I had the opportunity to sit with my friend Chris Morrison of Gulfside Ministries and chat for a while. You can find the interview here.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will raise the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.
There are a couple of hermeneutical moves here that are common in conservative circles. The first is to simply ignore the text. When a nosy student asks why we don’t do this, you must mutter something under your breath about cultural context, and change the subject.
But that’s not enough. “Cultural context” is not a magical phrase that allows you to ignore a text. The text meant something, and the original readers were meant to obey it. So are we. Obedience in our context might look different, but it will look like something. It is our job to figure out what. The best place to start is with the original context.
In the original cultural context, this was not simply some religious ritual. Oils infused with various herbs and scents were common in the culture, and using such oils medicinally was also common. In other words, to the original readers, anointing with oil was not simply a religious ceremony, it was a medical treatment.
Once you know that, you can transfer the principle to our day. Imagine you have someone in your church who is a cancer patient.
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, giving him chemotherapy in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven.
Of course, the oncologist giving chemotherapy is not likely to be an elder in the church — but skip that for now. Let’s suppose the doctor is indeed an elder in this case, and move on from there. Do you see the departure from our standard attitude toward medicine? The medicine is administered “in the name of the Lord,” and when the sick person recovers, the recovery is attributed to the Lord, through the prayer of faith.
So the minimal application of this culturally conditioned command is to address sickness as a spiritual as well as a physical issue.
But I wonder whether we ought not go further. After all, we have mass media and Youtube, but we still believe that going to church in person is better. We have Facebook and phones and texting and many platforms for connection, but face to face is still better than anything else, by a long shot. Would it be so surprising to find that–especially where physical and spiritual matters overlap–the first-century ways of addressing things still have something to offer us?
I think they do. And so I still practice this passage as written: anointing with oil in the name of Jesus, laying on hands, and praying for the sick. My experience has been that this is valuable; when we are simply obedient, we do better than we know.
Every system of the body is incredibly complex. The deeper we look, the more we find. For example, take the circulatory system. It took us a long time to figure out that blood wasn’t just sitting there in vessels; it circulates. Then it took us a long time again to discover that the veins only return 90% of the fluid that goes out in the arteries. The other 10% returns through the lymphatic vessels, which we didn’t even know existed until about 100 years ago, and which serve a whole series of important immune functions. We’re still learning. We didn’t even know there was a connection between the brain and the lymphatic vessels until 2015, and we still haven’t mapped it all. Likewise, it took us a long time to work out the physiological complexities of blood clotting, and so on.
But God is kind to us, and we didn’t even have to know platelets existed, still less how they worked, to know that direct pressure on a small cut was the appropriate therapeutic intervention. If it’s a bigger hole, you might need to resort to pressure points and sutures — and again, we knew how to do that long before we knew how clotting actually worked. Of course, some cases are orders of magnitude more complicated than a simple cut, and in those situations, you want a medically educated specialist. But those cases are a tiny minority; most people go their whole lives never needing any more wound-care intervention than direct pressure and a band-aid, maybe the occasional occasional staple or stitch.
I expect to find that the human energy system is as complex as any other system; the more we look, the more we’ll find. So far, Randolph Stone’s characterization of how different parts of the energy system interact seems most likely to me. Perhaps he’s wrong about some, or even most, of the particulars, but in any case, something similar seems to be true.
(And then, of course, it may turn out that energetic medicine is presently in its late Ptolemaic phase, the endless shells, vortices, meridians, and interconnections all reminiscent of spheres and epicycles. Perhaps the whole shebang will yield to a small, elegant set of principles after all. That doesn’t seem to be the pattern with living systems, but who knows? Maybe we’re just waiting for the next Copernicus.)
Regardless of the structural complexities and their ramifications for more complex clinical practice, I am finding that the vast majority of problems I run into in the human energy field can be addressed with a small number of fairly simple interventions. I would not be surprised to see that trend continue.
And if it does, I’d like to see some form of energetic first aid become very common knowledge. Something you would grow up knowing, just like you learn to put direct pressure on a small cut.
Energy workers quickly discover that it’s a bad idea to try to heal someone on your own power. Not that it’s impossible — it’s truly amazing what a human spirit-to-spirit connection can accomplish, especially for someone who doesn’t get much of that — but it’s unwise. You have a finite supply of energy, and if you expend it into someone else, you leave yourself depleted, worn out, and vulnerable.
The solution is simple: don’t use your own energy. But you can’t just create energy ex nihilo. It has to come from somewhere. For me, that is not a problem. I live under an open heaven, with the unlimited resources of heaven available. (Dad often has His own ideas about what the person needs, but that’s fine. He told me to ask, and I’m asking. He always shows up.)
I have a number of spiritual-but-not-religious friends who link into “the universe” as their source for healing power. Sending your requests out into the universe addressed to “General Delivery” and hoping someone benevolent answers is, well…maybe not the best idea. Not everybody that might wander across that request is your friend. This is going through life dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is the equivalent of flying Ben Franklin’s kite in a thunderstorm. It is eating mystery meat from a random flyspecked cart in a south Asian market, and hoping your intestines can take it. It is plugging your extension cord into a random socket in a foreign country and hoping the voltage matches.
But sometimes, it comes out all right. And when it does, people thank “the universe,” which is like building an altar to the unknown socket.
I know what it feels like when God is at work, and I’ve felt Him at work through some of these people. He can suck up all the bandwidth and work through anybody He wants to. He did it with Saul. He did it with the witch at En Dor. He did it with Balaam. Heck, He did it with Balaam’s donkey. In my experience God moves through people you wouldn’t expect often, because He has exalted His word above His name.
I picture my friend standing by the massage table, one hand on me, and the other extended to the sky, holding up an extension cord and praying that it will plug into “the universe.” God reaches down, grabs the cord, and plugs it into Himself. Then He nudges a watching angel and winks.
“Don’t tell her,” He says. “She’s not ready to know yet.”
Here’s what I know. In creational terms, you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. That’s what a human being is — a living soul. And a soul is made up of two things: dust and breath, brought together by God. “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into His nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”
- What is meant by “dust?” The physical stuff, the literal dirt that returns to the dirt when we’re done with it.
- What is meant by “breath?” The immaterial part, the spirit that returns to God who gave it, as Solomon once said.
- And — most crucially — what is meant by “and?” . . .
That’s where we’re going to need to play the mystery card. The spirit and body interact in complex ways that we don’t really understand.
There’s a whole range of very subtle physical processes going on in the body. X-ray tomography shows that acupuncture points are structurally different from other points on the body. An electrical current travels faster down a meridian than between two randomly chosen control points the same distance apart…and slower than nerve conduction speed. There’s something else going on.
There are some very subtle, but actually physical, things going on that we’re just starting to understand. We’re just starting to even have the instrumentation to measure some of these things. So that’s the first thing that we mean by energy work – very subtle physical processes.
With respect to those physical processes, here’s my working hypothesis: just like every person has a skeletal system, a circulatory system, and a nervous system, every person has an energy system (or systems). Part of this is simply not that controversial (see Oschmann, 2nd ed.), but the useful models run far ahead of the science and make claims that, as yet, the science can’t really substantiate. But this stuff seems to work anyhow, so I’m using it.
But for me, subtle physical processes is not all I mean.
As Christians, we’re really good at understanding that the spirit relates to God. So far, so good. But spirit can interact with any other spirit, not just God. The first place our heads typically go with that is to realize that we can interact with demons. Which is true. But what about other people?
We can interact with other humans at a spiritual level. My spirit can touch your spirit. I don’t necessarily need to touch your body to do that.
That’s the second thing I mean by energy work.
And — here’s the fun part — there’s not really a clear boundary between those two things. The spirit and the body interact in complex and hard-to-understand ways. I greatly envy people who have a governing theory for what they do. I don’t have one, having not yet encountered a model that I found persuasive enough to adopt wholesale.
In the meantime, it is my experience that I can achieve effects with my clients by manipulating the energy field that I cannot achieve without doing so. It is my experience that I can do these things while working in concert with God in prayer, giving God thanks. So — guided by Paul — I’m not concerned about meddling with something I shouldn’t. God seems to be blessing it.
One weekend while I was in massage school, I took an introductory class in Polarity Therapy. Polarity is a big field of study, and we just scratched the surface of most aspects. We did come out with a series of basic energy balancing exercises we could use with clients, though.
The day after the class, I came home and found my wife in serious distress. It was certainly manifesting in physical and emotional discomfort, but there didn’t seem to be anything physical obviously wrong. I wondered if the Polarity balancing session might help. I am automatically suspicious of myself when I think that a new tool I just learned is exactly the thing for someone’s ailment. To a man with a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail, you know?
But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be just like God to give me the tool right before I need it? So I thought, “Well, if it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.”
With nothing to lose, I set up the massage table and got her on it. As always, I began with prayer (I don’t pray out loud if the client’s not up for that, but I always pray). I asked for God to take this time and restore her well-being, then I went to work. The entire sequence had taken about an hour in class. Doing it on my own, it took two, and it was anything but smooth. I had to keep consulting my routine sheet to see what to do next, and the techniques were unfamiliar, so I had to keep deciphering the notes I’d hastily scribbled in the margins to remind me how we’d done each thing in class. Not ideal. Kimberly later described it as “the most boring massage of my life” — Polarity bodywork is on-body, but barely touching for the most part.
But here’s the thing: God answered my prayers. It absolutely worked. When we finished the session, she was calm and collected. The distress — both physical and emotional — was just gone.
We later lay in bed together debriefing. I described what the session had been like for me — the continual reference to my notes interrupting the flow, the battle to keep myself grounded, but also the sensations of energy moving from place to place in her body, where it felt stagnant or blocked, the shifting patterns of heat and cool I felt as I worked with her, and so on. She described her experience, and what she had sensed as I did certain techniques during the session. At one point I was talking, somewhat excitedly, about how it all felt, when she interrupted me and said, “You realize, you can’t talk about this at church. Not even at our church.”
I said, “I know.”
And it was true. Our church (at the time) was probably, of all the churches in our town, the most open to various forms of weirdness in daily life. We strove to be “naturally supernatural,” and we really meant that. But I knew better than to think I could talk about energy work at church.
It was a defining moment for me. I agreed with God when I got into this that I was going to explore, submit to the process and the experiences that He led me into, and never allow myself to ignore something or pretend it didn’t happen just because I didn’t understand it. And I won’t. But at that moment I realized that my agreement with God meant I was going to have to carve out a niche somewhere outside the established American church. At least in the churches I knew, there was simply no place for what God was showing me.
Their loss. God’s doing a lot beyond the walls of the established church, and it’s good. So I’m gonna start talking about it.
I’m not going to name names here, but I was browsing about the interwebs a bit ago, and I ran across the website of a school that in general, I think well of. I began to read through their doctrinal statement (yes, I know, I have an odd idea of fun), and came upon this chestnut:
God can heal but physical healing is not in the atonement. God heals miraculously today when it is His perfect will to do so. Healing cannot be claimed through the guarantee of the atonement. At times it is God’s will for sickness not to be removed.
Now, I understand what they’re trying to guard against. Suppose a believer goes to a healing service, is told that Jesus died for him and his healing is included in the atonement, is prayed for, and then send home to “claim his healing.” What happens if he’s not healed? Does that mean his sins have not been atoned for either? He begins to wonder, “Why am I not being healed?” And one of the obvious answers is, “Maybe I’m not really saved!” Then all the doubts come pouring in, and the last state of the man is worse than the first. (This is not some churchlady’s imaginary danger, by the way. It actually happens, and it’s a real pastoral disaster.)
This school rightly values every believer’s assurance of salvation, and it’s awesome that they’re going out of their way to head this kind of nonsense off at the pass.
Problem is, with the best of intentions, they’re propagating a lie. “Physical healing is not in the atonement,” is certainly one way of doing the theological math so as to guard against this kind of doubt-inducing situation. But the Bible doesn’t say that.
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed Him smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.
How’s that again? By His stripes we are made righteous? By His stripes we are justified? No. By His stripes we are healed. (Psalm 103:3 would also be relevant here.)
Now either that means exactly what it says—and in a passage famously about the atonement, too—or…wait, no, there’s no second option. We believe the Bible; the right thing to do is swallow hard and revise our theology.
On reflection, it won’t be all that hard.
We all agree that the atonement in Jesus Christ is the answer–the whole answer–to the sin problem. At the cross, Jesus bought the right to justify us (declare us righteous), and moreover, to sanctify us until we really are entirely righteous, and to heal the damage we have done to ourselves, and each other, and our world with our sin—the whole bit. God is just and the justifier of the ungodly, through Jesus alone.
In the end, it won’t just be our spirits that are redeemed; He will redeem our bodies too. In fact, He will resurrect the entire world, a new heaven and earth without sin and its effects. When He does that, there will be no pain, no sickness, and so on, just as surely as there will be no sin. How dare God do that? God committed this world to our dominion; we committed sin and visited its consequences on the world; what gives a just God the right to erase the consequences of our freely chosen actions?
The atonement, that’s what. God’s authority to eradicate sickness along with all sin’s other effects was established at the cross, when the Seed of the Woman crushed the serpent’s head, and cried “It is finished!” And so it was. Nothing else need be, or could be, added. So let us have no silly nonsense about how healing is not in the atonement. It could hardly be anywhere else.
And if that is the case, then there is nothing stopping God from exercising that same right today, on the basis of the atonement. That said, He plainly does not always do so. What’s that about?
Once upon a time, Jesus said that He came to set the captives free. He went about, ministering, while His cousin John languished in Herod’s prison. Eventually, John sent messengers: “Are you the Messiah, or not?” Reading between the lines, I hear: “If you came to set the captives free, and you’re the real deal, then why am I still stuck in here?”
Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear the good news. And blessed is the one who is not offended because of Me.” In other words, “Yes, of course I’m the real deal — look around! But don’t get mad when I don’t do things the way you thought I would.”
The prayer is “Thy kingdom come” not “my kingdom come.” It’s His kingdom, and it comes in His way and His time. We know what the consummation will look like (kinda); we don’t know what God is going to give us today, what He’ll do tomorrow, and what we’ll have to wait longer to see. And so healing is most assuredly in the atonement, as sanctification is in the atonement. But its achievement in experiential reality is a process, and God superintends the process. We have to trust Him with it. If I’m not healed today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, not doubt my salvation.
And if I’m sick today, the biblical response is to trust in God’s goodness, and ask for healing: “thy kingdom come.”
The Bible teaches psychic self-defense.
That statement makes non-Christians wary, because “psychic self-defense” sounds way too hip to be coming from the Bible. It makes Christians nervous for a complex stew of reasons, starting with the new-agey connotations of “psychic” and running to the suspicion some Christians have of anything that smacks of spiritual/mystical reality, anything that can’t be tracked and documented by an “objective” third party. (If you’re one of the latter, buckle up. This post is gonna be rough on you.)
The armor passage of Ephesians 6 teaches precisely this: how to defend your soul, your psyche, against the enemy’s attacks. The armor is exactly that. Armor. It protects us.
Shoes: readiness with the gospel of God’s peace. This is our protection from conflicts that arise — being ready to accept, proclaim, and embody the reality that all conflicts were resolved at the cross, and Christ is our peace; we are just looking for how that works out now, in this situation.
Belt: truth. Our protection against the lies of the enemy is the truth that God has given us, both in Scripture and in our experience. Continually calling those truths to mind is a powerful defense; our biggest problem is that we constantly forget.
Breastplate: God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 59:17). We have to talk about what “righteous” even means; nobody uses the word except surfers, and they don’t really mean the same thing by it. Righteousness is vindication — being found in the right. It’s the judge saying “not guilty;” it’s the principal saying “You can go back to class.” It’s God saying “You’re ok.” Think of it as the Breastplate of Okayness. The Breastplate of Okayness is your protection against accusations and condemnation. There are only two kinds of accusations you will ever face: true and false. The false ones don’t matter because they’re false. The true ones don’t matter because every sin, mistake, and shortcoming you ever had (or ever will) was nailed to the cross to die and buried in the heart of the earth, and when Jesus rose to a new life, He did not come out of the tomb dragging a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s done. He settled it. God says you’re ok — exactly as ok as Jesus, which is pretty ok.
Shield: faith. This is your protection against doubt. When the doubts arise, trust God. What does that look like? “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). A substance is a hunk of matter right here — the chair you’re sitting on, the desk in front of you, like that. Something that’s here right now, a present, tangible reality. So faith is the present, tangible reality of what you hope for. In your case, you hope for a huddle full of people. So: if you were *sure* God was going to give you a huddle full of people, what would you be doing right now? The present, tangible reality might be something like searching for people of peace and asking God to show them to you. That’s what faith looks like — and coming full circle, faith is your protection against doubt. You can sit in a chair and tell yourself, “God’s got this” all day long; that’s just positive thinking. You can do that and still be worried. Faith is moving forward.
Sword of the Spirit: the word (rhema) of God. There’s more than one Greek word for “word,” and the one used here, rhema, refers to a spoken word, as opposed to the written word. Your offensive weapon for hacking holes in the kingdom of darkness is the spoken word of God. Whatever God gives you to say, say it out loud. Say it out loud even if you’re talking to yourself. (By the way, this doesn’t mean the Bible, the written word, is unimportant. It does mean that if you’re using the Bible as a weapon in the way this passage is talking about, you need to say it out loud, not just think it in your head.
Helmet: deliverance. This is your protection against fear. God will deliver you from or through everything you fear. He is the good shepherd; He won’t take you through the valley of the shadow of death for funsies; He only does that when there’s green pasture and still waters on the other side. Know that even in the presence of your enemies, God delivers you.
Putting On The Armor. So that’s your defensive armor against conflicts, lies, accusations, doubts, and fears, and an offensive weapon for banishing the darkness. But we still need to talk about what it means to put it on. Real quick, let’s try an experiment. Go stand naked in front of your closet and say, “I put on underwear, the brown slacks, that blue polo shirt there, and that sweater.” Then go outside….
A little reluctant? Why?
Well, ‘cuz you’re still naked! You can’t just say you’re putting something on, you have to actually put it on.
Right, so the same with the armor. When the enemy begins to torment you with an accusation, you don’t say, “I put on the breastplate of righteousness.” You say, “God says I’m ok” — which is actually putting on the breastplate of righteousness.
Putting it all together in prayer. None of this is meant to be applied in isolation. You use it in a context of constant prayer, speaking to and hearing from God. And you use the pieces together. So when the enemy torments you with an accusation, you say, “God says I’m ok” (breastplate). But you say it out loud (sword). Maybe you follow it up with reading Romans 8:31-39 (belt). You ask yourself, “If I was really, solidly convinced that God has made me ok with regard to this accusation, what would I do?” — and then you do it (shield). If you’re afraid the accusation taints you forever, you confess your fear to God: “God, I know you said you forgive all my sins, but I’m afraid this one is different somehow. I know that sounds dumb, but that’s where I’m at right now.” And then you ask Him to deliver you from your fear (helmet). All this, obviously, in constant prayer. And that’s what putting on the armor of God looks like.
We do not live in the world materialists think we do. Here are a couple of experiences for the sake of illustration:
A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I had a dream about a friend of mine. We hadn’t been in touch in about 6 months, but I dreamt that she had come to me for a massage. at 9:30 the next morning, she texted me: “My back is really hurting and it’s not getting better. Is there any chance you could fit me in today?”
A couple years ago I was working with a friend, giving a deep and fairly intense massage. It was only my second of the day, and nowhere near being physically taxing. As I was nearing the end of the massage, I was working on her arm when I suddenly couldn’t get enough air. My diaphragm just wouldn’t relax, and my breathing went to crap. I checked my body mechanics, grounded myself, all the usual things — nothing. My breathing was still a mess. I continued to work and hoped it would pass. (My friend later told me that she could hear my irregular breathing, and was beginning to worry about me.)
Then it suddenly occurred to me to ask her: “Is there something going on with your diaphragm?”
She said yes, as a matter of fact, she’d been having problems with her diaphragm, but she hadn’t asked for diaphragm work, because we only had 90 minutes, and we were already focusing on a fairly long list of other things she felt were a higher priority. As soon as we were talking about it, my diaphragm calmed down, and I could breathe normally again.
Of course, after I finished her arm, I did some diaphragm work, and then moved on with the session as planned, and all was well.
Far from being unusual, these kinds of occurrences have grown commonplace in my life and work. While as single, one-off events they might be dismissed as nothing more than odd coincidences, as trends they require explanation. As Christians, we don’t believe in a chaotic world; we believe in order. We believe that phenomena have an explanation. And so we seek one, and we must do so like Christians.
As Christians, we also believe there is more to the world than matter in motion. We may not believe God created the world and Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead, and then retreat into our best Richard Dawkins impersonation when we are confronted with continuing manifestations of the world as more than matter in motion.
So how do we engage in the task of giving an account for the world with the full range of our worldview in play?
If we’re going to recover obedient healing ministry in the Church — healing that is biblically faithful, and actually works, then we’re going to have to give some thought to how we do this. What follows are some largely random reflections about doing it.
We aren’t going to get very far sitting on our collective butts thinking holy thoughts. Theory without practice is a disease, and too many of us have it. The only antidote is getting out there and trying things. See what happens in the world God actually made, not just what we think might happen if we actually, you know, did stuff.
We need to be active seekers and curators of experience. We need to try things, and we need to remember what happened — especially if it was something weird that we have no category for. The experiences that are way off the map — those are the ones that help us revise our maps. We aren’t going to learn much if we ignore the weird stuff.
We need to be biblically faithful. If Scripture gives us reason to expect something that is outside our experience (like, say, miraculous healing), then we need to lean into that. If Scripture tells us not to do something (like calling on other gods), we need to obey that.
At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to what the Bible does, and does not, say. Our deeply disobedient tradition will tend to protect itself by calling things “unbiblical” that are necessary and proper, but simply not attested in Scripture. Like, say, a particular tune for Psalm 23. There’s nothing biblical about assigning that particular tune to that particular psalm — but we have to use some tune, and if this one works, why not?
We need to pay attention to what we don’t know about first-century practice. The things that were obvious to them are opaque to us, because nobody ever wrote them down — things like order of service, specific details of church governmental structure, tunes for the Psalms, the exact technique for laying on hands, the selection of an oil for anointing, and so on — none of these things has been preserved for us in Scripture. But we have to do something.
We need to become masters of good and necessary consequence. If we are called to lay on hands, then we must lay hands in some manner. If we are called to anoint with oil, then we’re going to use some kind of oil. There’s nothing essentially biblical about resting a hand over the heart or using bergamot oil, but is there anything wrong with it?
We need to become masters of observation. If one manner of laying on hands has an effect that another manner does not, we should notice. If one oil has an effect that another does not, we should notice. Growing in skill means noticing these things, and doing what works better.
We need to pay attention to our whole family tree. Not every branch of the Church has been as disobedient in this area as we have been. We can learn from the experiences of other saints, widely separated from us in time, space, and ecclesiology — but united to us in Christ.
We have to be ruthlessly honest students of what works. An approach with an honorable pedigree may fail because (a) it just doesn’t work, (b) it requires skill or character we don’t have, (c) we misunderstood, or (d) some other reason we didn’t think of. But if it doesn’t work for us now, it doesn’t work for us now. We might revisit it later, with a better understanding. In the meantime, we’d better try something else.