This article originally appeared in the November 25, 1983, issue of Christianity Today.
For six years author and speaker Joyce Landarf has endured an overwhelming and paralyzing kind of pain. It begins in her jaw and spreads across her face and head, its severity ultimately bringing on nausea and diarrhea. The medical diagnosis is TMJ, for temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and the affliction has caused her to curtail public appearances drastically.
The ailment persists despite the efforts of many specialists using all known methods of treatment. In talking about her situation, Landorf describes the physical pain and the feelings of failure and alienation that came as she must cancel engagements and withdraw from social settings. She also wrestles with God over the reasons behind a physical problem that disrupts her ministry. And yet as Joyce Landorf reflects on all aspects of her suffering, she mentions one source of pain more troubling than any other: judgment from fellow Christians.
A large and vocal branch of the church, it seems, holds that it is never "God's will" for a person to suffer. Following that dictum, these Christians presume all suffering to derive from one of two flaws in the afflicted person. Either the sufferer is being punished for some sin, or remains unhealed because of a lack of faith. "Confess your sin!" they tell Landorf, and also "You simply must exercise more faith." In truth, says Landorf, their haughty condemnation, coming at a time of such vulnerability, hurts worse than the physical pain itself.
In May of this year, the Chicago Tribune ran a story on a young father from North Manchester, Indiana. He had just agreed to talk to a Tribune reporter about an incident that happened in 1978. An accompanying photo of him shows a slim man in his early twenties, with neatly trimmed hair and a burgeoning moustache, standing in front of a building at Grace Theological Seminary, where he takes evening classes.
David Gilmore told about an illness of his 15-month old son, Dustin Graham Gilmore, that began in April of 1978. At first the child came down with flu-like symptoms. The Gilmores took him to their church and the pastor prayed for him. Members of that church believed that faith alone heals any disease and that to look elsewhere for help—for example, to medical doctors—demonstrates a lack of faith in God. Gilmore and his wife followed the church's advice and simply prayed for their son. Over the next weeks they prayed faithfully as his temperature climbed, prayed when they noticed he no longer responded to sounds, and prayed harder when he went blind.
On the morning of May 15, 1978, the day after their pastor preached an especially rousing sermon about faith, the Gilmores went into their son's room and found his body a blue color, and still. He was dead. Again they prayed, for their church also believed the power of prayer can raise the dead. But Dustin Graham Gilmore stayed dead. An autopsy revealed the infant died from a form of meningitis that could have been treated easily.
Gilmore decided to make his story public after five years of silence because he personally knew of 12 other children who had died in similar circumstances. Beneath the article on the Gilmores the Tribune printed a map of five states (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky) where people connected to Gilmore's former pastor now live. Superimposed on the map were tiny tombstones marking where people had died after refusing medical treatment in accordance with church teaching. The number of deaths in all five states totaled 52.
A few months later, ABC television's Nightline program reported that followers of the church had spread to 19 states and five foreign countries. Their own study suggested that pregnant women who followed church teaching died in childbirth at a rate eight times the national average; their children were three times more likely to die.
These two stories, of Joyce Landorf and the Gilmores, typify the divisions within the church over divine healing. The issue of healing usually arises not in the mustiness of a seminary classroom or during calm moments of reflection; rather, it strikes at moments of great vulnerability and torment. I know of no other Christian doctrine that excites such fervor.
Whether of TMJ or meningitis or cancer or any of "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," divine healing offers, at last, a way out. The sufferer feels an urge to lunge toward the shimmering, mystical hope that God will somehow act counter to the prognosis and provide escape.
Those who espouse divine healing have grown far more vocal in recent years. Publishers and religious broadcasters parade people before the spotlight to testify of remission from cancer, a lengthened leg, or deliverance from arthritis. One of the largest TV ministries claims to have files bulging with 60,000 reported cases of divine healing.
As a committed Christian involved in the field of medicine for four decades, I view the upsurge of enthusiasm over healing with mixed emotions. Although I share the same goals as the faith healers I see on television, in technique and style we differ enormously. I believe in the divine component of healing. But my own contributions to patients come after years of study and the application of rigid scientific principles to the laws governing human physiology. When I treat a leprosy patient's badly deformed hand, it may take two or three years of successive surgeries and gradual rehabilitation to free that hand from a frozen, useless state into something more usable Not once have I seen a missing finger suddenly grow back. And yet, some faith healers seem to promise an entirely new kind of medicine, an instantaneous healing that defies the normal process of science.
(As I watched the more extreme "faith healers," I have noticed they possess one remarkable advantage over traditional medical practitioners. When a patient fails to respond to a doctor's treatment, he or she can always blame (and sue) the doctor for maltreatment or the drug company for inadequate testing. In contrast, the faith healer lays blame solely with the patient: "Your faith alone will determine the success of this treatment." The healer's reputation remains unspoiled whether the patient recovers or dies.)
I have thought long and hard about this issue, for if all that some television evangelists claim is true, then I am in the wrong business. Have I wasted my life doing slowly and painstakingly what could have been done in the twinkling of an eye?
A Time to Question
I believe the time has come to question the extreme faith-healing perspective with its bright promise that "confession brings possession." Some of its medical claims seem dubious and even dangerous (as in the case of David Gilmore). But one aspect of the movement troubles me supremely: it seems to ask me to put absolute faith in something that ordinarily does not prove true in life. God neither protects Christians with a shield of health nor provides a quick, dependable solution to all suffering.
Christians populate hospital wards asylums, and cancer hospices in approximate proportion to the world at large Many Christians who roll in wheelchairs or awake each day to the scarred stump; of amputated limbs, or undergo the debility of spreading cancer have prayer for healing. Some have attended healing services, felt a sudden rush of hope, and kneeled for an anointing of oil; yet still they live unhealed. For them, divine healing is the cruelest joke of all. At the precise moment when they most need support from the church they receive instead a taunting accusation that in spiritual as well as physical health they do not measure up.
Often on television or the radio I hear speakers promise that healing is always available for all believers—a statement that approaches logical absurdity. If it were true, need any Christian wear glasses? Or die? Yet what godly person in recent memory has ever defied mortality by not succumbing to bodily malfunction? Surely disease and lowered cellular efficiency is leading each of us—including every faith healer—toward death, and no amount of prayer and faith will reverse that process.
Most Christians, I think, sense the incongruity between what is promised by the faith healers and what works out in their own lives and their friends' lives. They do not protest because an exhortation to more faith seems harmless enough. But as the examples of Joyce Landorf and David Gilmore amply illustrate, such beliefs are not so harmless. In fact, in my own observation, an undue emphasis on divine healing causes far more sorrow than joy.
Even worse, the habit of saying and praying what is unreal makes people begin to wonder if the whole of religion is unreal. If God does not "come through" in this matter of faith healing, when can he be counted on? Many people throw away their belief in a dependable God on account of their disillusionment over his lack of physical intervention.
If it is obvious from common observation that God does not always intervene in physical healing, other issues of healing are far less obvious. Does he ever intervene directly? If so, what brings on such a miracle? Why does he heal some and not others? If God is loving and compassionate, why doesn't he use his power to relieve suffering more often?
To attempt a response to some of these questions, I find it necessary to break down healing into various components, speaking of its physical, mental-directed, and spiritual dimensions. I do so with great hesitance, for my life in medicine has taught me that the person is a holistic unity. These three levels cannot be separated, and each has influence on the other. In my personal observation, divine healings have occurred when the Holy Spirit acts through the channel of a person's own spirit to affect both the mind and body. Considering each of the levels separately may, however, shed some light on the mechanisms involved. I must emphasize very strongly here that what follows is not focused on whether there is a divine component to healing—I assume that there is—but rather on the mechanisms through which that divine power operates.
I see evidence of physical healing in the human body every day. Ironically, most patients visit a doctor because of healing, not disease: the symptoms that cause patients alarm are usually spectacular demonstrations of the body's healing mechanisms at work.
An infected wound is red and swollen with pus: the redness comes from an emergency blood supply rushing white cells and agents of repair to the scene and the pus, composed of lymph fluids and dead cells, gives stark and dramatic evidence of cellular warfare being fought. Similarly, a fever represents the body's effort to circulate blood more quickly and also create a hostile environment for some bacteria. Vomiting coordinates scores of muscles in a dramatic reversal of their normal processes: designed to push food down through the intestine, they now regroup in order to violently expel the food along with toxins and unwelcome invaders that have accumulated in the stomach. All these irritations, which most of us view with alarm and even disgust, reveal the orderly progress of the healing body.
My profession of surgery depends entirely on the success of the body's healing systems. When I set a fracture, I merely align two ends of bone properly; the body must lay down the calcium needed for them to rejoin or my work would prove futile. Similarly, I cannot cut through flesh and fat and mesentery and organ walls and sew them up again unless I count on the body to repair my intrusion with a seamless reweaving of the body's cells.
I treated one patient, a young infant, who had the rare disorder of lacking the normal capability of cell healing. Before this problem had been diagnosed, I operated to remove an intestinal blockage. Sewing up her intestine was like sewing a rubber balloon. No matter how fine and tight I made the stitches, they would always leak. As I opened her up again and again, the wounds from my original cut fell loosely apart. I found no healthy scar tissue, no connective web of repairs. She was doomed to an early death.
When I speak of these natural healing processes of the body to some Christians, they want to brush the thought aside: "Oh, of course, but that's just natural Providence. When I say healing, I mean miracle." No one who has studied the mechanisms and worked with them every day, harnessing them, directing and aiding them, can brush aside the wonder of physical healing that God has built into each one of us. My wife, an ophthalmologist, calls these processes "the inbuilt miracle."
We tend to focus on the exceptions, the small percentage of times that the body, for whatever reason, succumbs to disease. But for each breakdown there are hundreds of examples of microbes slaughtered before they could cause damage, of tuberculosis patches isolated in the lungs, and of breast cancers strangled by the body's own defenses. In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis depicts authentic miracles not as a contradiction of the normal laws of nature but as a speeding-up of everyday processes (e.g., changing water into wine speeds up the normal providential actions on the vine of soil, sunshine, rain, fermentation). Seen in this light, "miracles" of healing occur in my body every day, but in a slower, less sensational manner. I have become more and more convinced that God purposes ordinarily to allow the outworking of his own design and providential law at the physical level, and not to intervene at that level. He relies on mechanisms put in place with his original design of the DNA spiral.
Reasons for Breakdown
Admittedly, I am writing this article because of the exceptions, the times the body's systems do not prevail. We are subject to abuse and to the injurious impact of circumstances, but these too follow regular patterns of natural law. Consider the example of genetic defect, surely one of the most traumatic instances of human suffering. We know and can often predict the physical factors that lead to the birth of a deformed child.
Thalidomide, for instance, is a drug designed by humans with a good purpose in mind; I prescribe it even now to prevent deformities in leprosy. But when thalidomide was first introduced, people did not know that in the first month of pregnancy it would interfere with the formation of limb buds in a fetus carried by a mother taking the drug. Thousands of babies entered the world with no arms or legs, or with only stumps. God did not select those mothers to take thalidomide; they chose to take it, in ignorance of its side effect. The same is true of Down's syndrome. We can identify the exact point of failure in the chemical chain of development. The chances of having a Down's baby increase as parents delay pregnancy until the woman is older. There is a clear statistical relationship in this and many other human afflictions.
In most instances of human suffering, if we look carefully enough we can trace the problem until we find a basic cause and effect. My suffering may result from something I do wrong, such as overeating, or something another does wrong, such as driving while drunk. Or, perhaps I sit too close to a person coming down with influenza and a germ flies into my mouth. To avoid influenza entirely I must shun all people or wear a mask (about every tenth person you see in commuter trains in Japan wears a mask either to prevent spreading a cold they have or to avoid catching a cold from someone else). All this, the entire cycle of disease and physical healing, works according to natural laws.
One question has always puzzled me: Why do Christians have a difficult time accepting the regularity of natural laws in health and medicine, while taking them for granted in other areas? We work up a high dudgeon against God for not intervening and countermanding his natural laws for the sake of our health (for example, by not changing air pressure differential every time an influenza germ wafts near my mouth), yet accept as a matter of course that he will not intervene in other areas. Now and then God has provided food miraculously (manna in the wilderness, multiplied loaves and fishes), yet who among us would refuse all "natural" sources of food in favor of faith in miraculous intervention? Such an attitude foolishly tempts God.
I have heard Christian ministers encourage people to pray and not seek medical treatment in the event of illness. But I have heard no Christian ministers recommend starting a farming project in the middle of the Sahara. We assume that God set in motion dependable patterns of weather. He worked out the way the sun would evaporate sea water and the winds would blow it over land and cool currents would make clouds and rain. If a person plants rice in the Sahara desert and prays for rain, he simply has a wrong view of the way God has ordered the world.
Theologically, I believe that God does have the power to intervene and create a low-pressure trough in the Sahara to direct rain to that field. At special times that sort of thing has happened, just as miraculous divine healing has occurred. Obviously, Jesus contradicted ordinary natural law in the raising of Lazurus from death. God has the power and freedom to do such exceptional acts today. But these exceptions are usually signs sent at unusual moments in God's history, and are not the normal way in which God runs the world.
We would do well to examine more closely the characteristics of Jesus' healing ministry during a time when God did intervene miraculously on a physical level. "Don't tell anyone!" Jesus sternly ordered many who received healing from him (Matt. 8:4, 9:30; Mark 5:43, 7:24 & 36, 8:30, 9:9; Luke 5:14). On other occasions he seemed oddly reluctant to perform miracles, almost as if he shied away from intervening in the natural order. He seemed especially anxious that his onlookers not confuse general miracle hysteria with true faith. To him, asking for a sign just for the spectacle of it characterized a "wicked and adulterous generation" (Matt. 12:38-39). (Jesus' style contrasts sharply with that of modern healing exhibitions, well-advertised and conducted in dramatic settings, punctuated with the healer's flamboyant gestures and appropriate background music. In manner—though not treatment—Christ more closely resembled a concerned physician than a faith healer, because he knew what afflicted each person who came to him and altered his treatment accordingly.)
I have no space to examine the various New Testament passages that apply to healing, nor have I followed up exhaustive case studies of people who attended mass faith healing services, so I cannot pass judgment on them. But from my own experience as a physician I must truthfully admit that, among the thousands of patients I have treated, I have never observed an unequivocal instance of intervention in the physical realm. Many were prayed for, many found healing, but not in ways that counteracted the laws governing physiology. No case I have personally treated would meet rigorous criteria for a supernatural miracle.
I have reached a personal conclusion that what most people think of when you say the word "divine healing"—a supernatural intervention that reverses natural laws governing our bodies—is extremely rare indeed. God does not normally interact directly at the organic level, and, in fact, it would not affect my faith in the least if he chose never to reverse those natural laws. However we present divine healing, let us not stir up false hopes so that a sufferer stakes all his or her faith on belief in miraculous healing at this level. We cannot build a water-tight theology promising physical healing, surely, for the most "miracle-ridden" Christian will die in the end, yielding to the natural processes of senescence.
We in medicine do, from time to time, come across unexplained phenomena that may appear to be spontaneous healings contravening natural laws. The disease of cancer particularly may manifest strange and even permanent remissions—Lewis Thomas of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center mentions knowledge of several hundred such cases.
(A book by the former president of the American College of Surgeons Spontaneous Regression of Cancer discusses 176 patients.) But the remissions occur among Christians and non-Christians, with prayer and without prayer, and they represent a very small percentage of the people with cancer who have been prayed for.
George Bernard Shaw caustically commented that he found the healing shrine at Lourdes unconvincing because it had many crutches and wheelchairs on display, but not one wooden leg, glass eye or toupee. In his cynical way, he pointed out an important aspect of most cases claimed as "divine healing." Once an organic fact has become incontrovertible—missing legs, eyes, or hair follicles—miracles rarely occur. Healing normally operates in the mental and spiritual realms that can in turn galvanize the body's own healing processes.
Despite much prayer, the nerves controlling Joni Eareckson Tada's legs have not spontaneously regenerated. And I have never yet heard an account of miraculous healing of pancreatic cancer (which has a 100 percent mortality rate) or of cystic fibrosis, or a major birth defect, or amputation. For more accurate understanding of divine healing we must move from the simple physical realm to the physical as influenced by mind and spirit.
Powers of the Mind
Skeptical scientists and physicians use the word "psychosomatic" to explain away reports of supernatural healings, implying the particular ailment healed was due more to auto-suggestion than to any physical "miracle." They point out that healings occur in certain groupings of diseases: neurasthenia, bursitis, arthritis, lameness, deafness, allergies, migraine headaches.
Although divine healing seems to work best among selective afflictions, it does attract enthusiastic testimonials. Thousands of people take the trouble to write national television programs claiming deliverance from suffering; we cannot simply dismiss their reports.
It does not diminish my respect for God's power in the slightest to realize that he primarily works through faculties of the mind to summon up new resources of healing in a person's body. The word "psychosomatic" carries no derogatory connotations for me. It derives from two Greek words, psyche and soma, which mean simply "mind" or "soul," and "body." Such diseases and their apparent cures demonstrate the incredible power of the mind in affecting the rest of the body.
Let me illustrate the mind's power with a few examples recently documented by modern science:
The mind can effectively control pain. This can be accomplished by simple mental discipline or by "flooding the gates" of the nervous system with distracting noises or additional sensations (e.g., accupuncture). I saw impressive evidence of pain control while in India, where Hindu fakirs would unflinchingly walk on coals, sleep on nails, and string themselves up on poles with ropes pulling on meat hooks through their backs.
In the placebo effect, faith in simple sugar pills stimulates the mind to control pain and even heal some disorders. In some experiments among those with terminal cancer, morphine was an effective painkiller in two-thirds of patients, but placebos were equally effective in half of those! The placebo tricks the mind into believing relief has come, and the body responds accordingly. Placebos also show curative powers in areas other than in pain control; they can actually stimulate the fight against disease.
Through biofeedback, people can train themselves to direct bodily processes that previously were thought involuntary. They can control blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves, and even vary the temperature in their hands by as much as 14 degrees.
In primitive cultures, shamans use a technique called "boning." The shaman points a "magical" bone at a person accused of some crime, and the person will contort and writhe in pain, and die in a few hours. The only physical "cause" of death is the power of suggestion.
Under hypnosis, 20 percent of patients can be induced to lose consciousness of pain so completely that they can undergo surgery without anesthetics. Some patients have even cured their own warts under hypnosis. The hypnotist suggests the idea, and the body performs a remarkable feat of skin renovation and construction, involving the cooperation of thousands of cells in a mental-directed process not otherwise attainable.
In a false pregnancy, a woman believes so strongly in her pregnant condition that her mind directs an extraordinary sequence of activities: it increases hormone flow, enlarges breasts, suspends menstruation, induces morning sickness, and even prompts labor contractions. All this occurs even though there is no "physical cause"—that is, no fertilization and growing fetus inside.
Brain researchers have recently received Nobel Prizes for discovering the mechanisms behind some of these mind-body connections. The brain produces an array of chemical neurotransmitters called endomorphins that can control pain and affect body systems, some of which are hundreds of times more potent than morphine.
Simultaneously, many researchers have explored how external factors, such as stress, can have profound effects on body systems. People who are unemployed or recently widowed have much higher susceptibility to disease. People who take quiet times during the day and force themselves to relax seem to develop a control of stress that brings them greater health. All of these findings, which are far too numerous and complex to explore in this article, point to the fact that the mind can be a powerful channel for directing physical healing, or its failure.
Is this mental-directed healing the mechanism that results in so many claims of healing from faith healing ministries? It seems very probable. The suffering person may well focus hope and faith and trust to such a degree that the physical body responds with true recovery. The mind is a powerful force, and God can use it for his good purposes.
(To be honest, I must also add that similar results are claimed by Mormons, Christian Science practitioners, and Hindus. These, too, write testimonials of supernatural healing, and offer documentation to prove their cases. Even a self-confessed humanist has access to mental-directed powers: Norman Cousins describes in detail in Anatomy of an Illness how he fought off a crippling disease with the health-restoring weapons of laughter and joy. The benefits of good nutrition, relaxation, a soul at peace, and the harmony of love are aspects of common grace available to all.)
A Channel for the Spirit
As a physician, I recognize the importance of a proper relationship between the mind and body for my patients to experience true health. Our minds have many ways of harming our bodies. It is our minds, after all, that make choices to abuse our bodies through poor nutrition or excessive consumption of alcohol and tobacco. All these mental choices have drastic effects on our physical health. In addition, spiritual ills affect mental attitudes. Fear, loneliness, repressed anger, helplessness—these are all enemies of recovery that will affect my patients' physical responses.
As a Christian, I recognize that the indwelling Holy Spirit can likewise use the extraordinary faculties of physical and mental-directed healing. My mind is an instrument for the Spirit. "Be transformed by the renewing of your minds," said Paul, and I envision a person who allows the Spirit to take charge and orient his mental and physical life.
In the realm of the spirit, I feel on solid ground in claiming God's direct interaction in human affairs. In fact, God seems to have designed the earth so that he primarily relates to humanity through the spiritual faculty, and least commonly through physical intervention. He created us in his image, which is spirit, and that spiritual faculty separates us from all other creation. We have the potential for direct contact with the Creator of the universe, and when the Spirit dwells in us that fact can have a dramatic impact on our overall health.
Without a doubt, I believe a properly focused individual has a better physiology than one riddled with stress, anxiety, and confusion. As an analogy, I think of iron filings scattered randomly on a sheet of paper. Suddenly a magnet is brought up under the paper; the scattered filings arrange themselves in an orderly fashion. Each one maintains its separateness, but lines of force bring a unity to former chaos. In a similar way, the Spirit can affect the actual cells of our body by bringing to them a powerful orienting force. When the mind is God-centered and the person is "walking in the Spirit," cells receive a new direction, are enhanced, and the whole person functions best.
Scientists have verified that positive choices can have a salubrious effect on the physical body. A spirit of gratitude, inner peace, love, hope, happiness, support from friends, joy—these qualities can have far greater effect than an injection I could give. A body that is at peace and is surrounded by loving support quite literally heals better. In view of this fact, the Old Testament Levitical laws and the New Testament prescriptions for spiritual health also translate into an accurate formula for physical well-being.
The list of qualities mentioned above bears a striking parallel to the fruit of the Spirit outlined in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Such characteristics of growth in the Spirit can have a powerful effect on healing by properly aligning the orientation of mind and body. I am convinced that the Creator designed the mind and body to flourish when under the control of the Spirit.
I do not in any way devalue the benefit of spiritual healing directed through mental faculties; it is not "inferior" to a direct intervention by God reversing physical laws. Rather, the Spirit uses the natural milieu—the mind, nerves, and hormonal systems that control all cells to accomplish his work. A true faith healer works in concert with, not in opposition to, these inbuilt processes. The channels of the mind open up wonderful opportunities for Christians, for we can indeed assist the healing process in each other.
Those who pray for the sick and suffering should first praise God for the remarkable physical agents of healing he designed and then ask that God's special grace will take hold of the person and give him or her the ability to use those resources to their fullest advantage. The church can then fulfill its role as Christ's body by laying hands of hewing on the one who needs faith and hope and love and comfort.
I have seen remarkable instances for true physical healing accomplished in this way. People of God have overcome the effects of disease in staggering, "un-natural" ways, all mediated through the instruments of body and mind under the control of the Spirit. Fellow Christians can offer real, tangible help in this process of setting into motion the intrinsic powers of healing in a person controlled by God. This quality of focused healing, attainable in no other way, does not contradict natural laws. Rather, it fully exploits the design features built into the human body.
When There Is No Miracle
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevski commented on God's reticence to interfere in the physical realm: "Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle." It would be instructive indeed to read through the four Gospels, comparing Jesus' attention to physical healing—less than two dozen recorded miracles—with the energy he devoted to a different category of diseases, those of the soul. Why aren't seminars given, books written, and television ministries based on proper techniques for dealing with lust, pride, legalism, and hypocrisy? These four favorite themes of Jesus bear far more weight in the Gospels than does divine healing. Does an obsession with one and not the other reveal a dyslexia of values, an almost pagan obsession with the physical body?
My discussion of healing would be tragically incomplete if I neglected one last aspect of spiritual healing. What happens when health never returns, when a disease is terminal, or a paralysis, or a permanent burn scar? Is there any hope? To such a person, I would point to a different kind of spiritual healing, a healing of the soul. It was the kind of healing Jesus clearly concentrated on, and the form of healing available to us all—even to those whose bodies will never recover.
The Spirit can provide a remarkable healing of the person even when the healing of the body does not take place. I have seen this process beautifully at work in many of my leprosy patients. In India, many patients would come to me too late, after the disease had progressed untreated for many years. I could work to restore movement to fingers and could attempt some cosmetic surgery on the face, but I could never begin to replace the beauty and protean range of expression of a human hand or face. I could not conscientiously offer these people hope for complete physical or even mental-directed healing. Their fingers and toes would not grow back, their faces would never again have beauty. Yet, under the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I saw some of these patients emerge into spiritual giants. Freed from concerns about personal appearance and acceptance in society, they could devote themselves fully to spiritual goals of becoming disciples of Christ. Today, looking back, memories of those patients shine forth like beacons.
In this country the paraplegic Joni Eareckson Tada offers a sterling example of a person who found her physical abilities impaired and unhealed, but her spiritual potential released. Joni has had a profound spiritual impact on hundreds of thousands of people. She has motivated others with handicaps to believe that the same resources of faith, trust, and usefulness to God are available to all of us, with or without physical healing. I am sure that this kind of healing in the spirit has far more importance from the standpoint of eternity than whether or not a leg moves again.
Whenever I am asked to describe a miracle of divine healing, strangely enough, a scene of this kind of miracle comes to my mind, a miracle so great it made the unhealed sickness not matter. When I think of miracles, I think of one person: Mrs. Savararyan, wife of the general superintendent of our hospital at Vellore, India. She represents not a dramatic physical cure, but an awakening of personal spirit. I must tell her story.
Mrs. Savararyan influenced my life a great deal. She was a wonderful, saintly woman whose spiritual strength was absolutely incandescent. Although she had no specific profession other than being a great wife and mother, in the sight of those around her and, I am convinced, of God, she achieved the stature of a giant.
Mrs. Savararyan developed cancer of the breast, which quickly spread. Her breast was surgically removed and she began radiotherapy. As so often happens in cancer patients, hopes rose, then fell as the disease metastasized into her lungs and throughout her body. Her doctors presented the terminal prognosis to her very honestly and described the toxic effects of chemotherapy treatments, which would offer only palliative help. After listening to all their advice and reviewing the medical data, Mrs. Savararyan decided against prolonged treatment.
"Even if I have only a week or month to live, I want to live it awake and fully alive and conscious of the presence of God and his family," she announced. She then informed those of us in the community that she had declined extensive treatment and planned to rely on our help and prayers and presence.
People would stream into her room: doctors and nurses and patients, some of whom also had great pain. In that room Mrs. Savararyan practiced the presence of Christ with a serenity and strength that defied belief. Those of us who visited said we did so to comfort her, but in truth we went to receive her overflowing comfort and strength. We left inspired to face our own problems in a new way. She had pain, yet refused drugs if they would spoil her consciousness of those who came to see her. Her peace and control were such that the pain receded into a minor place in her consciousness. As her pain increased, her spiritual strength also increased.
I last saw Mrs. Savararyan early in the morning on Good Friday. Each year we celebrate a three-hour service on that day, and various staff members would speak on the seven last statements of Christ. I had been assigned "Into thy hands I commend my spirit," the last words Christ spoke before death. On the way to the church I stopped by her room for a visit. She was as peaceful and courageous and inspiring as ever, and gave me a message to take to the congregation.
Within an hour of my visit, Mrs. Savararyan died. I heard the news while sitting in my pew, when a messenger came up to me and whispered. I sat there, waiting my turn to speak, weeping silently, wondering how I could compose myself enough to speak.
I broke the news to the congregation from the pulpit. All in attendance knew and loved Mrs. Savararyan. The impact of her death, in that attitude of solemn meditation on Christ's sacrifice, was electrifying. I could hardly control my own voice as I told the audience that I knew she had committed her spirit to the Lord many weeks before and that her final passing was but an instance in which she shook off her mortality.
Her spirit, I reflected aloud, had been in God's hands long before death. He had sustained and strengthened her until all that had to happen at death was for her body to fall away like an insect's cocoon. The same spirit that had already risen above pain and fear and all the problems that normally attend death had simply come to that moment when she said "Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
I am so thankful Mrs. Savararyan was not exposed to the suggestions of those who might have made her question her relationship to God because she remained unhealed. She was not healed, not in the sense of her disease disappearing. But every person in that audience, and most of all I, as the one who had brought the news, knew that we had seen a miracle of profound dimension. Strength, patience, courage, hope, love—these too are the stuff in which God fashions miracles of healing.
This article originally appeared in the November 25, 1983, issue of Christianity Today. At the time, Paul Brand was the head of rehabilitation at the U.S. Public Health Service leprosy hospital in Carville, Louisiana.
Other stories appearing on our site today:
Noted Surgeon and Author Paul Brand Dies at Age 89 | Connected his pioneering work with leprosy and his missionary faith.
God's Astounding Laws of Nature | "I like to think of God as developing his skills," said Dr. Paul Brand. Interviewed by Philip Yancey (December 1, 1978)
Blood, Part 1: The Miracle of Cleansing | We moderns are repelled by the thought of blood cleansing, but biologically and spiritually the precious liquid does exactly that. (February 18, 1983)
Blood, Part 2: The Miracle of Life | A well-known surgeon talks about that miraculous red river within us as an emblem of life. (March 4, 1983)
Blood, Part 3: Life in the Blood | If Jesus had been born in the twentieth century, would he have chosen the image of transfusion for his forgiveness, love, and healing? (March 18, 1983)
The Scars of Easter | He knows the wounds of humanity. His hands prove it. (April 5, 1985)
A Handful of Mud | Soil is life. Can we preserve it for future generations? (April 16, 1985)