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We know, in our faith, that there's "redemptive suffering." A person gets ill and uses it as a pathway to holiness, to purification, to sacrifice -- "offers it up." It is sent by God for that purpose. Often, saints have attached their pain with the Crucifixion of Jesus.

What percentage of illness is sent as a special opportunity for redemption? And what percent -- perchance -- is caused by ungodly factors?

That's the question of the week: whether spiritual forces can cause illness.

By "ungodly," one could mean ailments that stem from poor habits, pollution, the ill acts of others, or even evil spirits. But let's focus on the aspect of harmful spirits. We know that Jesus "rebuked the fever." We know that Jesus forgave the paralytic his sins before He healed him.

There are those, in some circles, like Dr. Francis MacNutt, a former seminary professor, who argue that such passages prove the spiritual nature of certain sicknesses and that "too often the preacher presents sickness as an effect of God's chastising love rather than as part of the curse coming from the kingdom of evil. There are scriptural passages indicating that some suffering has a redemptive value (especially Paul's famous 'thorn in the flesh' passage), but the traditional Christian teaching is that most sickness is simply an effect of 'original sin.'"

MacNutt, who has a healing ministry in Florida, argues that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus turn a sick person away (telling him or her to endure the suffering for redemptive purposes). "On the contrary," argues MacNutt, "He everywhere treats sickness as a manifestation of the Kingdom of Satan which He has come to destroy."

Of course, a counterpoint might be that those whose sufferings were redemptive are simply not mentioned in Scripture -- which focuses chiefly on miracles.

Moreover, the New Testament says the world isn't big enough to contain everything there is to write about Jesus.

In near-death episodes, there are those who assert that illness can be designed as a pathway for one's life in order to bring a soul into spiritual progression. Add to this the cases of (alleged) stigmatics -- whose suffering is directly tied to the Cross. There are saints who requested redemptive suffering. Of course, if we live long enough, problems would afflict every organ; we are mortal.

Still, the point is that we should not immediately disregard the possibility that an illness is caused by dark forces and that these forces can be expelled -- as Jesus so often expelled them.

Indeed, many believe that mental, emotional, physiological, and psycho-physiological illnesses (mental illnesses caused by the body's chemistry) can on occasion be influenced by the kingdom of darkness -- especially psychological disorders.

Sicknesses such as epilepsy, dementia, and muteness are specifically identified in Scripture as such and so it is not rational to disregard the notion (including with serious disease like cancer). In fact, says MacNutt, "Since we all have cancer cells floating around in our bodies, the key to health is strengthening what happens in our spirit to activate our immune systems."

For your consideration.

When there is darkness in the spirit, it can transmit that dark blot to the physical. Scripture notes the effect of mind on body when it says that "a glad heart is excellent medicine, a depressed spirit wastes away the bones" (Proverbs 17:22). Deliverance ministers often speak in terms of a "spirit of schizophrenia" or a "spirit of cancer." The word pneumonia reminds us of pneumatology (the study of spirits). "Lupus" recalls to us "wolf." Is there really any link?

"Strange as it may seem to many Christians today, the main factor in conversion [in olden times] was exorcism -- the driving out of demons," MacNutt notes emphatically in a book called Healing. "Belief in the supernatural was accepted in those days and Christianity was presented as being in direct conflict with pagan gods, something like a spiritual 'shoot-out.'"

That's in contrast to the modern way of attributing ailments (whether bodily or mental) to purely physical and psychological effects. Perhaps the safest approach is to first cast out potential spirits. Exposure to evil can cause maladies.

"What has happened to the major thrust of early Christianity: to heal and exorcise?" asked the former professor, who now runs a ministry in Jacksonville, Florida. "Perhaps the decline of fervor dates to a decline in belief in prayer for healing. What happened in all those centuries to diminish the Church's belief in Christ's healing ministry is complicated; but certainly one of the main factors was that Platonic, Stoic, and Manichean thought infected Christian spirituality.

"Another attitude, one of superiority toward healing, holds that miracles were needed to establish the Church, but now that people believe, there is no further need for signs or proof," he says. "This attitude is the outcome of an overemphasis on doctrine: healing of the sick takes place, not primarily because God is compassionate and desires to heal broken humanity, but because He wants to make a point."

In other words: Christianity has been over-intellectualized. It is a fact that both healing and exorcism have been shoved aside in modern Catholicism -- which strikes at the heart of our faith.

And it is why we see many of the problems we do -- from lack of exorcists to automatic rejection of miracles and, consequently, vacancy in the pews due to a lack of faith.

At many Catholic colleges, no more twenty percent of the students still go to Mass; yet, they have attended theology classes, MacNutt notes.

What's more important: theories or miracles?

Perhaps some of both. We'll leave that to your considered judgment. You may want to bring this up to your local pastor. It bears discussion. "The works I do in My Father's Name," said Jesus, "are my witness" (John 10:25).

[resources: The God of Miracles, Deliverance from Evil Spirit, and Miracles Do Happen]

[see also: Prayer need: boy battles cancer with alternative therapies]

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