To begin our short dive into a theology of healing, we can look at two passages from Scripture to direct our study.
In this first passage, Jesus describes his relationship to both his Father and to us as believers:
“Philip said to him, ‘Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” (John 14:8-9).
These terse, two verses of Scripture reveal a central mystery about Jesus Christ: Whenever we see Jesus do something in the Gospels, we see the Heart of God the Father. Jesus puts flesh on the Father’s love. Every word and deed of Jesus outlines the contours of God the Father’s face for us. Jesus’ ministry of healing displays, therefore, the pierced heart of a loving Father who desires to heal His children. We cannot take Jesus’ words and actions lightly, then, because all point directly to the Father’s will. Healing, from this perspective, no longer rests beside the mission of Jesus, but springs from his deep union with the Father and their ache to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Here we can ask, what does Jesus say about this mission and what does this Kingdom breaking through into our world look like?
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he enters his local synagogue on the Sabbath. During that time of worship, someone hands Jesus the scroll containing the words of the Prophet Isaiah. Jesus opens that scroll to this particular passage and makes a bold declaration before the gathered crowd:
“He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.’ Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, ‘Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:17-20).
Did you catch that? Jesus “found the passage” he wanted to proclaim (v. 17). This deliberate move tells us Jesus thought about his ministry and already related it to Isaiah’s prophecy. This prophecy speaks about “anointing,” a term which designates kings, prophets, priests and thus the Messiah. Then this Messiah does something, several things: (1) announces good news, (2) proclaims liberty to captives, (3) heals the blind, and sets the oppressed free, and (4) proclaims that a time of jubilation has come. This startling self-identification with the Messiah ushers in a key for unpacking all of Jesus’ words and deeds. Healing flows from the very identity and mission of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus’ ministry doesn’t end at words. Jesus follows this declaration by a demonstration of the anointing he received at baptism, he delivers/cures a demoniac at Capernaum (Luke 4:31-36), and news of this is proclaim everywhere (Luke 4:37). That man once bound by an unclean spirit now roams free because of the liberty Jesus’ ministry brings. And, it doesn’t end there. Jesus enters Simon’s house only to cure Simon’s mother-in-law of fever (Luke 4:38-39). The whole town buzzes with expectation, and soon they bring all the sick they can find to Jesus for healing. And, what is Jesus’ response from the heart of God the Father? “He [Jesus] laid his hands on each of them and cured them” (Luke 4:40). Healing liberates captives from illness and disease. Healing flows from Jesus’ intimacy with the Father who anointed him for this very reason. This beckons all of us to a deeper appreciation of healing within the plan of salvation Jesus fulfills.
A Fuller Sense of Salvation
In Pope John Paul II’s letter from 1984 titled, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering,” he helps clarify Jesus’ mission of salvation. When suffering - from the suffering caused by natural disasters to the suffering of death and illness - we encounter evil (see paragraph 7). And, when we speak about salvation, Pope John Paul II states: “Salvation means the liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering” (#14). When Jesus came to save us, he never limited his ministry to simply “getting us to heaven.” His life, death, resurrection, and Pentecost do usher us into eternal life. And, without eternal life, no gift could withstand the crush of the end of this life. However, even with eternal life in mind, Jesus upends the evil of suffering wherever he encounters it. As John Paul II writes:
“In his messianic activity in the midst of Israel, Christ drew increasingly closer to the world of human suffering. ‘He went about doing good’, and his actions concerned primarily those who were suffering and seeking help. He healed the sick, consoled the afflicted, fed the hungry, freed people from deafness, from blindness, from leprosy, from the devil and from various physical disabilities, three times he restored the dead to life. He was sensitive to every human suffering, whether of the body or of the soul” (#16).
Jesus strikes not only at the root of evil - thus saving us for eternal life (#15) - Jesus also cuts the branch and fruit of evil’s ugly family tree. All of Jesus’ deeds effect a transformation of the world for the good. There never was a devil Jesus liked. And, Jesus never treated illness like a “gift” from God. Rather, his saving work, in its fullness, brought liberation to the soul and body of the person who encountered him in faith. Jesus loves the whole person, he saves the entire individual. He does not treat healing like some robust advertising campaign. He treats healing like a weapon against evil. God’s kingdom does not contain evil (see Revelation 21:1-5), and that means no suffering. Healing brings about that kingdom on earth in our very flesh.
Salvation in this fuller sense does not mean that sick people are evil or that illness means someone does not believe “enough.” Rather, this fuller understanding of salvation - with healing enfleshing the power of salvation - means that healing is God’s deep desire in our salvation. It is for this reason we have hospitals and seek to advance the medical sciences ethically. But, it also means that when we pray for healing, for ourselves and others, we act upon the revelation of the heart of God the Father who desires to give His children an abundant life. As Jesus says, “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
The Gospel of Healing
Many people ask, “If God is so loving, why does he let bad things happen?” A fair question. And, if God’s response to evil were nothing more than, “Suck it up, Buttercup,” there’d be cause for concern. But, the good news of the Gospel paints a much different picture about God’s response to evil. Instead of standing on the sidelines and letting us plug along in life hoping to get to heaven, Jesus reveals a Heavenly Father deeply invested in our well-being. Jesus meets the ill, suffering, outcast and untimely dead and says, “Well, I hope you learned a valuable lesson here.” What?! No, he doesn’t do that; thank goodness! No. When Jesus meets someone suffering an illness, he cures them. When Jesus encounters someone suffering, he frees them. When Jesus meets an outcast, he loves them into communion with his Father. When Jesus meets those who died before their time, he raises them from the dead. And, if we know from John 14:8-9 that everything Jesus does is the will of the Father and reveals Him, then we also know that all this good is the Father’s desire for us now, today, and in our time (Hebrews 13:8).
Do we see the fullness of healing across the face of the globe and ending all suffering, not yet. But, just as the continued existence of sinfulness does not negate the power of the Cross’ forgiveness, neither does the persistence of illness negate the salvation Jesus won for us that brings healing. Jesus wants to see holiness cover the face of the earth. And, Jesus wants to see healing cover the face of the earth. Think about this: Every single time Jesus sent out disciples, he told them to cure the sick (Matthew 10:1; Mark 6:7, 13; Luke 9:1; Luke 10:8-9, 19; Mark 16:17a, 18b). Notice, he never said to “pray for the sick,” his command was to “heal” or “cure” the sick. Why? Because his entire mission pulls evil up from its roots and burns up every spawn of that family line from the history of evil and suffering. For some, this will sound like I’m going “too far,” but, for those suffering this is truly Good News.
Healing involves more than getting us into heaven or forgiveness of sins, alone. Without eternal life, healing would only focus on the pleasures of this life and go no further. But, we see now that healing always flows from heaven and points to heaven. Christian healing glorifies the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and proclaims boldly: Jesus Christ’s salvation is powerfully present both now and promises eternal life to come. Christian healing includes the entire person, inside and out, now and forever. And, the gift of salvation Jesus won for us is meant to transform every aspect of our lives. When we marginalize the gift of healing, we marginalize something Jesus told every disciple to do; we limit salvation, and we bypass the very words and deeds of Jesus that, throughout the Gospels, reveal the full horizon of his mission for us. In the end, the ultimate healer is: Jesus Christ. And, any theology or thinking about healing, if it is truly Christian healing, will flow from and towards him as its center. Jesus the healer is the center of the Church. And, as we shall see in Part III, “Healing and the Sacraments,” this full gift of salvation includes our experience of the Sacraments of the Church.