“I don’t have a demon, but thanks.”
The “history” for the phrase “bless you” following a sneeze, cough, or other symptom is assumed by many to reflect the ignorance of Puritans or whatever other Christian group gets the blame for the allegedly ill-informed nicety. The way I’ve most commonly heard it described goes like this: “Did you know that they [the ‘they’ is never backed-up] said ‘bless you’ because they thought there was a demon inside you?”
The truth is that prior to widely available medical treatment, a sneeze or cough could mean you’re going to die in a few weeks. The common cold used to kill people. Saying, “Bless you” is a well-wishing, a pronouncement of God’s “blessing” on your life since you were probably going to die in a puddle somewhere. Ironically, famous 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards died from the small pox vaccine. He accepted its use because he understood—along with nearly everyone else at the time—that bodily ailments are not chalked-up to demon-possession.
We can even go further back than that to the New Testament, wherein Paul advises Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5.23.) Obviously Paul, as well as Timothy and anyone else who read the letter aloud in a 1st or 2nd century Sunday morning gathering, did not think Timothy’s “ailments” had anything to do with demon-possession.
As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even assumed that seizures or any other violent physical or mental ailment must be a demon. Jesus healed several people of physical illness and said nothing about demons. Demon-possession was a very specific thing. Someone could have an illness similar to what a demon-possessed person had but not be demon-possessed.
What makes this discussion even more fascinating to me is the fact that there are those today in Christian circles who attribute everything to some spiritual malady. We occasionally read about them in the news—they let their kid(s) die because medicine won’t fix spiritual issues or is of the devil or isn’t putting faith in God or something. There’s a very good reason why these are so few and far between, and it sure ain’t because they’re some extra-blessed group walking through the “narrow gate.” It’s because they’re ignorant people who have shunned not only medicine and basic biology/psychology, but also the rules of grammar and normal biblical interpretation.
Some Christians are less strict and happily find remedies for physical ailments that anyone else would use. But even some of these folks are unwilling to seek counseling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, etc. They’ve accepted a sharp dualism between mind and body that excludes any space-time involvement, assuming that only spiritual healing can bring about mental healing.
A third group makes things a little tougher. This group is fine with medicine and psychology, but groups everything under the “sin” rubric. In one sense I’m totally on board with this. In another sense I respectfully disagree. If everything was affected by the Fall of humanity, then everything is—in that sense—spiritually wounded and in need of spiritual healing. However, it isn’t necessary to assume that the means or processes have to originate from or actualize in some metaphysical, unobservable, unrepeatable way. In other words, if God is the giver and sustainer of my life, then allowing me to continue to seek professional help for my various psychological issues means that he is still the provider and source, but the way this works out doesn’t have to be in some metaphysical realm. The healing doesn’t have to be “miraculous” in order to find its ultimate source in God. Adam and Eve were instructed to actually do things; not sit around and wait for God to put everything in front of them. He provided the basics, but they were expected to continue the project as image-bearers of a creative God.
If Timothy’s ailments were alleviated by wine, Timothy can still thank God for the wine’s availability, and for Paul’s advice, and for the processes that make wine do the great things it does. Clearly, neither Paul nor Timothy expected some sort of “instant healing” that came from nowhere and defied all normal explanation. Why does Paul say “I discipline my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor 9.27) if he was expecting any and all help to only come in a mystical way from the Holy Spirit?
Can God heal someone in that way? Well, yeah—he’s God. Are we all to expect that? Not at all. In fact, there’s a joke that illustrates my point well:
A man was sailing in the ocean when suddenly his boat sank. As he tread water he prayed for God to rescue him. After a while, another boat came by and offered help.
“No, thanks” the man said. “I’m waiting for God.”
A second boat came by, offering help, which the man turned away. A third a final boat came by and the man insisted that God will rescue him and that’s what he will wait for.
The man drowns and finds himself face to face with God. “Hey, God!” he says. “Glad to be here but I gotta ask: why didn’t you save me out there?”
God responds, “I sent three boats. What more did you want?”
I have several issues I’m trying to work through right now. I don’t want to pretend that they are only psychological—I see how sin works in myself and others and I just can’t deny it in light of such evidence. But I also don’t want to shun every tool available to me and assume that God is going to just sort of “do something” to make everything go away. If he does—great! But sitting around and repeating myself in my prayers not only goes directly against Scripture (Eph 5.16 & Matt 6.7,) it’s a waste of the time and resources God has given me, which would make me a poor steward (Matt 25.) I’d rather not add more sins to the trouble my sin causes me. Instead, I’ll go see a professional, and thank God that I can.