The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Chapter 9

Mercy and Healing

Even if there were enough prophets there would still be physical need. Should not every Christian be involved in social action? Can one be right with God and ignore the poor, the sick, the sordid slums? What about the starving millions a few hours' jet flight away? Yet if we get too involved, our own family life becomes impossible. We prefer to help through organizations on a strictly limited liability basis. Then we read the terrifying parable of the sheep and the goats: "As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." It is said that Liberal churches have preached the social gospel most loudly, while Evangelicals have emphasized the gospel, which admittedly has surprising social by-products. In any case most ordinary Christians have a nagging feeling that they ought to be doing more good, and their conscience is hardly salved by passing on last year's fashions to the needy poor. Meanwhile it has become obvious at both the local and international levels that it is the do-gooders like Lady Bountiful who are most hated by the objects of their charity.

To clarify the issues we must begin with Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. We all agree that the bleeding man must be bandaged and helped to the nearest inn. Regardless of personal danger from the robbers, and in spite of the inconvenience, this much we feel we ought to do. None of us will excuse the priest, or prophet, or evangelist, or even the pagan who passes by on the other side. Most Christians would also agree that a contribution to the innkeeper to pay immediate expenses, since the man has been robbed, is fitting and commendable.

So far there is no problem. The real question is the degree and direction of further involvement. Immediately we are faced with many alternatives. We could found an organization and raise funds to help needy travelers. Or should travelers be protected by expanding the police force? Should I leave my business to take a medical course so I can give better treatment to the wounded? Or perhaps I should pursue a teaching career so that I could steer the next generation of youngsters away from banditry. Maybe it is a political matter, and if there were full employment there would be no need for robbers to rob. Should I then take up Keynesian economics or try for a position in local or national government? If, however, it is the heart of man that is the problem, then perhaps a Jericho Road mission - with a converted robber to speak to his own kind - is the most realistic answer. Other possibilities are community centers, adult education, rehabilitation of criminals in the jails, boys' clubs, or better qualified psychologists for family counseling. Any one of these and many other avenues of service would represent involvement in the social problem of highway robbers. A local congregation with a variety of spiritual gifts might well be able to touch the problem in all these directions through its members.

In this chapter we will concentrate on two spiritual gifts through which a church will be involved directly to touch the needy and the sick. The New Testament does not contrast social gospel and evangelical gospel. Every church is evangelical and every church has some gifted members meeting the needs of society.

Among a list of other gifts of the Spirit, Paul includes "acts of mercy," adding that the manner of this gift is to be "with cheerfulness" (Rom. 12:8). This is not the act of mercy that every Christian must do when he is faced with immediate need on the road to Jericho. It is a spiritual gift of the same order as the gifts of prophecy, teaching. administration, and shepherding. It is a function of the body of Christ that should be evidenced in every congregation through some of its members. This is the gift that made Florence Nightingale set the standards for nursing. It goes out to touch the lepers in countries where all others shy away from the unclean. It appears in the Salvation Army and in the children's and old people's homes where love triumphs over mere hygienic arrangements. It still goes to befriend those who have no friends, and even loves the ugly hearted who deserve to be friendless.

The gift of mercy may be found in government social services and privately organized good works, but unfortunately charity often takes on a nauseating coldness. The genuine gift of mercy never makes another feel small. It does not descend with condescension. It comes alongside with a friendly cheerfulness. He who does acts of mercy with cheerfulness. Rather than treat others in a patronizing way, it creates dignity, hope, and the will to live again. It rejoices when others become independent, stand on their own feet, feel the power of God pulsating in their veins, and then become concerned for others. Mercy creates human values among the apparently valueless. It can never consider any person as a useless chore, to be kept alive only because euthanasia is forbidden.

Obviously such mercy requires specialization, so it needs some Christians to give themselves to this particular gift. All Christians will demonstrate it on occasion, but those to whom the Holy Spirit divides the gift will make it their vocation. Unfortunately some church members who might develop this gift are told that preaching, teaching, or evangelistic activities are the only avenues of Christian service. In other churches those who should specialize in, say, administration, pastoral work, or creative writing feel guilty because they are not engaged more directly in works of mercy. A new sense of the whole body would free each Christian to fulfill his vocation, and Jesus Christ would do his works of mercy through those best fitted for this delicate operation.

If works of mercy are done mainly by means of hands and feet and listening ears, the gift of healing touches the sick through prayer. While a nurse is tending the patient's body, prayer for healing is reaching behind to the patient's mind and his subconscious. It is now a commonplace of medicine that faith is a tremendous healing agent, while the opposites of faith - resentment, anger, hate, anxiety, fear, despondency, and despair - are all killers. We must recognize that the ability to create healing faith is found among those who are not Christians and even among the unrighteous, who misuse their power for unworthy motives. There is, however, a Christian gift of healing. Like the other gifts it is very ordinary, a natural observable psychological phenomenon. When it is allied to the love of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and winged by prayer to the inner recesses of the heart, it has tremendous effect for good. "Pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (Jas. 5:16).

In the verse before the one quoted, James indicates that healing is often connected with a confession of sin. Before faith can take hold, the hatred or jealousy or whatever it is may need to be recognized and cleansed. This may happen through preaching, Bible reading, or personal counseling, but it also occurs frequently when others are praying. The non-Christian counselor may be able to achieve a similar effect by suggesting that the sin is not sin, and so giving a release in another direction, but this kind of healing is often at the expense of creating indifference to moral values that may heal the body by damaging the person.

Prayer for healing combined with the ministry of the Word of God is far more common than appears on the surface. Many who are healed in a Christian community would be surprised at how others have prayed for them. Prayer for the sick is the privilege of all Christians, but there is a gift of healing that goes beyond this. "To another gifts of healing by the one Spirit" (I Cor. 12:9, 28). The man with a gift of healing knows how to pray the prayer of faith for others. He can discern and concentrate on the root of the trouble. Some have even had the experience of personal combat or absorbing the sickness of another in their own bodies. At this point the understanding of ordinary men fails. Those who have been helped by such prayer know that something miraculous has taken place. Those who exercise the gift know the hours and the agonizing in prayer. Others sense that their own prayer life is not in this direction and they gladly call in the help of the man or woman with the gift of healing. Though the gift has been rediscovered in the church in this century, it is strange that so many are still suspicious, as if Jesus Christ and his apostles had never healed the sick.

At this point a warning is in order. Prayer for the sick or the gift of healing does not mean that everyone on whose behalf it is done will be healed. That some are miraculously healed I for one, as well as many others, take for granted. That many are not is equally evident. The whole New Testament generation and all generations since have died, and presumably there was prayer for each when they were sick. There are also sicknesses like Job's which are for other reasons. Some, like Paul's thorn in the flesh, are to enable a mighty man to keep small enough to be great. For many saints the time of sickness and death arrives when their work is done, while some little children may not need the experiences of life to perfect them. Death also comes to families, cities, and nations in times of judgment, and merciful prophets have been told to stop their prayer because God would not listen.

A true view of the gift of healing must go with a true understanding of death. For the atheist or agnostic, death must always be considered as the ultimate tragedy, since personality, significance, and hope are irrevocably terminated. From God's point of view physical death is never a tragedy, at whatever age and in whatever circumstances. This leaching is strong meat and strange to modern ears, but without it the prayer of faith for healing is doubly dangerous. To make healing a greater good than God's wisdom is idolatry. On the other hand, to deny that God intends to heal miraculously is a flat denial of his word.

The gift of healing is unlikely to appear fully formed. It is found among those who pray much, and in particular among those who care more for the wholeness of others than their own selves. It is developed by practice and sharpened in lonely vigils as life hangs in the balance. Like the evangelist and the apostle, the man who prays for healing needs the prayer help of others. The effect of prayer is multiplied when many agree together.

The ministry of healing also requires all the other gifts to support and correct it. The healer is particularly exposed to deviation from the truth. Without mercy to give the physical touch, prayer alone can seem cruel; and if all the church did were to heal bodies, would not its true end be utterly obscured? We should pray that God will give some with the gift of healing in every community. When they appear we must be careful to recognize them, welcome them, give them the fellowship of Christians with other gifts in the body of Christ. We should beware of the quacks and cranks and spiritual crooks who, like the false prophets, will also abound. And we need discerning caution not to throw out the gift of God with the counterfeits of Satan.

Chapter 10...