Worship services addressing illness and its corollary — the desire for possible healing — are a part of many churches’ routines. Healing services are one way that the parish can show it is taking seriously the following biblical observations and injunctions:
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16)
“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)
These passages may provide rationale for holding healing services: the involvement of parish leaders in the service, the ritual action of anointing the sick with oil, the power of prayer by persons of faith, and the connection between sin and illness (which is a truly complex topic that needs discussion, given the potential for misunderstandings that exists on this subject).
Ministers seeking to introduce healing services should anticipate a number of questions:
- Isn’t it enough simply to pray for the ill during the normally scheduled services?
- Are healing services within God’s will for those suffering from disease and illness?
- What if healing services yield no evidence of healing?
This latter concern raises the issue of teaching people to discern between “cure” and “healing.” The true question, however, is not if healing will happen but whether or not those in a healing service are being faithful to the ways God performs healing acts.
Healing in Scripture
In Scripture, we can find helpful responses to these questions; many passages attest to humanity’s pleas for healing and God’s varied responses to those prayers.
It is the preacher’s job to intuit and anticipate issues presented by the biblical texts to listeners, know how the texts raise new concerns, and how to help parishioners think through illness and healing theologically.
Texts featuring Jesus healing often do so in such a way that Jesus’ divinity is revealed, acknowledged by bystanders or feared by religious authorities.
Take Luke 9:37-43. Jesus’ mountaintop experience is concluded by a father who brings his son (“my only child”) to Jesus for healing. The disciples could not get rid of the spirit possessing the child — only Jesus could. He heals the boy by casting out the unclean spirit that possesses him. This narrative shows the range of Jesus’ healing work — no kind of illness (mental, physical or spiritual) lies outside Jesus’ healing work. This can be a word of encouragement to all who suffer.