For Elizabeth A. Johnson, working through a Biblical response to physical affliction was not merely an abstract theological question to be dealt with at random. For her, the questions presented themselves in the form of chronic illness that interrupted the life she thought she would have, years before many feel forced to search for such deep answers. In Touching the Hem: A Biblical Response to Physical Suffering, works through a theology of a Biblical response to physical suffering by working through five main related studies: God’s character, God’s works, our circumstances, our response, and God’s response.
Elizabeth is a gifted writer, and her study and personal devotion to this topic shine through the book. While this is definitely not a fluffy women’s book, it is an easy, well-organized read. It is both academic and accessible while blending in Elizabeth’s personal experience with the subject matter.
Although I am not currently enduring a time of chronic physical affliction (and the book certainly deals with far more than chronic health issues), I still found the book devotionally and spiritually valuable. I have suffered from minor health issues in the past, and know that, unless I die suddenly and soon, I will face them again, though the severity and longevity remain presently unknown. At the same time, I think that if I read this book while in the midst of intense physical affliction, it would lend even greater value.
Elizabeth’s audience will be primarily those who hold to a (classical) Cessationist theology, as is evidenced by her chapter dealing with faith healing. This is also evidenced in the following statement: “When people find themselves healed today, while it may feel like a miracle to one who has suffered so intently for so long, it generally can be explained by God’s working through natural means to heal them. The healing is still of God, when it comes, but it is not usually an actual miracle. True healing occurs on God’s terms alone: according to His perfect will and timing. It is never solely by the hands or words of a man.” With room for beliefs between Cessationism and charismaticism, I appreciate her open ended statement that leaves room for the possibility for God to heal through miracles, though such occurrences be rare or unseen to many.
Elizabeth does an excellent job of connecting physical health and spiritual health and showing Scriptural support of how these are linked together. Seeing this link highlighted in the book was a helpful reminder to me in many ways, but particularly in demonstrating compassion as I love my neighbors/fellow believers and also in being able to better understand some of my own seeming spiritual struggles during times of physical weakness. In relation to that, Elizabeth included this helpful excerpt from Tasker’s commentary on James:
“…when the body may be racked with pain and the mind considerably disturbed, it is not easy for the sufferer unaided to turn his thoughts in any articulate or concentrated manner to prayer, and he needs the consolation of other Christians in what may be for him a period of much spiritual distress.”
One minor weakness of the book, particularly in potential audience scope, is the use of the King James Version as the Scripture text of choice. Having grown up using this version, I did not find it difficult to use; but at the same time, because of the frequency of Scriptural quotations and excerpts, it may be confusing to some. Additionally, I found weakness in some of the arguments and logic used to demonstrate that the use of doctors and medicines would be Biblically commendable. (I do agree with the author’s conclusions, but wonder if perhaps the same logic and argumentation could be used to prove any number of things that many Christians would also think unbiblical.)
Regardless of current health status, this would be a helpful study for any believer. In addition to the main text of the book, there are also several valuable appendices at the end of the book.
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Disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book to review, but all opinions expressed here are my own.