The Yes and No of Healing
What are we to make of people who experience inner healing and then revert to their old ways?
A few years ago, as I scanned the congregation before the service, I again saw David and his wife, sitting in the back. He now attends regularly, but that had not always been the case. He had avoided church for years—until his wife became seriously ill and was suddenly healed when a group of us prayed with her. Though he had witnessed that miracle, David (no real names are used) avoided asking for prayer for himself, though at times he liked me to pray for him and his wife as they received Holy Communion together. This Sunday he asked for prayer as he came forward for Communion, explaining, "My father died."
At the end of the service, I saw him sitting alone, hunched over in the back of the church. I sat down next to him. David talked about how his father had not been an affectionate man; he rarely let David know that he loved him. The wounds of rejection and the need for fatherly affirmation were deep. As we prayed about that deep hurt, the love of the Father came over him. In the middle of our conversation, tears began welling up in his eyes as he heard deep within himself the Father's affirmation: "You are my child."
Through the tears he said, "I have never experienced anything like this before." At that moment, the lie that he had believed, "I am not loveable," was broken by the truth of God penetrating his heart. That inner healing opened him up to share with me that he and his wife were struggling in their marriage. Over the ensuing weeks, he came to me regularly for healing prayer, became more open with his wife, and their relationship began to improve.
Once the marital crisis passed, David stopped coming for healing prayer because he thought everything was fine. Then he had an affair. He came rushing back for healing prayer. Again God provided healing. He broke off the adulterous affair, and after a few marital counseling sessions that included inner healing prayer, the marriage was on the mend.
One day he answered a phone call from his former mistress, and soon he was right back in the affair. This cycle repeated several times until his wife had the papers drawn up for divorce. His chances were all used up as far as she was concerned.
Today, David still attends church, sitting by himself in a pew in the back of the church, always with his head hanging down. I feel both frustration with him and compassion for him.
Healing is at the very heart of God. "I am the lord, who heals you" (Ex. 15:26). The healing theme runs throughout the metanarrative of the Bible: Creation to Fall to redemption to consummation. Every stage involves healing, restoration, reconciliation, and transformation of God's people in spirit, soul (mind, will, emotion), and body through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yet I have found in my ministry of healing that David's experience is not isolated. It raises important questions about how that healing manifests itself between redemption and consummation. Was David's original healing genuine? Was he perhaps "unhealed"?
How do we understand this, especially those of us who believe in and practice healing?
The Powerful No
Leanne Payne is well known in many Christian circles for her ministry of inner soul healing. In her book The Healing Presence: Curing the Soul Through Union with Christ, she says that healing is blocked by, among other things, lack of self-acceptance for who we really are. That is, we are created in the image of God but find it hard to believe. Where does this lack of self-acceptance come from?
The great German theologian Karl Barth said, "The unredeemed mind of man, split off from the mind of the Creator, denies its Origin, denies itself." How does it happen? Barth sees this struggle of self as a battle within us between the "Yes" and the "No." We belong to the Yes of God and not to the No of sin and our fallen nature. Yet the No often has greater power to convince than the Yes.
This speaks succinctly about the process of inner healing. The knowledge of who we are in God is the starting point for healing, a point at which we begin and yet do not begin. This is expressed by the father in the story of the boy afflicted by a mute spirit, who cried, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24, NKJV). As Barth put it, "We are dust and ashes with our 'Yes' and 'No.'"
Paul was healed in one significant sense. The healing was not that of an emotional or physical ailment, but through his emotional or physical ailment, God put an end to Paul's power.
Our identification is either in God or it is in the sin from which we have been delivered. Once we have been delivered from sin, sin loses the power to name us. However, theologian Miroslav Volf writes in his book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, "The greater the wrong suffered, the more it gets ingrained into the identity of the person who endured it… . When wrongdoing defines us, we take on 'distorted identities, frozen in time and closed to growth.' … In less severe cases, the wrongdoing may not define us fully; yet it lodges in our core self and casts a dark shadow on everything we think and do."
During a healing session with Marjorie, she told me about her ongoing sense of rejection. "My first inner healing experience," she told me, "involved a memory of being locked out of my house when I was around 5 years old." That healing and a subsequent one revealed her father had been distressed when her mother discovered she was pregnant with Marjorie. The fact that the marriage was in trouble only compounded the problem. Marjorie then explained that another healing experience revealed her own rejection and condemnation of herself. Through inner healing over many years, she experienced the forgiveness of others and of herself.
But now she explained to me, "I am experiencing the feeling of rejection again, but this time with my spouse's family." There was the strain of the declining health of her husband's parents and unresolved issues in relationships, which flared up in angry outbursts about long-held resentments. She felt that her husband's family hated her, and that the "whole cycle of rejection is in full swing." The powerful No was indeed casting a dark shadow over her.
The More Powerful Yes
On the other hand, as Barth notes, while "there is never so decisive a Yes that it does not harbor the possibility of the No," it is also true that "there is never so decisive a No that it is not liable to be toppled over into the Yes." I've seen this reality in my healing work as well.
After being rejected by her parents, Susan lived with her grandparents most of her young life. When her grandfather died, she was sent to live with an elderly woman for two years. She told me that all her life she "felt not wanted and abandoned." This was her identity. During inner healing sessions, her identity as a child of God was slowly restored. Gradually, she came to forgive her parents. I could see progress in her healing when she allowed others to come close and love her.
Then, a few months ago, she was deeply hurt by a close friend. God had used this friend to help facilitate her healing from rejection and abandonment, especially in terms of her father. "I felt that he [the friend] completely misunderstood me," she said. "It was a sensitive and very vulnerable moment for me, and his response was not so sensitive. I closed off and cut him out of my heart. Even when he phoned to straighten things out between us, I just went through the motions of talking surface level, but could not open my heart again to him. I decided that an empty, fringe relationship with him—like with all others—is safer. Nobody has to know me or see my heart or know when I am hurt, especially not the people who have the potential to be close to me."
This is the great Yes that can never ultimately be drowned out by the No of our sin and infirmities.
Susan was catapulted back into the childhood trauma of rejection. She literally felt her soul sliding back into that old familiar state of a frozen and closed heart. Suddenly she became aware that "I was giving isolation a foothold again and really asked God to help. I had to take the hard step to take the initiative to phone my friend and to indicate that the relationship was important to me. It was horrible and awkward to be that vulnerable. But all along, my heart knew I was fighting for an imperfect but very precious relationship that God put in place. The relationship is restored now and maybe it will be stronger than before because I am one step stronger and more mature."
Here we see an example of a powerful No that has been "toppled over into the Yes." Healing is a process and the past wrongdoing in Susan's life is being dislodged from her core self as her identification in God is being revealed.
Weakness: It Is Finished
The issue of our core identification in God is raised even more sharply by the examples of people who aren't healed in the way they wanted to be healed. Does that indicate that healing has not occurred? Does this suggest that God has not blessed that hurting person with his great Yes?
Look at Paul's "thorn in the flesh." Three times he asked God to remove it. We have no idea what this affliction was, but we do know it was grievous to Paul and caused him discomfort. Still, he continued with even more zeal to serve God, teaching and preaching the kingdom of God in power and authority, including healing the sick and driving out demons. God had a purpose in refusing Paul's request to be healed of this thorn:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. (2 Cor. 12:7-9)
Marva Dawn, in her book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacle of God, reflects on this passage, and suggests an alternate translation for Paul's statement "for my power is made perfect [Greek teleo] in weakness." She notes that in nearly every other instance in the New Testament, the verb teleo is translated with some form of the English "to finish." So she translates this phrase with God saying to Paul, "for [your] power is brought to its end in weakness." Paul was healed in one significant sense. The healing was not that of an emotional or physical ailment, but through his emotional or physical ailment, God put an end to Paul's power. As Dawn points out at length in her book, our power—our sense of self-sufficiency—must be relinquished if we are to enjoy God "tabernacling" with us, God's presence within us.
Specifically this means that what we do and what we suffer does not define us at the deepest level. We are not defined by our infirmities or the fact that we may have been healed from one or more of them. We are fundamentally defined by the flame of God's presence within, which gives us a new identity that burns in us inextinguishably. Our bodies and souls are the temples of the Lord, and as Volf succinctly says, "Though … our bodies and souls may become ravaged, yet we continue to be God's temple—at times a temple in ruins, but sacred space nonetheless."
This is the great Yes that can never ultimately be drowned out by the No of our sin and infirmities. In fact, the No of our infirmities enables us to live into this Yes, and they become a witness of the finished Yes of Christ on the cross and in our lives. Power/self-sufficiency is indeed put to an end in weakness and death.
Thus we are neither discouraged nor surprised by our fluctuating experience of healing, for healing does indeed wax and wane. There will be moments when we know unmistakably the great Yes. But any "unhealing" we might experience, while giving testimony to the No of sin, does not define who we are, nor does it change the fundamental Yes that has been pronounced on us by God.
And because this is true, we see that the Yes of God's kingdom has the power to break into the most fearsome places, where the No seems to have all but won.
At the close of a weeklong healing conference in Rwanda, marked by a deep movement of God's love, one woman walked forward to the front of the room to speak. In a soft-spoken voice, Agnes began: "The men who killed my firstborn are here today." The silence was deafening. All waited. She moved from the microphone and brought the three men forward by the hand. All eyes were fixed on her. The men stood next to her, heads bowed. She looked intently at them as she continued: "Today I forgive you. You are my brothers."
In the healing journey, we can embrace both our corruption and grace, both our weakness and God's strength, knowing the very presence and character of God has fundamentally healed us with this great Yes.
Sharon L. Lewis, an Episcopal priest in the diocese of Southwest Florida, is founder and executive director of Amazing Love Healing Ministry (www.amazinglovehealing.com) in Nokomis, Florida.