by Christine Aroney-Sine
As we traverse this second year of COVID with fears about the possibilities of more restrictions conflicting with our desire to get rid of masks and start gathering together, I know that many of us are wondering, “Does God believe in healing?” The rising death toll, and the devastation to the lives of so many of our loved ones has left us wondering if God cares. It’s not just COVID that makes us struggle either. It’s the friends with cancer, chronic illnesses or mental illnesses. Then as we look at the broader world, we realize the need for healing in relationships, in racial injustices, in environmental pollution.
I believe God’s ultimate desire is the health and wholeness not just of all persons, but of all creation too. Unfortunately many of us seem to have lost our faith in that promise. We need to remind ourselves of God’s desire for healing.
From the time of the exodus from Egypt, God showed concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of the Hebrew people. However, God’s prescription for health was always very different from that of the surrounding cultures. During Moses life, the Papyrus Ebers written about 1552 B.C. provided many of the standard treatments for disease. Drugs included “lizards’ blood, swines’ teeth, putrid meat, stinking fat and excreta from animals, including human beings, cats and even flies.” Not quite our idea of good medicine and not God’s either.
God’s prescription for good health doesn’t necessarily look like a physician’s prescription either. Pills and surgery are not always at the top of the list. Nor does it usually come with the waving of a magic wand and miraculous healings; it begins with simple preventative measures.
God Believes in Preventative Measures
It was the religious leaders, the Levites, to whom God gave the principles for health and hygiene. Physical cleanliness was a symbol of spiritual cleanliness. God gave them detailed instructions for basic cleanliness and sanitation that, if followed today, would greatly increase the level of hygiene in many a struggling nation. It would be hard for us to imagine our church workers as garbage disposal experts or as sanitation workers, yet for the Levites, this all came under their jurisdiction.
God’s health laws encourage us to think responsibly about what we eat, how we act and how we treat the environment around us. Many of the laws of Leviticus are good preventative health directives that we still use today. These regulations include nutrition, environmental laws and behavior – the three primary factors that influence the health of any individual or community. Others are guidelines for how the most vulnerable in society are to be cared for. We shouldn’t over eat, abuse our bodies with drugs and alcohol or pollute the environment and blame God for the consequences to our health.
God Made Us To Be Healthy
Nothing speaks more highly of God’s desire for healing than the incredible systems of protection and repair within our own bodies. Our immune systems cure most of the illnesses that attack us. Wounds heal, bones knit together and tissue repairs itself in miraculous ways we rarely think about unless something goes wrong. Fascinatingly, this system is enhanced by bacteria in our gut and in our environments. In Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child From an Oversanitized World, Brett Finlay and Marie-Claire Arrieta, document how microbes improve our health and that of our children. At best, doctors and nurses assist God’s healing work yet we rarely thank God for the miracle of how we are created.
Unfortunately, these systems don’t always work, but God provided other elements to assist the healing process. Most modern medicines originate from medicinal plants and herbs that are a part of God’s wonderful creation. Aloe vera is a common ingredient in soothing lotions. Aspirin comes from willow bark. Chamomile helps us sleep. Digoxin, still a major heart medication comes from foxgloves.
Physical and Spiritual Healing Linked
Interestingly, the Greek word most commonly translated save in the New Testament SOZO can also be translated heal. It means to heal, preserve, save, make whole. Central to God’s model of health and wholeness is reconciliation to God. Healing depended not only on the taking of medicine but also on obedience to God’s word and commandments. Healing from a Christian perspective is the process of moving towards wholeness in body, soul and spirit not just as individuals, but as a worldwide community. The purpose of medicine is to support and encourage human wholeness in every respect but it should be used in conjunction with other health measures.
For early followers of Christ, spiritual and physical health were linked as one ministry too. In the early Judeo-Christian church, healing was considered part of the religious function of the community. Monetary compensation was forbidden. By contrast, the Graeco-Roman tradition professionalized medicine and saw it as a vocation to be monetarily compensated – the model that we now embrace.
The rapid growth of the early church was probably a result of its power to heal, to cast out demons and to create communities of mutual care. Interestingly, this was closely linked to an acceptance of suffering as an identification with the sufferings of Christ and an understanding of physical illness as part of a larger paradigm in which God’s grace works through human weakness. Throughout most of Christian history, the church provided centers for healing and cared for the sick and the suffering. In the Middle Ages, the monasteries were centers of healing. They were often famous for their herb gardens which provided a broad range of medicinal substances that were produced for use within the monastic community as well as in the outside secular community.
In this framework, the medical attendant was seen as a servant to the poor and the sick, someone who came to relieve their pain, to heal their hurts and to comfort their concerns. Spiritual and physical health and healing walked hand in hand, separate parts of a whole person.
I love this wonderful quote from Ecclesiasticus, from the Apocrypha (those books between the Old and New Testament that are considered by some to be sacred Biblical text). Read it slowly and offer a prayer of gratitude for the dedication and expertise of health care professionals.
The New Testament is rich with symbols that speak of God’s desire for healing. The most powerful of these is the Cross. Its redeeming and transforming power brings healing to body soul and spirit – and beyond that, it brings healing to communities, and eventually will bring healing to our entire broken world. Communion is another powerful symbol of healing, and in many churches, healing services are Eucharistic, deliberately linking our need for healing to confession, repentance and forgiveness (1 Cor 11:27-34). James 5:13-16 lists other important symbols of healing we need to pay attention to. Praying for the sick, often associated with laying on of hands, anointing with oil, singing psalms and hymns, confession and forgiveness are all practices that can encourage the healing process. Interestingly, observing the liturgical calendar can also bring healing. “By celebrating through the structures of the Church we actually are given the forms we need to become whole and we are given the formulas to make whole every human experience.” (Gertrud Mueller Nelson: To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration).
God does wills healing and has written the power of healing and wholeness into our bodies, our spirits and our world. Thank God for the wholeness that will one day come to the entire creation.
Christine Aroney-Sine is a contemplative activist, passionate gardener, and author. She loves messing with spiritual traditions and inspiring followers of Jesus to develop creative approaches to spirituality that intertwine the sacred through all of life. She is the founder and facilitator for the popular contemplative blog godspacelight.com. Her most recent book is The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God. (IVP 2019)
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