Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Questions on Healing

In the chapters of scripture that catalog spiritual gifts, healing is among them. Paul and Moroni refer to the "gifts of healing" (1 Corinthians 12:9; Moroni 10:11). Section 46 of the Doctrine & Covenants indicates that some have the gift of faith to be healed and others have the gift to heal (vv. 19-20).

Indeed, as a people we Mormons do believe in miracles. Many of us have seen them in our own lives – physical, take-up-thy-bed-and-walk miracles. We seek them, usually through priesthood blessings in which we ask holders of the priesthood to anoint us with consecrated oil and bless us with health. Sometimes (but not always) these blessings result in miraculous healings.

Of course the Savior established the pattern of miraculous healing, often reminding the beneficiaries that their faith had made them whole. And sometimes a person did not need direct contact with the Savior: touching his robe was enough for the woman with the issue of blood. And in the case of the child of the nobleman, the Savior healed him from a distance.

So, we believe in miracles, but we also believe in going to the doctor, taking our medicine, and doing what it takes to get well. We allow for the possibility that God may heal us miraculously, but generally we don't count on it. I wonder why that is.

Recently, I posted the following comment on a discussion of depression and spirituality over at the By Common Consent blog:

"While repentance indeed brings remission of sins, and it may bring spiritual blessings, it is not a cure for mental illness, nor is it a substitute for competent medical care."

The discussion was around depression and there was some discussion about the role of spiritual healing as a part of coping with depression. I intended my comment (and it was received) as gentle rebuke to those who might suggest that one might "repent" his way to good mental health.

I stand by my comment, but I wonder why I was so quick to react to comments that were not actually claiming what I assumed they were. It's true: my own experience is that depression and other mental illness has as much to do with chemistry as anything else, and that a regimen of medication and therapy combined are the best help in such cases.

By why write off the possibility of spiritual intervention?

In my family we've known our share of sickness. My mother lived with a medical condition that I also have that made us both susceptible to serious infection, and in her case the infections were very painful and required the visit of the doctor to our home with a shot of penicillin. (I now travel to my doctor's office for shots of rocephin). I remember my father's wanting to give my mother a blessing at the time of one of her infections. Mom's view was she should do all she could to get well first, and if that failed, then a blessing was in order, while Dad felt it didn't hurt to involve a priesthood blessing early on.

I tend toward my father's view: I prefer to seek a blessing for myself (or offer one in the case of family members) early on, and continue seeking medical assistance. In fact, in some cases the blessing I have given directs the recipient to seek medical attention and to follow doctors' orders.

While I do know some members of the church who prefer vitamin therapies to drugs, or don't get their kids vaccinated, these are individual choices, not driven by doctrinal (or even church cultural) norms. There is ample evidence that the church advocates using competent medial care.

Posted at the same discussion of depression is the following quotation from a CES fireside given by Elder Uchtdorf:

“Allow me to be clear: severe depression and thoughts of suicide are not trivial matters and should be taken seriously. I urge those who suffer from depression or thoughts of suicide to seek help from trusted professionals and Church leaders. If you know someone who is thinking of suicide, be a true friend and make sure he or she gets help. Please know that we love you and want you to be successful and happy in life.”

Similarly, the brethren advocate for medical intervention for physical illness. Those of us who are old enough remember many stories around the medical intervention in the life of President Kimball, sought on the advice and counsel of his brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve.

Sometimes we see the medical and spiritual share the stage, as in Elder Nelson's great account in the April 2003 General Conference of how he was inspired to repair the heart of a faithful patriarch.

What lessons are there for us in this discussion? Here are some thoughts I have. Perhaps your experience will suggest others:

1. Part of our stewardship is to care for our own bodies. We do well to do that through diet and exercise, and through seeking appropriate medical treatment for physical and mental health issues.

2. It is appropriate for us to seek the Lord's blessings, including when we are sick. Those blessings may come to us in the form of help from a doctor or in a more (or less) miraculous way.

Apart from those lessons, I have some personal biases:

First, lack of healing is not necessarily the result of lack of faith. (But does my suggesting it mean I lack faith?) The Lord teaches clearly that He has a timetable for us, and sometimes we have lessons to learn. I remember well the lesson Elder Maxwell learned from his illness at the end of his life. In his biography it records that he received a clear admonition that he had Leukemia so that he might minister more authentically to others who are sick. I can't imagine many who would suggest Elder Maxwell lacked faith.

Second (and this just ought to go without saying), illness, like any other personal hardship, is not necessarily an indicator of personal worthiness. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Many have taught that adversity comes into all our lives in different ways. (Similarly, freedom from illness is not necessarily a sign of righteousness, either.)

That said, where are you on the question of the relationship between reliance on the Lord and reliance on medical science?


  1. This is a great question for discussion-- I'm a little disappointed that there aren't more responses.

    It seems like I have heard leaders admonishing the people to keep taking their medicines, regardless of their faith or priesthood blessings. I've also heard priesthood leaders comment on how we don't use the priesthood as frequently as we could/should. I'm not sure which of these comments were personal vs. inspired views, but like you I tend to come down on both sides of this one.

    I do think the priesthood is often undervalued. Short of something disabling or life-threatening, I am shy about asking for a blessing. This is true even though I have seen some remarkable things result from blessings-- perhaps this is a lack of faith on my part. Coming from a family that didn't do blessings as a part of new school years or big events, it seems to me that the priesthood could be a more active part of our lives.

    That said, I don't think you'll ever hear a prophet or apostle counsel the members of the Church to dump out their medicines and rely on faith alone.

  2. I've thought a lot about this. One reason that the Savior healed was to show his power, of course. And I suspect another reason that healings have been required in the past is lack of medical assistance. So there may not be so much "need" in the physical sense. But there certainly is the need for priesthood blessings.

    I've also reflected that in my own life, I've had more blessings for guidance and comfort than for illness (though I've had those, too).

    I can't speak for the brethren about whether they might ask us to dump our medicines, but President Hinckley seemed to be a proponent of the notion that God helps those that help themselves. :-)

  3. Reading Elder Oaks' talk from General Conference last weekend made me think of your post. I really appreciated his clarity on the subject.

  4. Me, too! I had forgotten about this post (oops), but remembered another one over at Mormon Matters that got me started thinking about healing and blessings. Very powerful talk by Elder Oaks -- one I'm sure we'll be referencing for years to come! (We are fortunate to live when Apostles are on the earth!)