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?

 

The wounded healer

Ethiopian villageWhen I arrived in Ethiopia in 1986 the country had been impoverished by communism, famine and long-standing poverty. I was trained in community health at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and was ready to roll out a comprehensive community health program, working alongside the church. With hindsight now I can say that I was unsuccessful; all the wonderful principles and practices I had learned didn’t work in that context. It took a number of years to figure some of the reasons why. Along the way I discovered the secret of being a wounded healer.

What is a wounded healer?  Someone who does not provide all the answers. Someone who has been humbled by his own limitations. Someone who has discovered that his own cultural perspective has blinded him from seeing the people as God sees them. Someone who finally figures out that it is not all about ‘me’ (and my programs) but rather about Christ. Someone who recognizes that his own healing is still a work in progress.

Eventually this community and church was transformed. The seeds that were planted did grow, but after we were gone. But the healer had learned a vital life-lesson. As Christian servants we cannot divorce what God does through us from what God does in us.

Paul expressed a very similar idea when he said “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction,so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation…” 2 Corinthians 1:4-5.

The healer must embrace his or her own wounded condition. As we ourselves admit our own loneliness, isolation and brokenness we are set to receive the comfort available to us through Christ. He can use this comfort to help others in their suffering. As healers we are on a journey of woundedness and comfort, which is our primary qualification to extend healing to others who are broken.

"Why have you stricken us so that we are beyond healing?"

angel_of_grief
As healers we must face the limits of healing.  Life and healing are a gift of God, and yet because of sin, He has set limits. Death itself is a limit to healing. We were created by God as the pinnacle of His creation, not designed to die.  Yet human rebellion against His authority caused Him to limit the extent of our lives, since He designed an eternity with joy, not rebellion.  He put into place the offer of new life through Jesus Christ. “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” Romans 5:18.

So it is good to be humble with our ministry of healing. I have seen many examples of healing, some miraculous and many ordinary. The human body is extraordinarily designed for healing, and God does answer prayer. Yet healing is not the final frontier; eternity is. Healing is one of God’s many good blessings on earth, and the Lord Jesus spent considerable time healing the sick, blind and lame. Yet there are limits. Only in the new heavens and new earth will we be able to say, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying; or pain; the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4.

How about communities?  Can they be stricken beyond healing? This is not a popular concept, as we cherish our health, comfort and prosperity so highly. While my whole life has been committed to healing, I would be foolish to promote a false security in healing itself. In my last post I wrote about Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 586 B.C.; it was completely and utterly destroyed. Here is a description of their religious prophets: “they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.” Jeremiah 14:14.

I want to do all I can to bring healing to the nations, and especially to those who are marginalized. Yet there are limits to the deception, violence and falsehood that any community can be founded on. I don’t want to be discouraged or overwhelmed by those limits. But it would be foolish to not recognize them, speak about them, and call men and women to turn back.

Jeremiah did call for the people to turn back, but unsuccessfully. God said to him, “The people also to whom they are prophesying will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and the sword; and there will be no one to bury them –neither them, nor their wives, nor their sons, nor their daughters — for I will pour out their own wickedness on them.” Jeremiah 14:16

I’m sure it is not politically correct to talk about pouring out their own wickedness. But just a scalpel hurts before it heals, so it is with the words of the Lord. He invites us to life and healing in Christ, not a life of self-absorption and deceit.

Jeremiah continues:

“‘Let my eyes flow down with tears night and day, and let them not cease;

For the virgin daughter of my people has been crushed with a mighty blow,

With a sorely infected wound.

If I go out to the country, behold those slain with the sword!

Or if I enter the city, behold, disease of famine!

For both prophet and priest have gone roving about in the land that they do not know.'”

“Have you completely rejected Judah? Or have you loathed Zion?

Why have You stricken us so that we are beyond healing?

We waited for peace, but nothing good came; and for a time of healing, but behold, terror!”  Jeremiah 14:17-19

What about you and I today? We are not beyond healing. There is a balm in Gilead, as I explained in my last post. We are touched by suffering and death. Yet our stricken condition can lead us to the healing balm. Christ was stricken for us so that we do not have to be stricken beyond healing. Have you received that gift of healing?

"Why have you stricken us so that we are beyond healing?"

angel_of_grief
As healers we must face the limits of healing.  Life and healing are a gift of God, and yet because of sin, He has set limits. Death itself is a limit to healing. We were created by God as the pinnacle of His creation, not designed to die.  Yet human rebellion against His authority caused Him to limit the extent of our lives, since He designed an eternity with joy, not rebellion.  He put into place the offer of new life through Jesus Christ. “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” Romans 5:18.

So it is good to be humble with our ministry of healing. I have seen many examples of healing, some miraculous and many ordinary. The human body is extraordinarily designed for healing, and God does answer prayer. Yet healing is not the final frontier; eternity is. Healing is one of God’s many good blessings on earth, and the Lord Jesus spent considerable time healing the sick, blind and lame. Yet there are limits. Only in the new heavens and new earth will we be able to say, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying; or pain; the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4.

How about communities?  Can they be stricken beyond healing? This is not a popular concept, as we cherish our health, comfort and prosperity so highly. While my whole life has been committed to healing, I would be foolish to promote a false security in healing itself. In my last post I wrote about Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon in 586 B.C.; it was completely and utterly destroyed. Here is a description of their religious prophets: “they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds.” Jeremiah 14:14.

I want to do all I can to bring healing to the nations, and especially to those who are marginalized. Yet there are limits to the deception, violence and falsehood that any community can be founded on. I don’t want to be discouraged or overwhelmed by those limits. But it would be foolish to not recognize them, speak about them, and call men and women to turn back.

Jeremiah did call for the people to turn back, but unsuccessfully. God said to him, “The people also to whom they are prophesying will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and the sword; and there will be no one to bury them –neither them, nor their wives, nor their sons, nor their daughters — for I will pour out their own wickedness on them.” Jeremiah 14:16

I’m sure it is not politically correct to talk about pouring out their own wickedness. But just a scalpel hurts before it heals, so it is with the words of the Lord. He invites us to life and healing in Christ, not a life of self-absorption and deceit.

Jeremiah continues:

“‘Let my eyes flow down with tears night and day, and let them not cease;

For the virgin daughter of my people has been crushed with a mighty blow,

With a sorely infected wound.

If I go out to the country, behold those slain with the sword!

Or if I enter the city, behold, disease of famine!

For both prophet and priest have gone roving about in the land that they do not know.'”

“Have you completely rejected Judah? Or have you loathed Zion?

Why have You stricken us so that we are beyond healing?

We waited for peace, but nothing good came; and for a time of healing, but behold, terror!”  Jeremiah 14:17-19

What about you and I today? We are not beyond healing. There is a balm in Gilead, as I explained in my last post. We are touched by suffering and death. Yet our stricken condition can lead us to the healing balm. Christ was stricken for us so that we do not have to be stricken beyond healing. Have you received that gift of healing?

Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?

Foundations of the burnt room, a house in the wall of the city of Jerusalem during David's time, destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians.
Foundations of the burnt room, a house in the wall of the city of Jerusalem during David’s time, destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians.
The sign at the site reads, "He burned the house of the Lord, the king's palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem.."
The sign at the site reads, “He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem..”

Last month my wife and I had our first visit to Jerusalem.  We took these pictures at the site of the foundations of the wall of the original city of David, destroyed by the Babylonian army in 586 B.C.  The sign continues to read, “The floors of the houses were covered by a thick layer of ash. Beneath the heap of rubble in one room, Yigal Shiloh uncovered Babylonian and Israelite arrowheads and remnants of a charred piece of wooden furniture bearing a palmette design. The wood was imported to Syria, attesting to the high status of the residents of these houses.”

What does the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC have to do with healing the brokenhearted?  God had pleaded with His people through the prophet Jeremiah decades earlier: “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Do not trust in deceptive words, saying ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.” (Jeremiah 7:4-7).

God cares for the brokenhearted and He wants His people to do the same. He commanded them to practice justice, care for the orphan and widow, and treat foreigners fairly.  Because this is God’s heartbeat, their obedient faith was far more important than God’s keeping the city and temple intact.  Jeremiah weeps over and over again for the choices they make to serve their own appetites and gods, rather than follow God’s ways. In 596 BC the warnings had gone on long enough; the entire city was destroyed and the people either killed or deported to Babylon.

Today God still cares for the brokenhearted; as Christ’s followers justice for the weak, care of the marginalized and fairness to foreigners are not an option, but express Christ’s heart for the nations.  All of us must be involved, not just those of us in medicine and healing professions. But Christians in medicine have a unique opportunity to bring words and works of healing to the brokenhearted. How are you involved? How might you engage with God’s heart this way in 2015?

Here’s a warning for us.  The people of God refuse to listen to Jeremiah.  He said (Jeremiah 8:11) “they heal the brokenness of the daughter of My people superficially, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace.”  The leaders of that day promised peace but the healing was superficial.  There was no inner change.  Real peace and real healing go hand in hand, and man cannot manufacture them; they are a gift from God.  Am I willing for God to break my heart for others in distress, or will I cling to superficial words of peace and superficial healing? My challenge is that I am committed to bring healing to the brokenhearted, but in order to do that my own broken heart must be healed.

When Jeremiah himself understands that His people will continue in their rebellion, he says, “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved.” (Jeremiah 8:20).  In other words, Babylon will definitely come (as they later did in fact).  He laments, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”  In fact Gilead was a town east of the Jordan river known for its healing balm and arts.  But there would be no final healing for a nation that will not receive God’s medicine. God will not heal superficially.

Many of us are engaged in some way in Christian mission or medicine.  Do we heal with superficial words and actions, or are we attempting to bring deep healing to the wounds of the nations?  As we align with God’s purposes in Christ, harvest is not past, summer is not ended.  There is a balm in Gilead, found in the sweet person of Christ, and available for healing of the nations. First however, we must allow Him to apply the healing balm to our own broken souls. How about yours?

So where did hospitals come from anyway?

Many of us have some sort of notion that hospitals are just a natural part of the community; the idea of a hospital must be handed down to us from classical times.  But we we would be wrong.  They were nurtured in an unexpected place.

Among the ancient and pagan Romans, compassion was not well developed.  “Mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society.  In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.”  [“A new era in Roman healthcare” Gary Ferngren]

Ferngren goes on to explain while one of Rome’s greatest prides was its cities, they also provided fertile breeding grounds for disease, especially for migrants from the countryside.  No clinics or hospitals existed to provide healing or basic nursing care. Physicians were for the wealthy. In a world of gods who were not known for compassion, the Roman culture did not encourage a felt responsibility to care for the sick and marginalized.

Despite persecution, by the second century Christian churches had sprung up in most of the major cities, and their charity included care for the sick.  By the fourth century bishops in the eastern half of the empire began to establish Christian welfare institutions for the sick and poor, called xenodocheia.  Christian History magazine issue 101, “Healthcare and Hospitals in the mission of the church” details how this ancient movement flourished and eventually birthed the concept of the hospital.

An unexpected place!  Much of the impetus behind hospital ministry, especially to the poor and marginalized, comes from the faith of early Christians.  Is this  a surprise to you?  What can we learn now from their faith and example?  Reply below!

Why the Ebola crisis needs a more biblical response

These women from Sierra Leone get it right. “Jesus always ran toward sick people.” His ministry had a bent towards those who were sick, oppressed and marginalized. This CT article spells out ways that one group of women are making a difference. They are mobilizing Christ’s followers to action. This is something that should challenge us wherever we live. As they say in this article, too often the ‘spiritual’ is separated from the ‘medical.’ The church may be lulled into believing she cannot make a difference. But look at Jesus. He was one person, and by following His Father’s will He was able to change the world! We must all take an example from these women from Sierra Leone.  We can make a difference in this world, whether in the midst of Ebola or lending a helping hand to a struggling youngster, I believe that we can and must act to lift the body and spirits of those who are sick and marginalized; this should especially be true for followers of Jesus.