Faith Healing

Rifqa Bary, the Muslim convert to Christianity who said she fled her Ohio home because she feared her parents would kill her for abandoning their faith, is refusing chemotherapy to treat her uterine cancer.

Rifqa, 17, believes prayer has healed her -- her cancer is in remission -- and she is now in a new legal fight with her parents, who are trying to force her to continue the chemotherapy doctors have recommended she undergo to keep the cancer from coming back.

Come next week, when Rifqa turns 18, the decision will be up to her. But the question remains whether her decision is based on an accurate reading of Christian scripture regarding faith and healing, or whether she's embarking on a perilous path that will jeopardize her life.

It's similar to the case of Timothy and Rebecca Wyland in Oregon, whose 7-month old daughter was removed from their home by Child Welfare officials so the girl could get treatment for a mass of blood vessels that threatened her vision. The Wylands belong to a church that shuns professional medical help in favor of faith healing.

"It's an exceedingly dangerous position," says Justin Peters, an evangelical minister who heads Justin Peters Ministries. "My heart goes out to these people."

Peters suffers from cerebral palsy. As a teenager, he says, he desperately wanted to be healed, and he attended several miracle crusades with preachers who promised that if he were faithful, he could be cured. He sums up his encounters by saying, "Been there, done that. Got the T-shirt!"

Now 37 years old, he still has the debilitating condition, and he uses his ministry to enlighten Christians about the dangers of what's called Word Faith Theology, also known as The Prosperity Gospel.

"Two of the most basic human desires," Peters says, "is to be wealthy and to be healed."
Peters constantly monitors the teachings of prosperity gospel ministers like Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copland, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar and other faith healers who preach wealth and health as a sign of faith.

"Some of what they preach is right. But it's that little bit of heresy which is dangerous," he says.

He says he knows of Rifqa's story only from news reports, but "If pressed I would imagine that she would admit that one of the reasons she does not want to go to the doctor (for chemo) is that she doesn't want to show a lack of faith."

And that's one of the greatest dangers, he says. If you believe that God can heal you only if you have enough faith, the burden in on you. If you're not healed, then what? Who do you blame? Certainly, not God. So on top of the affliction, there's the heavy weight of thinking that your faith is too weak.

"I can't tell you how many thousands of people I've talked to who've been devastated by this movement," Peters says.

Dr. Richard P. Sloan, Nathaniel Wharton Professor of Behavioral Medicine (in Psychiatry) at Columbia University Medical Center, agrees.

"That's what you get when you mix medicine and religion," he says.

"You raise serious ethical concerns if you make claims that being religious is good for your health. You're making the exact opposite claim that people who are not religious are not good people and somehow deserve being sick."

The Christian healing philosophy begins with Jesus. A great part of his ministry involved healing the sick -- the blind saw, the crippled walked. Christ is depicted as the great physician who taught his apostles to heal as well.

But ultimately, Christians believe, it's God's doing.

"Healing is an act of unmerited mercy from a sovereign God," according to the website "Jesus was often unconventional, raising a widow's dead son out of compassion, not because of her faith. Faith is not something we need to conjure up in order to be healed."

But faith healing, in some form, is part of just about every religious tradition, says Dr. Linda L. Brynes, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and co-editor of "Religion and Healing in America."

"It's the way traditions respond to suffering and affliction," Byrnes says, explaining that both are part of the human condition.

Buddhists, she said, believe people suffer because they try to cling to things, and do not accept change. But the early monastic groups adopted the medical practices of the cultures around them, so even today there's the disparity of medical treatment between Tibetan monks in remote areas of India and monks living in Boston.

In Islam, the prophet Muhammad would have recommended to his followers very practical medical procedures. Byrnes says it was the Muslim world that kept alive the early Greek traditions of medicine and translated them into Arabic.

Although Christianity and Judaism are closely linked through the Old Testament, they part ways over the idea of "original sin." Judaism does not believe in it, Byrnes says. The Christian doctrine, however, says God created a perfect world in the Garden of Eden, free of disease and affliction.

But Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were cast from the Garden and God's presence, and from that point on the world became a broken place full of pain and suffering.

There are basically two kinds of suffering: physical and psychological. The physical can be as severe as inoperable cancers, or as benign as minor aches and pains.

The psychological can be something like depression.

The faith healer and most theologians will argue that both kinds of maladies have a spiritual component.

That is the basis of the Christian Science tradition, founded by Mary Baker Eddy.
"She believed in the lost aspect of healing of Jesus Christ," says Paul Hannesson, with the Christian Science Committee on Publications for New York State. "Jesus healed on spiritual laws...and she (Eddy) believed those laws could be demonstrated by apostles and also you and I."

Christian Scientist practitioners and nurse practitioners treat people with prayer, but they are also trained to provide physical custodial care, such as washing and bandaging of wounds, and practitioner services have been covered by a small number of insurance companies.

Christian Scientists believe in modern technology, and they do not ostracize members who seek medical treatment. "We pray for a better understanding of God and His perfection," Hannesson says.

He calls the Wyland case "tragic," saying "That's not enlightened faith. It's blind faith."

Peters and Hannesson both believe that God can heal the body without help from a medicine, and there have been miraculous healings of cancerous tumors and other conditions. The Catholic Church bases its nominations to sainthood on two proven miraculous healings for which scientists and doctors could not find a medical explanation.

But the healing of the spirit is another realm altogether, one with which science cannot compete. If the main component to all suffering is spiritual, then a spiritual healing can occur even if a physical one never takes place. For Peters, this is the true power of healing.

"I tell people in my seminars that the greatest healing of all is healing from sin, not sickness and disease. If I have to live my life with cerebral palsy, so be it. I have eternity to live without it."