“Even now, therefore, many miracles are wrought, the same God who wrought those we read of still performing them, by whom He will and as He will.”—Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Every time i have peayed for healing—miraculous, extraordinary healing—it has not come. I started at a young age, with animals. We had a Boston terrier who was prone to accidents. Popeye had broken both his hind legs. Once, riding in the back of a pickup truck, he saw a jack rabbit and bounded out to chase it. That broke a leg. Another time, my sister thought Popeye would enjoy the view from our treehouse. She got him halfway up and dropped him. That broke a leg.

One day Popeye disappeared. He was gone for several days, and my parents guessed that someone had run over him and dumped him in a ditch. I prayed to the contrary, but, sitting high in a tractoras I drove home from a field, I saw a little black-and-white body in the ditch. My brother, sister, and I had a cemetery for our pets. We laid Popeye to rest beside some rabbits, turtles, a ground squirrel, and a duck. It was a proper Christian burial.

I have prayed for an outright miracle for two people I cared about. When I was a senior in high school my grandfather went into the hospital to recover from the flu and abruptly lapsed into a coma. The doctors were somber. The second or third day I squeezed my motionless granddad’s hand and told him I loved him. He squeezed back and I jumped, reluctant after that to touch his hand again. It was as if death had pressed my flesh. Granddad never came out of the coma.

Seven years later, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He lived a year, and nearly every day of that year we prayed God would do what the doctors couldn’t: kill the cancer. There were victories of sorts—victories of faith and longsuffering—but no victory over the cancer. There was a proper Christian burial.

For some, a belief in the Christian faith itself has ended with such defeats of health. As Paul Brand and Philip Yancey so ably demonstrated (CT, Nov. 25, 1983), the distortions surrounding faith healing are many and dangerous. Authors Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham suffered unanswered prayers for healing, and spoke of them as serious reasons behind their abandonment of the faith. As children, they were led to expect that God would answer all prayers for healing with completely restored health. Today, decades after Twain and Maugham, some faith healers still make such exaggerated claims. But do all? To find out what contemporary faith healers believe and practice, I first traveled to Milwaukee, where an itinerant faith healer was hosting a crusade.

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The literature on hand was what could mildly be called silly. One pamphlet read: “I WAS A CANNIBAL—ATE RAW WHITE MEN—Whipped Mountain Lion—Swam River with Alligator—Ate Raw Snakes and Chickens—Walked Power Line to U.S.A.” (The last is especially puzzling, suggesting an unquestionably unique form of trans-Atlantic transportation.) And available by mail was the “Jesus 8 Personalized Health Club Kits,” consisting of herbs, trace minerals, vitamins, acids, cell salts, supplements, and the “7 ‘magic’ minerals of youth.” The health kits promised to cure everything from AIDS to impotency.

The meeting itself was a lesson in showmanship. The faith healer roamed the aisles with a cordless microphone, sometimes breaking into silky, soporific song, a Perry Como of gospel. Between songs he called men and women from their chairs. One young woman could not rise from hers: it was a wheelchair. The healer prayed for her, asked her if she was well (“Yes! I am, I am!”), and told her to get out of the wheelchair. He sat down in the wheelchair and told her to push him, and not to walk, to run. Leaning on the wheelchair, she started forward, then gained speed and a smile. But her knees gave substantially and a little slowly as she moved, so that she looked like she was running under water, in mud. It was unconvincing.

I went through the prayer line (a sort of assembly line for laying on of hands) anyway, wondering if there might be any effect, emotional or otherwise. The faith healer had emphasized in his sermon that praising God was essential to healing. He compared God to his father, who, the faith healer said, was more likely to increase his allowance if he praised the way he dressed or looked. God was the same, flattered into action by our praise. So the prayer line proceeded with hand clapping and song. When it came my turn, the healer gripped my forehead with one hand, shook it, and patted my back with the other hand. There were no unusual sensations. If I were to be healed of anything, I would hope it would be predisposition to anxiety and depression. On the way home, I could not find the correct ramp to enter the freeway. The predisposition was not gone.

There are infinitely more tragic cases, such as the recently publicized Faith Assembly, pastored by Hobart Freeman and located near Fort Wayne, Indiana. Freeman teaches that God will directly heal all of a believer’s ills, and physicians need not be consulted. More than 50 members of the church, including babies, have died after medical treatment was rejected.

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The Controversy Of Healing

But the experiences of Maugham and Twain, and the teachings of Faith Assembly, are not all that can be said about Christianity and healing. Let me introduce the case of Marie Hermann. Marie is a winsome woman of 61. Her husband, a medical doctor, recently took an early retirement to enjoy life with his wife after something extraordinary happened.

In March 1980, the Hermanns lived in Evansville, Indiana. Marie had a football-sized metastatic tumor in her abdomen, and others in her neck, liver, bones, and chest. Reacting adversely to chemotherapy, her thyroid and adrenal glands had failed. In the next six months she lost 82 pounds and, with her husband and doctors, believed she was weeks from the grave. On September 28 of that year she went to church at the noncharismatic Bethel Temple. On that particular Sunday, the pastor told the thousand members in his church to join hands and pray for healing of themselves or others. Marie Hermann prayed.

She says she would have been pleased to hold down her supper that night. She did not. But the next morning, her nausea inexplicably lifted. She ate breakfast, then a bacon and tomato sandwich for lunch, with no problems. Her husband (who then worked as a research scientist for a pharmaceutical manufacturer) was skeptical of any spectacular or miraculous recoveries. He probed Marie’s abdomen and was surprised that he could feel no tumor. Ten days later, Marie saw her oncologist. No cancer was found anywhere in her body. The doctors were baffled. Spontaneous remissions of cancer are well documented, but the rapidity of this cancer’s disappearance made Marie’s case remarkable. Was it at least a miraculous remission?

Marie Hermann and Barbara Cummiskey (see sidebar) got well. That alone is irrefutable. They, and a good many Christians they have spoken to, believe God miraculously healed them. Some of their doctors are Christians, and they believe they witnessed a miracle. Others of their doctors are not Christians: they believe something unexplainable happened, but no miracle. All see the same facts, but reach different conclusions. The starting point—faith in God, or no faith—is the difference.

Yet the striking thing about miraculous healing in our time is not that agnostics reject it. It is that Christians cannot agree on it. In fact, Marie says, more Christians than non-Christians challenge her about her healing. Apparently the non-Christians, without highly structured theological or philosophical beliefs, can accept something out of the ordinary. “I’ve always believed there is some kind of power,” they tell Marie. Christians, those who believe God closed the canon on miracles at the same time he closed that of the New Testament, are ironically driven to look for a more “natural” explanation than the out-and-out agnostics.

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A Balanced View Of Healing

Clearly, faith healing can be attacked without building straw men. But a moderate, more balanced, view and practice of healing appears to be emerging in the church. It owes much, but is not restricted, to charismatic Christianity. It is developing from one coast (Virginia Beach, Va.) to the other (Pasadena, Calif.) in institutions as disparate as the “700 Club” and Fuller Theological Seminary. In visiting places like the “700 Club” or Oral Robert’s City of Faith hospital, I detected the unfolding of what I call a centrist view of healing. Centrist healing is not given to the extremes mentioned above, yet it shows a marked openness to the possibility of God directly intervening in the natural process to heal. It stands in the stream of a long if interrupted history.

Christian healing has not always been abberational. Observing present-day extremes and dismissing the Christian tradition of healing by prayer and faith would be rash, since examples can be chosen selectively. We would want no history of Christianity that skipped over Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms and Gospels, then concentrated on the Inquisition or witch hunting in Salem.

As William Barclay observes, “The Church never altogether lost [its] gift of healing.” Healing is near the heart of Christianity. Christ and the apostles were healers, and this could not help but affect their followers. In addition, the Christian ethic is a positive one. Some religions ask only that their adherents not do anything harmful to the neighbor; Christianity goes an extra step and says, “Do good to your neighbor.” It is natural, then, that Christians not only refrain from injuring a neighbor, but try to heal him whenever he is hurt. This is why religion scholars say Christianity has been the major impulse toward healing in history.

Healing in the Christian tradition includes not just Hobart Freeman, but Augustine, Irenaeus, Chrysostom, and Francis of Assisi (not to mention Jesus Christ, and the apostles Peter and Paul). The sacrament of unction was for healing until the ninth century—only then did it become the sacrament of extreme unction, a preparation for death. Early Christian liturgies regularly included a place for healing, such as one from the year 400 asking God to send on the anointing oil the power of his “good compassion, that it may deliver those who labor, and heal those who are sick.”

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After the early centuries of the church, the teachings and practice of healing waned. But there were bursts in the Middle Ages: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century, Saint Francis Xavier in the sixteenth, George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, worked quietly (then, as now, healing could be controversial) in the seventeenth century. The Pentecostal revival late in the nineteenth century and early in this one ignited the healing movements with which most Christians are familiar today.

New Movements For Healing

The centrist view of healing is emerging in the context of this long history of healing. In Judeo-Christian history, there have been lengthy periods of relative dormancy in the alleged occurrence of miracles. “A renewal of these phenomena, however, seems to be occurring in both Protestant and Catholic circles,” the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 7, 1983) suggests. Faith healing is spilling over its accustomed charismatic boundaries. Harold Lindsell, former editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, writes in his latest book that there are “a few people here and there who receive the gifts of healing or miracles. These gifts have not ceased. They are still there even though they occur with less frequency than some people suppose.” Fuller Theological Seminary, of Presbyterian and Reformed origin, now offers course MC510: “Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth.” One of the seminary’s most popular courses, it includes a “ministry time” of prayer for healing. Of the 279 students who took the course last year, 278 were convinced healing should be part of the church’s ministry.

Within its accustomed charismatic boundaries, healing is being significantly moved away from extremes. The Assemblies of God, America’s fastest-growing denomination, publishes “The Believer and Positive Confession,” a level-headed statement advising Assemblies members that “doctrine based on less than a holistic view of Bibilical truth can only do harm to the cause of Christ.” Five years ago Pat Robertson decided his televised “700 Club” ought to be careful about publicizing bogus healings. He now has a staff of three researchers (including a registered nurse) and five reporters investigating purported healings. According to head researcher Karen Thomson, only about one-third of the reported “healings” pass a screening that includes interviews of involved physicians and reviews of pertinent medical records.

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Unquestionably, the boldest experiment in centrist healing is in Tulsa. There, Oral Roberts has opened his City of Faith Medical and Research Center. Rising 62 stories from the Oklahoma prairie, the clinic building is the state’s tallest and is (to say the least) a far cry from Robert’s old revival tent. It is flanked by a 30-story hospital and a 20-story research building. If it reaches capacity, the $150 million complex will house medical, nursing, and dental teaching schools, 777 beds, 200 laboratories, 318 physicians, 850 nurses, and more than 3,000 other employees. Its purpose is an all-out fusion of science and religion. Prayer partners (the rough equivalent of chaplains) visit each patient at least once a day for prayer and counsel. They are considered part of the healing team, with doctors and nurses, whose members consult one another about helping the “whole person.” Bringing in the spiritual dimension, then, does not mean pushing out what a publicist calls “the most advanced medical hardware for the diagnosis and treatment of human disease.”

The City of Faith staff promises patients no miracles. According to Duie Jernigan, director of the prayer partner ministry, “There are no more miracles at the City of Faith than any other hospital. Just as many patients die.” Jaspar McPhail, chief of surgery, affirms, “Almost always the Lord heals through the natural process.” McPhail has a relaxed manner, half his hair, and is tall enough that when he chooses to rest his arm on a sofa’s back, the entire sofa is occupied. He specializes in heart surgery and has studied with Michael DeBakey. The surgeon’s credentials are not atypical at the hospital. Paul Kosbab, chief of psychiatry, is thoroughly and respectably trained and, with a thick Viennese accent, sounds like Freud reincarnated. Like all five of the City of Faith doctors I talked to, Kosbab has rigorous criteria for what constitutes a direct supernatural act of healing. His is not given to pronouncing every disappearing wart a miracle, and wryly suggests the closest thing to it he has seen is that, in 25 years of practice, none of his patients has completed a suicide. The head administrator of the City of Faith is James Winslow, who, before joining Oral Roberts University, had one of Tulsa’s most lucrative practices in orthopedics. It is obvious that Roberts has not gathered a crowd of snake handlers.

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What sets apart the City of Faith’s approach is its openness to the occasional miracle, and the recognition that faith can be an important factor in healing whether or not a miracle occurs. (Interestingly, surgeon Paul Brand, coauthor of the previous issue’s article on healing, has been considered for a position at the City of Faith. Brand had other commitments and thus never joined the staff, but he thinks Robert’s hospital is “wholly admirable … a very real and sincere effort to bring together the different elements of healing.”

“Faith is a healing factor not usually sanctioned by the medical establishment,” says administrator Winslow. “But medical science has begun to realize that treatment of the whole patient—mind, body, and spirit—is the best way to approach real wellness.”

Foundations Of Centrist Healing

This concern for “real wellness” has been, as we have seen, important to Christianity throughout its history. The rudimentary medical science of Augustine’s day left prayer as his only choice in dealing with many ailments or injuries. Even since the development of sophisticated treatments there have been awkward moments when some Christians insisted on relying on “faith alone” and refused the benefits of medical technology. But now we are seeing the circle close into a whole. Faith and medical technique work together, and both are seen to derive from a single divine source. These are all element’s of what I have called centrist healing. Four points may roughly summarize its foundation. Centrist healing is rational, but not rationalistic; it attempts no absolute formulas about divine healing; it is ultimately concerned with “real wellness,” and means to include the best medical technology available to achieve that healing; and it does not pretend to eliminate suffering. Each of these points deserves separate attention.

• To say that centrist healing is rational is to say that it is realistic. It gives no guarantees. The cancer or heart patient is clearly in danger of his life. “Patients may live or die,” says one of Jernigan’s colleagues at the City of Faith. “Either way, we stand by and walk with them to the end, for better or for worse.” The centrist healer can agree with the dictum of Charles Williams, “The glory of God is in the facts; and those devoted to the glory have to deal with the facts.”

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Yet the centrist healer is not rationalistic: he believes there is a God capable of operating beyond his understanding. This God can choose to heal through the instrument of medicine, or directly and dramatically. Statistically, it is clear he does not do the latter often. Yet the centrist healer cannot pretend to know God’s sovereign and free will, and the next patient he prays for may be changed. Psychologically and spiritually, the patient needs hope. The odds are against every new business, even every new marriage, but something deeply human pushes people to risk and hope—their business will succeed, their marriage be unbroken. As psychiatrist Karl Menninger has said, “man can’t help hoping even if he is a scientist. He can only hope more accurately.”

This realistic but hopeful approach to healing was apparent when my father was diagnosed with cancer. His minister grieved with him in facing the grim reality of the situation, but also set aside three days for fasting and special prayer for healing. No healing came: the cancer proved terminal. But the pastor’s action gave my father hope that speeded his recovery from surgery; it assured him that his pastor believed in the free power and love of God; and it demonstrated the pastor’s true empathy, opening a door to sensitive counseling as death appeared more and more inevitable.

• Centrist healing also attempts no absolute formulas about divine healing. Sometimes people who are healed have great faith; sometimes they have none at all. They may avidly praise God, as the Milwaukee faith healer exhorted, or they may sullenly hate him. They may not even have been praying for healing, as in the case of Barbara Cummiskey. But others may have been praying for them, as in the case of Barbara Cummiskey. The healer may or may not speak in tongues. C. Peter Wagner, originator of the “Signs and Wonders” course at Fuller, says his wife is used for healing by God more than he. Yet she doesn’t speak in tongues, and Wagner does.

A comprehensive formula of spiritual healing eludes us at every step. Nothing can explain why multiple sclerosis mysteriously left Barbara Cummiskey and not John Koys, another Christian afflicted with the disease. Barbara certainly claims no superiority. She finds herself questioning almost as much as she did when she suffered for 15 years. Finally, “I just leave it. God never promised me I’d understand everything. Not when I was sick. Not now. He just says, ‘Love me, my child, and accept me.’ ”

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• Because it is ultimately concerned with healing, centrist healing will seek and use any means to achieve that healing. It is not a question of God getting the credit if the healing is direct and instantaneous, and medicine getting the credit if it is gradual and chemical-related. Nor is it a question of the pastor or physician taking credit. The pastor, physician, and chemicals are all instruments of healing. Anointing oil and penicillin can both be sacraments of health. No means are to be denigrated or denied their place in attempting to get the patient well. As physician Paul Tournier has written, the interaction between medicine and prayer is often unclear. “Faith and technology work together. Psychoanalysis explores the problems in order to bring them out into the daylight. Grace dissolves them without our ever knowing exactly how” (emphasis added). In the same vein, prayer partners and physicians at the City of Faith want to cooperate, not compete. Lack of clarity in a single source of healing helps credit to be given where it belongs: to God.

• A centrist view of healing does not pretend suffering will be eliminated. Marie Hermann may have been visited by a miracle in losing her cancer, but she still knows the pain of multiple sclerosis, which did not leave her body.

And three years after the unusual disappearance of Marie’s cancer, it has returned. Two nodes on the back of her neck have been found to be malignant. A biopsy showed the cancer is the same one that so nearly killed her three years earlier. The prognosis is mixed, but Marie’s attitude remains the same. On the day she calls to tell me the bad news she comments on the bright fall weather. She says God is still God, that she has had three “wonderful” years, and that she may have many more yet.

The oddness of Barbara Cummiskey’s case also did not end with her being healed of MS. Only months later doctors did a fairly simple operation to remove a cyst that had grown in Barbara’s lower abdomen. A freakish infection developed and she almost died. Only intensive medical care saved her, and her recovery was gradual and quite “natural.”

We might also note that Barbara suffered 15 years before her healing. Marie Hermann suffered more than 10 years with various cancers, and knew the pain of a radical mastectomy before she was healed. If God miraculously healed these women, he obviously was not merely eliminating pain: that could have come much sooner. Yet Barbara and Marie both look back on their times of pain with some fondness. They recall a closeness to God that is difficult to maintain in the hubbub of a busy, healthy life. P. T. Forsyth once commented that too often so much of our moral energy is “engrossed with healing or preventing pain, that it is withdrawn from the noble enduring of it, from the conversion and sanctification of wounds incurable.”

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When Marie Hermann was sick, she conducted Bible studies and talked on the phone for hours with distressed friends. Her counsel was valued and appreciated, and she admits that when she got well some of the same friends misunderstood her—she was not always home, always available. She had almost endured pain too nobly, had surely converted and sactified a wound incurable.

“Chiefly For This End …”

Among the galaxy of wonderful scenes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I especially like one. The timid hobbit Sam Gamgee has survived goblins, giant spiders, thirst, and hunger in a perilous journey through a dark land. Then he awakes from a sleep he thought was death and gasps at his friend, “Gandlf! I though you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? The Christian God is no mere wizard, and in this marred though beautiful world we live in, not everything sad is going to come untrue. There is pain. There are no absolute guarantees, no formulas (no sorcerer’s spells), but room for faith and hope.

The centrist approach to healing is cropping up in a variety of traditions, but almost always in the setting of community. (It is not an accident that Robert’s hospital is named the City of Faith.) Pastor Dick Rasanen, of Hope Evangelical Covenant Church in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, describes a simple Sunday evening service. Anyone desiring prayer was invited forward, one at a time, for laying on of hands. The service was conducted quietly and in order—no histrionics, no extravagant claims. “The service provided a special opportunity for the body to minister to one another, to give and receive God’s healing love, to realize again that each of us is hurting in some way,” says Rasanen.

It is quite likely that the extremes of faith healing are due in some measure to the organized church’s neglect of it. The hope of faith can arouse desperate and profound emotion. As with many other things, Scripture prefers that healing be practiced in community (see 1 Cor. 12 and James 5:13–16). In community the lunatic fringe can be moderated, and healing practiced with dignity and caution. Finally, it is in community that we can remind one another our ultimate purpose is not to escape pain, but to glorify Jesus Christ.

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Richard Sibbes, a seventeenth-century Puritan pastor of unusual grace and sensitivity, said: “This is a sign of a man’s victory over himself, when he loves health and peace of body and mind, with a supply of all needful things, chiefly for this end, that he may with more freedom of spirit serve God in doing good to others.” If this is the object of all prayers for healing, all our efforts at health, whatever healing is achieved will be healing indeed.

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