So what do we mean by healing, anyway?

Perfect peace 2

As a young person in medical school, my view of health was confined to understanding disease processes, drugs and physical causes.  Health had to do with the body, and things of the spirit didn’t overlap the physical world. As a young believer in Jesus, I could see that He had dominion over both the physical world (witness His miracles) and the spiritual world.  But I still saw the world as two compartments – one material and one immaterial.

Enter a trip to Kenya.  Clare and I went for several months to Kijabe, a mission hospital in Kenya, after my third year in medical school.  This trip challenged my “two compartment” assumptions! Why did the poor suffer physical illness in ways that the rich did not? Why did they carry such a burden of illness? And why was it so difficult to make changes in lives by only addressing physical health? Why didn’t medicine work as neatly as it seemed to do back in America?

As we probe the root causes of illness, we must look deeper than microbes and microscope. I learned, coming back to the USA and finishing a master’s degree in public health at Hopkins, that one of the strongest predictors of the infant mortality of a nation is the educational level of the mothers. I went on to learn – in the classroom and in my experience – of so many connections between mind and body; these included cultural understandings that put the body at risk, and bodily illnesses that affect the soul. We are made as whole and connected beings – body, mind, spirit; God has also made us for community – and for Himself.

Gradually I came to understand that my (almost unconscious) view of the world as two compartments had to be challenged. Reality was much more complex and nuanced, with innumerable connections between all. Health is not just the absence of disease.  WHO’s definition is helpful: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Yet how do we attain to such a lofty condition? How should I understand what makes for health? Where shall I find it if I untie my boat from the moorings of my “two compartment” world?

There is a Hebrew word called shalom which can be translated completeness, soundness, welfare or peace. See Isaiah 26:3 quoted in the picture for example. The root word has to do with completion or fulfillment; it can also refer to contentment, friendship or a covenant of peace. Shalom can also translated health.  The Old Testament view of health includes more than a lack of disease, but restored relationship.  In contrast, our enlightenment view of health is based more on Greek thinking, which dicotomizes the physical and spiritual. We don’t tend to think that there is a connection between health and broken relationships. I believe shalom is a better conceptual model.

This concept surely helps us understand that God’s concern for health includes physical suffering but goes beyond it. In other posts we considered the destruction of Jerusalem. The sins of the leaders of the people were spelled out by Jeremiah, and contrasted below with God’s purposes for men and women.

“Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages.” Jeremiah 22:13

Jeremiah contrasts the actions of the good king Josiah, saying, “‘He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well.  Is not that what it means to know Me?’ declares the LORD?”  Jeremiah 22:16

This helps us begin to understand what true healing is about. It is not just about disease in isolation but people in relationship with one another. Where have you seen examples of such healing?


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Doctor, epidemiologist, husband, father, Christian missionary physician

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