A friend recently asked me how my back was. “Good,” I replied. “No more pain; that’s over with?” he responded. “I wouldn’t say that, but it’s better,” I answered. This led to a conversation about the healing power of positive thinking, and how proclaiming my pain-free present and future self could help actualise it. My friend expressed surprise that that my strong Christian faith didn’t result in a more positive response towards my own healing, and that he, with less faith, might have more hope. We had both recently read an article sharing empirical evidence of non-religious faith in healing (Unlocking the Healing Power of You, National Geographic magazine, December 2016), but something in me resisted blind faith, or lying to myself or him about the facts. That got me to thinking about faith, positive thinking, and honesty. When are positive words helpful, and when might they be self-delusions, or at worst, distractions from necessary interventions? The more I reflected, the more complex I realised faith and healing was.
First, let me share that I strongly believe in God, in prayer, and the power of words. In the first verses of the Bible, God creates the universe with the power of his words alone. “And God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good” (Genesis 1:3-4). In the first verses of the gospel of John, it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 3, 14). Biblically, words are powerful, creative forces for good. However, let us distinguish between the words of God and the words of people. God’s words are always productive in the way God intends. Human’s words are also forces for good and evil, and we should dwell on the positive, pray for the negative, have faith that our prayers will be answered. It’s important to back up our words up with actions, however. Just saying “be warm and full” isn’t enough; we must follow through to clothe and feed people in need (see Ephesians 4 and James 2).
Personally, I have made small changes to speak more positively. For example, now I say “I love a clean kitchen” instead of “I hate a messy kitchen.” This verbally reinforces the mini accomplishments I achieve each day of keeping my tiny kitchen clean. I’m trying to apply this principle to bigger things in life. Recently, I had the opportunity to practice positivity when I got a $150 parking ticket. A word to the wise, never park on a main Toronto street at 4 PM! I arrived in time to talk to the parking agent, who was not at all sympathetic; he said I was lucky I wasn’t towed, the truck was on its way. I have to admit, the first words out of my mouth were not positive! I was angry and upset, and said so for the next five minutes to the friend who was with me. My small victory is that instead of letting it ruin my day, I stopped letting it steal my peace after three hours. I consciously looked for things to be grateful for, and gave thanks that I had a car, that I wasn’t towed, and that I have a job so could pay for the ticket. We should be gentler on ourselves, which is often harder than being gentle on others. Give yourself the freedom to be a learner, make mistakes, and have fun in the learning process. As a new dancer, I often hit metaphorical walls, and had a bout of discouragement that almost made me quit. Saying “I’m getting better all the time” has been much more encouraging than “I’ll never be able to do this,” and it makes me a more fun dance partner, as well. As my friend says, “It’s not impossible, it’s only difficult.” Positivity and faith help her persevere through setbacks, while being honest about disappointments.
Remaining positive about poor health can be much more difficult, however. I’ve suffered from neck pain for years, trying as many chiropractors, physiotherapists, and massage therapists as finances and hope allowed. I agree speaking positively is more helpful than complaining, not least to be less of a pain in the neck to those around me, but words won’t help unless I improve my posture and do my exercises. Even as I write this, I wonder whether writing the word “suffering” is too negative, but it’s true, I have suffered. The persistence of pain over many years weighs heavily on my shoulders, like the chronic tension in my trapezius muscles. Can changing the way I speak lighten my mental suffering, and flow positive healing to the physical pain, as well? I think so, although guardedly. Here’s why.
Last year, I downloaded a mobile phone app called Calm. It has guided mediations for topics including sleep, anxiety, happiness and gratitude. I liked the free ones so much I spent $55 on an annual subscription, and consider it money well spent. One of the most helpful phrases the calming voice said to me was to “soften my forehead,” and “soften my throat.” To gauge whether it was working, I touched the scalene muscles in front of my throat and mentally softened them. They physically relaxed. Right now as I write this, I can feel the difference in my forehead as I soften it, and the awareness helped me notice tension in my jaw, as well. Sometimes the mind does control matter, so use it as effectively as you can to accelerate your own healing, calmness, and wellbeing.
However, positive thinking and prayer have limits, and it’s important to recognise them. As a person of faith, I have prayed for healing for myself and others. Once, God healed my friend’s stomach ache; once, I had a deep inner knowledge that a man with terminal cancer would recover. He did, with a dramatic spiritual experience that was exciting (and not at all due to me). God miraculously healed my friend of cancer on her death bed; ten years later, she died of another disease. Sometimes God heals, sometimes God doesn’t, and always the healing is temporary, for we all will die.
Faith is not just believing you’ll be healed; it’s believing that you’re going to be OK, whether you are healed or not. It’s knowing that God loves you and is there with you, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, til death do you part. It’s recognising that while death is a parting from earth, it’s a transformation to a deeper union with God. Faith is finding peace in your desperate prayer for help, and letting your desperate prayers for understanding subside. Faith is recognising that even if you’re dying, or you’re powerless to stop the death of a loved one, God is still there. Life transcends this earth, this sickbed, this sorrow, and in the eternal scheme of things, all will be made right. The Bible says God hates death too. According to Genesis, it was never part of the plan, yet God was willing to send Jesus to die for us to give us spiritual life. Faith includes reframing your perception of health to include spiritual health, even when the body is dying. I’ve seen God do tremendous miracles of spiritual healing in the face of chronic and terminal illness. The most poignant example of this was my mother. As she lost her physical capacities, even the strength to lift a glass to her mouth, I watched her metamorphosise into a powerful spirit. She spent fifteen months on what became her death bed, until she had nothing but love left, and discovered that love was enough. When I kissed her goodnight she often said she’d had a great day, whereas when she first got her diagnosis, she asked me to pray each night that she wouldn’t wake up. Her spiritual transformation was dramatic and powerful, and deeply touched my life.
It’s good to be positive and hopeful. I hope I learn to be more positive, more quickly, in many more situations. But it’s good to be honest, too. Sometimes, prayers bring healing; other times, comfort in suffering. Eventually, we will all need to find our peace in dying. Faith is not just believing you’ll be healed; it’s realising that you’re going to be OK anyway, no matter what happens. I wish you faith, hope and love, and to discover that love is enough.