If you asked for healing at your church and the vicar picked up some mud, spat on it and rubbed it on your face, I wonder if you 'd be very happy? In our world, a facial mud-pack is more the work of a beautician, than a pastor. And we might want to remind a spitting minister of some basic principles of hygiene.

We live in a very different world from Jesus, for there is no hint of a surprised reaction when Jesus applied mud and spit to a blind man's face. It 's not that Jesus was so wacky he got away with anything. On the contrary,this was a standard healing practice. Jesus provided the regular medical treatment, and then went beyond it. It was like saying, "You need a special eye cream, but I will also pray for you."

Anointing with oil similarly combined the medicinal and the spiritual. Everyone understood olive oil to have remarkable properties. It was the universal liquid of the Mediterranean world: you used to it light your home and cook your food, rubbed it into your skin as a lotion, and applied it as a medicine.

To anoint someone with oil was to provide a standard medical treatment. Among the Jews, oil was symbolic of the soothing balm of God, that is the Holy Spirit. Therefore, when the first Christians anointed with oil, they combined the application of a medicinal liquid with prayer for spiritual healing.

The early church knew nothing of the later polarisation between religion and science, between healing and medicine. In part that was because medicine was still rudimentary, a hit and miss affair shrouded with quackery and superstition. Nonetheless, the first Christians inhabited what we might call an integrated world, in which medicine and prayer were partners, not rivals. It was not difficult for them to accept that God brings healing in three complementary ways: the inbuilt healing processes of creation, seen in a grazed knee developing a scab, or the natural curative properties of a herbal remedy; the healing processes of medicine, thanks to the careful study of diseases and their treatments; and spontaneous healing as a result of prayer.

In our world, some Christians trust the doctor but are not sure about prayer;others are enthusiastic about prayer but wary of the doctor. For some,prayer is the last resort,for others it's a visit to the doctor that's put off as long as possible. But these are unnecessary choices. Someone once asked, "When you get a headache, do you reach first for paracetamol or prayer?" It 's perfectly sensible to do both, no matter which you do first, because the same healing power of God is at work through paracetamol and prayer. We need to move away from a false dualism, a false opposition between the so-called secular and sacred, and rediscover the holistic approach that the Jews of the O.T. understood so well.

Myths about New Testament healing

It 's tempting to paint a romantic picture of the first Christians that is totally unreal. Rather than seeing through a glass darkly, struggling with moments of doubt, or finding relationships difficult, we are tempted to think of the early church as Word-instructed, Spirit-empowered, advancing mightily across the Roman Empire. I wish it were that simple.

Careful examination of the New Testament reveals Christians who didn 't understand Gospel principles very clearly, faced disappointments and struggles just as we do, and often found it difficult to get along. When we turn to healing, we can identify four myths that need to be exploded.

1. Everyone got healed

The first impression of the New Testament is that healing enjoyed a 100% success rate.This has inspired some preachers to stir up their congregation to pray for similar results. But, and I cannot emphasise this too strongly, there is no evidence in the New Testament that everyone got healed. To be sure, every time someone came to Jesus, they were healed. But Jesus travelled from village to village around Galilee. After Jesus moved on, people would inevitably get sick without the wonder worker present to bring them immediate healing. What 's more,in Nazareth we are told that Jesus 'ministry was limited,which suggests that,while great healings were performed by the Messiah,a great deal of sickness was left untreated.
Turning to the followers of Jesus,we cannot ignore the wonderful healings in the book of Acts. Such ministries were clearly integral to the glorious works of Christ and his church. But we also read of Christians who were martyred and not raised from the dead. In Paul 's letters we read of Epaphroditus, who was very ill and nearly died (Philippians 2:27), of Timothy, who was recommended a regular intake of wine for his weak stomach (1 Timothy 5:23), rather than instantaneous healing through prayer, and of Paul himself,who had to endure his "thorn in the flesh " which was not taken from him, despite repeated prayer (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). We are not at liberty to condemn these Christians, as if their experiences of sickness and suffering prove they had fallen away from the sublime spiritual power of their first days of faith. The plain reality is that Christian healing ministries never did mean an end to all sickness and suffering.

2. Healings were unambiguous

It 's not difficult to find ambiguity in healings today. Someone testifies to healing and others demand proof. Maybe it 's psychosomatic, a stress induced symptom that has been allayed. Maybe it 's a remission, but later the illness will re-awaken. Or maybe,the more cynical suggest, it's all a con, in which the preacher was deceived by those pretending to be sick, or the preacher hyped up the sick who were deluded into denying their symptoms, or the preacher and the pretend sick managed to fool an unsuspecting congregation.
When God healed remarkably through the ministry of Jesus,some saw supernatural love in action, while others 'first instinct was to explain everything away. Some came to faith, some were filled with wonder, while others muttered about the rising popularity of Jesus and even suggested that his ministry was somehow demonic. Healings have always produced ambiguous results and contradictory interpretations.

3. Healings guarantee conversions

To hear some people talk,if the church were strong in healing ministries,evangelistic success would be assured. Once again,the New Testament offers us more complex prospects. Jesus 'healing ministry certainly produced a crowd of the needy and the enquiring. But when he spelt out the message of true discipleship, many melted away (John 6:66).
There is no direct connection in the Gospels between successful healings and huge numbers of conversions. Just look at Jesus: after three years of public ministry, he was crucified. In Jesus' ministry,therefore, healing the sick led quickly not to popularity and conversions but to rejection and crucifixion.

4. Works of power were key to successful mission

In the book of Acts,sometimes healing ministry precedes evangelistic preaching, for example at the Beautiful Gate. At other times, signs and wonders follow proclamation. But there is never an attempt to develop a standard evangelistic campaign: enter a city, heal the sick, convert the masses, plant a mega-church, move onto the next city.

On Paul's first missionary journey, in Cyprus he has to face a court sorcerer in a spiritual power encounter. The sorcerer is struck blind,the proconsul is converted and the Gospel advances in power. This might suggest a three step plan with guaranteed results, but Paul never adopted it. The next place he preached was Pamphpylia and he was expelled from the region;from the next he fled under threat of stoning; and in the next he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 13). So why can 't Paul always overpower his persecutors with spiritual authority? Has he fallen away and lost the anointing? Has he forgotten what happened on Cyprus? Such explanations are ridiculous.

Because Paul seeks to follow the immediate promptings of God in his life, he has to go with the flow of the unexpected.The God of supernatural power and healing is also the God of sovereign mystery. If God could be totally tied down, Paul could develop an evangelistic strategy with guaranteed results.

Because God remains mysterious and free, sometimes Paul will experience power, sometimes suffering. Sometimes the believers are miraculously freed from prison; sometimes they remain in chains, facing Roman execution. Sometimes people will be healed dramatically; sometimes they will have to keep taking the medicine - like Timothy 's wine - for the rest of their lives.

Healing signs

Healing in the ministry of Jesus always points beyond itself. John describes the healings as signs,and we can identify five levels of symbolic meaning:

  1. They are signs of God 's love in action. For people in need, God comes in love. Not just in theory, but with the power to release them from bondage to their sickness.
  2. They are signs that the sick are not forgotten. Long-term sickness can become a desperately lonely experience, cut off from many normal opportunities of life. The healing power of Jesus came as a sign that everyone is special to God.
  3. They are signs of love confronting sickness.Healing is always a confrontation with evil, a rejection of the power of sickness to constrain the life of the afflicted.
  4. They are signs of God 's kingdom. Throughout the gospels, Jesus invites people to recognise that God 's ruling presence is breaking out among them. Not constricted to the temple or the highly religious, God is willing to be immersed in the everyday world of ordinary people.
  5. They are signs that Jesus is Lord. Jesus' parables and healing ministry both carry the same message: he not only proclaims the Kingdom of God, he is the Kingdom Bringer.

When Jesus healed people unconditionally,he provided an immediate, personal benefit. But he also offered, through the sign of healing, an eternal and spiritual opportunity and an invitation to respond with living faith. Physical healing is therefore a wonderful provision of God, but not Jesus' ultimate concern. It would bring little profit to enjoy physical healing but miss out on eternal life.

Healing teams

For healing to be practised in a local church, a ministry team is always advisable, reducing the risk and demands of relying too heavily on any one individual. The letter of James emphasises the need to request healing (James 5:14). This suggests that prayer for healing should never be imposed upon those not seeking it. It also rejects the assumption of some Christians that church leaders should know without being told whenever anyone is sick!

Prayer for healing can be either private or public. In private, a church needs to agree appropriate safeguards to avoid misunderstandings, rumours and worse. In public,we need to ensure that those receiving prayer are duly protected. At times Jesus allowed onlookers as he prayed. At times he took the sick person to one side. This suggests that Jesus was attentive to the temperament of the particular individual, and made sure their needs came first.

There is, of course, never a hint of anyone being exploited by Jesus,turned into a public exhibition or a religious stunt.

Healing ministry needs to convey that we are loved by God and by those praying for us.A church needs to provide a safe environment, in which people feel able to bring their personal needs for prayer, secure in the knowledge that they will be accepted and that confidentiality is water-tight. We also need to agree our local "house style ", so that people know the ways of praying for healing that are acceptable. And if someone becomes coercive or manipulative, responsible church leaders will have no option but to intervene.

Above all, prayer for healing needs to be integrated with other dimensions of living faith and pastoral care. Communion is a natural context for prayer for healing. As we receive the soul medicine of the bread and wine, we encounter the suffering Christ, who comes alongside those who suffer,and also the risen Christ, who brings healing and the hope of resurrection life. As to pastoral care, the person who requests prayer for healing may well need continuing personal support, practical help or one to one counselling.

Perhaps the most healing thing of all, if not for our bodies then for our spirits, is to cultivate a church community that is truly a safe place,where we can strengthen one another in mutual acceptance, encouragement and love. If our relationships fail to provide a healing environment, we should not expect much from our prayers.