(Photo: Standing with Hope)
Many living with chronic suffering know from experience that stepping into some churches can be hazardous to your faith. Admonishments such as, "if you had enough faith, Jesus would heal you," are not uncommon directives from church folk who are not only poorly educated in what the Bible teaches, but also suffer themselves from a deplorable lack of humility and compassion. Hurting individuals seeking comfort in churches may often encounter spiritual "sweathogs" ( thank you, Mr. Kotter ) who, when faced with affliction in others, counter it by brandishing the "Sword of the Spirit" like an axe to bludgeon the already bruised and suffering. In days past, such doctrinal beliefs and behaviors remained somewhat contained to church circles. Today, however, that message blasts forth on 24-hour cable, social media, and every other type of communication method (some worldwide), and there seems to be no shortage in mass media messages promising the next "breakthrough" to those who subscribe to a particular ministry's teachings.
Flipping channels one evening, I happened upon a broadcast of a prominent "television evangelist" who earned international fame with reported miraculous healings through his ministry. With an expectant group of suffering lined up in their wheelchairs hoping to reach the man in the spotlight, the whole thing had a circus-like feel as the audience looked on waiting to see something astonishing. Combine that with the rousing music played on "traditional Biblical instruments" such as a Hammond B-3 organ (preferably with the Leslie speaker) and the formulaic and campy performance, is a picture of the Church that cause many Christians to slide further down in their pews with embarrassment. Ignoring the carnival-esque atmosphere, my eyes immediately fixed upon the glasses perched on the preacher's nose. "Wait a minute," I thought to myself. "Doesn't this guy believe that God will heal his poor vision?"
Do minor sufferings such as age-impacted eyesight not qualify for those who bill themselves as having an "anointing for healing" ministry? How much suffering is acceptable before traveling to a sawdust-floored tent to hear a man in a white suit pronounce a cure for maladies? To be fair, most of these high profiled individuals have upgraded to indoor arenas with state-of-the-art sound systems and lighting.
The topic of miraculous healing continues to be a flashpoint for many in and out of church. Whereas the Bible contains many statements of healing, prosperity, and comfort – it appears a segment of Christianity hijacked those verses and positioned themselves as authorities on God's provision in relation to the sufferings of this world. The cartoonish behavior of some preachers who proclaim healing ministries often serves as fodder for comedians, and disdain for many Christians. For the suffering, the dangling carrot of healing and instant relief from misery is almost tortuous in itself. Hurting souls often twist themselves into emotional, spiritual, and financial pretzels to chase the rainbow of healing. When desperate for relief, sowing a pledge into that particular ministry might seem a small price to pay for the alluring offer of God's healing and miraculous provisions. As recent as last week, I heard one well-known minister pronounce on national/international television when asking viewers to contribute, "God can't work a miracle on our behalf unless we act on faith."
Is that how God works? Is that how the King of Kings and Lord of Lords ministers to his followers? Should we offer an earnest prayer before plopping down "seed faith" or scratching a Powerball ticket?
When someone we love suffers, we try to help in any way possible. Four friends of a paralytic tore up a roof in order to lower a man down to Jesus while he preached in a crowded house. Since God created us in His own image, would reason not dictate that He feels compassion on an even greater scale than we do?
There is no question that suffering matters to God. How could it not? The Bible illustrates many times where God's heart is moved by the human condition. The Cross stands alone as God's complete and total response to the broken estate of humanity. Furthermore, scripture teaches that we should continually pray for those afflicted. Clearly, God would not place such directives if He planned to ignore the requests.
Yet, it often seems as if He remains silent during agonizing days, months, years, or in my family's case – decades. As my wife's surgery count has soared to nearly 80 since her 1983 car accident, I must confess that I've contemplated my own version of roof demolition. My heart breaks for those who flock to individuals who preach a "rescue you from bad situations" message. I understand the appeal, and I have struggled with the desperation that drives one to a "miracle crusade." Without any embarrassment, I admit dragging her to a few of those miracle services. Walk a mile in her prosthetic legs before offering criticism.
Living with desperation for this long, however, the panic of finding a solution starts to become tedious, and one learns to take each day as it comes. I recently heard my wife say, "You simply get tired of asking 'Why?'" One can only wait for a rescue for so long, before realizing that a life must be lived – even in dire circumstances.
After decades of serving as a "want to be roof demolisher," I have also heard every type of sales pitch of those who promise relief, while failing to see the glaring inconsistency – sometimes perched upon their noses.
God does heal. I state that on faith, while growing closer to beginning my fourth decade as a caregiver for a woman who never knows a day without extreme pain from the massive injuries she received 30 years ago. As recent as this year, she has already endured four additional operations, and her medical bills have crested $9 million. After treatment by more than 60 doctors in 12 hospitals, I can still look at the daily struggles she faces and remain convinced that the resurrection of Christ from the dead trumps any and all miracles. That one event indicates a power sufficient to deal with amputation, pain, and any other calamity. Remaining the bedrock of my faith and conviction, the Cross and the Resurrection continue to place all of the heartache, sadness, despair, and grief into perspective.
That said, I do not presume to know why God doesn't relieve my wife's pain or disability, and I routinely avoid discussions with those who profess they do. Examining all the cases of miraculous healings recounted in the Bible, it is interesting to note that God never used a formulaic approach. Some people recipients of healings had great faith; others just seemed pitiful and clueless. I remember the first time a bombastic "name it and claim it" minister pronounced miraculous healing over my wife while he himself wore glasses. The absurdity of the situation caused a moment's pause, while helping me realize two key principles:
Pain leads us to cry for relief.
If the discomfort seems manageable (such as eyeglasses), then we don't scream for help.
Thinking on these principles, I recall an event while in Ghana during a mission trip to provide artificial legs. Like a politician, I grabbed many hands, and entertained the dozens of amputees crowding into the clinic as they waited to see our team. Working the crowd, I made my way around the room when, out of my peripheral vision, I noticed one last person yet to be greeted. While still looking at the individual directly in front of me, I extended my hand to the small shape out of the corner of my eye – to greet the shy woman who stood conspicuously in the corner. Turning my head, with my hand already outstretched, my eyes immediately noticed the scars, missing digits, and maimed arm of the woman who clearly bore the ravages of leprosy.
Time stood still while I saw her questioning eyes, as she appeared to wonder if she was indeed welcome in the clinic. Although knowing good hygiene made me nearly immune to this disease, my first instinct was still to recoil. Then I remembered the cry of my maimed, scarred, and diseased soul, and my desperate need of a savior. I recalled how Christ not only welcomed me into His clinic, but into HIS family.
Taking the woman's hand in both of mine, I whole-heartedly assured her that she was welcome. After experiencing the amazing gift of salvation and adoption from God on my behalf, how could I do anything but embrace this precious, hurting woman?
Unlike the leprous woman I met in Ghana, many of us do not recognize the glaring reminders and awareness of our desperate state. Again, one rarely asks for rescue when unaware of peril.
From amputated limbs to poor vision requiring reading glasses, the human condition is still subject to this broken world. Maybe eyeglasses serve as the perfect metaphor, because we can't always see the bigger picture. The Apostle Paul stated that we presently "…see through a glass darkly." One day, God will reveal his purpose in all of this, and I am convinced that we will give Him the glory for things we currently cannot understand.
When faced with long term suffering, the absence of reprieve leaves us with a small set of choices on how we will live. We can run around screaming for a rescue, medicate the pain through sin and/or substances, or we can choose to live each day to the best of our abilities while trusting God for "strength for today – and bright hope for tomorrow."
Serving as a caregiver "since the Cold War," I've had ample time to make just about every kind of mistake possible. Regarding the small list of choices on how to deal with it, I've made all the above. Through it all, however, I have landed on trusting God with the harshness and ugliness of this broken world. That trust equips me to do the best I can each day, even when confronted with painful circumstances that cause me to have nightly conversations with the ceiling fan. Gazing at my own hands, I fail to see nail-prints, and that provides me with great comfort in realizing that those terrifying and heartbreaking things, as well as even the little things like eyeglasses, are not mine to resolve. That knowledge equips me to continue standing with hope, knowing that my rescue from a greater calamity than this present state is secure in the redemptive work of Christ.