I recently bumped in a friend of mine who worships in another parish in the Deanery. He called me aside and told me that his wife of many years had been diagnosed with cancer and the hospital had told them both that there was nothing they could do other than ease the pain and help prepare them for the inevitable. I was lost for words. What do you say in such a situation? Sorry? How are you coping? Is there anything I can do? I will pray? None of these seems a very useful response to such devastating news and yet I felt I had to say something. I felt I had to offer hope. So I mumbled something about coming to a healing service we would be having next Sunday and told him not to lose hope. After several more minutes we hugged and parted company.
Since then I have had cause to reflect on our conversation. Could I have said more? Or less? Was it right of me to raise hopes and talk of praying for healing? Or should I have been 'realistic' and just acknowledged that the doctors knew best and both he and his wife should make the best of what little time they had left. And yet what about all those passages in the Bible that talk of healing? What about Jesus' commission to the disciples to teach future disciples to "obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). Everyone knows that what Jesus commanded was not always in verbal form but by way of demonstration. As He had healed and showed his disciples how, so implicit in these actions was a command to go and do the same. And just as nurses are under the authority of doctors, so doctors - whether they acknowledge it or not - are under the authority of God. It is God who has the final word not the hospital. And God clearly says "obey everything I have commanded you."
However, as usual for all unbelieving believers, I have to ask questions like: "What happens if they are not healed?" or "What about the pastoral implications of raising and dashing hope?" or "How do I couch my message of come and recieve the laying on of hands/oil for healing but try and bear in mind that God may not will your healing right now!" And it is such questions, surely, that have hamstrung many attempts at obeying Jesus when it comes to the tricky subject of healing in the Church, particularly in these days of (apparently) super-confident science and medicine. The response therefore, in all too many cases, is to leave well alone and go for the easy option of saying you will pray. That way you keep the whole situation at a safe arms-length distance, avoiding awkwardness and embarassment and failure.
But that is not good enough. If faith is anything in the Bible it is trusting even if, and more often because, we don't have the answers and can't see our way forward. It is learning to live in the dark, grasping an outstretched but unseen hand or trying to follow a faint and often inidstinct light.
One of my favourite psalms (131) sums it up for me. Here it is:
My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore. (Psalm 131 NIV)
Here the psalmist underlines the need for humility in our relationship with God and the world. He also underlines the need not to get too caught up with "great matters or things too wonderful." In other words we can't answer all questions and we can't understand everything. We must 'know our place' in the cosmos and learn to trust God like a weaned child trusts its mother. In healing we don't, can't and won't know all the answers to all the questions but that should not stop us from trusting God from start to finish. We are not called to understanding but obedience and the former is not essential in order for us to do the latter. In fact the need to understand is often a hindrance to obedience and accompanying faith.
So even if it leads to disappointment with regards to physical healing. Even it is perceived to be a failure in that specific prayers etc for healing are not heard in the way WE wish, we must still always pray for healing. We must always ask God to intervene and help, because if we don't then there will be less and less reason to talk to Him and therefore less and less reason to obey Him. Part of a relationship is surely learning to accept the answer whatever it is and to trust Him that even if it seems, at least to us, to be 'no', yet that too is an answer to prayer.