What is healing?

//Because I have a short attention span, I assume others do, too, so I try to use a different color text for “main ideas.


It’s probably a bit strange that after four years of medical school, I’m not sure what “healing” actually means, or that medicine (as a field) is even about healing. Treating a disease or pathology is not the same as healing a person. The absence of disease is…well, the absence of disease, not necessarily health. We don’t cure cancer– we usually just cut off the offending organ or treat it with radiation/chemo and hope it doesn’t come back elsewhere. Many, if not most, diseases can’t be cured (think of chronic conditions like COPD, heart failure, schizophrenia, diabetes, etc.) – even with the best medical treatments, their effects can only be slowed or minimized, though they all eventually result in the inevitable progression of disease. Even if the best medicine can “cure,” I would venture to say that only the mildest of infections can probably be “cured” completely, and that “curing” just means returning you to baseline.

Which makes it that much more astounding that Jesus healed the sick and in turn commanded his disciples in Matthew 10:8 to heal the sick.

What does it mean that He healed, that we are supposed to heal and be healers?

Though he was addressing seminary students in the excerpts below, Paul Tillich’s thoughts have also been helpful for me as a soon-to-be physician, as his reflections on health and sickness appropriately grasp the comprehensiveness and complexity inherent in disease and health.

1) Health is about unity – the wholeness and integration of body, mind, and spirit – and shalom (this comprehensive flourishing) is the ideal. Let’s not mistake the absence of disease for health, because its absence could just mean we’ve discarded the parts of us that have the potential for disease, which are also the parts of us that have the greatest potential for life. I see this as particularly true in mental health, when the best treatment can get rid of the problem without having addressed the root of the issue (e.g. antidepressants that make you not depressed, but is to the point to blunt emotions so that one is non-suicidal, or to work with the patient to understand how to deal with pain in a meaningful way and still find joy?)

Health is not the lack of divergent trends in our bodily or mental or spiritual life, but the power to keep them united. And healing is the act of reuniting them after the disruption of their unity. “Heal the sick” means — help them to regain their lost unity without depriving them of their abundance, without throwing them into a poverty of life perhaps by their own consent.

2) People in medicine often talk about how increasing specialization (to keep up with unmanageable amounts of information) creates “siloes” that compartmentalize providers into only being able to treat very specific problems.

Take, for example, diabetes, one of the most common problems in the US. If you have diabetes, you probably have an endocrinologist to manage your insulin schedule, an ophthalmologist to check out potential diabetic retinopathy, a nephrologist to make sure your kidneys aren’t failing, and a cardiologist and/or neurologist if you’ve experienced any heart attacks or strokes as a result of that diabetes. And a PCP (primary care provider) to coordinate all of that. Our very training implies that we are to stay within our areas of “expertise,” and that expertise is limited to only certain organs, which in turn can cause us to reduce our patients to organs.

But health means wholeness, and shalom is about individuals, communities, and systems – even (or especially) in medicine. And that ultimately sickness has a spiritual component in that all illness is a reflection of sin, or separation (maybe the sin of nature, but sin nonetheless.) That is why in the stories of healing in the Word, it is never just an individual’s physical healing alone, but a restoration to one’s community (as in Matthew 8, when the fever leaves, she prepares a meal for others) and spiritual healing (e.g. in Luke 5, when Jesus heals the paralytic, spiritual healing (“your sins are forgiven”) is closely linked with physical healing (“rise and walk”), and the response of the paralytic is not just physical (“he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home,”) but also notably spiritual (“he went home glorifying God”)).

And you have learned that disease that seems bodily may be mental at root, and that a disease that seems individual may be social at the same time, and that you cannot heal individuals without liberating them from the social demons that have contributed to their sickness. Beyond this, you may have become aware of the fact that both physical and mental, individual and social, illness is a consequence of the estrangement of man’s spirit from the divine Spirit, and that no sickness can be healed nor any demon cast out without the reunion of the human spirit with the divine Spirit.

3) Though health and healing are huge concepts, ones that I still don’t fully understand, this at least is true: we know that our God is Jehovah-Rophi, the Lord who heals (Exodus 15:26), and that the real illness and diseases that we ought to fear (i.e. not the bodily ones) have been borne by Christ, who took them upon Himself.

 You have a glimpse of what can heal ultimately, of him in Whom God made manifest His power over demons and disease, of him who represents the healing power that is in the world, and sustains the world and lifts it up to God.



One thought on “What is healing?”

  1. Great post. It’s so easy to fall into the routine of just “firefighting” diseases, keeping the illnesses at bay and scoffing at the concept of “holistic health” as an idealistic daydream. It’s easy to fall into the Gnostic view of bodies as inferior and transient vessels that need to be quickly discarded instead of having an intrinsically valuable place. Good thoughts!

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