When asked to describe 2020 thus far, many have used the words uncertain, divisive, and disruptive. When I asked my friend this question, her response summarized it sufficiently: wounding.
Now over 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, almost 70 times more than those who died in the September 11 attacks and more than the Vietnam, Korean, and Iraq wars combined. Even if we avoided the virus, we have experienced its wounding effects. In March, the Dow Jones recorded its worst point drops since the Great Depression. By July, 48 million people had filed for unemployment. Mental health professionals are seeing surges in people suffering with their mental and emotional well-being. Wildfires still rage on the West Coast. Viral videos of racial injustice prompted peaceful protests, demonstrations, riots, and looting in cities across the country. The nation is trying to reckon with something that African Americans have long realized: racism has deeply wounded our country. All of this has led to a palpable us-versus-them mentality, especially as we approach a polarized presidential election.
Pain and suffering have always been present; but this year they have intensified, accelerated, and become more deeply divisive. How can Christians lead and serve in our astoundingly complex reality?
In times of tragedy, the late children’s television personality Fred Rogers is often quoted: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” We’ve all seen and experienced scary things—and we will continue to see and experience scary things. But what if now is the time the world is looking for the healers? What if the helpers are primarily healers?
The prophet Isaiah wrote of the coming Messiah by declaring, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). The late Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen focused on this in his prescient book The Wounded Healer: “We do not know where we will be two, ten or twenty years from now. What we can know, however, is that man suffers and that a sharing of suffering can make us move forward.” This sharing of suffering, which leads to healing, is our mandate in the new reality.
It is astounding that Jesus’ post-resurrection body bore scars. When Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus invited him to touch the wounds that brought healing to the world. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27). Four hundred years ago, the Italian painter Caravaggio brilliantly created this scene in his famous painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. In the piece, Jesus vulnerably opens his cloak and calmly guides Thomas’ finger into his wounded side. This is our example. We, too, can offer our wounds to a scarred and scared world for the healing of others—and ultimately ourselves.
Sociologist Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity sought in part to answer the question of how a little sect of a few followers at the time of Jesus’ death could have a worldwide following of millions of adherents within just a few centuries. One of the primary answers Stark found is that the early Christians saw themselves as agents of healing while everyone else ran and hid, even in the midst of persecution. The willingness of early Christians to run to the front lines of suffering, as well as their ability to offer radical hospitality and compassionate service in the midst of great need, was the greatest and most effective form of evangelism.
We’ve heard this pandemic described as “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times. And yet, it is far from it. Epidemics and plagues have been quite frequent throughout history—and Christians have rushed to provide healing to those who were most deeply affected.
In A.D. 250, a plague spread from northern Africa to Europe, lasting almost 20 years and killing approximately one million people. The bishop, Cyprian, encouraged Christians to donate their resources for care for the sick. The church organized programs in several cities for systematic health care—all while Christians were experiencing massive persecution. Christians showed care not just to other Christians but also to the pagans—showing radical compassion in the midst of a pandemic to the ones who were attempting to kill them for their faith. This event in history is known today as the Plague of Cyprian not because he was to blame for spreading the plague but because he spread radical compassion during it.
Around A.D. 312, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and a prominent church historian, recorded that the region had been deeply impacted by war, famine, and a ravaging plague all at the same time. The response of the Christians was so great he recorded,
In this awful adversity they alone [Christians] gave practical proof of their sympathy and humanity. All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all, so that their deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians (emphasis mine).
In the late fourth century, hospitals were first created through the efforts of Basil the Great in Caesarea and John Chrysostom in Constantinople. Later, the medieval church established hospices.
Like the early church, we, too, can take up the mandate to be agents of healing. We may be wounded by all that has transpired, but this does not disqualify us. In fact, Jesus has a penchant to use people who share their wounds with others in order to bring healing in Jesus’ name. There are several marks of wounded healers.
Wounded healers bear scars and offer them to others as a source of identity, solidarity, and vulnerability. Our primary task is to offer healing, not to “fix” others. We own our pain, then lovingly and gently touch other people’s pain. The word compassion in the original Latin root means “co-suffering.” Wounded healers suffer alongside others. We show our wounds to others, and we earn trust for others to show us their wounds. And just as Paul heard Jesus say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Cor. 12:9–10), we can take these words from Jesus as our own in this time of woundedness.
Wounded healers engage in lament. We embrace lament and see it as an important element of the healing process. Wounded healers don’t encourage others to simply “move along” without grieving loss because they know the acknowledgment of the pain is a crucial part of the healing process. Lament precedes celebration—and it cannot be rushed, manipulated, or forced.
Wounded healers are rooted in a robust theology of suffering and of hope. Nouwen wrote that “the main task of the minister is to prevent people from suffering for all the wrong reasons.” Wounded healers help others see that finding hope in suffering is centered in the person of Jesus and the heart of the Christian faith. Even though we travel through death’s valley, we trust that God remains with us—Immanuel.
Wounded healers realize they play a significant role in the healing process, but they realize true healing is based on the love and the power of God. Wounded healers know the power of presence in healing, but they also know it is the presence of Christ, the Wounded Healer, who is the ultimate bringer of healing that the world needs. We join with God, but we do not play God. Susan Harper, managing director of Institutional Strategy and Partnerships at the American Bible Society, told me we see in the Gospels Jesus and his disciples healing others but not healing themselves. In our Western culture of the sovereign self, we can easily turn this into self-help therapy. But the biblical reality is not focused on self-help or looking to heal myself. Through our wounds, we offer ourselves to him. We invite people to bring their wounds to the one who can truly heal.
If we are to take seriously the fact the world is looking for healing in this global moment, where then are we to look?
First, we can look at Scripture as a book written to oppressed and traumatized people.Have you ever considered what suffering and trauma the original hearers of God’s message had experienced? When you view it through this lens, you begin to see what good news healing was—and continues to be—for people. God’s grand story recounts the shalom-creating God seeking to heal humanity through a shalom-bringing Jesus, who was wounded so we could be healed and returned to shalom (Num. 21:4–9; Isa. 53:5; John 3:14–15, 5:6). The reality of this healing, redeeming, and reconciling Jesus is in our DNA.
We can look for the healers present among us. When we identify, encourage, equip, and join the doctors, nurses, medical professionals, social workers, psychologists, therapists, school counselors—those devoted to people’s physical healing—we empower them to be bringers of healing. But we shouldn’t look only to those whose professions help people in their pain and suffering on a daily basis. The divorced young mother of four knows something about pain, as does the survivor of childhood sexual abuse. So does the widow of 17 years and the army vet who has suffered severe PTSD after his deployment. How might churches be the place that first sees the immense potential of these wounded healers and empowers them to bless and bring healing in Jesus’ name?
We can also look for the healers within our communities—yet outside the walls of our churches. We must think larger and look more purposefully in other places. Many times there are already established organizations, groups, and initiatives where partnerships can be strengthened and deepened. Where can we create good kingdom mischief by linking arms or developing or deepening partnerships with local businesses and financial institutions, with community wellness centers, mental health providers, and others? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many in your community are most likely already involved in the world. When we look, do we see those leaders and individuals whom we can support, encourage, and partner with?
The good news is that Jesus saves, but the good news is also that Jesus heals. Our mandate is to follow Jesus, our Wounded Healer, to experience healing and then, in turn, be bearers and bringers of healing to a broken and scarred world.
J. R. Briggs is an author, leadership coach, and founder of Kairos Partnerships. His latest book, The Sacred Overlap: Learning to Live Faithfully in the Space Between (Zondervan) released earlier this month.