Double vaccinated and boosted, I contracted Covid in April of 2022. And in spite of the supposed immunity conferred by three shots in the arm, I felt sick. Chills and fever and can’t-stand-up sick. Fuzzy-in-the-head, burning-in-the-throat, and exhausted-by-a-walk-to-the-kitchen sick.
So I turned to Advil and Nyquil . . . and Jesus. No, I didn’t experience a miraculous recovery. But I had begun to take Jesus as a healer more seriously in my life. Prayer was no longer a postscript to my medicinal regimen.
I believe that when Jesus walked on earth, he gave sight to the blind and calmed the seizures of an epileptic child. But for most of my adulthood I’ve behaved as if antibiotics, surgical procedures, and Lexapro had replaced Jesus’s healing work in the here and now. I’ve relegated his healing to another era.
The darkness of recent years has made me reconsider. The New York Times still includes a daily reminder of the hundreds of people dying of Covid-19, and this pandemic has exacerbated both physical and mental health concerns for so many. Before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control reported that fifty million Americans were suffering from chronic pain. Since then the World Health Organization has reported that depression and anxiety climbed 25 percent during the pandemic, and the CDC has reported that close to 40 percent of Americans suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder. In addition, political polarization reflects our social breakdown and signals dis-ease on a communal level. Our medical interventions are not stemming the tide of pain and hurt.
So I’ve come tiptoeing back to Jesus as healer, not simply as a metaphor, and not simply as a physical fixer, but as a lived reality permeating all of existence.
Healthy and Human
Despite the proliferation of the healing narratives in the Gospels, many Western Christians have misunderstood the nature of God’s healing work. We have reduced healing to biomedical fixes and imagined healing as a way to manufacture idealized bodies. Not only do such reductions ignore Jesus as one who can still heal, but they distort our perspectives on what it means to be human.
Inside the church, people are expressing their dissatisfaction with this reduced view of healing. Countless people with disabilities still encounter assumptions that to be in a right relationship with God they require bodily healing. In My Body Is Not a Prayer Request, Amy Kenny reminds us that “curing bodies and healing lives are not the same thing.” Kenny goes on to detail the ableist assumptions she has encountered in the church when people pray that she will be “whole one day,” as if, she writes, “I am not already a new creation with the mind of Christ. As if the Holy Spirit doesn’t already dwell in my disabled body.” Healing and curing are not the same thing for Jesus or for the body of Christ.
Outside the church, both patients and physicians are reflecting on the problem of reducing healing to fixing and curing. Haider Warraich, a Harvard-trained physician, writes about the problems modern medicine encounters in treating chronic pain. In The Song of Our Scars, he reflects, “By turning persons into patients and healers into providers, and by separating the body from the mind, physical sensations from emotional states, and pain from suffering, medicine is nothing more than a misguided miseducation in mortal misery.” Warraich details how Cartesian dualism, industrialization, and consumer demand have all led to a place wherein health-care providers are ill-equipped to make us well.
In Cured: The Life-Changing Science of Spontaneous Healing, Dr. Jeffrey Rediger notes that “doctors are taught to ignore the story, the personal life of the person. . . . We treat the disease instead of the person.” After extensive research into the causes of “spontaneous healing,” Rediger concludes that healing is more comprehensive than just curing the body. He commends a new way of practicing medicine that has little to do with addressing immediate symptoms and far more to do with underlying causes. He prescribes “healing your immune system, healing your nutrition, healing your stress response, and healing your identity.” Warraich’s and Rediger’s conclusions do not point to our need for Jesus as a healer, but they do underscore an important fact: despite all the medical advances, many people have not experienced the full healing that goes beyond treating the body.
Those who live with chronic pain or chronic disease not only encounter a medical system ill-suited to meet their needs; they also encounter simplistic narratives—in both our secular and our religious cultures—that essentially place blame on the sick for their condition. Whether they are told to pray harder, have more faith, eat a less inflammatory diet, or try EMDR, both secular and religious perspectives often frame healing as a consequence of effort. According to such narratives, if pain remains, healing hasn’t happened, and pain is the fault of the one suffering. But persons living in idealized bodies need healing as much as anyone else.
John Swinton, who began his career as a nurse and later became a professor of theology, describes the problems that emerge when we think our bodies alone indicate our need, or lack thereof, for healing: “Health is a relational concept which has nothing to do with our bodily shape, the number of our chromosomes or the sharpness of our minds. . . . The most hedonistic, intellectually astute athlete can be in need of healing (restoration to right relationship with God), and the most deeply impaired individuals can be healthy and indeed beautiful.”
How would our modern understanding of health and healing change if we understood it primarily as a restoration to right relationship—with God, with ourselves, and within our communities?
A Different Way
Healing is central to Jesus’s identity. In his native language, Aramaic, he would have been called Yeshua, or the nickname Yasha. As biblical scholar James Edwards notes, Yasha is Aramaic for the Greek word sozein, from the Greek sozo (to save). Sozein means both “saviour” and “healer.” Jesus’s very name suggests healing.
When John the Baptist is being sent to prison and wonders whether Jesus really is the Messiah, Jesus says, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22). Jesus confirms his identity through five forms of healing.
And then there are the stories. In Mark 5 a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years approaches Jesus. When she reaches out her hand to touch the tassels of his garment, her bleeding stops. Mark uses the word iaomai—heal, cure, restore—to indicate this change. But a few moments later, when Jesus calls her forward and listens to her story and says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you,” he uses the word sozo to convey that something greater than a biomedical fix is happening. Similarly, in Luke 17 ten men with leprosy come to Jesus. When their skin disease disappears, Luke uses iaomai to describe the change. One of them later returns to say thank you. To this man alone Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you,” again using that word sozo. This movement from a word that indicates bodily cure to a word that indicates comprehensive healing helps us understand the holistic purpose and ongoing relevance of Jesus’s healing work.
Healing for Jesus is for the whole self and for the whole community.
Theologian Brian Brock shares John Swinton’s conviction that healing for Jesus does not accord with a modern biomedical conception of fixing broken bodies. In Brock’s words, “[Jesus’s] potency was not the promise to normalize every human body, but to break the power of sin and reopen a relationship with God.” In his exploration of theology and disability, Wondrously Wounded, Brock reflects on his son Adam, who has Down syndrome and autism. Despite numerous biomedical challenges, Brock names Adam “the healthiest person I know,” because Adam lives more fully in the presence of God, and with greater contentment about his creaturely limitations, than anyone else in Brock’s world. As Brock intimates, people in bodies and minds that our world might label “disabled” can nevertheless embody health and wholeness—shalom—in God’s sight.
Jesus’s healing extends beyond bodily change, and if we are too focused on the bodily change, we may well miss out on the comprehensive nature of what Jesus offers. Jesus also uses the word sozo in contexts that seem less directly related to healing. He employs sozo to describe what happens after Zacchaeus repents and gives away half of his possessions (Luke 19:9). He uses this word again when a woman receives forgiveness and wipes his feet with her tears (Luke 7:50). These persons experience healing by way of forgiveness and restoration to God. And while the bleeding woman and the leprous man do experience physical change, they also experience a restoration to God through Jesus, and it is this restoration that seems to constitute healing in Jesus’s mind.
The healing stories in the Bible can appear to be about physical change, but they often point to a much broader healing. Similarly, these stories can seem to be about individuals when they often point to the need for healing within a community. Jesus raises a young man from the dead, and Luke notes that Jesus then returns this son to his mother. This healing was for the son, but also for his mother and his community (Luke 7:11–17). Jesus not only restores Bartimaeus’s sight but also welcomes this man who was blind into his band of followers (Mark 10:46–52). Jesus also publicly proclaims the healing of outcasts like the bleeding woman so that they can now be received into their local communities. For Jesus, healing is not simply a matter of comprehensive personal transformation but one of comprehensive social change.
Healing for Jesus is for the whole self and for the whole community. In Jesus’s day, certain individuals were declared “unclean,” and their unclean state was considered contagious. People with skin diseases, women with menstrual bleeding, anyone who had encountered a dead body, and anyone who touched these people would be considered contaminated. But when Jesus begins to heal people, he intentionally touches their unclean bodies. In Mark 5:41 he takes a dead girl by the hand. In Luke 7:14 he touches a funeral bier. In Matthew 8:3 he touches a man with leprosy. Scholars call Jesus’s power that of “reverse contagion.” Disease and death do not have power to infect him. Rather, the power of life flows out of him to those around him.
Jesus’s power is also generative: the people who receive healing go forth to spread that same healing. In Luke 5, even though Jesus tells a man who has been healed to stay silent, that man can’t help himself. He spreads the word about what happened, and others flock to Jesus for healing. Jesus frequently sends people back into their social spheres with words of exhortation. When Jesus sends the woman who has been bleeding back into her community, he says, “Go in peace.” He sends her forth to experience and participate in bringing shalom to her community. Healing begets healing, and those of us who experience Jesus’s healing are entrusted with carrying that healing into all parts of our lives and our communities.
The healing stories in the Gospels bear witness to the nature of Christ for us today in our own broken bodies, minds, spirits, and communities. We too can come to Jesus for healing. We too can participate in God’s healing work in our broken world.
No Body but Yours
In most modern churches, we have outsourced the work of healing to medical doctors and therapists. As much as medicine can help in this work, the church has a crucial role to play as the body of Christ—the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Christ—in a hurting world filled with individuals in pain and communities in need. As St. Teresa of Avila famously put it, “Christ has no body now but yours.” Only as we reconceive of Jesus’s healing as the healing that brings restoration to God in our bodies, minds, and spirits will we also imagine and create ways to bring healing to people and communities in pain.
Jesus’s healing is not formulaic, but it does follow a pattern still available to us today. We can follow in the healing way of Jesus through restorative practices of honesty and humility. Instead of dismissing, ignoring, or numbing pain, honest and humble acknowledgment of our physical, emotional, and social weakness is the beginning of healing.
Personal practices like the Ignatian Examen, in which we reflect back on our days with an eye toward the moments when we most experienced the presence of God or the absence of God, can begin to attune our minds and spirits to physical and emotional pain as well as painful relationships and our role within them.
Corporate lament is a spiritual practice that has lain dormant within many white American churches, but crying out with the pain of our social situation is one way that churches can draw our attention toward the pain of injustice. Paying honest attention to both personal and corporate pain moves us toward healing.
Another movement toward healing that emerges through the gospel is the practice of humility. Jesus rarely heals without being asked. People ask him for help repeatedly and publicly. Our culture of self-reliance and immediate gratification chafes against repeated or public admissions of need and vulnerability. Yet prayers that allow us to practice humility and express our need are often written into our liturgical spaces through public confession and supplication. Both liturgical and informal prayer practices in which we publicly express our individual and communal needs mirror the men and women who fall at Jesus’s feet with uncertain faith and an awareness of their own helplessness. If we believe that we are the body of Christ, then we will express our needs not only through corporate, private, or liturgical prayer but also through conversation and friendship. We move toward healing when we trust one another enough to admit our needs and ask for help. Churches need to become communities of trust, where needs are expressed—and not only in the twelve-step group that meets in the basement on Monday nights.
Jesus rarely heals without being asked.
Honest, humble expression of pain and need moves us toward the place where we can, in Gregory Boyle’s words, “surrender to healing.” Honesty and humility lead us to healing, for ourselves and for others. And again, the gospel stories do not offer action plans, but they do suggest communal ways to become healing practitioners. Practices of hospitality, generosity, rest, forgiveness, friendship, gratitude, and touch are all modeled for us by Jesus and can all take shape in our particular communities in ways that bring shalom.
For example, if a local body of believers chooses to practice Sabbath-keeping, we participate in healing on many levels. There’s the physical healing that comes from resting our bodies, and the potential for emotional and relational healing that emerges as we put away devices and to-do lists and attend to one another. Beyond those individual and interpersonal dynamics, however, Sabbath rest also attunes us as a community to the injustices of an economic system built on relentless labour and ceaseless toil. Jesus insisted that healing belongs on the Sabbath. For a community, Sabbath-keeping can become a means of participation in God’s individual and social healing.
Or take the healing story of Zacchaeus, in which he pays back all he owes and gives away half of his possessions as a means of participating in his own healing and the shalom of his community. Such radical generosity not only recognizes and participates in repairing injustice; it also frees Zacchaeus from the idolatry of mammon. For churches from wealthy communities, healing practices could include teaching on generosity and invitations for budget committees to direct funds toward financial investments in impoverished communities.
One of the most ancient hallmarks of the Christian faith is hospitality. Jesus embodies the healing power of hospitality every time he steps across a social dividing line to eat with a sinner, to touch or receive touch from a woman, or to reach out his hand and connect with a person with leprosy. In English, the word “hospitality” shares a root with the word “hospital” for a reason; when we gather together and welcome one another, we offer relationships, touch, sustenance, and care. The Greek word for hospitality also reminds us of the radical nature of Christian hospitality. It is the word philoxenia, love of the stranger. To practice hospitality, churches must do more than host a fellowship hour after the Sunday service. Practicing hospitality means creating spaces of welcome and belonging for the ones who have been discarded and rejected. It means providing food and friendship to those outside conventional social limits. This practice will take different shapes depending on the Spirit’s leading. It may become formalized in programs that offer food to homeless populations or people experiencing illness. It may not involve food at all, but rather take the form of asking in what way the church’s architecture and programming communicate welcome (or rejection) of various populations of people.
Through our communal life as the body of Christ, we are invited to ask the Spirit to lead us to practices that will bring healing into our broken world.
Millions of people are devastated by depression, anxiety, alienation, loss, and other illnesses. On a communal level, our globe has seen increased political division and animosity and warfare. Individually and communally, we are unable to ignore our pain and brokenness. This moment offers those of us who are the body of Christ an opportunity to know Jesus once again as healer. As the one who comes to us in our bodies, minds, and spirits to make us well. As the one who sends us out in peace to bring healing into the world.