Testimonies of the Not-Yet Healed
It's time for churches to tell the other side of the story.
There is one story Christians are hungry to hear. It is not precisely the Gospel story, which we think we know; it is the good news made personal, made real in our bodies and before our eyes. It is the story that concludes, “… and then someone prayed, and I was instantly and completely healed.”
In many churches, this is the only personal story that we hear. That is, if someone other than a pastor or worship leader is allowed to speak in church, it is to tell a version of this story. Accounts of physical and emotional healing have become our only public testimonies.
These stories should be told, repeatedly. Psalm 145:4 says, “One generation will commend Your works to another; they will tell of Your mighty acts.” In the New Testament, healing miracles bear witness concerning Jesus (John 10:25, 38) and sometimes draw entire communities to listen to the Gospel (Acts 3:1-11; 9:32-35, 40-42).
Yet today we face two difficulties. First, because all our testimonies are alike, they don’t grip us. When there is only one story, there is really no story at all—no suspense, no valuing of developments along the way. The congregation isn’t excited; the community isn’t transformed. And soon the voices fall silent. We listen only to the newest story or the person raised from death trumps the one who had a limb restored. This woman was healed of cancer, but that was 30 years ago, and now she has a heart condition.
Which brings us to the second problem: Some of us have quite different testimonies. We have not been instantly and completely healed—at least, not yet. Some of us are very sick indeed, requiring much help and patience from others. Yet we still have testimonies. We strive, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), to rejoice in God even in a time of barrenness. We seek to serve, like Paul, despite “a bodily ailment” (Galatians 4:13), or, like Timothy, despite “frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). In various ways, we confess, “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life” (Psalm 119:50) and “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn Your decrees” (119:71).
We have testimonies, but no one wants to hear them. That is a great pity, for Christians are urged to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). Most testimonies of healing don’t rouse me to stand in the noble, active waiting of hope or to walk in costly deeds of love. That is not their function. Rather, the story of a brother or sister who was instantly and completely healed awakens my faith in a good and steadfastly loving God, who still delivers.
Hope and love require a different sort of testimony. They require accounts of missionaries and persecuted Christians, or people—like Joni Eareckson Tada, Dave Roever, and others in our own congregations—who are living models of patient endurance. The gap between these groups is not as wide as we may imagine. The churches of Paul’s day sent many emissaries, but when he says to “honor such men” (Philippians 2:29), his immediate reference is to Epaphroditus, who risked his life by falling sick. We tend to miss this, perhaps because we would rather celebrate power than emulate long suffering.
Of course, not every story of sickness is a Christian testimony. Samuel Johnson, who knew both physical maladies and depression, observed, “It is so very difficult for a sick man not to be a scoundrel.” Pain makes us self-centered, grumbling, and manipulative. And yet, in the midst of trials, some believers eventually find strength to rejoice (James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6), grace to give (2 Corinthians 8:2) and comfort to share (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
We need heroes. There is much that is heroic in the lives of people who have been healed, in their preceding days or years of pain and doubt, but we rarely hear of this, because of the one story that emphasizes faith and power. We forget the power of God also supplies hope to the one who walks in darkness and love to the one who gives from scarcity. Ultimately there is only one Hero, but how many are His stories!
In her book Affliction, Edith Schaeffer suggests Heaven’s Museum contains two complementary exhibits. Each presents every torment that Satan can devise, every trial that the Accuser calls too big for God. One gallery showcases instances of God delivering from each circumstance; the other, believers who overcame because they continued to love and trust God even though He didn’t deliver them. Without taking this literally, can’t we acknowledge that every believer lives a story charged with suspense? Where are those testimonies?
My brother once attended a church with a TV ministry. Each week, the camera swept over the congregation on its way to the platform. Often it captured a man with quadriplegia, sitting in a wheelchair. One day the elders approached this man and said, in effect, “We are delighted that you come here, but this church believes in healing. Our viewers deserve to see only people who are whole and happy. Please, would you sit on the sidelines, in the shadows, just until you are healed.”
Today many of our churches believe that to be a Christian, to have any testimony at all, requires that one be whole and happy. We have no Pauls with thorns in the flesh, no Timothys with frequent ailments, no terminally ill Elishas—or, if we do, we accuse them of lacking the faith to be healed, instantly and completely. We fail to perceive that, if we live long enough, this theology will banish every one of us to the shadows. We have no place for broken vessels, with Jesus’ life and power revealed through cracks and amid putrescence. We will honor Epaphroditus only when he becomes camera-ready, or for an hour when he dies.
I crave stories of healing as much as anyone. One day I hope to tell such a tale. But, God knows, I also need to be prodded and encouraged by those who haven’t yet received the things promised, but still live by faith because they consider God “reliable and trustworthy and true to His word” (Heb. 11:11, Amplified). They too have a story to tell.