For the past couple weeks, I’ve been receiving regular e-mail updates on the status of a friend’s friend who had an accident that left her essentially paralyzed. Naturally, it’s a very sad situation, and the doctors are doing everything in their power to minimize or reverse the effects of the accident.
The e-mails I’ve been getting about the situation have all been from religious people. They guy writing the majority of the e-mails wanted us to “beg everyone to pray” and assured us that he would be “on my knees praying for the next six hours.” The girl who was paralyzed “needs people to believe that God can perform a miracle,” yet she “understands if it is not God’s will and she will still honor and glorify him either way.” These are real quotes.
I’m sure most people have received e-mails like this before, so I’d like to make a few general comments on the public perception of faith healing in Evangelical America, and I’d like to ask a few specific questions to people who believe in it.
I’ll start here: Do you believe God can heal? I.e., to rip of Epicurus, do you believe that God is both willing and capable of healing? (Some Christians would say no, claiming that God does not interact with the world, but the kind of Christians who send out prayer request e-mails like the one I’m referring to believe that God can heal.) If you do believe this, have you ever grappled with what kind of a God would base his help on how many hours you pray or on how firmly you believe that he’ll answer positively–while at the same time keeping openness to “God’s will” in the back of your mind so you’ll be submissive if his will is negative? Why do we “need people to believe that God can perform a miracle”? Why do we need to be “on our knees for hours”? If it’s not enough to ask once (nicely) for God to heal, then we’re dealing with a situation where cajoling and coercion can produce divine results–the exact scenario presented as a failure of pagan prayers in 1 Kings 18:25-29. Similarly, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus himself describes God as an eager giver of good things:
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:9-13)
If anyone has to reinterpret this passage away from its clear meaning (and I haven’t yet met a Christian who doesn’t), it is not because the context demands a different meaning by itself; it is solely because the promise of Jesus is not true and has to be squared with reality in some way. The paralyzed girl I mentioned at the beginning of this post is in a situation where her earthly father wants her to be in better health than God does–in contradiction of Luke 11:13. If her father was given the opportunity to snap his fingers and make her better, I don’t think for a minute that he’d say, “Let me go talk with God and make sure it’s his will, because maybe you’re supposed to stay like this.” He’d just heal her–like Jesus apparently did. And if it’s clearly not God’s will to heal, why are we still praying/begging him to do it weeks and months later?
These are impolite questions, and they’re usually suppressed with appeals to God’s unknowable will. I’m asking them because it’s an insult to the paralyzed woman and her family to tell them that if they just pray harder, maybe God will do something. The reason we pray so long for things is that God isn’t there to answer. When we pray long enough, 1) we feel like we’re doing something helpful, and 2) it’s easier to slap on a “creative solution” answer over time and pretend like prayer works. Christians always leave God a loophole. In this case, sadly, she “understands if it is not God’s will and she will still honor and glorify him either way.”
Another question for the believer: If you think Jesus’ promises in Luke 11 (and elsewhere: Matthew 21:22; Mark 16:18; James 5:14-15) should not be taken literally and directly for some reason, how do you explain away the fact that the promises are given in stark, unqualified, direct terms? In other words, pretend for a moment that Jesus had wanted to give believers unqualified permission to ask for whatever they wanted; how could he have said it? Would he just have had to add an “I really mean this” clause to the end of the promises? Check out the passages above. They are already as strong and unqualified as possible…and demonstrably false.
Even so, what will happen if, in a month or so, this paralyzed girl is able to wiggle her toe or gain some mobility thanks to her determination and the quality of medical care she’s received? I’m confident that God would get all the glory. I’ve seen this many times, and it’s an utterly reprehensible reaction–from anyone’s perspective, Christian or not. Not only is it an insult to the doctors and PT practitioners who might have worked hard to achieve that result, it’s an insult to God. Think about it: months of prayers to an omnipotent being, and the best he can do is a partial restoration of health or mobility? What a god! If you’re omnipotent, it’s all the same for you. (And yet, of course, God never heals amputees…only people who might have gotten better anyway.)
Again, the practical Christian understanding of God is not defined by theology and grand ideals of omnipotence; it’s defined by reality, and we are therefore left with a weak, impotent, insecure, controlling, and ultimately imaginary deity who requires hours of prayer and strong faith mixed with the constant caveat that he might just not want to do it.