My mother and I walked into the church sanctuary, where a traveling faith healer was doling out miracles—a final shot at finding relief for my severe childhood asthma. Where all others had failed (pediatric specialists, allergists, chiropractors, iridologists, and freaky hippies who swung crystals), he might succeed, my mother said, and we both carried that hope through the side doors.
If I hadn’t been healed, I hadn’t had enough faith. And if I couldn’t conjure enough faith, wasn’t my sickness my own fault?
It was a long service, at least insofar as kids count time, and after what seemed like hours of singing, shouting, and healing, it came to a close. That’s when my mother took me by the hand and led me down the blue carpet to the front, where the preacher lingered. He asked what I’d come for, and I told him I wanted to be rid of my asthma. He smiled and said, “With enough faith, all things are possible.” He marked my forehead with an olive oil cross and prayed my lungs would open. He claimed my healing by the precious blood of Jesus. He assured me that if I believed enough, I’d experience a miracle, which seemed odd, because despite the enormity of my first-grade faith, I didn’t feel anything miraculous happening.
Within the week, I had another asthma attack, the suck-your-inhaler-dry kind, and I knew the truth. I’d not been healed. And if I hadn’t been healed, I hadn’t had enough faith. And if I couldn’t conjure enough faith, wasn’t my sickness my own fault? Wasn’t my wheezing evidence of my doubt?
The details of this moment still cause much pain. I was a child. The faith healer was an adult. He put the onus of healing on the size of my faith, and over the years as I pondered the moment, I came away with a simple set of conclusions: Either God was capricious in His failure to heal a faithful child, or He was absent. I took the bones of my story, wrapped them with these conclusions, fashioned a body of doubt, and climbed inside it. Then I held God—the God who hadn’t healed me—at arm’s length.
The years passed and I did what any good Christian does with a body of doubt. I covered it up with layers of good works. I studied Scripture, attended prayer meetings, and went on hospital visitations. Years passed, and I did my best to push the faith healer’s voice back, to ignore the pain of the doubt, and I managed just fine.
I managed, that is, until I couldn’t. A new season of sickness had set in—the sickness of my youngest son. In that sickness, when I needed God most, when He didn’t come through with a medical miracle, I couldn’t shake that faith healer’s voice and still believed my lack of faith was the reason for God’s inaction. He’d cursed me with doubt, I thought, and I hated him for it. I couldn’t stop the pain of that hatred, the pain of my lack. And so I drank. A lot.
Life does what life does: It pokes at your pain points. But God’s mercy does what it does: It reveals the cure for those pain points, sobers you up from more than just the alcohol. And when God’s mercy visited me, He showed me the cure for my pain born of hatred and resentment—forgiveness. He showed me this, too: Forgiveness is a near-impossible practice. In fact, Jesus showed us that without empathy and understanding, forgiveness isn’t possible at all.
If any man should have harbored resentment for spiritual or physical abusers, it was Jesus. The religious powers of the day turned Him over to the political powers of the day. Those political powers—the Roman soldiers—scourged Him, crowned Him with thorns, nailed Him to a wooden beam. And after enduring the worst punishment men could mete out, the Creator looked down on His creation, religious leaders and Romans alike, and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
As I began to truly experience God’s mercy, I learned the practice of forgiveness by examining the cross, and as I did, I saw my life in a new light. I learned to extend the benefit of the doubt to the man who’d robbed me of my childhood faith. Was he a misguided co-laborer, someone who thought he had the gift of healing? Was he a man of crazy faith, one who might have haphazardly wielded his theology with the best of intentions? Who knows? To see the heart of man is a privilege reserved for God. To extend the forgiveness of Christ is the call of the Scriptures. As I learned to stretch into that call daily, practicing forgiveness led me to the understanding of just how I’d been pardoned.
The practice of forgiveness didn’t undo the pain worked into my life by the faith healer. It didn’t rid me of my doubt, either. Instead, it gave me specific language—Father, forgive the faith healer, for he did not know what he was doing. And offering that prayer day after day, I began to sense something setting in, something like empathy. Something like healing. Something like sobriety.
Illustration by Jeff Östberg