Today’s question is a doozie, from my friend Jenny:
I dare you to talk about healing and what happens inside a person when they don’t receive the healing they were hoping for. It’s a risky topic, but very real.
I will, Jenny, but you’re going to help me.
A man in my church is dying of cancer. I saw him yesterday, and he is very near the end. His breathing is labored, he has stopped eating, and his face is drawn and shrunken. He is in his early 70’s, and his cancer progressed very rapidly. I prayed with him, anointed his head with oil, and sat with him while his body spasmed with pain. He can no longer talk. I whispered in his ear that he is ready for this journey. When he dies, his wife will have buried three husbands.
One of my college friends, a pastor, father and husband in his early forties, also has cancer. It is spreading, and the treatments are not working. If you read his Facebook posts, you’ll see that many people are praying for him. I am one of them.
I believe God heals some people’s bodies, and not in a glamorized, fainting while a man in a white suit prays for you on television way. I have prayed for healing for quite a few people over the years, and while many have not been healed, some have. One woman’s eyes had been going cloudy with cataracts, and she believed God asked her to ask me to pray for healing for her eyes. And so I did, and her eyes cleared up. I don’t know how to explain that. I didn’t feel special that day. I just prayed for her, and she was healed.
I also believe that not everybody who prays for healing gets healed. I have thought about this for many years, and the conclusion that I have come to is simply this: I do not know why some get healed, while others do not.
I also believe anybody who claims to know the answer to this question with utter certainty does incredible damage to people who are already hurting so very badly. It is excruciating to believe that God is good when it seems God is withholding healing for some, while pouring out healing on others, for no apparent reason, other than perhaps whim.
I will say this: I believe God’s character is most clearly demonstrated while dying on a cross, suffering with us to the very end.
I have seen a courageous few begin to find a different kind of healing, other than physically, on this dangerous journey of faith. My friend Jenny Hill is one of those people. She is the one who asked today’s question.
Jenny wrote a beautiful memoir that attempts to answer her own question, and she does it beautifully. She was born with Cerebral Palsy, and her book is called Walking with Tension. It is unflinchingly honest, very well written, and full of hope. She was taken to faith healers over and over again as a child, but her cerebral palsy was never healed. On that journey, however, something else far deeper inside of her began to heal, and that healing continues to this day. Jenny is one of my heroes. She asked me to write the foreword to her book, which I will share below, in part because I haven’t found anything new to say on the subject, but also because I hope it encourages you to read Jenny’s book.
If you are a Christian who is experiencing the disappointment and disillusionment that comes with unexplained pain and suffering, you have most likely received two kinds of responses from fellow Christians. Neither one of them helps, and yet you hear them with such frequency that you wonder if everybody’s reading the same faulty instruction manual entitled, “How to Simultaneously Dismiss and Offend Those Who Suffer,” which nobody has had the decency to burn, or at least rewrite.
Response number one involves people who seem to be more concerned with defending the character of God, rather than walking alongside you in your pain. Their opening arguments begin with the insistence that God is all-powerful, all knowing, and all good. God both initiates and allows your suffering because a greater plan is in the works. They will carefully remind you that even though you can’t see it, and don’t know it, God must have a reason for your pain. God, after all, is in control, and your job is not to understand, but to simply shrug your shoulders and wait until God’s plan finally unfolds.
Response number two involves pressure to follow an immediate action plan through which your suffering will stop. This involves following a formula which, if followed exactly, will relieve you of your pain as soon as you simply put it to action. You hear stories of people who were “just like you,” and now are completely healed. Your hopes are raised and then dashed when these formulas fail. You feel betrayed by God, horribly defective because nothing “works” on you, and perhaps your friends have even given up on you because you must not have enough faith.
In Walking With Tension, Jenny Hill follows neither path. Instead, she blazes a new trail entirely. She tells her courageous story of learning to live with Cerebral Palsy, wrestling and engaging with God all along the way. Her story is captivating because it is raw and in some ways, disappointing. I cried my way through this manuscript, at times yelling at characters in her life that responded to her in ways that were damaging and unhelpful. Jenny writes poignantly and honestly about her struggle to make friends in junior high school while maintaining her identity through excelling in academics. She tells of her relationship with a Christian “healer” who promised results that never came. She writes passionately about both her belief and her unbelief. She teaches us that becoming fully alive in God is a course in which we all must enroll, whatever challenges our life may present.
In the end, Walking with Tension is a story of beauty and redemption. Jenny is learning how to honestly grapple with the disappointing reality that some things are not healed, but she’s also learning to gratefully and eagerly accept the gifts that God has given her in her unique journey. God’s gentle friendship, healing, and consistent leading has marked Jenny in deep and profound ways, and her journey blazes a new trail for those of us who are struggling to find God in our suffering.
If you are a Christian who is experiencing pain and suffering, this book is not the answer for you. But it is the story of a very courageous person, who is learning that God accompanies her in her pain. That God is partnering with her in discovering how her redemption is helping other people to grow and heal. And that healing is sometimes found as one learns to walk out one’s pain and suffering without resolution, but with tension.
I will also point you to my brother-in-law Joel Hanson’s song Either Way. It is also beautifully written, and offers a satisfying response to this difficult question, at least for me.
In it together, friends.