Struggling to Believe – Reflections on Healing

Sermon by Beth Miller Kraybill

  • Mark 9: 14-29

This gospel passage is one of many healing, or miracle, stories in the Christian Scriptures. I’m drawn to this story for several reasons that I will share with you this morning. But I need to state up front that I am ambivalent about the role of healing stories in Scripture, and the way that they are often used. I have many questions. What exactly am I to learn from passages such as this? Were the miracles described actually real; did they really happen? Did the oral tradition get the details right over time? Is there a message behind the event that is portrayed?

I have a keen interest in healing. I prepared for and am now employed in a ‘healing profession.’ I ask questions because healing as I have seen it is rarely in the realm of the miraculous. For many years my passion has been accompanying patients and families during the final phases of life. I have worked in some aspect of end-of-life care for over twenty-five years – as a hospice clinician, educator, and researcher. Seldom, if ever, have I seen healing include cure from the final stages of a terminal disease.

More recently, my work is as a nurse in neuroscience research. One aspect of this role is to facilitate research options for people living with epilepsy. I bear witness to the tremendous impact a seizure disorder has on an individual’s quality of life. I’m drawn to this passage in Mark because even though it is often cast as a story of a boy with a ‘demon,’ the modern day description of his disorder clinically mimics the disease of epilepsy. I ponder – what does the story of this epileptic boy have to say to someone currently living with a seizure disorder?

For many years now, I have struggled with the implications of the mandate in verse 23, that ‘all things can be done for the one who believes.’ The biblical healing stories allude to the presence of faith as a precursor to healing. In the Bible, the victim is not partially but fully healed. We read that the blind man sees, the deaf child hears, the hemorrhaging woman stops bleeding, and the dead person is ‘raised up’ to life. My personal experience challenges this reality. I have accompanied countless persons who truly wanted to be freed from their illnesses. What does it imply that the majority were not cured? What did Jesus mean when he repeatedly emphasized faith as the key to healing? If faith is required for healing, does the absence of healing mean that faith is absent or imperfect?

I am a cancer survivor. Eleven years ago I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. I was successfully treated and am alive and well because of medical and surgical intervention. I was healed, but certainly not as dramatically as the boy in Mark’s rendering. Quite frankly, I am not sure my faith had a lot to do with it. With my ability to cope? Absolutely. But, would I have died if I were not a person of faith? This is not my understanding of the work and presence of God. I am left to puzzle and wrestle with the intent of passages such as Mark 9.

I’ve long been concerned about how the messages of the synoptic authors can be mistaken, misused, and overlooked. In her book A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Methodist minister Kathy Black simply and eloquently discusses the damage that is evoked if we do not approach the healing passages with care and compassion. She describes how we tend to put people living with disability or illness into one of two categories: angel and therefore blessed, or devil and therefore cursed.

How many times have we–

  • Affirmed the perseverance and patience of the afflicted?
  • Remarked on the insights that are gleaned from living through struggle?
  • Or marveled at someone’s strength?
  • Or stated that we couldn’t possibly take care of a loved one in that way?

When we fail to acknowledge the pain, anger, and sadness that might accompany the reality of ‘non-healing,’ we subtly point out the ‘blessing’ of illness.

In contrast – how many times have you borne witness to the following –

  • It must have been something she did?
  • I don’t think he really wants to be healed.
  • Or, if the family really believed that she/he could be healed it would happen.

Black suggests that we too often interpret the healing passages in ways that implicitly and explicitly communicate that illness or disability is the result of a person’s lack of faith – in other words, we blame the victim. As a teen, I remember my confusion when a friend expressed the conviction that her step-mother’s inability to walk was the result of a lack of faith. The woman’s long-term paraplegia seemed to have no bearing on the situation. How often do sermons and testimonies instill such beliefs?

As I spent time with this scripture, I realize I didn’t seek to know the ‘truth’ so much as to glean insight and make peace with some of the personal unrest that was left in the wake of my many questions. Along with the father in the story, I too cried: ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’

We are an unbelieving world. But this is nothing new. The Hebrew Scriptures of Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Isaiah, describe prophetic grievances against unbelieving Israel and her people’s spiritual deafness, blindness, and muteness. The words of the prophet Isaiah echo throughout Mark and the other gospels: ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.’ Jesus lament’ about the ‘unbelieving generation’ also echoes – throughout time. What is the faith to which we are called that renders healing possible? Is it feasible that the truth claim of the text lies beyond the fact of physical healing?

Theories abound as to the role of the healing stories in Scripture. Scholar Antoinette Wire proposes that the role of the miracle story is to portray the unexpected breaking out of oppression . She suggests these scriptures honor the faith that wins out, rather than teaching that faith must be intact in the first place. It is the kerygma or good news belonging to the person whose request is realized that we celebrate. Again and again in these narratives we witness the power of risking a relationship with Jesus. Miracle stories are first and foremost accounts of this relationship. I’ve come to believe it is not so much that a person must stop and find faith prior to moving toward Jesus, but that faith results when he or she acts to let go of the circumstance which holds them back. It is in the letting go that transformation occurs.

I feel I have only scratched the surface of understanding, and yet I take comfort in seeing that this passage is not limited to the physical cure of a little boy. Rather, I see it as an expose’ on the power of faith and the struggle to believe. If I were to identify my own ‘truth claim’ based on Mark 9, it is this:

I believe that miracles and healing are about overcoming opposition (irregardless of its source), through the gift of relationship with Christ. This holds true for people who experience the miraculous at a spiritual or emotional level equally as for those who experience the miraculous physically .

I now hear and read the reports of healing in the gospels with different tools. I am less concerned about the faith status of the person seeking healing. I can look at the courage of the people who sought healing and see them bursting into the joy of faith rather than pondering whether they (or we) have enough faith to make the request. I believe with Wire, Black and others that we are called to exclaim the possibility of overcoming opposition in our lives. Overcoming will not always mean cure. We live within boundaries of acceptability, marginalization, blessing and curse. Recontextualizing healing means shifting the focus to the gift of faith, trust, and relationship with Jesus.

Finally, as I read the story of the boy living with epilepsy I am struck by the absence of his perspective on what transpired at the base of the mountain that day. The ‘demon spirit’ is the animating factor of the boy. There is no recognition of the boy as an individual, living, valuable human being. Was this event good news for him? The recipients throughout the miracle stories are typically nameless and voiceless. If I am to believe in Jesus’ performance of miracles, I need to assert that this experience had a profound effect on a person’s life – that the story continued beyond what was observed. An important part of my reading is in reclaiming the humanity of those who stood in need of healing. I close by offering this paraphrase of the story of the boy healed from epilepsy.

The Story of the Boy who was Cured from Epilepsy – as Told by Himself to His Teacher

The most amazing thing happened to me. You probably won’t believe it! It’s hard for me to believe it. Some people think I’m crazy – but I just have to talk about it. I can’t keep quiet.

So, you know how I lived with epilepsy since I was born? I used to have so many seizures I would lose track. My brain wouldn’t work right and I couldn’t talk. Every time it would happen, I would fall down, bite my tongue, wet my pants, jerk and shake and scare everyone half to death. I never knew when it was going to happen. I know my parents were scared that I would die. If I was near the cooking pot, I was at risk of falling into the fire. If I was in the street, I could get trampled. Once, I was walking with my Dad near the sea and I ended up having a seizure and falling right into the water. If he hadn’t been there I would have drowned.

But the funny thing was – I never remembered it after it was over. I would wake up, dreamlike, and sometimes there were a bunch of people around. Sometimes, it was just my parents. It was a relief when it was just them. I hated the waking up part. It was so embarrassing. Sometimes people looked absolutely disgusted, like I was a freak or something. Others would have this look of pity on their face, as though they couldn’t imagine what my parents were going through; how they possibly took care of me. To them, I’d want to say – helllooooo! I’m here too. I’m real in here. I can think. I have a brain! I have feelings. I wished so much I could say something.

And then, my Dad started hearing about this guy named Jesus. He was different than anyone else we had heard about. He talked a lot about God, the one God, and how believing in God was really important and could change your life. So one day, my dad tells me, ‘We’re going to go find this Jesus.’ We walked for a long time, and when we got to where he was supposed to be, he wasn’t there. Go figure. But a lot of his friends were, and they said they could help. And they tried, but they couldn’t. My dad was SO disappointed. He got into an argument with the guys and some other people around. Me – I was just sort of standing there. And then all of a sudden, everyone ran off toward a couple of people walking down the road. When they got closer, we heard them talking to this Jesus. My dad was so excited – this time it was him that about wet his pants! He told Jesus that his friends couldn’t help me…but that he was hoping Jesus could. Jesus seemed a little irked. He was like ‘ if I can?’ My dad hadn’t meant to offend him. He told him he really wanted to believe Jesus could help me – but he’d been disappointed so many times that it was hard. It was one of the few times I saw my Dad cry. He sort of welled up and said, ‘Please, Jesus, help me to believe you.’ I remember Jesus turning to me and then I guess I had a huge seizure. Great timing huh? But this time when I woke up, the most amazing thing happened. This guy Jesus was looking at me. For the first time EVER, I wasn’t embarrassed or ashamed. He just looked at me, held out his hand, and helped me stand up. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mouth and said, ‘thank you.’ And I never had a seizure again. ……. See – I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.

Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 20.