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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jesus' miracles weren't all they're cracked up to be (and why that's a good thing)

In Friday's post, I Only Trust Jesus In Person, I started a line of questions about Jesus' miracles that requires its own post. The account of Jesus curing a man's leprosy, then sending him to go see a priest, challenged what I had previously thought about the way Jesus healed.

See I thought that when Jesus healed someone, it magically made everything better. Everything.

I thought, in the time of Jesus, it was very common to have all of one's health problems miraculously solved in an instant, so one could immediately live a normal life.

"Awesome! Now that I'm no longer paralyzed, I also automatically know how to get a job and fit into society as a healthy individual!" Image source.

And, to be honest, I never understood why nowadays we Christians address our health problems primarily through going to doctors. Yes, we pray too, but the mechanism through which we are healed is NOT sudden miracles but medicine and science and a doctor's expertise.

The line of thinking that says "Don't go to the doctor- just pray! Don't go to counseling- just pray! Don't take antidepressants- just pray!" is wrong and harmful. Every so often I hear of some very very extreme religious nuts who actually DON'T believe in getting medicine and seeing a doctor, and I've never met anyone in real life who held that belief or read any arguments supporting it. But somewhat more common within Christianity is the idea that depression and other mind/emotion-related health problems show a lack of faith in God and you really just need to pray more and tough it out, rather than taking drugs or getting counseling.

I think any reasonable person would agree that trusting prayer and miracles alone, without seeking ACTUAL medical help or counseling, is extremist, naive, and just wrong.

But why?

If Jesus used to heal people INSTANTLY and miraculously ALL THE TIME, and God is the same now, then, and forever, then why is it "extremist" and "naive"?

Like, I KNOW it's extremist, naive, and wrong to reject modern medicine and hope for a miracle instead. I've always known that. But I never could come up with an argument for WHY.

The answer that's given is "God works through doctors and medicine to heal people. God gave us minds that could come up with the science and all these amazing medical discoveries." But that never satisfied me. In the bible, God seemed to ALWAYS heal instantly, swoop down and solve everyone's problems... Why wouldn't he do that nowadays?

To be honest, it felt like "we don't REALLY believe in God" or "we don't REALLY believe God can still do miracles" or "we don't REALLY believe in the power of prayer." But I was afraid to vocalize it.

But last week, reading the story of Jesus healing the man with leprosy and then GIVING HIM FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS made me think the miracles in the bible are not the magical-instant-cure-and-your-life-is-perfect I had imagined.

Not pictured: Magical instant cure and your life is perfect. Image source.

So I read all the gospels' accounts of Jesus' healings, paying attention to how long the healed person had been in their sick/disabled state, and whether Jesus gave them any further instructions or did anything to help them transition into their new life.

What did Jesus heal? Blindness, leprosy, demon-possession, deafness... all of these are long-term conditions that defined a person's life. I only found a few healings of short-term problems: Peter's mother-in-law's fever and the man whose ear had been cut off moments before. (Also there's the official's son who is described as "close to death"- no indication whether his sickness was long-term or not. Also, Jesus brought 3 dead people back to life- they had only been dead for a couple days or hours, and I don't know how long they had been sick before that, how much of an adjustment it would be to live a normal, healthy life.)

So, you know, a few exceptions for those people whose short-term sicknesses got healed, and then 21 accounts of healings from long-term diseases and disabilities that defined a person's life.

Because let's say you get healed from blindness, back in the first century. That's awesome! This is DEFINITELY a GOOD THING. But imagine how much your life would change. Suddenly you're able to do so many things you've never done before. Maybe you can go get a job! Maybe you would find new friends! And the psychological effects would be enormous. It's not obvious how to take the first steps forward into your new life.

Perhaps the most revealing account of how drastically people's lives were changed after Jesus healed them is found in John 9.  In this passage, Jesus heals a man who had been blind from birth. The man then runs into all sorts of issues.

First, acquaintances can't agree on whether or not it's even him. Yeah, they remember there used to be a beggar who looked like that, but the guy they remember was blind. So there's some arguing over that.

Then the Pharisees (religious leaders) start to question him. At this point, the ex-blind man barely knows anything about Jesus; all he can do is give the account of what had happened. The Pharisees got angry and even questioned his parents, who were too afraid to stick up for him. Finally, they threw him out of the synagogue- not for some controversial theological claim he had made, but just for stating the most glaringly obvious facts about what had happened to him.

At the end of the passage, Jesus shows up again to give the ex-blind guy some clarification about who he is, and give everyone else a metaphor about spiritual blindness.

Okay, so that is just one account of how much things would change in the life of someone Jesus healed. And that's just the beginning- who knows what other changes happened in this guy's life? And surely everyone else that Jesus healed of a lifelong disability had to go through a similar process of adjusting and working through questions about their identity and purpose, and how to move forward in their new life.

Yes, the healings were a GOOD THING in these people's lives. Definitely. But they would require a lot of adjustment.

And I can't help but wonder if Jesus sending the ex-leper to see a priest in Matthew 8:4 is the first-century equivalent of going to a doctor or therapist.

So I was wrong. I was wrong to think that in the time of Jesus, he would just turn up and heal whatever little sickness you had, and it would just be a minor inconvenience in your otherwise normal life. NO. The vast majority of those he healed were people whose illnesses and disabilities had kept them at the lowest level of society for YEARS.

I was wrong to think "God used to just swoop in and solve all their problems," and wonder why I don't see it happening nowadays. Certainly Jesus' healing of a person's physical problems was a complete healing, a miracle- but it also caused a lot of other issues to arise. Psychological effects of adjusting to such a huge, sudden change in one's life. Questions about a person's role in society, and how relationships with friends and family would be affected.

Yes, a person is definitely better off after being miraculously healed by Jesus. But it was just the start of the healing process- a process which could certainly be made easier with the help of a doctor, therapist, and supportive friends.

No, Jesus was never meant to replace the doctors in his followers' lives. The bible never says, "And whenever one of his disciples had a runny nose, Jesus laid hands on him and healed him." Jesus' miracles were, for the most part, addressing physical conditions for which no hope of medical treatment existed.

A God who always swoops in and solves everyone's problems? That's not what the bible shows us.

Instead, we get a God who heals the sick, raises the dead, and frees people from disabilities that kept them in poverty. A God who helps us heal ourselves, through medical knowledge and science. A God who doesn't abandon us through the long process of healing. And that's the God I want.

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