Monday, March 09, 2015

A challenging spiritual test

kw: book reviews, spiritual reading, faith healing, divine healing, sermons, exhortation

A friend loaned me a book to read, one that has become a test of certain beliefs I hold. It is Christ the Healer by F. F. Bosworth. First published in 1924, the book originally contained five chapters. During his lifetime (he died early in 1958, aged 81) he expanded later editions of the book, and his heirs posthumously expanded it further. I read the paperback edition of 1973.

I have been for more than forty years under a ministry that teaches thus:

  • The Exodus plus Wilderness period of Israel's history was characterized by miracles including numerous cases of miraculous healing.
  • Certain later prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha, performed miracles, but those were purposeful and selective.
  • There were a few, scarce miracles during the period between the testaments, particularly the miracle of the oil during the Maccabean restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. This event is commemorated with Hanukkah.
  • Jesus performed miracles throughout his ministry (Apocryphal stories of miracles he performed as a child are fairy tales at best). He healed all who came to him for healing and raised at least three dead persons, including Lazarus.
  • The apostles performed miracles, but more selectively as time went on. Paul in particular had a gift of healing which was with him throughout his ministry.
  • Not all divine healing is miraculous. Some of the healings Jesus performed were instant, and thus miraculous. Others occurred over a period of time. God strengthened the healing abilities of the natural body.
  • In Paul's later writings we find that he did not always heal the sick. Trophimus had to be left behind sick at one point, and Paul counseled Timothy to settle his sensitive stomach with wine.
  • The author of the book of Hebrews, whom we believe was Paul, mentions the "powers of the age to come" (6:5), which we take to mean we have only a "taste" of miraculous works and divine healing in this age.
  • God is purposeful, and is not to be treated as a magician that we can invoke for just anything.
  • Thus, we conclude that divine healing does occur, but is not frequent, and instant, miraculous healing is quite rare indeed, in this period called the Church Age.

Bosworth would vociferously decry our conclusions. He is an absolutist. The only tiny concession he would make in our favor is found in a chapter titled "Why Some Fail to Receive Healing From Christ", in which he discusses 22 causes of such failure. Number 10 reads:
Sickness and affliction are permitted to remain on some as a halter, with which God leads them into the center of His will, and when this has been done, He removes the halter.
The other items are variations on three themes:

  • The sick individual is at fault, either not believing rightly or not acting decisively upon the promise of healing.
  • The evangelist or pastor is at fault for teaching improperly regarding divine healing (such as our teaching outlined above, if it is indeed improper).
  • The "community", meaning a congregation or related group of congregations, is in a state of ignorance regarding God's will to heal all His children, thus hindering His work.

It is extremely clear from the sermons and testimonies in the book that Bosworth believed God's will is absolute, to bring to salvation every person who receives Him, and to totally heal every person who asks in faith for His healing. He bases both upon the Atonement of Jesus, making them equally inclusive promises, based on a number of Bible passages, most familiarly,
"Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But 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." (Isaiah 53:4-5, NIV). 
Matthew quoted the Septuagint translation of the first half of verse 4, so that the NIV has it, "He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases." Of course, Bosworth used the Authorized Version (KJV), which has "sicknesses" in Matthew, but "sorrows" in Isaiah. That last phrase, "by his wounds we are healed", is an article of faith to faith healers.

There is a contention among expositors, whether "healed" at the end of verse 5 refers to bodily healing, or healing of the soul from iniquity. I believe it refers to both, but with the proviso that God heals, or performs other miraculous actions, according to purpose.

I find it quite refreshing that Bosworth writes, on page 77, "Even Laymen May Pray for the Sick". In his era, there was no thought of any kind of church polity among Protestants and Pentecostals other than the pastoral system. Since I consider that system invalid, and as Martin Luther taught, we enjoy "priesthood of all believers", of course every child of God may pray for healing the sick. Yet we also see in 1 Corinthians that God has set some in the church with special gifts including gifts of miracles and gifts of healing. Bosworth also distinguishes healing from miracles, at least in most cases.

Bosworth's theology is also founded upon the special names of God that he calls "Redemptive Names":

  • Jehovah Shammah, the Lord who is Present
  • Jehovah Shalom, the Lord our Peace
  • Jehovah Ra-ah, the Lord the Shepherd
  • Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will Provide
  • Jehovah Nissi, the Lord our Banner (or Victor)
  • Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness
  • Jehovah Rapha, the Lord that Heals

He argues that the standing of the last name is equal to the other six, and is thus part of the promise of the Atonement of Christ. This is a strong argument, and if this were all the Bible, it would be unassailable. Yet what do we see of the attitude of Jesus of Nazareth towards miracle-seekers? John wrote,
"Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person." John 2:23-25
If we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by the new chapter that begins immediately after, we see how Jesus withdrew from those who were enamored of his signs (John always called the miracles and healings "signs"), but that he attended to the inquiry of Nicodemus, who saw beyond the signs to the One sent by God. And what are we to make of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians in chapter 13, the "love chapter"? He begins with four examples of spiritual gifts, tongues, prophecies, faith to move mountains (miracle working), and almsgiving, and shows that they are nothing without love (the famous word agape that speaks of love that has God as its source). Then in verses 8-10 he says all things other than love will cease, using three examples, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge. His word is inclusive, that the supernatural spiritual gifts were temporary. Indeed, in all his later epistles, he does not again mention the supernatural gifts, but instead writes of gifts that develop from growth in life, until the person is the gift to the church, under the titles Apostle, Evangelist, Prophet, Shepherd and Teacher, as seen in Ephesians chapter 4.

It is true, as Bosworth wrote, that healing is unlikely if we merely believe in God's ability to heal, or even if we merely hope in His healing. If we have, particularly with others, prayed a prayer of faith, and have an inner sense of God's affirmative answer, we must believe that we do have the healing already, even though symptoms may linger for a short time (days, not months). Bosworth uses the example of the fig tree that Jesus cursed. Nothing happened immediately, but the next morning the disciples saw that it had withered. It continued to appear the same at first. In the same way, after we sense that a prayer is answered, the symptoms may not disappear all at once. Testimonies in the last part of the book confirm such experiences. Some people experienced immediate and total healing. Others experienced a gradual release from symptoms.

Now, I have had a few experiences that make me wonder. Here are a few brief stories, three of them my own:

  • The year after I received Christ, that is, 1967, a girl, a young sister, was healed at a youth camp I attended. She had a dental deformity, and her teeth stuck out forward at an angle. This was even somewhat evident when she kept her lips tightly shut, and it caused her great embarrassment. The second evening, a few others our age took her for a walk after dinner, and asked her to pray with them for definite and immediate healing by the Lord. As she told us the following day, "After we had been praying a while my mouth began to feel very warm. At first I could not move my hand. When I could move it, it also could feel the warmth, and then, that my teeth now fit properly in my mouth!" I saw her teeth both before and after, and this was indeed a remarkable case of instant, miraculous healing.
  • Around 1970, a sister that we got to know a few years later contracted cancer. She was told she was terminal. Some sisters came to pray with her, and after a time they all felt that the Lord had given His promise to heal. Her symptoms abated over several days' time, and she is still alive and serving in a church in England.
  • In 1973 I got pneumonia. Brothers I lived with prayed with me, but we felt nothing particular from the Lord. The evening came for the church's prayer meeting (I lived next door). I had just been lying there feeling sorry for myself for a few days, but I was very sorry to miss that meeting. After my housemates went to the meeting, I sat up in bed and began to read the book of Matthew. I read the whole Gospel in less than an hour's time. Then I got out of bed and went to the meeting, fully whole. I told them there I'd been healed by taking in the Word of God.
  • One thing we disparaged quite a lot was a practice that became rather faddish before 1980 of "leg-lengthening". An elder with whom I was close had back pains, and was told by a Christian friend that these might be because he had legs of different lengths (I do, and we'll go there, momentarily). He was persuaded to go to a healing meeting. There, a healing evangelist had him stand and looked at him. Then, he had him sit, and the man just took the heel of his shorter leg and pulled gently while all prayed. This elder felt nothing, but when he stood again, his stance was different because his hips were now level. His back pain never returned.
  • That even made me wonder about my experience a decade or more earlier. I had polio at age 18 months, and one leg was twisted. I was made to wear leg braces in an attempt to straighten it for two years, with only partial success. I learned to compensate so that few knew how hard it was for me to walk with a mostly normal appearance. At age 14 I attended a youth camp and our last evening a child evangelist preached to us. I was very touched. I recall walking alone in the woods trying to talk to God. It may be that I received Christ then, rather than 5 years later. But as I look back, I see that that I had a determination arise over the next few months to straighten my leg as much as possible. I had to think about every step. Over about a year, the bones were reshaped, and although the leg is still half an inch shorter than the other, and the foot on that side is nearly two inches shorter, the leg is straight and I walk normally and without pain. It may be that my actual experience of salvation occupied a 5-year span!
  • Finally, in 2000, I had colon cancer. It was a rather late stage, but not metastasized beyond the perineum yet. A wizard of a surgeon replumbed me in a 5-hour operation. I also had an ordinary course of chemotherapy. I believe the biggest factor was that the whole church where we met (and still meet) prayed urgently for me. A few years later, the gastroenterologist who had made the initial diagnosis told me, "You are a trophy!" He had initially given me a 15% chance to live beyond one year, after the operation and chemo. Was divine healing involved? This particular case is unclear, but I give Glory to God nonetheless, for the love of fellow believers at the very, very least, and I take these past 14+ years as a sign that He is just not done with me yet!

Bosworth's book has led me to rethink everything I believe about divine healing. God may indeed strongly will for all His children to be kept in good health until He is ready to call them home. It is equally clear that, at least the "halter" mentioned by Bosworth is active in some cases. But there is a big gap between the level of healing advocated in the book, and the experience of most of God's children today. I am prayerfully considering these things, and it would be worth everyone's time to do so.

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