Christian Mindfulness, Healing and Chronic Illness

 Over the last 50 years the church has been through a global Holy Spirit revolution.  The influence of the charismatic movement has touched almost every mainstream denomination as many Christians have rediscovered the person, works and gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For many this has been an exciting and thrilling journey that has led to a deeper theological understanding of God and a growth and development of the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the church.  This exciting and joyful journey has been part of my own story since I came to faith in Christ in 1989.  I quickly became involved in a lively Youth Fellowship in which worship, Bible teaching and the gifts of the Spirit were all openly practiced.

Since 1989 I have seen a small number of miraculous healings.  This includes a lady who had severe curvature of the spine and was hunched  over due to her condition.  During the first few days of the tent meetings I watched this lady walk around hunched over and clearly struggling to move around.  When she received prayer I saw something truly remarkable happen.  In front of my own eyes I saw the bones in her back undulate, move, straighten up and heal.  She ran around the tent with joy and astonishment on her face.

I know that God can heal people today.  I believe it's in the Bible.  I believe it's also for today.  And I have seen it with my own eyes.

What if I don't get healed?

One of the questions the charismatic movement has often failed to address is - "What happens when someone is not healed?" How should we teach and show the compassion of God for those who struggle with chronic illness?  I want to suggest that some of the emphasis on physical healing has become myopic and out of balance when faced with the pastoral realities of those who struggle with chronic illness.  This is especially true as we get older and our bodies face the consequences of the aging process. 

The infographic below (1) shows that 80% of those aged 65+ have at least one chronic health condition.  "People with long-term conditions now account for about 50 per cent of all GP appointments in the UK, 64 per cent of all outpatient appointments and over 70 per cent of all inpatient bed days in the NHS" (2).  It is simply not an adequate approach for the church to suggest that the only or even the primary response to this problem is prayer for miraculous healing.

Health expenditure on chronic illness in the UK accounts for 70% of the NHS and social care budget.  In 2015-16 this amounted to £220 Billion of spending (3).  This huge amount of money is spent on a whole range of different treatments, services and social care provision.  Approximately £154 Billion of the expenditure relates to chronic illness.

One of the recent developments in the treatment and management of chronic conditions is the use of mindfulness based psycho-education and mindfulness practice.  Mindfulness is now being used for a growing number of different chronic illnesses, and the research in this area continues to grow (4).  This is a relatively inexpensive approach which is not difficult for each individual to engage with and learn.

Why does this matter for the church?  Because of the significant overlap between Christian Mindfulness meditation and Christian Contemplation practice.  The Christian contemplative tradition is thousands of years old and goes back to the early monastics and further back into the days of King David who wrote many of the biblical Psalms.  At the heart of this tradition is the practice of the presence of God and spiritual watchfulness (5). 

Mindfulness practice involves bringing our attention and awareness to focus on particular anchors (such as body, breath, the senses, etc.)  As we exercise the muscle of our attention over and over again, we begin to become more aware in life, especially as we navigate our way through more challenging and stressful environments.  The Christian contemplative tradition involves the development of spiritual awareness of the whole self, awareness of other people and awareness of God (particularly the wonders of divine love).

I am 100% for the laying on of hands and prayer for physical, emotional and spiritual healing in the church.  And my prayer is that we will see an increasing number of genuine miraculous healings.  But I also have to live with the reality of being a type 1 Diabetic (for the past 25 years) and suffering off and on with depression for the past 17 years.  Large numbers of faithful Christians also have to live with the reality of chronic illness.

Quick fix or process?

In many ways I think there needs to be a re-commitment and realignment of our thinking towards the  process and practice of the spiritual disciplines (the reformers sometimes described these as "means of grace").  Secular mindfulness teachers encourage a regular mindfulness practice which involves personal discipline.  The benefits of this approach result in a re-wiring of the neural pathways in the brain and an improvement in health experienced by many who suffer from chronic illness.  How much more should Christians engage with their personal development?  Should we not be developing holistic awareness relating to the gift of life that God has given us?  How much more should we face up to the wonder of God's grace in Christ and engage with the beauty of who he is?  As we commit to the process of change, transformation gradually occurs over time.

Sometimes (in fact often), there is not a quick fix prayer to resolve and get rid of our chronic illness struggle.  Just like Paul's thorn in the flesh, the Lord may invite us down an unexpected path or journey that does not involve instant, miraculous healing.  He may be saying to us - "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

For more details on the Christian Mindfulness and Christian Contemplation Online Course options see here.

Richard H H Johnston

Director, Christian Mindfulness, Christian Contemplation and Christian CBT

© Richard H H Johnston