand whatever they want. It is good that they have lost faith, because there is no such god. Perhaps the experience can reveal to them the true God, who will not always take away their pain, restore their sight or even keep them from physical death, let alone help them win the lottery.
Prayers to the real God begin “hallowed be thy name,” not “gimme.” St. Paul tells us to pray continuously (1Thess. 5:17). He doesn’t mean a non-stop stream of demands for God to fix things to our satisfaction. It can be understood better in the word “liturgy,” which comes from two words in Greek meaning “the people’s work.” Each of us is to offer up his or her life to God, every minute of it, every action and thought, the whole thing bundled and sent God-ward, even with its needs and failures, as “laudable service,” in thanksgiving (“eucharist”) for what God continues to give. The Christian liturgical process, the “people’s work,” is that “praying without ceasing” of St. Paul.
In looking for miracles, start with the provision of a beautiful and nurturing planet, with ample oxygen and water without which we would be dead in a hurry. Continue with that he offers salvation without cost as a gift to a people who rebel and sin against him routinely. All of this is continuous miracle, to which our response is continuous prayer offered as our liturgy.
Healing is part of this process. We have been given a sacrament of unction, the healing oil and balm to make whole our wounded beings. It is an all-inclusive sacrament, given for the healing we need spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually. As modern medicine is increasingly grasping, healing is a total and continual process. Christians are still combatting the notion that humans are somehow a composite glued together rather than a seamless unity of body and soul. Christians believe in “the resurrection of the body” (as stated in the Creed every Sunday), not in a temporary combination of soul and body, from which the soul escapes as the body disappears into nothingness. You are you, a unity of self, a unique DNA, created for eternity You are more than a collection of gradually depreciating parts. Rather, you are designed for continual transformation. You don’t remember, but you started as a tiny fertilized egg so small that not even a sparrow would bother to sit on to hatch it. Nor are you done. You and I will continue to transform beyond our imagination, just as life in the womb or the crib can’t picture the adult future that awaits.
Healing is the lubrication making all this happen, so oil is a good material for the sacrament. It is a sacrament which for some centuries was distorted as “extreme unction,” a farewell rite in a religion of works and legal requirements to be fulfilled. It was not at all about healing. On the other extreme, it has been perceived in some circles as a magic medicine for longer physical life. It is in fact, the sacramental gift of God to lubricate your transformations. Sometimes, its emphasis will be more physical, sometimes more for emotional, intellectual or spiritual progress. But it is always includes all of these, operating together in your pilgrimage towards the next transformation.
The healing which results has the ultimate goal of theosis, the final destination of all transformation. Just as many medical treatments may cause pain or illness themselves as part of the process (think of cancer treatments like chemotherapy, surgery or radiation, for example), unction may lead to a healing harmony which may not produce physical healing as such, or help with your intellect. The goal is not to help parts of you, but rather to form wholeness. At some point, healing physical death will be part of a transformation progressing to the wholeness of theosis. The success of unction must be understood in light of that purpose. It is not intended to replace medical science, which itself serves as an arm of the healing process, but not the end goal. Unction is designed to convey the gift of God’s total healing, not simply to “cure” particular ailments, although the latter can be helpful in the context of your transformational pilgrimage.
In the fallen world, a broken humanity cries out for healing, in all its aspects. Our prayer has been heard and God has given us unction for that purpose. Our response is to live lives offered continuously to God, “laudable service.” The sacramental balm of unction is always there to achieve the transformational, progressive and continual healing involved.