Prayer and Healing

by Donna Whitney

What is happening when we pray for another person? What exactly are we praying for when we pray for someone who is ill to be healed? Does prayer ever inform God of something that God does not already know? Does prayer ever change God’s “mind” or alter God’s plans or intentions for us? What does prayer have to do with healing?

In his book Divine Worship and Human Healing, Bruce T. Morrill notes that there is a sharp difference between the biomedical view of disease that exists in much of the Western world and the “folk” understanding of illness that prevailed in the 1st-century world of Jesus and still prevails in most cultures around the globe today. The biomedical view confines disease to an individual body and focuses on the elusive thing we call cure, which happens in, at best, twenty percent of cases of serious illness. The folk understanding, however, locates illness in the social body, the ecclesial body and even the cosmic body as well as in the individual body, because the folk understanding of illness is rooted in the fundamental interconnectedness of human beings and of all of life. The African articulation of this view is Ubuntu, which means “I am because we are; we are because I am.” The goal of folk medicine is not cure, but healing. Healing means reaching a state in which one again finds meaning in life and is restored to an accepted place in society. (Recall that in ancient Palestine, many forms of illness were interpreted as sin and relegated those who suffered to a marginalized place in society. Think, too of the similar ways in which illness functions in 21st-century America. The AIDS epidemic is an example.)

Consider the healing stories in the Gospels. The people who came or who were brought to Jesus for healing were people whose illness placed them outside of accepted society. The ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) and the woman with the issue of blood Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-47) are examples. The individual afflicted persons were harmed by being marginalized, but Jesus saw that society itself was ill until its members were restored. In the example of the bent over woman (Luke 13:10-17), it seems clear that the congregation that ignored her and her value as a human being was at least as “bent over” as the woman herself.

So where does prayer fit into healing? Instead of viewing intercessory prayer as a way of bending God’s will to our own, Morrill sees prayer as healing. Morrill says, “…healing for Luke is fundamentally about a change of heart, a conversion in faith, a transformed state of being in relation to Christ.”[1] This is the transformation that can come about in prayer – not a change in God’s heart, but in our own.

[1] Bruce T. Morrill, Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2009), 92.

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