It is the assumption of standard modern allopathic medicine that one is healthy unless there is a disease or injury to a part of the body. The pattern of treatment is to isolate the problem, diagnose the cause and heal the specific malfunction. Christian theology defines the problem in a completely opposite way, best defined by the phrase in the daily office prayer of confession, “there is no health in us” (2013 ACNA BCP). The entire organism is in dysfunction, reflecting the sickness prevalent across the entire earth.
This clash of viewpoints is often unclear in our world. Allopathic healing is sometimes attempted by faith healers purporting to represent Christianity. And some practitioners of western medicine have a Christian viewpoint. There are also a number of non-Christian forms of healing, which understand that health must ultimately be achieved by a balance and harmony of the whole person.
The “elephant in the room” for western medicine is, of course, death. When I was diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago, the oncologist outlined what could be done for me. What I grasped was, “So your job is to keep me alive until something else kills me.” The best science can do is prolong my longevity, along with minimizing my pain and hopefully giving me some quality of life.
Think of the analogy of a trial law firm which lost 100% of its cases over many years. Perhaps they sometimes won in the lower courts, but ultimately all cases were eventually lost on appeal. Who would patronize such a firm? Yet physicians eventually have lost every patient to death.
It is not entirely a fair analogy. I am grateful for the oncologist whose skill has likely given me a decade or two of additional longevity. And combating the devastating effects of disease and injuries is a wonderful calling. But any tendency towards arrogance on the part of modern medicine must be countered with the reminder that it can patch and prolong the human condition, but it cannot cure the ultimate problem.
Jesus raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain from the dead. But he did so as a temporary measure. Both eventually died again. His actions were compassionate towards the women dependent on these two men for economic survival. This is not directly stated in the Gospel accounts because the reality would be obvious to any First Century contemporary. Despite the greatness of the miracles, the ultimate solution to death lies elsewhere.
This cannot be understood from an allopathic standpoint. It must instead begin by grasping that the earth is the Lord’s (as noted in Psalm 24, among other places). Genesis describes the creation of the earth as a place of perfection and harmony, of complete continuous health. It is the terminally unhealthy desire of mankind to reject this loving creation in favor of a selfish dominance of it which destroys the original health. Man, alone of the creatures, is created in God’s image and is central to earth’s operation. Man’s self-inflicted dysfunction therefore impacts all the earth. Although we are increasingly understanding, from a scientific analysis, how that dysfunction is damaging the entire environment, the damage itself has gone on for a very long time. There is indeed no health in us, and the consequences of our sickness infect all of the Lord’s earth.
Given this, how does a Christian approach healing? The following observations may be helpful:
1. Without God, there is no permanent, ultimate healing in the context of the fallen world. “We have here no abiding city.” God is doing a restoration process to bring creation back to its original perfect harmony with him, in his sacrificial “agape” love. Sickness of all kinds, personal and communal, is the deviation from that harmony, taking many forms. Only healing which moves toward that goal has ultimate value.
2. There is no pain, suffering or sickness in the restored paradise (see Rev. 21:3-4, 7:15-17, among others). Thus, the ultimate goal of all healing is to join with Christ’s resurrection victory over death (see 1 Cor. 15, especially verses 54-57). The victory includes defeating pain and suffering, so it is appropriate to deal with these enemies of wellness, along with any brokenness or dysfunction of body and soul. The goals of western allopathic medicine are therefore not incorrect, only incomplete.
3. The sinful rebellion of mankind is the cause of all imperfection, including lack of health. Sometimes, there is a clear causal relationship. Extensive smoking can cause lung cancer. Heavy drinking can cause hangovers. Clear cut logging can cause erosion and destruction of salmon spawning beds. War can cause violent death. But it is wrong to attribute all sickness to a direct, specific sin, as some religions have done. It is ridiculous, for instance, to blame a child killed in a bombing raid or a salmon mother denied her spawning bed for what has happened (see Jesus’ discussion of this in John 9). The negative impact of sin is ubiquitous, affecting many of various species, including our own, who are “collateral damage.” But it is wrong to try to trace a sickness or bad event in someone’s life to a particular sin they committed.
4. There are many avenues to healing. The goal for all of creation is wellness, and anything which contributes towards that end should be encouraged. The more the healer, of whatever, ideology, understands the inter-relationship of body, mind and soul and the individual to his or her environment (aka the Lord’s earth), the better the healing will be. All illness is to some extent psychosomatic. This applies to veterinarians, physicians, physical therapists, Christian Science practitioners, curanderas, “faith healers,” whoever considers him-or-herself a healer.
5. As with all of life, the cure for sin lies in the sacramental grace of God. Thus, wellness is best defined as the complete absorption into the love of God. This is a process which cannot be totally achieved in an earthly life, due to the distortions of the Fall. But the healing process of sacramental incorporation into God (known as “theosis”) can begin here. Jesus very carefully made provision for this in establishing baptism and the Eucharist. He also connects his Messianic vocation with healing and encourages the disciples to continue with it.
6. Although the entire action of God in the universe is a sacramental and healing process, we have been given unction as a tool of that action in a material way. Oil has had the property of a healing anointing for millennia, so its use as the means of sacramental grace is hardly surprising.
7. Those who follow the pagan Greek philosophers of yore in separating the physical and the spiritual, with the former having a lower status than the latter, will no doubt reject the idea that Unction is a sacrament in the Christian community. Rarified prayer and wishes for the triumph of the soul over bodily limitations are more typical for those who separate spiritual and material, with the latter to be subdued by spiritual exercises.
8. Those of us who understand this is the Lord’s earth welcome the healing unction provided. We know that we are caught up in the human dilemma which leads to sickness and lack of wellness in many ways. I know personally how I have been healed by God, as a result of prayer and unction. The unction prayer asks for God to “release him [i.e. the person receiving the Sacrament] from sin, and drive away all pain of soul and body, that being restored to soundness of health, he may offer thee praise and thanksgiving” (BCP 1928).
This can only be the beginning of grasping the healing sacramental power of the Lord. The questions which many have about the existence of sickness and suffering in God’s world will be the subject of next week’s post.