If you or someone you love has chronic illness, Matthew 17:14-20 may not be your favorite Jesus story. It is not among my favorites. I live with chronic illness and am familiar with simplistic religious formulas around healing and wellness, along with the guilt or disappointment the chronically ill sometimes experience because we haven’t been “healed” despite prayers. For years I dealt with the slow creep of symptoms prior to precipitous decline and diagnosis in my late 30s with acute adrenal insufficiency. In fact, some degree of chronic illness has been a companion for much of my life, starting with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) when I was six, after which I dealt with regular childhood headaches, muscular pain and attentional problems, before years of mounting endocrine-system troubles and depression. It all came on subtly, making it difficult for myself and others to attend to or understand (and little was known about TBI repercussions in the 1970s). Growing up, I thought I must be flawed on a soul level. Otherwise, why would I struggle more than my peers? Why, despite the prayers of those around me, did I not get well?
In the story in Matt 17:14-20, a man asks Jesus to heal his “epileptic” (NRSV) son. The image of the son’s life is painful. Likewise, the cries of his father, as he describes his son falling into fires and water as a consequence of his seizures. One can imagine the boy’s wounds and the father’s fears; their frantic longing for healing. The father brings the boy to Jesus’ disciples, who are unable to heal him. When Jesus learns of this, he calls the disciples “faithless and perverse,” saying in apparent exasperation, “How long must I put up with you?” Not the most merciful picture of our fair Savior. (Though it is a characterization not uncommon in Matthew.) As is often the case in the worldview of the gospels, the health condition is blamed on a demon, which Jesus roundly casts out. The boy is healed. When the disciples are alone with him, they ask why they could not cast out the demon and heal the boy. To this Jesus replies: “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (NRSV).
From my perspective, where we go wrong in interpreting notions of healing and other “mountain-moving” acts is that we too narrowly define healing and change. We think they must transpire precisely as we wish to see them. And if they don’t, we assume someone lacks faith.
Each of us has limitations; everyone stumbles through this life challenged in some way. And while physical limitations loom large for some, for others the challenges may be more psychological—greed, gluttony, arrogance, inflexibility, worry. Here’s the shocking bit: according to the broader Christian perspective, our struggles and limitations are a gift! If we believe the genius of Pauline theology—this seemingly nonsensical statement is true. Our struggles and limitations stretch and grow us; they build in us compassion and a sense of dependence on spiritual sustenance and grace. It is our struggles and limitations that make us more self-aware, if we are courageous and open enough to see them.
When we are suffering acutely, we naturally want to be freed from the physical limitations that cause our suffering. Anyone would want this. When someone we love is suffering pain, we naturally want them to be delivered. Yet when we look at suffering and physical limitations from a broader perspective, perhaps being free of our limitations—physical or otherwise, is not the goal. The goal is to be transformed by them in ways deeper than the cellular level. There is nothing martyr-ish or ascetic about this. We don’t have to will or choose suffering and limitation; each of us has them aplenty. In a sense, suffering and limitations are like viruses to which we must build immunity. There is nothing beautiful about a virus itself. But recognition of viruses in all their inevitability is necessary if we are to develop resilience and the strength to see ourselves and the world rightly. And resilience and strength are beautiful.
As Paul observes, in weakness we connect with our greatest spiritual strength—an insight at the center of healthy Christian theology. As an outcome of his theological wrestling, which developed over decades of his own personal struggles, Paul interprets the central acts of God in human history according to the Jesus tradition this way: that Jesus manifested God’s immanence in creation by descending to the lowest position, being threatened by the powerful, and ending up executed in a most ignominious way (Roman crucifixion). The image of God that Jesus shows us is one of a poor, disenfranchised Galilean baby born into scandal, who later ministers to social outcasts, is rejected and betrayed, and experiences the most horrendous form of public shaming known in his day. In doing so, Jesus was showing us the way, showing us that we too manifest God by a willingness to accept voluntary descent and struggle, and to “die before we die.” According to Pauline theology (and other Christian traditions like the Franciscan, which I both relish and find uncomfortably challenging), true healing is categorically not about achieving health, wealth, and position, but about submitting to their opposites, allowing our struggles to transform us and our understanding of God—a God who according to this tradition is humble and vulnerable, who bows low and washes the feet of others. After all, isn’t that the essence of love? Again, I am not fetishizing suffering. I’m saying that we often don’t see the more insidious, hidden forms of sickness. We think we can ensconce ourselves in lives of health, wealth, and position, and thus be freed from suffering, instead of realizing that only in self-emptying love, in being transformed by our weaknesses, struggles and limitations, do we connect with our own God nature. This key misunderstanding is at the heart of the soul-sickness of those who guard their privilege.
To his last, Paul himself confessed to being stuck with a “thorn” in his life that not only didn’t go away, but seemed pivotal to his deepening spiritual healing and understanding. And this is my point: healing on a soul level has to supersede healing on a physical level. So let’s not define healing so narrowly, focusing only on limbs or physiology, or the complex intercellular processes that—in every one of us—work imperfectly, whether the imperfections are manifested physically or psychologically.
As I ponder this topic, I am highly conscious of a friend of mine, who for the sake of this essay I will call Sharon. Sharon suffers daily from a chronic illness that is both physically incapacitating and constantly painful. Yet I know of few people who glow as she does with so much faith and God-love! Like few I know, her inner eyes are wide open to the beauty and wonder she takes in on a daily basis, through specific strains of hymnody, snippets of writing, the view of a heron out her window. To me, she is so alive and attuned to the Mystery of this existence we share, that to me, she looks eminently more “healed” than anyone I know. And this alongside weariness with the physical pain, not in denial of it. She gives and forgives; she shares the beautiful things she observes; she educates herself in every possible way about her condition and how to manage it, and shares her learning with others; she dedicates herself to self-care so she can continue sharing her many gifts. This friend inspires me, and is for me a daily icon of true healing.
The Matthew story is characterized by hyperbole and metaphor (“move this mountain”), which we often encounter in the Jesus stories. It helps to read these passages in light of other stories and perspectives, as I have done here reflecting on the Matthew story in light of Pauline theology. After all, the biblical tradition is layered and complex. I’d venture to say the wider panorama will always lead us to greater compassion, openness, freedom, and love. Just as a wider perspective on healing will cause each of us to look deeply at our own needs for healing at the soul level.
In my own life, physical relief has come at times, then gone again. Yet I have experienced a constant unveiling of healing throughout my life. It has often not been physical; but every resource I have needed has been provided. The outcome of this inner healing has been steadily dawning joy. And what is true healing but that?
(Photo is Creative Commons)