Discovering the art of medicine as a student in the 1980’s made pursuing a career as a doctor worthwhile for me. Patient’s stories held me connected during the most difficult of working days as a junior doctor and the search for meaning in complex patient narratives later took me into Psychiatry.
My youngest son starts medical school soon and we are in the midst of a multitude of preparations for his going. It’s been a curious season – a mix of shared excitement about his future, practical gathering of necessary items for student living, and personal nostalgia. Last week I found myself rummaging through boxes in our attic searching for medical textbooks which may prove useful to my son. Of course, there were only a handful of possibles – a tattered copy of ‘Clinical Examination For Medical Students (1986) and an anatomy book. I presented them to my son and he returned a quizzical smile.
The science and the craft of medicine have both evolved since 1986 but I want to believe the art is unchanged. After all, doctor-patient relationships supported by good communication, empathy, ethical reasoning and respect are surely timeless? Adjustments here have been more subtle, though still far-reaching. By public demand, a traditional doctor-patient relationship where experts guide trusting and (mostly) unquestioning patients through treatment, has been exchanged for a less paternalistic model offering greater patient autonomy. Simultaneous changes in working practices and advances in technology have resulted in increasingly impersonal therapeutic relationships between patient and doctor.
In the world of biblical healing, there have also been many ‘advances’. Many churches host seminars and conferences on the subject and we prefix prayer and ministry with ‘healing’ as if somehow this focus bestows additional power. We’ve even borrowed ideas from mindfulness, cognitive and family therapies in a bid to make biblical healing more holistic and contemporary. More importantly, we have become consumers of healing, clients with rights, not patients with needs. Accustomed as we are to ‘fighting our own corner’ when it comes to routine health care, we often assume the need to do this with Jesus too. Tell-tale signs include having a prayer language which is more demanding than requesting and confusing importunity in prayer with permission to question Jesus’ authority in the healing process. Does He really understand our needs better than we do?
Jesus calls us to a healing relationship which is conceptually challenging to 21st-century minds, hardwired to quick fixes, advanced scientific breakthroughs and personal ownership of our treatment plans.
The biblical model of a therapeutic relationship between Healer and healed has remained unchanged since Jesus assigned himself the role of ‘Great Physician’ on earth (Luke 4,23 and Mark 2,17). It’s quite unlike any ordinary therapeutic relationship where one human has every right to question another’s privilege to make important decisions on their behalf. Jesus’ has ultimate authority in biblical healing. While on earth, Jesus performed many healing miracles demonstrating divine authority over disease and death (Luke 7, 1-10 and Mark 2, 1-12). In a primitive society with limited medical treatments, few would have questioned the notion that ALL healing comes from God no matter who helps along the way. Today, it’s far harder to reconcile what happens at the local hospital with anointings for healing in a church, or our private prayers. We often imagine a disconnect between these, sometimes a tension. In reality, Jesus offers a healing relationship where body and soul are reconciled in the healing process, where waiting becomes tolerable, uncertainty is manageable, hurts are held and disappointments resolved.
The pivotal role of the therapeutic relationship in biblical healing is beautifully illustrated by the brief exchange between John the Baptist and Jesus in the final days before John’s untimely death. John lay bound in prison, deeply distressed in mind and tortured with doubts about whether Jesus really was whom He claimed to be. Jesus simply instructed his disciples to “Go back and report what you have seen and heard. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are well, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Luke 7,18-23 – ESV). This was no random exchange of platitudes or ‘statement’ for the crowd but a mutual sharing of grief, quiet presence and felt affection. Here, the relationship between John and Jesus provided the space in which healing could occur.
Therapeutic relationships are often most important when a patient has a chronic disease. The Apostle Paul likely had one of these to contend with (2 Corinthians 12, 7) and through this, he addresses one of the most difficult problems of life – human suffering. We don’t get to hear all of Paul’s dialogue with Jesus about this – I expect it was long and emotional. Instead, Paul tells us about the outcome, his acceptance and his secret – the “power of Christ resting on him” [2 Corinthians 12,9 (ESV)]. We can only guess at what “the power of Christ resting on him” actually meant in practice but undoubtedly this involved some form of healing, a door through which Jesus himself enters Paul’s suffering.
Is it time to refocus our notion of biblical healing away from the ‘craft’ and the ‘science’ back towards the art? Perhaps we should worry less about how and when Jesus will heal and marvel instead at how well He does it.