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A Social Anthropologist’s Analysis of Contemporary Healing, Part 1


Inner Healing

To speak in terms of probabilities and statistics seems a more fruitful approach than arguing about whether or not the healing can be “explained away” by calling it “spontaneous remission.” Such arguments involve the well-known problems of the “God of the gaps” theories, and seem to involve a rather mechanistic, nineteenth-century view of the universe.

Another area of controversy concerns what is variously called “inner healing,” “healing of the memories” or “emotional healing”. Often this approach to healing is concerned with overcoming the effects of past hurts which can affect attitudes and behaviour in the present. Matzat argues, however, that the main founders of “inner healing,” especially Agnes Sanford and Morton Kelsey, took their ideas from secular psychology. In particular, the ideas behind ministering to childhood hurts buried in the subconscious are said to be taken from Sigmund Freud’s “depth psychology”.25

To a large extent, it is possible to accept this general criticism of Sanford and Kelsey even if one might quibble with some of the details. However, influential practitioners of “inner healing” are aware of some of these difficulties and they warn against the uncritical use of certain kinds of “inner healing.” For example, John Wimber writes,

“I am using the term ‘inner healing’ sparingly … because different authors use it to mean so many different things, many of which I do not agree with. In many instances inner healing is based on secular psychological views of how our personalities are formed and influenced. But where these views contradict the biblical teaching, they must be firmly rejected.”26

Matzat further claims that methods of “visualizing” Jesus in various scenes from the past (as advocated by Agnes Sanford or Rita Bennett) were borrowed from Karl Jung, another major founder of modern psychology.27 However, although I came across many cases of “inner healing” in my study of John Wimber’s Harrogate conference, very few of them involved a person receiving a visual picture of Jesus. Wimber in fact says that they do not encourage such visualization. Instead, most instances of “inner healing” were dealt with by forgiveness, repentance, confession and other widely recognized biblical principles, without recourse to “visualization.”28

Nevertheless, there are cases in which Jesus does appear to people and minister appropriately to their inner hurts. One of the most dramatic instances concerns “Jill,” a seventeen year old girl who had come to live with her pastor’s family. The pastor’s wife told me the following story:

“… Her parents divorced when Jill was four years old. Her mother was anti-Christian and would have nothing in the house which was Christian. Jill became a Christian when she was ten and had to carry her Bible with her and sleep with it under her mattress or else it would be destroyed.… Her mother’s boyfriend subjected her to all forms of abuse—everything. Jill’s sister who is two years younger had everything lavished upon her but Jill was totally deprived.…

After she came to live here, she woke every night screaming with nightmares from what her mother’s boyfriend had done to her. No man could go near, only I could.…

[One night we] heard her rattling the door in her nightdress. We took her back to bed and as we were doing so we were aware she was talking—in a very childish voice.… She talked as a four year old.… It was the time of the divorce and she relived it: horror and horror. ([Her mother’s boyfriend] sexually handled her, burned her, choked her—she was literally going red in the face and not breathing: we couldn’t believe what we were experiencing.) She would even say what she had for dinner—but at the end of the day said, ‘My Jesus is coming. He’s so big.’ It was so delightful. She gave a full description of how he was dressed: ‘Long, white and shiny, and a shiny thing round his waist. Gold varnish on feet and hands, a pretty sticky-up thing on his head—and his eyes, his eyes … ‘—four year old language. The first one was ‘Mummy’s friend’ but ‘My friend is big—my friend is bigger than your friend. Mind your head, Jesus, don’t bump your head on the door.’ Then he’d come and minister to her. He had pockets on his robe: ‘I wonder what he’s got for me?’ Cream to soothe bruises or beating, plasters to put on. Something to eat—she was starved as well. She would go through the motions—a big strawberry milkshake.…”

There is no way in which I could attribute this girl’s experience to the influence of suggestion. In fact, Jill’s pastor and his wife recorded her later experiences and were able to confirm the accuracy of her memories from her own diaries. They took it in turns on successive nights to be present in Jill’s room when they began to hear her talking. On two occasions, while Jill was being ministered to by Jesus, they saw a mist or cloud filling part of the room. It was so dense on the second occasion that it “covered half a chair, blotted out the dressing table and just a bit of the mirror was poking out of the mist.” They later identified it with the Shekhinah cloud of God’s presence and glory which is mentioned in the Bible (e.g. Exodus 33:9; 2 Chronicles 5:13-14; Matthew 17:5).

Those responding to highly specific words of knowledge tended to report higher degrees of associated healing than those responding to less specific revelations.

One other detail further highlights the divine character of Jill’s visions. On one occasion, Jesus brought her a “knickerbocker glory” ice cream with a large strawberry at the bottom. Later, when she went on holiday with her pastor’s family, they all decided to have knickerbocker glories—Jill’s first taste of a “material” one. Hers alone turned out to have a large strawberry at its base!

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Category: Fall 2008, In Depth

About the Author: David C. Lewis [as of 1993] is a cultural anthropologist and is currently a Research Associate of the Mongolia and Inner Asian Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, where he received his Ph.D. (Anthropology). He also serves as a Consultant Anthropologist for several Christian mission organizations. He has conducted research projects at Nottingham University and the Oxford Hardy Research Centre (Religious Experience Research Project, 1984-1985). He has written numerous scholarly articles and books, including Healing: Fiction, Fantasy or Fact? (Hodder & Stoughton).

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