A new BBC documentary has thrown faith healing into the spotlight.
Miracle Hands follows self-confessed "faith healer" John Mellor as he interacts with Emily Yates - a Christian woman with Cerebral Palsy. It's worth a watch - if you’ve got a strong stomach!
A quick internet search of John Mellor leads you to a glossy brand and plenty of Youtube videos where you can apparently watch miracles taking place. There is, of course, a way to donate money to buy a miracle for yourself too!
Emily exposes more than the potential cash-cow of exploiting sick people for money with false promises. The thing that worries her (and me, as a fellow wheelchair user), is the "prescription" approach to this ministry that Mellor presents as infallible in dangerous ways. The way he talks about sickness and sin is a big problem too.
When Mellor meets and prays for Emily, I almost couldn’t watch as she was hoisted, held on her feet and has her words twisted all so he could tell people that she’s been healed of pain...pain which wasn’t there in the first place! Publicly and without cynicism, Emily does a grand job of trying to not let him off the hook. I like her choice of expletive to camera when he isn’t within earshot. She takes no prisoners, and nor should she. I too have been on the pitying yet bullying end of so called “healing prayer”.
Like many people who suffer from a long-term illness, I've had lots of people pray for my healing. I was taught in a church like the one that Emily visits, that daily declarations of biblical words like “I will not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord” would lead to miracles. If you aren’t cured, then you didn’t do it right; or maybe you haven’t really repented of sin. This is profoundly damaging - a complete house of cards, which treats our holy scriptures as incantations rather than sacred stories of timeless truths.
In the early years I too reached for physical healing by taking any advice I could find - including the certainties presented by people like Mellor. He’s not alone in teaching that the Bible, when read properly, offers the certainty of cure. The theology becomes: If you aren’t cured, then you didn’t do it right. This is profoundly damaging.
We need to state the bleedin' obvious here - if God wanted to heal all bodies, then clergy like me would exclusively work in hospitals!
Even Lazarus, who Jesus rose from the dead, would later die. We don’t say it enough but we should because it leads us towards a deeper, lasting healing - that of our whole selves, our whole lives.
"Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest". "In this life you shall have trouble, but take heart for I have overcome the world". These are words I now take deep into my life, and which allow me to surrender all that I am to God. These are the words of Christ that I spend my life sharing. What a contrast this is to striving to meet the faith demands of Mellor’s God.
My own journey to healing (see my Youtube channel) ironically was found in finally accepting my limitations. To be human is to be limited. What a relief.
In the documentary, Emily movingly describes her cerebral palsy as part of her identity. My chronic pain is now part of mine. Some might say that God is giving us the short end of the stick. But perhaps not. Many "disabled" people would not choose to have "a-typical" bodies - there are better things, which Jesus does offer, which don’t depend on how strenuously we strive.
When I was able-bodied I was a bit of a control freak. I am much nicer now I can’t run my world. The gifts we are given by God vary, but none of them should lead us to complacent forgetfulness of our need to live lives in communion with God and one another. My "disability" really helps you avoid that particular pitfall. That said, no-one could have told me that until I was ready to hear it.
Our reflex to flee pain and our own suffering is also God-given. It’s this that Mellor and his ilk exploit.
Healing isn’t just about me and my needs today. We all need it, all the time and we can only find healing in community with other limited humans. It’s only in community that we find God, whose miracles are not easily watched and paid for online.
The reason that God’s rest and restoration is such a healing offer is because life is hard work! But we are not yet home. In some mysterious way, our lives, complete with struggles, are the journey and not the destination; like the proverbial butterfly wrestling out of the cocoon, somehow preparing us for our flight. It is a demanding and beautiful paradox that only as our bodies die, our healing is complete. Mellor and his like, have got nothing to offer Emily to compare with that.
Rev Zoe Heming is a priest in Market Drayton. She is passionate about building an inclusive church of England. She is also a part-time wheelchair user.