You know how it works. Maybe your own health is in peril, or someone you love is suffering. You know God can heal, so you pray. You pray for weeks, you pray alone and in Bible studies, you put your request on prayer chains.
You’re not alone. All of us, I suspect, have prayed for healing and not heard a response. We’re left with that eternal “why.” The usual answers—God is testing our faith, we don’t have enough faith, we have been healed, but we need to claim it—don’t ring true. Even worse, they put the responsibility (and blame) on us.
What if the issue isn’t our faith, but God’s will? Specifically, what if God is doing a different thing—and it has to do with something our suffering can give to the world?
Sickness or strength?
That may shed light on why, in some cases, our brokenness is actually the flip side of our gifts. Take mental illness and creativity. Thinkers throughout history have noticed a link between the two, and recent research has borne that out. Back in 2002, Stanford researchers Connie Strong and Terence Ketter found that healthy artists and people with bipolar disorder share many personality traits—more, in fact, than the artists share with the general population.
Because I’ve wrestled with depression since I was 12, this link raises a serious question for me. I sense a call to write in ways that bless people. It’s a ministry as much as anything else. But if I’m healed of my depression, do I also lose the creativity that powers the writing? Yes, God can do all things, so in theory He could heal one thing without depriving me of the other. But is that the way He wants to work in me?
Examples of these links abound. People of exceptional sensitivity, heightened empathy and outstanding achievement have struggled with mental health issues. Some of them have changed the world. I once heard of a fellow who rarely opened his mouth to speak because he was ashamed of his teeth. Many years later, a friend told him how much she treasured his gift for listening—a gift he’d honed in his reluctance to speak.
No one would have blamed these people for seeking healing. Maybe they did, and God chose not to heal them. Was their brokenness essential to the gifts they gave the world?
I feel your pain
You’re checking Facebook or the local news and you run across a story of someone with a medical condition. You feel bad for him, and maybe you remember vaguely that Third Cousin Bob has that disease, or a friend raised money for it about five years ago.
Then you run across news of someone with your condition—and your heart leaps out to her.
We know what it’s like to suffer that pain. We want to connect with the person who’s suffering it now—to walk with her through “the valley of the shadow of death,” to help if we can. Suffering, in other words, awakens empathy within us.
And not just within us. The Lord of life Himself gained empathy from suffering. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses,” writes the author of Hebrews (4:15), “but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.” And what has that suffering brought us? “Mercy and … grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).
You could argue that the best role models for people who suffer are people who have gained victory over suffering. There’s some truth in that. How many personal testimonies of “triumph over tragedy” have been delivered under just this premise? How many millions have they inspired? But then there’s the testimony of 12-step programs and support groups, in which people draw strength from others who still endure what they’re enduring. And it’s interesting that the Hebrews passage doesn’t mention Jesus’ triumph as the source of His mercy; it mentions His temptation—the call in His earthly life to live into the weakness we all live with every day.
Healing: yes, no, maybe?
The yearning for wholeness is in our nature. God has asked us to cast our cares upon Him (1 Peter 5:7), and illness certainly qualifies. There’s no question about it: praying for healing is a good thing.
The fact remains, though, that at times God chooses not to heal, for reasons we rarely understand in full. If that happens to us, and we can find a way to live into it, we might be gentler with ourselves when healing doesn’t come. We might bear more patiently with our own weaknesses and pay deeper attention to the will of God for our unique situation. Who knows? God may use our condition to make the world a better place.
One thing is certain, however. Whether we are healed or not, we always, everywhere, have the sustaining presence of God to carry us when we can go no further. As Moses said (Deuteronomy 31:6), “Do not be afraid or terrified … for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
As a longtime writer and associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman (www.dialogueventure.com) has published articles in many Christian publications, including Next-Wave, Episcopal Life and The Living Church.