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Do you put faith in a faith healer?

You are a minister. A parishioner who suffers from physical ailments and depression comes to you with joyous news about how a local faith healer has miraculously cured some of her symptoms. You have deep suspicions about the faith healer and fear the parishioner’s long-term well-being is at risk. What do you do?

By Bob Giuliano and Connie denBok

Author's photo
Rev. Bob Giuliano is a retired minister who lives in Owen Sound, Ont.

Physical ailments cause depression, and depression causes physical ailments. I have been working with this parishioner on these struggles for some time. Now she has found some relief. Is this a part of her illness? The manic side of her depression? I have to be aware of the dangers inherent in this new-found joy.

I can’t protect my people from life, which includes some bad religion. They have to risk and learn. Me too. I don’t like this faith healer for two reasons: first, he is always so sure of himself; and second, I am not. I have prayed many times to have the gift of healing. God has been silent. When this healer comes around, he makes me angry.

I’m anxious about my parishioner’s experience of miraculous cure, and at the same time, I’m glad for her. Author Dr. Bernie Siegel has alerted the medical profession to the power of hope, saying, “There is no such thing as false hope!”

Hope has a power to heal that is mysterious and surprisingly effective in some folks. Even if I am suspicious of the healer, I do not wish to dash this woman’s hope. I want to hope along with her, to encourage her gratitude. I need to give thanks too, and walk with her on the lighthearted side as I have on the side of her struggles.

The Apostle Paul said that joy is the stumbling block to faith; the sheer joy of the Gospel makes us suspicious and fearful.

But joy is a gift from God — and it doesn’t have to come with healing. Joy comes in the love of God in the midst of our suffering. When there appears to be nothing left to hope in, God gives joy to our hearts without warning.

It is important for me to safeguard God’s gift of joy, even when the symptoms of illness are strong and discouraging. I will walk along with my parishioner and respond as her life changes and our faith grows.

In our church, we routinely pray for the sick and have often seen symptoms and even serious illness abate. But we have no faith healers among us, just modest church folk who anoint the sick with oil and lay hands in prayer as Christians have done for two millennia in imitation of Jesus. God’s kingdom breaking into broken hearts and bodies is part of routine health care, like a healthy diet, regular exercise and good medical attention. If the term “faith healer” makes me uneasy, it’s not because I regard wellness as the sole domain of hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

I will ask my parishioner a few questions before jumping to conclusions: Does this practitioner claim supernatural powers? Is the healer’s approach holistic, allowing God to work through medical technology alongside spiritual care? Is there pressure on my parishioner to hand over money or property? Are emotional or sexual boundaries being compromised? Is she being isolated from family or community? Is the remission of symptoms sustained and verifiable by her physician?

Unfortunately, I have good reason to suspect this “faith healer.” My parishioner’s isolation during her illness has made her vulnerable. But even if I were willing to pop her balloon of hope, rationality isn’t her strong suit just now. Objective evidence must be supplemented with what she rightly craves: persons of faith who express genuine interest in her well-being, who will listen, pray and explore healthy alternatives with her as she seeks wholeness.

As for the faith healer, I’m going to initiate a friendly pastoral visit, just to let him know I am observing and will look out for my parishioner. Wolves are less bold when they know a shepherd is paying attention.

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