Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D.
In the days since a Church Handbook update offered a new point of caution against “seeking miraculous or supernatural healing” from those who claim to have “special methods for accessing healing power” (outside of prayer and God’s priesthood power), some members have taken the opportunity to publish their additional concerns on these matters publicly. Here, one man shared his own feeling that the whole of energy healing was inextricably tied into spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, conspiracy, and “going beyond the mark.”
This brother went on to reference an instance of “sorcery” in the Bible to encapsulate what he saw embodied in energy healing. I’d like to go deeper on this argument – as a way to gently push back on this thoughtful and faithful brother (who is voicing honest thoughts many other members have) – while also raising some of the honest questions about this point of view held by many other members, myself included.
For the sake of brevity, I will only focus on his reference to sorcery– which is a good stand-in for all the other words he cited in his commentary, and a good entree into the discussion as a whole. My essential argument is that this good man is stepping beyond the text of the handbook in an important way – and extrapolating beyond the spirit of the counsel given, which some of us see as more bounded than many members seem to presume.
The words SORCERER, SORCERERS, SORCERIES, and SORCERY are used 15 times in the Bible (7 times in the Old Testament and 8 times in the New Testament – with four in the Book of Revelation alone). Most of the biblical references to these words (including the specific Old Testament story this man cites) refer to either the Greek word Mag-os (meaning Magician, wise man, or sorcerer) – or the Hebrew word Kashaph (meaning to whisper a spell, practice magic, sorcery, witchcraft).
But in the Book of Revelation, the words SORCER, SORCERIES, SORCERERS mean something more, with root word being the Greek Pharmakeia, in reference to the use of drugs, and medication by one positioning himself or herself as a healer, but who operates, essentially, as a “druggist, poisoner, and sorcerer.” That applies to the following references, among others:
- “Neither repented they of their … sorceries.” (Rev. 9:21).
- “Thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.” (Rev. 18:23).
Clearly, both this man and the Church we are glad to be a part of, are right to caution us against putting our trust in sorcery to heal us. The Book of Mormon itself prophesies that Christ will “cut off witchcrafts out of thy land” (3 Nephi 21:16), and sorcery, witchcraft, and “the magic art” are mentioned in lists of sins (Alma 1:32, Mormon 2:10). “Sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics” are also attributed to “the power of the evil one” (Mormon 1:19), with sorcerers referenced in the Doctrine and Covenants as among those who are “cast down to hell” (DC 76:103,106), and who “shall have their part in . . . the second death” (DC 63:17). The Apostle John himself warns in the Book of Revelation:
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8)
It’s hard to imagine more serious warnings, so it seems pretty important to get right what “sorcery” is referring to (and to not get it wrong either).
As reflected above, there are important distinctions in the scriptural texts themselves worth considering. Yet the impulse among many Latter-day Saints seems much simpler: (1) Anyone who has the credentials to be a “competent” and “licensed” medical professional is worthy of our trust to help us find healing and (2) Anything that seems out of that norm (be it with a label of “energy healing” or “alternative” or “holistic” or “chiropractor” or “natural healing”) must be held in suspicion – as kooky and ineffective at best, and spiritually dangerous (and physically reckless) at worst.
That’s essentially how I suspect many are reading and interpreting the latest handbook instruction. In what follows, I make the case for another interpretation.
1.Two kinds of “competent medical professionals.” Like many members, I have interacted with competent, mainstream medical professionals that are consecrated and dedicated servants – wanting to help assist healing. Yet I have also witnessed many otherwise “competent” medical professionals (with all the appropriate licenses) do great harm – and with all the best of intentions. After all, it’s not the drug companies alone who gave us the opioid epidemic; this would not have happened without many allopathic doctors who took for granted what they were being told by drug representatives to be “evidence-based,” “best practice” and “scientific.”
In my experience, the medical professionals who do the most harm are those who sound a whole lot like what the Handbook warns of – promising near “miraculous” relief or healing from the “special methods” of healing they call Prozac, Xanax, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Adderall, etc., etc. etc. In story after story, I’ve heard of people grappling with terrifying pain get advised by a respected, allopathic doctor that (a) a particular drug offers their best hope for relief (b) that drug will most likely be taken for the rest of their life (c) no other changes are needed in their life to pursue healing and (d) even with their best efforts to be “compliant” in taking these drugs, it’s likely they will still be dealing with this health problem for the rest of their life.
Does that sound like something in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
And by the way: As I argued with colleagues in a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, the concerning patterns witnessed with opioids are not reserved to that branch of medicine alone, with abundant evidence of the same thing happening across medicine, including in my line of research with antidepressants.
2. Two kinds of “energy healers.” I’ve also experienced a similar distinction in the practice of those who go by the name of “energy medicine” (or “holistic” or “natural healing”). As I’ve remarked to many over the years, some speak of herbs and supplements with the same dramatic claims (of “miraculous” healing) that we hear during the 5 o’clock news in regards to synthetic, pharmaceutical compounds. Neither seem believable, although at least “plants and roots” themselves have positive referents in scripture (Alma 46:40).
It’s also the case that some who go by the name of energy healers do make dramatic claims of what they can do – and do charge larger sums of money (both of which, of course, apply to allopathic doctors as well, who have drained many a pocketbook). By and large, however, my experience with practitioners of energy medicine are they are less concerned with money. (Indeed, I’ve never met a practitioner of energy medicine who lives in a mansion or who drives a beamer).
Most energy healers I know (including my own dear, faithful wife and aunt) are also deeply reverential in acknowledging God’s healing power as the source of what they offer – and nothing more. They are humble in looking to Father – and only want to do His will. Which brings us back to the text of the warning itself – which cautions against those claiming to have “have special methods for accessing healing power outside of prayer and properly performed priesthood blessings.”
As with many mainstream doctors, I know energy healers who claim “special methods” quite removed from – and with little seeming interest in or acknowledgment of God’s power. Likewise, I know both mainstream doctors and energy healers who look to God as the great healer – and offer their healing arts only as a consecrated offering to help people find His power.
That difference matters to me; in fact, I think it’s the essential difference that should matter to us all, across these different philosophies of healing. In my view and experience, there are qualified and competent healers across the many branches of medicine – including and far beyond the mainstream of medicine.
My concern is that we are confounding these different kinds of practitioners – lumping all mainstream medical professionals into one category (trustworthy) and all alternative practitioners into another “untrustworthy” category. To those who insist on this categorization as reflecting God’s will, I would close with some honest questions:
1. Do you believe that the “secret combinations” and “evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” only refer to obvious examples such as tobacco companies or organized crime?
My answer: After a decade of studying pharmaceutical companies, I can assure you that they have followed the playbook of Big Tobacco to a T, as have most large industries today (There’s about a hundred things that could be added here, but suffice it to say, it’s not the cute old lady down the street offering Reiki or foot-zoning that have succeeded in sharing something by which “all nations [were] deceived”).
2. Do you believe that “further light and knowledge” in the domain of health is limited only to those with widespread acceptance today as mainstream medical professionals – or “what the FDA approves” or “what the CDC acknowledges”?
My answer: No, no, no. The corruption in mainstream medicine is rampant and troubling. At the same time, enormously beautiful and edifying examples of practices that support deeper healing continue to emerge in our day far outside of the “officially approved” government channels.
3. Is it possible that new healing arts and practices can be revealed (indeed, even “special” ones) that draw on God’s power – rather than compete with it?
My answer: Yes, yes, yes. Some of these have taken on growing prominence, including mindfulness meditation, yoga, and EMDR trauma therapy – all of which are profound departures from mainstream practice, and started off facing enormous ridicule and scorn. (Each of these practices also work directly with energy, spirit and awareness). Likewise, I have found there are many other practices which have less prominence, less respect – and are sometimes seen as “kooky” but which are being explored in research and experimented with by humble practitioners. Like them, I would differentiate these as “Christ-centered energy healing” – and propose that as fundamentally different than the priest-craft variety.
4. How can we best discern which healing practices are in line with the gospel of Christ?
My answer: How about what leads us to real healing? And what invites us to exercise faith and make real changes in our lives? Whereas some allopathic and naturopathic and energy practitioners promise marvelous and miraculous results with little to no change (repentance) or trust in God, I’ve witnessed practitioners with all these labels offer their healing support, while inviting my family to make profound changes in how we live, and while encouraging us to put our trust in God, moment by moment, to guide our healing. [That’s why my own definition of “sorcery” has come to be any practitioner – whatever label and credentials they may have – who vaunts their own preferred “potions” (be they herbs, oils, supplements or drugs) as The Salvation for someone’s condition, especially if they discount faith and minimize or overlook personal changes that are essential to true and lasting healing)].
5. Should Latter-day Saints limit their search for healing only to those practitioners with widespread respect and prominence in American culture?
My answer: Not if you want to find deep and lasting healing! Indeed, those who I have witnessed finding enduring healing from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and even schizophrenia, virtually ALL have been willing to look beyond the boundaries of what is available mainstream medicine.
In the end, perhaps this is the most important question of all. To put it plainly, have you (and those you love) found real, lasting healing from conditions you face? If not, why? Who have you put your trust in to help you find it? And how would God have us seek that healing in our all of our lives?
In the New Testament, we glimpse the powerful and poignant story of a woman who “had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse.” After spending much of her life trusting the physicians held up with respect in her society, she decided to look somewhere else.
To Christ Himself. And that’s when she found healing.
Like this woman, on all these crucial questions of healing, members of the Church of Jesus Christ will rightfully look to those who represent the Lord and seek to guide the Church. In doing so, my prayer is that we won’t interpret their guidance more narrowly than our God of beautiful healing and liberal truth would have us.
Jacob Hess received his PhD from the University of Illinois studying Prozac and healing narratives of depression. Since that time, he has conducted research into mindfulness-based approaches to depression and anxiety, and taught the class Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction to hundreds of adults an teens. Jacob has also helped create online education and digital tools to support those seeking deeper healing from depression, anxiety and pornography addiction. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson, and Ty Mansfield, he recently published, The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.