What happens to faith when faith healing fails?

The Dallas Morning News/February 26, 2000
By Kimberly Winston

In 1981, Debbie Beall learned she had Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes that had spread to her bone marrow. Doctors said if chemotherapy didn't help, she would die. She was 21 years old.

After her tumor was removed and six months of chemo were behind her, she walked into her church and asked God to heal her. Tests indicated that some of the cancer remained. "I can't explain to you what I felt," Mrs. Beall, now 40, said of the night her pastor laid hands on her and anointed her with oil. "He prayed the most beautiful prayer for me and something went through my body. You just know for a minute that you have touched the hem of Jesus' garment. You just know it."

Debbie Beall walked out of church convinced she had been cured. Soon, her doctor found that the cancer was in remission. It never returned. Three years ago, the faith she believes cured her faced a stiffer challenge: She learned she had multiple sclerosis, a progressive degenerative disease of the central nervous system for which there is no cure. "Why would God have healed me of cancer and not this?" asked Mrs. Beall, who sometimes uses a cane to walk. "I don't understand it." Few do. There is no hotter crucible for faith than serious illness, a time when many people rely most heavily on their belief system to answer, Why me?

What is God's role in suffering and illness?

Dramatic healings are cause for comfort and celebration and, for some, affirmation of belief. But what happens to people's faith when they beseech God to heal them - clear their cancer, dissolve their tumor, restore their sight - only to find themselves still ill or stricken again? How does that challenge - and sometimes change - their belief in God? Debbie Beall said that despite her many questions, her second life-threatening illness has enriched and strengthened her faith. "I am not bitter," she said, though she admits some family members are. "I was shocked at first. I am not going to tell you I wasn't. But I don't believe God put cancer on me or put MS on me. I believe we are born into sin and sickness and that God can heal. [My illnesses] were for a reason, though I may not understand that reason until I die and go to heaven and ask God why."

Disillusioned faith

Every religion has a tradition of seeking divine help for serious illness. Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus make pilgrimages to holy sites and shrines and perform special rituals. Jews have prayers for healing, and Jewish tradition places God as an active participant in daily life, there to be asked for help when needed.

But it is in the Christian tradition that faith healing is most fully illustrated. The Gospels are sprinkled with stories of Jesus' power to heal the blind, the lame, the ill and even raise the dead. In the Catholic Church, this has evolved to a belief in holy people's ability to perform miracles - a requirement for canonization. Some Protestants, most notably in the evangelical and charismatic Pentecostal traditions, believe God can and does work healing miracles every day.

Beth Young of Orlando, Fla., once hoped so. Born with a deformed pelvis, she was unable to walk until she was 2 and has always swayed with a limp. She was raised in a Christian Scientist family, and the only treatment she received was from a church practitioner, a consecrated church member who prays for healing. Even as she grew older and her condition worsened, she said, she continued to pray to a God she believed would cure her. During her freshman year in college, her mother died of untreated ovarian cancer. A few years later, confronted with mounting pain and increased lack of mobility, Ms. Young defied her Christian Science beliefs and went to a

doctor. The diagnosis was disjointed hips, a condition she was born with that is generally treatable in infants. She said doctors told her that surgery, as an adult, would be risky.

The day she left the doctor's office was the last day she set foot inside a Christian Science church.

"I don't know if I do believe in God, frankly, because I have never seen any proof that he exists," said Ms. Young, now an English professor at the University of Central Florida. "Because the evidence I looked for in my religion was healing, and I never saw any healing for anybody." The Christian Science church is not alone in recognizing faith healing. When the church was established in 1879, faith healing was firmly rooted in the American religious landscape.

Dr. Nancy Hardesty, professor of religion at Clemson University, has traced the emergence of modern Christian faith healing to a 19th-century notion of "the prayer of faith" - praying that a suffering person could pray with sufficient strength to receive healing.

"The power lay with the sick person," Dr. Hardesty said. "The transition came with Pentecostalism, where the healing gift was bestowed on a healer. It became external to the sick person." Now healing is most closely associated with the Pentecostal movement, a form of evangelical Christianity that recognizes spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophesying and healing. It became particularly prominent through the televised ministry of Oral Roberts.

Starting in the 1950s, "Oral took this phenomenon into the living rooms of people all over the country," said Dr. David E. Harrell, professor of history at Auburn University and author of several books on Pentecostals and revival. "After 20 years, they dispersed that form of faith across all forms of American religion."

While the concept of faith healing is well-known, it is not without controversy. Some, such as Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas, cite evidence of healers taking financial advantage of the ill. Dr. William Martin, a professor of the sociology of religion at Rice University, estimates that he has witnessed more than 1,000 Christian "healings," but has never seen one that ultimately checked out. "Now, that said, I do not believe all people with healing ministries are fakers," Dr. Martin said. "Whether you believe a miracle can happen or not, it is clearly the case that that the human body is capable of remarkable self-healing, of remarkable recuperation."

While faith healing is often questioned, the power of faith and intercessory prayer to comfort and strengthen the sick is widely recognized. Over the past decade, medical professionals have begun to embrace the idea that faith and health can be related. According to the National Institute for Health Research, half of the nation's 125 accredited medical schools routinely instruct medical students on the role faith can play in patients' health.

Even a patient's belief that he or she will improve - quite apart from religious belief - can help. That's why doctors give placebo treatments to some patients in clinical studies: The mere suggestion that they'll get better can make them so.

The nation's belief in the curing power of faith appears to be strong, too. Four years ago Time magazine estimated that Americans spend $30 billion a year on alternative therapists and faith healers. In a Time/CNN survey the same year, 77 percent said they believed that God sometimes intervenes to cure people who have a serious illness, and 73 percent said they believed praying for someone could cure their illness.

Miracles unrecognized

But Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, warns that the seriously ill must make a distinction between asking God to cure them and asking God to heal them. And that may require a total shift in the way one thinks of God, moving from the idea of an all-powerful being who can bestow or withhold his care, to an all-loving being who will endow the power to cope.

"Sometimes, we don't notice the miracle we actually get," Rabbi Kushner said. "We may ask God to take the tumor away, but the actual miracle may be that we get the resources to live with that tumor." That's what happened to Doug Mc-Knight of Fort Worthwhen he learned he had multiple sclerosis. For two years, he slumped in and out of depression as his symptoms accelerated.

"I attributed my disaster to God and could not understand why he was supposedly punishing me so harshly when I had been a relatively good man," he wrote in a letter at the time. As Mr. McKnight's illness progressed, he and his wife, Pam, asked eight elders from the Richland Hills Church of Christ to lay hands on him and anoint him with oil. Touching his afflicted legs and arms, they asked God to heal him.

Physically, there was no change, and Mr. McKnight was soon using a wheel-chair. Later, the church held a 24-hour prayer circle made up of 100 people.

Doug did receive healing, but it was not physical. "I have come to realize that God is the source of whatever strength I have," he wrote before he died in 1998. "I am now at least heading toward, rather than away, from Him."

Pam McKnight said watching her husband hang on to his faith through 17 years of slow death deeply influenced her own relationship with God. Last year, she became a minister at Richland Hills, and now she helps other single parents, like herself.

"There was a time when I was laying on the floor, pounding and yelling at God for allowing this to happen to my family," she said. "I don't know how I kept my faith but God does not promise us healthy bodies.

"They are earthen vessels, and they get cracked. We all die. And sometimes, that is the ultimate healing. I know it was for Doug." Mary Elizabeth Turk's illness also challenged and strengthened her family's faith.

Ten years ago, at age 65, she became so weak she couldn't get out of bed, but she refused to see a doctor. She believed that Robert Tilton, the television evangelist who was then based in Dallas, had promised to heal her. She told family members that if she sent him $1,000, he was going to ask God to take away whatever ailed her.

"Robert Tilton somehow convinced her that if she remained steadfast in her stance, this would be an extreme show of faith," said her daughter, Vicki Crenshaw, a Dallas teacher. "And the more extreme the show of faith, the more wonderful the miracle."

What ailed her was untreated colon cancer that soon had her screaming in pain. When her mother lost consciousness, Mrs. Crenshaw rushed her to the hospital. Mrs. Turk had emergency surgery, but the cancer had metastasized to her liver.

Her condition was stabilized. And so was her faith in God. "She inspired people with her faith so much to the point that doctors and nurses would come by to pray with her," Mrs. Crenshaw said. "On the one hand, you can see the erroneous horror of the whole thing, but on the other you see someone who was so centered and so faith-based - she just really changed my life."

After filing a lawsuit against Mr. Tilton on her mother's behalf - it was settled out of court for $2,000 with no admission of fault - Mrs. Crenshaw considered entering the ministry. In the end, she decided to teach under-privileged children.

"That is my ministry," she said. "I do all of that on a faith-based level, driven, I think, by my mom's faith. That is how her faith impacted me." Meanwhile, Beth Young, the former Christian Scientist, is still trying to work out the many ways her former belief in faith healing has touched her. She wrestles with what she will tell her first child, due in May, about God. And she wishes she still believed in God, if just for the relief prayer once brought her.

"I think I would be happier," she said. "I think it is kind of like when you were a kid and you fell asleep in the back of the car while your parents were driving. Wouldn't it be great to feel that way again? But I've got to drive now."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.