We had a healing service at our church this week.
To fully appreciate this, you have to understand that the kind of church I usually go to doesn't really do healing services. In fact, in a display of the denominational snobbery that so often affects Christendom, a lot of us would probably look askance at the kinds of churches that do do healing services. But James 5:14-15 says that “if anyone among you is sick, let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” And my wife is sick, so when our senior minister offered to have the elders pray for my wife, we accepted. (To be fair, he never referred to it as a healing service, but when James 5 was quoted, that's where my thoughts immediately went.)
My wife has a couple of chronic health issues, but lately her health has been particularly bad. She's had maybe three weeks total of good days spread out over the last eight months. Her spirit is worn down enough that she's almost afraid to leave the house for fear that something will go wrong with her body and ruin whatever activity or errand she was planning. My kids and I bear some of the cost too, as we go through daily life without my wife and their mother able to participate with us and as we cover for daily tasks when she's unwell. As far as health problems go, it could be a lot worse. No one's going to die. But we're weary.
The service was a small affair: just my wife and I, our kids, the senior minister, and two elders. No anointing with oil was involved. Maybe that means it wasn't really a healing service. I don't know if the service worked or not; there was, at least, no immediate improvement in my wife's health.
This is the second healing service I've been to. At the first one, a little over ten years ago, my future wife was healed of crippling shoulder pain.
We did anoint with oil that time. Maybe that's why it worked.
My wife was not the only person for whom we prayed for healing ten years ago. For the second person, however, it did not work, and he had to resort to major surgery and a lengthy recovery period.
It is, of course, incredibly presumptuous to talk about whether or not requests for God's help “worked” as if the sole criteria of their value is the degree to which we get our immediate wants met.
While driving my family to the healing service this past Sunday, I was surprised to find within myself a somewhat vehement opposition to the idea. Over the past eight months, I've learned to some degree to live with my circumstances. I don't like them, but I'm becoming resigned to them. But once we start talking about James 5's promise of healing, that opens the door for hope, and hope opens the door for disappointment.
I don't want more disappointment.
In my head, I believe that God can do anything he wants, including healing those for whom we pray. As I look at the world around me, though, it seems that God rarely choses to do so. I can't point to a book, chapter, and verse of Scripture that says this; it's merely my observation over the last thirty-plus years of my life as I watch the prayers, lives, and deaths of people around me. Jesus says that, when we pray, we need to believe that we have already received it (Mk 11:24). How do I do this, when I think that odds are that God won't grant certain prayers? (Talking about the odds of God doing something is almost as presumptuous as talking about whether or not asking for his help “worked.”)
I'm not sure how to live in this tension, of believing that I've already received while understanding that I may never receive, of believing that God can act and hoping that he will act while accepting without disappointment or bitterness when he doesn't. I know all the church explanations for why a good God permits bad things to happen – the fallenness of the world, his decision to grant us free will, and so on. On top of all of these good church explanations, I have all of my own answers to the question of why God doesn't always act – how God is more interested in our spiritual growth than our physical comfort, how we shouldn't presume to know reasons why, how life is often more about being faithful in the midst of problems rather than solving problems, how Jesus' resurrection and the promise of heaven offers an ultimate solution that's far better than a temporary physical fix, how Kierkagaard's story of the king and the humble maiden helps explain why God limits his power. But how do I know that all of these answers and all of my thinking and explaining and writing and all of my words are true seekings after God's ways instead of merely rationalizations, intellectual barriers that I've built to protect myself from disappointment when God doesn't act, when my wife goes for months without healing?
Bible scholars disagree on why James instructs the elders to anoint with oil. Some scholars point out that oil was commonly used as medicine in those times, so they argue that James is simply saying that, along with prayer, the sick person should seek medical help. “Have the church pray for you, and go see a doctor.” This is easy for us today; Western medicine and technology are impressive, and we sometimes demonstrate more faith in them than in God.
Other Bible scholars argue that James intends anointing with oil as a sort of sacrament or ritual. I don't know how to know which interpretation is correct, and if James did intend it as a ritual, I'm not sure how to explain what purpose (for lack of a better word) that ritual serves. It honestly seems a little odd to me. At the healing service I attended ten years ago, the minister didn't even try to explain it, and I got the impression that it might have seemed a little odd to him too; but we were told to do it, so he did it.
It takes a certain degree of trust to do something without understanding why. There's a certain amount of vulnerability and risk, even if it's just the risk of finding out you made a mistake and looking silly. But it seems to me, in dealing with a God who chooses, for now, to be invisible, who is always beyond our ability to fully understand him and his reasons, that there's always an element of doing something without understanding why. It has to take a certain degree of trust. Maybe that's part of the reason for the oil – to remind us to trust God, to remind us to be vulnerable enough to hope.