In my former life as a doctor, I was a GP, but ended up specialising in back pain, for a variety of contingent reasons.
One rare cause of back pain is postural asymmetry caused by shortening of one leg, usually either from an old fracture, or from congenital abnormality. Accordingly screening for this became part of my usual back examination: get the patient to stand in a way that irons out the tendency to favour one leg, place first fingers on iliac crests and thumbs on sacral dimples, and see if they’re level.
It’s hard to do accurately, so in those uncommon cases where I thought I’d found inequality, I’d trained our local radiology department to do standing views of the pelvis, when any leg shortening could be measured with a ruler against bony points. In the majority of cases my clinical impression was debunked, but of course on the few occasions when a true inequality was found, I preened myself on my clinical acumen.
Testing any association of such an abnormality with the presenting back pain involved using a shoe raise of the exact height need to level things off for a few weeks. Very occasionally it worked. Most often it made no difference at all. Sometimes it made the pain worse.
All this experience shows firstly that leg shortening is indeed only an uncommon cause of back pain. But secondly it shows that those famous faith healers who treat back pain by miraculously lengthening legs they have diagnosed as short – and it seems to me that the majority of the “Word Faith” superstars do so – are frauds.
Let me expand on that, because human error is simply not on the cards here. It is impossible to diagnose leg length inequality (apart from gross deformity) by getting the patient to sit on a chair and lifting their legs, as the healers invariably do. There is too much variation in posture for assessment, which is why I examined patients standing with sacral area exposed, in a standardised way.
But in order to say, as these guys do, “Look, this leg is at least 3/4 of an inch shorter!” requires not careless observation, but careful loosening of the shoe on the other foot to make it seem, for the TV camera and the patient, longer. Working the physical miracle simply involves pushing the shoe back on. Any relief of pain arises from a combination of misdirecting questions, placebo effect, suggestion and the emotion of the moment.
Of course, it’s not impossible that, rarely, God rewards the simple faith of the patient with a miraculous healing – but then it’s not impossible that from time to time the rabbit appearing from a conjuror’s hat materialised miraculously. A con-trick is still a con-trick.
Derren Brown, in his salutory documentary Miracles for Sale (in which he trained a diving instructor to do this trick very effectively) describes it as pathognomonic of fraudulent healers. I agree – not only does it require too much willfully deceptive technique to be genuine, but it flies in the face of the medical reality I dealt with professionally for years.
Maybe it’s no great shock to readers that Televangelists fund their private jets and mistresses with some standard techniques of deception. What concerns me more is that the only time I have actually seen this ttrick done, it was performed not by a sharp-suited prosperity gospeller, but by a British evangelist in support of a pretty orthodox gospel sermon.
It was at a men’s conference where he was one of the speakers (the other being a noted Bible teacher), and it caused me some real cognitive dissonance between his faithful message of repentance and faith in the cross of Jesus, and my medical experience.
This is the kind of guy who might lead your local mission, and speak to tens of people in a small country chapel rather than in a vast arena, though he did have a pretty competent worship band. Neither was he building a vast ministry empire, though his statement (at the conference) that he and his team all lived “by faith” rather hid the fact that it meant he didn’t pay any of the others, whilst you can be sure that any “love-gift” the hosts presented would not be given to the man on the PA desk.
As far as I’ve been able to discern, this man (typically without theological training but with a strong conversion story) goes along with the idea of the “full gospel,” as in “Full Gospel Businessmen International,” which is basically Pentecostal healing-in-the-atonement teaching. On a recent video interview, I heard him say that people don’t relate to sermons in churches, but they do respond to the power of God in miracles. At my men’s conference, he had a good one-liner: “If your experience does not match the New Testament, I suggest you get a new experience.”
And whilst I disagree strongly with that theology, if you read Craig Keener’s massive two-volume work on miracles, it seems to be associated with a higher than average rate of genuinely answered healing prayer.
But that leg-lengthening trick is a fly in the healing ointment. If you are getting genuine healings in your ministry, there is no need to fake it. And if you’re not, surely better just to skip the miracles and preach the gospel. The most charitable explanation I can think of is the one I suggested in a recent post: seed people’s faith with a fake miracle, and perhaps they will believe for a real one.
Certainly ordinary people do believe it – someone at my church mentions to this day that through some healing ministry or other, his wife had her leg lengthened by half an inch before his eyes. I guarantee there was no before and after specialist radiography, though.
But whether congregations believe or not, it’s a lie all the same, and not only is it a lie to the vulnerable people whose problem is not only a bad back, but the danger of eternal loss of their souls. It is a lie to Jesus, by taking his name in vain and attributing to his risen power what is actually just a cheap trick. Your basic theology has to be really bad to get involved in that with a clear conscience.
As it happens, I had indirect dealings with my evangelist concerning a back problem of my own. I was leading the worship band in a town mission, which was led by another (non-healing!) evangelist, but for which he had lent his sound and light team – and a very competent bunch they were.
Assembling gear for the first night, I foolishly lifted a bass amplifier down a steep flight of steps, and hurt my back. The first night went fine, but the next day at work I felt a wrenching tear and was suddenly floored by excruciating back pain. I had to be taken home to bed. Fortunately, I’d organised a rota of musicians, so the mission was covered without me.
But to my surprise and delight, just ten minutes after the scheduled start time of the meeting, a car pulled up outside, containing four guys from the mission, including the evangelist’s sound technician. They had delegated their work and driven all the way out to the country to pray for me. The prayer didn’t obviously change the pain, but their Christian concern was wonderful, and totally sincere.
Once I did get back to the mission, nearly a fortnight later, in time to play the very last two nights, the sound man joked by introducing me as “the guy who refused to get healed.” In retrospect I probably was the exception in his experience, because I was suffering from real pathology – a prolapsed T12-L1 disc, which has given me intermittent problems since. Mostly he would have seen his boss misdiagnosing short legs in chronic lower back patients, and giving them temporary relief till the team left town after the meeting.
I mind very much the mixing of truth and deception. I don’t really mind that my back wasn’t healed, because it taught me many things, including the comfort of compassionate prayer itself. On a more mundane level, my experience taught me significant truths about the nature of chronic recurrent back pain, with which I was able to help many sufferers in my clinic.
The reader will judge whether God is more glorified by careful medical management or by fraudulent signs and wonders.