A concrete way of understanding “believing in Jesus” is to live a life of discipleship that would shape the believer to becoming more Christ-like. The apostle Paul describes this mode of leading one’s daily living as “live according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:5). But how Christians understand that verse differently led to divided traditions. Believers who follow a certain tradition may insist on how the Holy Spirit inspires or expresses himself according to the teachings of that particular camp. This is true for those who belong to the Charismatic Movement and those who do not. Both camps have come a long way from doing battles to accepting the existence of the other. As one who does not belong to the Charismatic Movement, the purpose of this article is an attempt of an evangelical trying to understand miraculous healing that is often practiced within the charismatic tradition.
The NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” has an episode titled “A Dramatic Cure” that tells the story of J. Bruce Moseley, the doctor of Houston Rockets, who conducted perhaps the first double-blind controlled study on the placebo effect of orthopedic surgery. Placebos are sugar pills with inert ingredients that bear no therapeutic effects. For any medication that can be deemed “effective” by the FDA, it must pass the standard practice of comparing its claimed therapeutic effect to that of a placebo and show a statistically significant difference. Such practice is never required of surgeries. In 2002, New England Journal of Medicine published the study conducted by Moseley on the effect of arthroscopic surgery on the knee for osteoarthritis. A total of 180 patients were randomly assigned to three groups. The first group of patients received arthroscopic surgery on their knees. The second group received only a saline flush. The third group is the control group that received nothing but an incision to make it look like they had some surgical procedures. The result was nothing less than jaw-dropping. Patients in all three groups experienced similar clinical results. At no point was the group that received actual surgery reported lesser pain or better function. The point of the NPR podcast is to examine placebo effect. In western medicine, the placebo effect is well documented. It does not mean the patient is crazy or dumb. On the contrary, health care providers know of its existence but a “cure” by placebo is not considered a cure in modern medicine – perhaps a point worthy of re-examining from the patient’s perspective.
The host of the podcast acknowledges that Dr. Moseley recognized a power that was undervalued. The healing effect was not limited to what happened in the OR but also what came before and after. For sure, he was not the first person to know that. An Austrian doctor by the name Anton Mesmer went to Paris in 1778 to practice medicine. His unconventional healing method, which he termed “mesmerism”, gave us the word mesmerize. Patients being tended would experience nothing less than theatrical drama. Mesmer would dressed himself a purple robe that has to do with the Zodiac and astrological power. Patients would gather inside a room decorated with celestial symbols with some sort of glass harmonica music filling the air. They would then sit inside a baquet, which is a hot tub with rods protruding from it. Then, the rituals would start. Mesmer and his assistance would move with choreographed gestures, touching the patients on the stomachs and diaphragms. They would wave iron rods over them, which were supposed to remove obstructions in their bodies that caused the diseases. Results were astounding. Some may feel drowsy or agitated. Others may go into a convulsion. According to observers, one patient’s convulsion will spread to others. And, Mesmer would claim healing occurred as a result.
Parallels can be drawn between miraculous healing performed in charismatic events and mesmerism as described above. Healing, in a charismatic event, often happens after worshipping or preaching. When the healer (often the preacher) gives the cue, believers with ailments would go up in line expecting a certain healing ritual to be performed over them. The common practice is the laying of hands with the healer praying out loud calling for God to supernaturally heal the believer spontaneously. All these would happen with music playing and some prophesying in the background. Believers who were laid hands would often fall before the Spirit. Some may go into convulsions or other forms of physical expressions like laughters. And, sometimes these convulsions or laughters may spread to other believers. As for results, like anything, nothing is a hundred percent. Some returned from these events disappointed and, at times, humiliated, calling the notion fraudulent. However, there were those who claimed that they were actually healed. How does one make sense of it? Was the Holy Spirit there? Did the healer perform a supernatural miracle? Why did it work for some but not for the others? Were they deceived? Was faith lacking? Whose faith? The healer’s or the ones seeking to be healed?
In the case of Anton Mesmer, the king of France appointed Benjamin Franklin (from America) to lead a commission to investigate the Austrian doctor’s method. What Ben Franklin did resembled to “the control group” in modern day research. To one group, he and his assistants would wave iron rods to “magnetize” blindfolded testing subjects or did it behind their backs so they had no idea what’s happening. To another group, Franklin and his men would do nothing but made the test subjects believed that they were being magnetized. The test results were exactly what the critics of Mesmer wanted. One woman who was “susceptible” to magnetizing went into an “elaborated magnetic crisis” when the commission members only pretended to magnetize her. Other test subjects had absolutely no response when actual magnetism was performed. In the end, there seemed to be no direct correlation between magnetism and the patient’s response. But, according to the podcast, the work of the commission was more than a simple debunk of a myth. Instead, their conclusion was profound. They concluded that the effect had to do with the patients’ believing in Mesmer’s method and the bond between the patient and the mesmerizer. Some investigator concluded that the effects worked through the drama of the healing process. Modern medicine says that cure that comes from drama doesn’t count. In order for cure to occur, it has to do with a physical event and not a psychological one. In the case of Mesmer, he showed that often patients got better not because of the doctor’s skill or even the healing method but because of the very presence of the doctor!
Ted Kaptchuk is an herbalist trained in Macau, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Harvard Medical School hired him to give their western trained doctors a perspective of Alternative Medicine. When Kaptchuk learned of the western medicine concept of placebo effect, he was so fascinated by it and decided to conduct a study. From what he has observed in his own private practice, patients came to him in pain or discomfort would display signs of relief at the end of the visit even when all he did was giving them a prescription for herbs. It led him to wonder what else was at play. When he described the healer-patient dynamics, it sounded much like choreographed rituals. He would ask questions as expected by the patient. He would lean in to probe more and he would withdraw when he sensed a cue from the patient’s response. He would write down notes from their conversations and bring them up in the next appointment. “That sounds like acting,” commented the podcast host. “It is healing in drama,” he replied.
One question Kaptchuk had in mind on placebo effect was “How well does it work if patients actually know what they are taking?” Apparently, he would need to find out in a study. A woman who was diagnosed to have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) learned of Kaptchuk’s study on the radio and that they were looking for test subjects. She signed up for the study to receive treatment for her IBS. Knowing what placebo is, she was quite surprised (and disappointed) when she heard that’s what she’s given for her condition. However, she decided to follow the doctor’s instructions on how to take her pills. But, perhaps, the bigger surprise was that she got better on the fourth day. Accordingly, other patients in this study also had similar results. At the end of the study, this patient was symptoms free, but the doctor also informed her that he could no longer provide her with the placebos even when the patient expressed concerns that her pain will come back. For sure, her pain did come back within weeks after stopping the placebos. A year later, she went back to Kaptchuk, who agreed to put her back on the placebos. Within a week, her pain was gone. The podcast concludes that it was not just the placebo. It was the whole drama of going to the doctor. “The placebo effect is not a mind-body new age mind cure,” Kaptchuk said. “Those things happened not because you think but because you do, you perform, you enact.” What the podcast host says towards the end is perhaps worth considering. “When we go to a doctor, we have explicit and implicit needs. The explicit needs are obvious. We want someone who is intelligent and skillful who can correctly diagnose our problems. But we’re also looking for someone who can attend to our sufferings, not just our illness. We need someone to trust in moments of fear and vulnerability. We want more than answers. We want reassurance.”
All these coincide with what happens during a charismatic events with miraculous healing. Believers who go up to the healer are looking for not only healing of their illness but also reassurance of their faith. God is present! God is real! I am experiencing God in His healing my body. These are very powerful notions that a believer may realize through the healer who lays hands on him or her. One may fall before the Spirit. One may convulse or burst into holy laughters. In spite of the form of the experience, the believer is reassured.
In view of what is being discussed in this article, one should not dismiss the work of the Holy Spirit as the “placebo effect” or some sort of psychological phenomenon. The first and foremost response of an evangelical should be “I believe in the Holy Spirit” as the Nicene Creed confesses. What follows this confession is the belief in miracles – the ones described inside the Bible and those experienced outside. The new insight that the NPR podcast may have contributed is that miraculous healings may belong to the more general work of the Spirit rather than that of the specific. When the believer seeks one who can tend to his or her suffering, not just the illness, and when the believer needed someone to trust in the moment of fear and vulnerability, healing occurred in the presence of the “doctor”, or in this case, the preacher. For what Kaptchuk has suggested, this power may belong to part of the creation order, which is very well the work of the Spirit. As much as Christians are prone to be impressed by specific manifestations than the general, this writer is suggesting the healing power experienced may not be related to a specific encounter of God that he made his presence in a supernatural way that is otherwise unseen. Rather, it is a mechanism that he has built in as part of the creation that patience and kindness occurring within the context of a doctor-patient bonding has healing power. The difference between believers and non-believers is that the former will give glory to God while the latter will not.