“The Lord has brought forth medicinal herbs from the ground, and no one sensible will despise them… He has also given some people knowledge, so that they may draw credit from his mighty works.” — Sirach 38:4, 6, NJB
Okay, so before we discuss the topic of medical and spiritual healing for today’s faithful people, we need a brief history lesson!
“Sirach? What in the world is Sirach?”
This is the question I imagine anyone asking who hasn’t been Catholic, Anglican, or subject to any kind of seminary education. Sirach, otherwise known as Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, is a biblical book that you won’t find in most popular Bibles you pick up today. This is because the standard Protestant canon of the Bible only has the 66 inspired texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. Only scholarly (NRSV, older ESV, RSV) or Catholic (JB, NAB, NJB, Douay-Rheims) Bibles include the Greek Old Testament texts referred to commonly as the “Apocrypha,” or, more accurately, the “Deuterocanon.”
When Alexander the Great’s empire was expanding in the 4th Century BCE, many Jews dispersed throughout that empire began to speak Greek. Makes sense, right? With that being the case, fewer and fewer people could read or understand the Hebrew Bible. This problem was addressed by scholars who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. This Greek translation included all of the books we know today, from Genesis to Malachi, as the Old Testament, but it also included other books, like Sirach, that were written by faithful Jews and used for spiritual edification.
Protestants (in this sense, meaning most non-Catholics) have had an issue with these texts, all too often because the Catholic Church uses them. Interestingly enough, however, the King James Bible of 1611 originally contained these texts! This is because those in-between Protestantism and Catholicism (Anglicans) believed these texts were secondary to the 66 standard books, but still helpful. For more on this, check out the Articles of Religion from the Episcopal/Anglican Church as they pertain to the Holy Scriptures here.
With all that said, there are good reasons for Christians to read and use the Deuterocanon, whether they are Catholic or not. These books contain historical texts that set the tone for the world Jesus emerged in (1,2 Maccabees), along with beautiful insights into the love and nature of God (Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach). Remember, they were written by faithful Jews, just like most of the other 66 books of the Christian Bible!
Assuming I haven’t bored you to death, let’s get to the point of this post, which is to comment on the concept of healing by spiritual means as opposed to medical means or vice versa. There are many faithful people in this world who struggle with the nature of God’s work in the world, specifically, how God heals those who are sick or afflicted. Some groups believe that all one needs to be healed is faith. Pray, pray, and pray some more. Eventually, they reason, you will either be healed or you will not, depending on God’s will. It is hard to argue with that, considering Jesus does talk about being healed because of their faith (Mark 5:34, Luke 17:19, Matthew 8:10-13, etc.). James recommends that those who are sick “should send for the elders of the church” to pray over them because “the prayer of faith will save the sick person” (5:14-15). There are many biblical instances of people being healed by faith.
The problem, however, arises when this reliance on faith-healing becomes exclusive. This may not be a problem for the common cold, flu, headaches, and other afflictions that eventually resolve themselves. It becomes a major issue when this same exclusivity is applied to cancer, trauma, and chronic conditions that can inhibit or even end one’s life. Faith, prayer, and positive thinking have positive medical benefits much of the time. They can make us feel great, and there is real value in this, but what if you’re feeling great as some form of cancer slowly grows and grows until it’s too late? What if you’re feeling great until that blood transfusion you refused doesn’t kick in and things start going dark? What if this asthma attack is the last one, not because of successful treatment and management, but because praying isn’t opening up your airways for the “nth” time?
You see what I mean?
Faith healing is great and possible until it isn’t. This is, of course, assuming that our understanding of faith healing is limited to some televangelist smacking you, parents refusing medical care, and other literal and exclusive manifestations of narrow-minded adherence to guilt-based healthcare that either ends with God or the afflicted being blamed.
What if we re-understood being healed by faith with the Bible as our guide? Sirach can be very helpful with this. The quote that started this post comes from a discussion of medical care and faith, between which the author sees no contradiction! Follow this link to Sirach 38. We are told in verse 4 that “The Lord has brought forth medicinal herbs from the ground,” and it’s true! We know that medicine as we know it today comes from naturally occurring substances and organisms that are later processed and massed produced by medical labs and pharmaceutical companies. This is a situation that existed even in the biblical days, when doctors of the time would find ways to utilize herbs, plants, animal organs, and more for the healing of the ill. Were they always successful? No. However, they often were. Were the people who went to these doctors unfaithful? No! Rather, as the text of Sirach, and we might add Genesis, indicates, God is the creator of all life (including medicinal creations and their users), and belief in that should move us to take advantage of what God has given us.
God has given us the medicinal herbs, and God has “also given some people knowledge, so that they may draw credit from his mighty works” (verse 6). Just as God created things to be used for healing purposes, God has gifted people with the knowledge and drive to go about the task of healing, namely medical professionals. Cool, huh?
So how do we balance our faith with medical advancements so that we continue to worship the creator rather than those things which He created? Sirach has a great bit of advice on that as well.
“My child when you are ill, do not rebel, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Renounce your faults, keep your hands unsoiled, and cleanse your heart from all sin. Offer incense and a memorial of fine flour, make as rich an offering as you can afford. Then let the doctor take over– the Lord created him too– do not let him leave you, for you need him.” — Sirach 38:9-12, NJB (Emphasis added)
Pretty freeing, right? Of course you should pray when you are ill! Of course you shouldn’t just run and grab a pill bottle or schedule an appointment as soon as you feel a little queasy (unless you have a condition that requires you to do so; I AM NOT A DOCTOR)! However, remember that God created this world, meaning God created medicine and doctors. There is no shame in seeking medical help for medical problems. It does not make you weak in faith or idolatrous unless you just happen to be weak in faith or idolatrous, but an ER visit is not what determines that.
If we believe in God and in God’s healing power, we shouldn’t limit the ways in which that power is made manifest. Maybe it is through prayer of the church and anointing with oil. Maybe it is through a qualified surgeon or other trained medical professional. Just as God speaks through the Bible, a pastor, a donkey, a billboard, and through a multitude of other means, so God can act in ways that promote healing in an infinite number of ways. Sometimes what we call “faith” is actually imposing limits on God, and we have to be careful of that.
Now, if you are a Christian Scientist or fundamentalist of any kind, I first want to congratulate you on your humility and patience in reading this post. Secondly, though, I want to make clear that this is not an attack on your beliefs. It is, rather, a way of expanding upon them so that you and those you love can live the fullest and most blessed life possible.
To everyone else, thank you for reading, and I hope you found this post insightful and interesting. If you have a comment, different opinion, anything at all you want to say, feel free to visit the contact page! Now, go forth with a faith that allows you to remain open to the many ways in which God extends life and light to this world, and may you share that grace with others!
Peace be with you!