Friday 24 May 2013

Healing as a sign

Recently I've found myself in a number of conversations about why God hasn't healed various people.  Implicit in the question is the assumption - an assumption I've shared - that the primary reason God would heal a person is to relieve their suffering.  However, as Martin and I have been reading the New Testament book of John, that assumption has been challenged.

Firstly, in John 9 Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who was blind from birth.  The disciples want to know why this has happened.  Jesus tells them it is "so that the works of God might be displayed in him" - presumably by the healing Jesus then carries out.

We come across something similar in John 11.  Firstly, Jesus hears that his dear friend Lazarus is very sick, at which he says: "This illness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it."  A few days later, news reaches Jesus that Lazarus has died.  Jesus passes this news on to his disciples with the words "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe."  He then goes to where Lazarus is and brings him back to life.  This is followed by many people coming to believe in Jesus.

In both the other healings recorded in John (the healing of the official's son in John 4 and the healing of the lame man in John 5) the reason why the healing occured isn't mentioned.

Miracles in John are frequently referred to as 'signs'.  All four of these healings certainly functioned as such: they pointed to Jesus' being the Messiah and people were polarized by them accordingly.  Relief of suffering (either of the person themselves, or of those around them) seems to be at most a secondary purpose.  Indeed, in the case of the healing of Lazarus, Jesus was pleased that he hadn't arrived before Lazarus died - even though he had compassion on his sisters for their suffering - because it made a better sign.

So, in wondering why God hasn't healed various people, at the very least we should consider whether their healing would be useful to God as a sign, rather than only thinking about the suffering their ailment causes.

This all seems rather 'cold', though.  Doesn't God care about the suffering caused by illness and disability?  That seems unlikely - but it does seem possible that he cares about them less than we do!

Consider the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof to Jesus (Mark 2).  When the man arrived at his feet, Jesus didn't heal him - instead, he said "Son, your sins are forgiven".  Only when the Pharisees challenged his authority to forgive sins - something that, after all, only God could do - did Jesus heal him.  Jesus seems to have cared a lot more about the man's sinfulness than his disability.  He seems to have used the healing primarily as a means of demonstrating that he really did have the power to forgive sins.  Similarly in John, being recognised as the Messiah seems to have been much more important to Jesus than actually healing people's physical illnesses.

I think that my/our questions about why God hasn't healed people may actually show up a significant problem in my/our understanding.  Bad as illness and disability are, sin - and being out of relationship with God - is a much more serious problem.  I don't think I remember that anything like enough!

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