Sickness, Healing and Living with the Mystery (or, it's not about us)

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Have you struggled with why healing does or doesn't happen? Annie shares her family's journey.

My son Miles is two and half years old. He’s ridiculously cute, funny and smart, and by all accounts the picture of health. Miles is doing all the things that 2 ½ year olds do and hitting all the developmental milestones. For most families, this is par for the course. For us, it is proof that miracles happen.

"They offered us no hope, only bleak statistics"

You see, when we were pregnant with Miles, a routine ultrasound showed some abnormalities in his heart. And then it got worse. After a detailed scan, doctors told us that Miles had a very complex heart and circulatory system. They explained that there were a number of structural abnormalities that, taken together, amounted to one of the most severe cardiac diagnoses, with a very grim prognosis. They offered us no hope, only bleak statistics and what they considered a “way out” of our obvious devastation. We chose life for our son.

Thus began our journey into a deep, dark valley as we waited for Miles to be born, as we regularly received grim facts and dire predictions from doctors, and as we wept, interceded and waited with expectancy for Miles to be healed.

During that time of waiting, we saw some amazing healing in Miles’ circulatory system. A scan one month showed that his pulmonary veins were completely blocked (which meant worst case scenario), while the next scan one month later showed that those same veins had become completely unblocked and were functioning well (which meant best case scenario). This was an amazing 180 degree change, an amazing, miraculous gift.

When Miles was born two months later, he defied all the odds doctors had given him, and was big, healthy and strong. Another miracle. Still, we had hoped and even expected to see a new heart and circulatory system once he was born, and we didn’t. And so it was that our little soldier had his first open heart surgery at 7 days old and came home when he was 3 weeks old. He had his second open heart surgery at 7 months, recovered and came home 2 ½ weeks later. He’s now scheduled for a third surgery (the final of 3 scheduled) this winter.

"Our journey is truly one of grace"

We are so in love with, and incredibly grateful for our little boy. As a family, we live a really normal (if particularly great) life, and we are all healthy and strong. Some days, when Paul and I allow ourselves the time, space and quietness to revisit our journey, to process on our own, with each other and with the Lord just what it is we have been through, what we have yet to go through, and what it all means… well, it’s not easy. Our journey is truly one of grace, love, laughter, the true companionship of God, the miraculous, the ordinary, much mystery and many unanswered questions.

As children of the God who heals, there is a particularly great mystery we must abide as we live in a broken world that awaits redemption. It is not only the issue of pain, sickness and suffering, with which the whole world must wrestle, but the added issue of having a good and gracious God who is willing and able to heal, but not always seeing that healing in our own lives or the lives of others. Other times, we do receive a healing gift but not at all in the way or timing we want or expect.

"the deep and painful realities of this fallen world are mixed right up with the holy and miraculous"

We know that the Lord didn’t do this to Miles or to us. But He did allow it to happen, and this, I’ve come to realize, is part of the great mystery of God’s kingdom being both now and not yet; it is part of the tension of living as children of God in a broken world that is yet to be made new. Where God’s awesome kingdom (in which there is no sickness, death, hunger, sadness, violence, injustice or disease) has both come and is yet to come. Where the deep and painful realities of this fallen world are mixed right up with the holy and miraculous, and where they don’t appear to be doled out with any particular rhyme or reason as far as we’re concerned.

When we, as a community of believers, believe in a God who is good, all powerful, and who is both willing and able to heal, then we come face to face not only with the mystery of why some suffer so extremely and others hardly at all in this world, but also why some experience miraculous healing and others don’t. How we handle this mystery in our own lives and in the lives of others is deeply important.

"we, as human beings, tend not to like this kind of unanswered (and sometimes unanswerable) question"

Good theology and healthy Christianity that are rooted in the love of God must be able to weather these mysteries about sickness and healing; they must be able to coexist with them without forcing answers, pointing fingers, seeking control or retreating into fear. Healthy faith must not only be full of expectancy and hope, but must also be able to sit with these questions, allow them to remain a mystery, and to lean on God, especially when things don’t make sense.

The problem is that we, as human beings, tend not to like this kind of unanswered (and sometimes unanswerable) question - it makes us deeply uncomfortable. We like things we can explain or solve and that fit easily and nicely into our worldview and our particular understanding of God. So when we are faced with messy, inexplicable and painful real life events, then our fear and discomfort often drive us to try to find a way to solve the mystery (even though God Himself is full of mystery). Sadly, this often leads to taking good godly principles and trying to turn them into formulas, or to making it about us and pointing fingers of blame. All so that we don’t have to live with the uncomfortable not-knowing.

It can look like this… We are faced with some kind of pain or sickness. We believe that God is willing and able to heal. We genuinely believe that it will come, and we pray, lay hands and intercede. We do, say and pray everything in the book in order to “remove any blockages” to the release of that healing. We wonder if we’ve covered everything, and keep asking for God to reveal what we’re missing. Then…well, sometimes we see amazing, miraculous healing. And sometimes we don’t. And other times we see some healing but not in the fullness or timing we expect.

When we first got the news about Miles, we dove back into church life (we had been walking with the Lord but hadn’t been an active part of a church community for some time). We did everything we could to be in right relationship with God and others. We were focused on the work of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and did some good spiritual ‘house cleaning’. We made almost every moment of our days about praise, worship, meditating on God’s word, learning to listen to God’s voice, and just taking in all we could of any good spiritual food we could find. We did it because we were desperate for the Lord, because all that work was overdue and necessary, and because we wanted our lives in right order. If we’re honest, though, we also did it with the hope that it would clear the way, as it were, for God to bring healing to our boy.

"[God] was embarrassingly gracious and generous with us"

There was, of course, important, intrinsic value in all that intense internal work God did in us during that season – it was part of the working out of our faith, part of our sanctification. We experienced a deeper intimacy with Him during that time than ever before. He was embarrassingly gracious and generous with us, loving us and tenderly caring for us each moment of each day. It was so good and so healthy for us to rely so entirely on Him, to put all our hope in Him, and to simply invite Him to refine and transform us in the midst of our pain. In that way, it was a rich and beautiful season.

What was unhealthy, though, when it reared its head was the suggestion and temptation to believe that if we did all that work – if we forgave those who hurt us, apologized to those we had hurt, renounced vows, joined a cell group, dealt with family history, gave tithes and got things right in our hearts and lives – if we checked off all the boxes and believed for Miles’ healing – then God would heal Miles. Though not usually explicitly stated, this idea was most certainly presented to us. And we were desperate to believe it.

We did see that awesome healing in Miles’ veins about two months before he was born. When we didn’t see more healing as the pregnancy continued, there were times I felt like we were running against the clock (our due date) trying to figure out what we might have missed from “the checklist.” What more did we need to do or pray in order to make sure Miles was born healed? Did we have enough faith? Was there someone we hadn’t forgiven? Was there an agreement we had to break or a vow we had to renounce, but couldn’t remember? Had we repented or forgiven completely enough? Was something secretly lurking in our family history that stood between us and that healing? If only we could discover and deal with it, then we would see Miles’ complete healing. Then the floodgates of heaven would be flung open and healing would come forth.

All of these thoughts stemmed from an ugly and sneaky lie that said that Miles’ healing was up to us. Just as it is foolish to think we can (or need to, for that matter) coax the love and grace of God by following some formula or by behaving a certain way, so it is futile and plainly wrong to reduce the gift of healing to the completion of a spiritual checklist. If we assume that the release of healing in our lives is firmly within our control, hinging on what we do and don’t do, then we are treating the God of the universe, our heavenly Daddy, either as a genie we can control or as a fickle and cruel deity who takes pleasure in toying with our lives.

Trying to solve this mystery by setting up a system of control (like a checklist) has ugly consequences every step of the way. While we’re working and waiting for healing, then we’re likely living at least partly in fear that we’re missing something or that we aren’t working or praying hard enough. If we do see healing, we’re likely to swell up with pride (and exhale with relief), but if we don’t see the miraculous healing for which we’ve been waiting and working, then we’re likely to become wrought with a sense of guilt and failure. All the while, we focus on us instead of Him.

"Look instead for what God can do.”

Further, if we try to do away with this mystery by laying blame or credit on people for what we do and don’t see manifest in their lives and families, then the one who gets healed becomes more right or righteous than the one who doesn’t, and the one who gets or remains sick must have unresolved sin in their life. Even if we don’t say these things explicitly, these are the implications of this kind of thinking. This is ugly thinking. And it’s not kingdom thinking:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9: 1-3 NIV)

The Message version of this story is also terrific:
“Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?" Jesus said, "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” (John 9:1-3MSG)

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.” (John 9:6-7 NIV)

Just like Jesus’ disciples, we’re often asking the wrong question, focusing on the wrong thing. We’re looking for someone or something to blame, when we should be asking what God can do.

Of course we participate with God in healing and in calling His kingdom to come. We surrender ourselves to Him, we lay hands on the sick, we fast and intercede, we stand on His word and His promises. We trust Him and we expect His goodness. And in our spiritual journeys, we invite Him to refine us and remove the sin from our lives. But we must acknowledge what these things are and what they are not: they are valuable and powerful kingdom activities but they are not a formula for healing.

"Can we sit with these mysteries and resist the temptation to control?"

This remains a mystery for all of us except God. And how we deal with this mystery matters. It matters because it affects our spiritual health, our image of God and of ourselves. It matters because it affects our ability to suffer with those who are suffering, and to allow the Lord to redeem our own pain and transform us in it. It affects our capacity to live honestly and courageously in a broken world that’s longing for redemption. It affects how we treat our brother or sister (or ourselves) who are living right in the middle of the valley. Can we sit with these mysteries and resist the temptation to control? Can we sit with them, and with those who are living life within them, without laying judgment or blame?

If we trust the God of the Universe, the King of our hearts, enough to guide us and use us, to reveal things to us and heal us, then we must trust Him enough to answer our prayers and to fulfill His promises His way and in His timing. As Paul says to the Romans: “This is why the fulfillment of God's promise depends entirely on trusting God and his way, and then simply embracing him and what he does. God's promise arrives as pure gift.”(Romans 4:16 MSG).

One of the deepest desires of my heart is to see Miles completely and miraculously healed right now – especially before he has to go in for another open heart surgery! This was my desire before Miles was born, before his first surgery, before his second surgery, and now again as we look toward his third surgery. Until we see that complete healing, we will keep laying hands on him, speaking life and wholeness over him, praying and contending for that healing and pressing into God for Him to finish the good work He started in Miles.

"we will push back against the lie that if only we had done, prayed or repented enough we would have seen healing by now."

Until we see Miles’ complete healing, we will keep praising God for the amazing gift of our son, for his amazing health and strength, for the miracle of his healed veins, and for the incredible ways God has used this journey to draw us close to Him and to transform our own hearts.

And until we see that whole healing, we will push back against the lie that if only we had done, prayed or repented enough we would have seen healing by now. We will resist the urge to revisit that spiritual checklist. Instead, we will keep listening to and trusting Him, allowing Him to do the work He wants to do in us, in His time and for His purposes.

I have a beautiful picture in my mind’s eye of Miles as a grown man (so handsome!), running into our home with his wife and children to tell us that he had a routine heart scan and that the doctors saw a brand new heart and circulatory system – miraculously!!! I love this picture. And I love that in it, Miles is telling us about how God has healed him, just like the man born blind. It’s HIS testimony, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Of course I would rather Miles be completely healed today! But will I love it if he’s healed when he’s 20, 50, or 70? Yes. And is it also possible that Miles will live to be a healthy 100 year old man with great grandchildren, all without seeing a new heart and circulatory system, and that God is using doctors and medicine as part of Miles’ healing journey? Yes it is. Within this great mystery, what I do know is that Miles’ future is secure in God’s hands. And that’s going to have to be enough.