Health in Personal, Social, and Eschatological Perspective: A Theological-Pastoral Reflection

Therapy (Health and Healing illustration by Denise Klitsie)

These pages are meant less as a conclusion to the preceding essays than as a kind of reflection, from a more or less systematic theological perspective, on health and healing as the central themes of this issue of FULLER magazine. Yet our considerations both presume the breadth and diversity of the voices heretheir inter- and trans-disciplinarity, their transnational geographic and regional foci, and their interethnic and transcultural situatednessand insist that the work of the systematician is not finished until practical theological proposals are factored in. What follows, therefore, ought to be understood against and qualified by the foregoing discussions, even as they beg the “so what?” question: How then ought we to live as Jesus-following people, in light of the polyfaceted and variegated understanding of health and healing across Christianity as a global faith.

To frame my response, let me hence sketch three propositions that ought to be noncontroversial for any Christian theology of health and healing. First, Christian salvation in its most encompassing sense involves creaturely wholeness, not only in terms of psychosomatic health but also with regard to social relatedness as well as broader ecological and cosmic environments; in other words, divine salvation not only cures bodies but also heals souls, reconciles creatures, and ultimately renews all of creation in its various levels of togetherness.1 Second, in this time between the timesafter the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus but before his coming againwe live and flourish only in and through the Spirit of Jesus; yet such Spirit-empowered life does not lead to any uncritical theology of glory, but instead recognizes that the gifts of the Spirit enable the edification of all precisely through the contributions of those “members of the body that seem to be weaker” or “that we think less honourable” (1 Cor 12:22–23).2 Last but not least, the many tongues of the Spirit of Pentecost continually invite us to rethink health and wholeness from out of the witness of the worldwide body of Christ, which testimonies will echo perspectives from various and different contexts; this means that “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12a), and therefore that with regard to our variegated experiences of health and healing, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). From here, let me ward off three interrelated distortions that often plague Christian thinking about health and healing.

Distortion #1: That God heals and desires our health and wholeness is not in question, but this does not mean that divine salvation is intended to provide bodily cures in every circumstance. Coming from the Pentecostal-charismatic tradition as I do (and about which Shane Clifton, Mel Robeck, and Kimberly Alexander speak eloquently in their essays included here), I recognize the power of the healing message to draw people to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet it also needs to be said that while God always saves and, in that sense, heals, God does not always cure.3 My younger brother Mark, who has Down syndrome, is whole and healthy but not because he has been cured of trisomy 21 (the chromosomal condition related to Downs). The gospel of a God who saves and heals becomes distorted by the theology of health-and-wealth; more precisely, proclaiming that God always and in every case desires that we enjoy cured bodies is not just a distortion but a heresy: another gospel indeed. Our theology of health and healing must remember not only Trophimus, who was “left ill at Miletus” (2 Tim 4:20b), but also Paul, who prayed thrice asking for deliverance from his affliction but received the Lord’s response: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). There is scriptural warrant for the assertion that blessing and prosperityand cures and healingare given by God, but it is a distortion to claim that these are meant to be embraced literally for each of us in every situation.4

Distortion #2: By extension, it is wrong not only to presume God will supernaturally intervene to heal or cure by the wonder-working power of his Spirit his followers from our every affliction; it is also wrong to think that if we lived according to what we believe the covenant requirements are, we are guaranteed a healthy and long life. Here I am not talking about the charismatic dimension of health and healing addressed in the first distortion. Instead, I am naming the “standing on the promises of God” attitude that insists we can earn health and healing by living out the biblical message. I am not dismissing the role of Scripture in ruling our lives and our faith; rather, I am counteracting the belief that if we do our parte.g., exercise regularly, eat healthily, maintain a fit lifestyle,5 all according to the Scriptures, it is believedthen God is bound to keep us healthy. This contemporary cult of health and healthiness is at its worst a late modern expression of Pelagianismthe ancient heresy that we can earn our own salvation by our deedsand an idolatrous distortion of the truth. As Job said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15a). Again, my point is not to undermine the biblical bases for such practices of self-care, to the extent that such might be identified, but to reject any one-to-one correlation between these commitments and our expectations that God is thereby obligated to reward our efforts and cure our bodies.

Distortion #3: Underneath the first two distortions might be an uninterrogated assumption about what it means to be healthy. Here, conventional notions of what Thomas Reynolds calls “the cult of normalcy” prevail that define how those of us who fall within the bell curve of abilityas opposed to being labeled as having a disabilityunderstand ourselves as “normal” human beings.6 Such internalization of the so-called “normal,” however, also exerts ideological potency at the edges of the bell curve so that people who are ill, sick, diseased, or impaired in any way come to consider themselves deviant according to extant social norms and expectations. This takes into account neither the fact that all of us “normals” are only temporarily able-bodied (TAB)coming into the world dependent and, if blessed to live long enough, going out of the world also increasingly dependentnor the truth that these TAB prejudices function in discriminatory ways against any who are unable to live up to “normal” expectations. The disability community names such the ableist presumption, thus exposing how society’s constructions are biased against those who are unable to assimilate themselves into the TAB world.7 Yet surely ableism is counter to Yahweh’s concern for the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Instead, the upside-down world of Jesus as the face of the coming reign of God insists that the final banquet is attended by social outcasts, including “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21b).

How then ought we to proceed? In this final section, I suggest three sets of what I call redemptive pastoral practices that embrace and await the full healing and wholeness promised by the gospel. These can also be explicated in three interrelated domains: the interpersonal, the social/ecclesial, and the eschatological.

Redemptive practice #1—the interpersonal: Pastorally, we ought to pray with, not just for, one another. By “pastorally,” of course, I am referring to our dispositions toward one another, less to any pastoral office that only a few of us might hold. In other words, we are all called to be sensitive towardhence pastoral in engagingeach other, and in that respect, we can each one be a source of pastoral strength and encouragement to others. From that perspective, then, one of the most important things all of us can do, ministers and laypersons alike, is pray. Unfortunately, oftentimes we pray out of ignorance, or at least out of a posture that has not interrogated the ableist prejudices that have shaped our TAB experiences. From that perspective, we TAB persons often presume we know how to pray for othersfor instance, that they want cures that make them normal just like usrather than ask them about how best to pray with them. This plays out most problematically when interacting with people with disabilities.8 While some people with disabilities will welcome any prayers for their healing and curing, others are put off by the presumptiveness of TAB people and therefore sometimes cease to frequent church environments, because they might once again be the objects of prayers as well as targets of blame for why they remain impaired, e.g., because of a lack of faith or the consequences of sin. These attitudes, however, are clearly projected by us “healthy” persons of faith toward the sick, ill, or diseased, much less to those impaired or labeled as disabled.

My point is that the most pastorally sensitive forms of prayer are generated out of mutuality between human beings, rather than from any presumed divide that separates “us” who are healthy from “them” who are not. From this relational matrix, we realize more the cohumanity—the dust of the ground—that binds us together across the labels that otherwise separate us, and our praying resounds harmoniously out of our different locations, experiences, and voices. Once we realize that our friends and cobelievers are persons first, even if ill, sick, diseased, or impaired, then we might be more ready to pray with them about what is important to them rather than pray only for them according to our assumptions.

Redemptive practice #2—the socio-ecclesial: This second set of pastoral recommendations builds from and extends the notion of mutual prayer, meaning that the reciprocity of our praying together is based on our doing life with one another. Again, we are addressing hierarchies of alienation, for instance, “we” who are healthy, able-bodied, and ministers, and “they” who are sick, disabled, and recipients of ministry. Instead, we need to reenvision what it means to be the people of God and the body of Christ, meaning, for our purposes, those joined together in solidarity by the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost on all flesh: male and female, young and old, haves and have nots, able-bodied and impaired.9 From that perspective, then, each member of the body becomes a site of the Spirit’s ministry of salvation and wholeness to others, going in multiple directions. We can not only pray for one anotherincluding the sick and those living with long-term illnesses praying for the well, and so on—but we can do life together: be present to one another, rejoicing with each other when appropriate, lamenting and grieving with one another when needed.10

Once we have gotten to know one another at this deeper level, then we will know that our friendsand if within the church, our family, together part of the body of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spiritare not just objects of healing prayers, and we will also realize when they have stopped asking for miraculous interventions and desire rather the presence of the Holy Spirit with them amidst their felt afflictions. So if oftentimes our response to the sick and impaired is to come in for a visit and then go back to the comforts of our own “normal” life, the practices suggested here involve patient Christian koinonia across the not-so-healthy spectrum while simultaneously believing that joy, generosity, and solidarity can be nurtured by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:45–47).

Redemptive practice #3—the eschatological:
Last but not least, what kinds of practices can inform our own hopes for eschatological wholeness and well-being? Remember that the eschatological concerns not just life after death or eternity after history and the end of the cosmos; instead, the eschatological is the reign of God that is coming and has been manifest in Jesus Christ and in his outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the world. From that perspective, the eschatological makes a difference now, amidst the mundaneness that constitutes the challenges we confront in our bodies and lives. Hence, our suffering, patience, and endurance with sickness, illness, and impairment are not segregated from the good news of the coming divine reign. But this may not mean, as we have indicated above, that cures are on our earthly horizon. Instead, it means that we can live with one another, pray together, and expect that the Spirit can redeem our lives in anticipation of the promise of the gospel that involves our future. In other words, our sicknesses and impairments are redeemable by the gospel, even if not cured on this side of heaven.

This is perhaps not good news according to the conventions of ableism or the norms of prosperity or health-and-wealth theology, but it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, who not only came into the world but descended into its historical underside for God’s saving purposes. Thus, Jesus “became like his brothers and sisters in every respect” and was fully “subject to weakness” (Heb 2:17a, 5:2) so that he could turn around whatever was intended for our harm (Gen 50:20). Hence, we can encourage each other that in and through the trials and challenges of living with sickness, illness, and impairment, we can live liberatively and faithfully in the present and bear witness to the power of the Spirit through our “treasures in clay jars” (2 Cor 4:17).11

1. See ch. 8, “Divine Healing: Salvation of the Body and Redemption of the World,” of my book Renewing Christian Theology: Systematics for a Global Christianity, images and commentary by Jonathan A. Anderson (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).
2. Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptural quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version; further consideration of this reading of 1 Corinthians 12 is found in my essay “Disability and the Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecost and the Renewal of the Church,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 19:1 (Spring 2010): 76–93.
3. I say more about this distinction between healing and curing in my book Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 245–47.
4. See Amos Yong, In the Days of Caesar: Pentecostalism and Political Theology—The Cadbury Lectures 2009, Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age series (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), ch. 7, on the health and wealth theology.
5. See R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); see also Joseph W. Williams, Spirit Cure: A History of Pentecostal Healing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), ch. 5, “Perfect Bodies, Plentiful Profits.”
6. See Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), ch. 2.
7. For more on the notion of ableism, see my essay, “Beyond Ableism: Disability and the Renewal of Theological Education,” in Theology and the Experience of Disability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Voices Down Under, ed. Myk Habets and Andrew Picard (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2016); Fiona Kumari Campbell, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
8. I elaborate on why in my article, “Disability and Suffering? Pastoral and Practical Theological Considerations,” Journal of the Christian Research Institute on Disability 4:1 (2015): 27–42.
9. See my Who Is the Holy Spirit? A Walk with the Apostles (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011), parts 2–3.
10. Disability perspectives on lament are here helpful for interfacing with the broader spheres of illness, sickness, and disease; see Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 40–46.
11. My gratitude to Kurt Fredrickson for feedback on this essay.