That time I accidentally told someone to go to a witch doctor

by Editor on May 31, 2016

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“Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

What does this statement sound like to you? A statement used to guilt a person who is sick? The beginning of an attempt to manipulate God? A formula for something we humans can’t guarantee?

Once I was teaching a seminar to Christian university students in Tanzania. We were talking about how to help someone who is suffering, and I said that you should never say “Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

To me, that statement is destructive in a myriad of ways. It’s theologically unsound for a start: it sounds like God is holding out on you, a tease who refuses to heal you until you are good enough. Perhaps he is just like the animist powers, able to be manipulated, but just as capricious. On a human level, it’s also just cruel: it suggests to sick and vulnerable people that their suffering is their own fault. After all, if they had more faith they would be well.

So in this seminar, I said you should never tell someone who was suffering, “Just have faith in God and He will heal you.”

Every single person in the room objected vehemently. None of them viewed it as a manipulative or insensitive statement. They all said they would be happy for someone to say it to them.  I was astounded.

Later on, a Tanzanian friend and cultural mentor illuminated the situation for me.  She said, “If they don’t go to God for healing, they will go to the witchdoctor.” She helped me to see that in the Tanzanian worldview, healing is available. The question is: where will you go for it? To God or to the witchdoctor?

The reason the students objected so strongly to my statement that you shouldn’t say “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” was because it sounded like I was taking getting your healing from God off the table. It sounded like I was saying the only option was to go to the witchdoctor.

To these students, the statement “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” wasn’t a formula, and it wasn’t a quick fix: it was a statement of Christian perseverance! Filling in the blanks, I think the meaning of that statement for them was something more like, “Even when it seems like it would be better to go to the witchdoctor, stick with God and trust Him for your healing.”

I found this whole experience deeply humbling. In some contexts, even African contexts, “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” is a manipulative and cruel statement. Such false teaching must be combatted. But for these particular students in this particular culture, the statement “Just have faith in God and He will heal you” was a call to discipleship. I needed to hear that statement as they heard it. What I read as a sign of Christian immaturity was in fact a sophisticated weapon for combatting the desire to seek out evil forces. How thankful I am for my cultural mentor who helped me to make sense of all this!

The life overseas is one of choosing to leave many things behind: family, friends, familiarity, competence, a particular lifestyle. But this experience brought home for me that it must also be one of choosing to leave behind our superiority, of not assuming that my way of seeing things is right, or even that my theology will be the right fit for this context. It’s choosing to believe that the people I’m among may have a better sense of where God is at work in their world than I do, and that I have a lot to learn from that.

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1Tamie Davis is an Aussie who lives with her husband and two sons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They partner with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students and blog at meetjesusatuni.com

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  • andrewdotnich

    Wow, great story! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • amy medina

    Really interesting, Tamie. thanks for sharing.

  • Anna Wegner

    My interpretation would have been like yours at the beginning of the article. To me, it would sound like you are condemning someone who is suffering with that statement, or promising a *magic* solution. I’m glad you had someone there to explain how it sounded in that culture. It’s easier to notice mistakes in communication where you say a word wrong, or someone misunderstands your poor use of the language. But remembering that the cultural context can change meanings and nuances is important, too. 🙂

  • Wendy Roseman

    I don’t find the statement manipulative toward God and am wondering why you believe that it is theologically unsound. Many times when Jesus healed, He said, “your faith has made you whole.” In each circumstance, those that came to him pressed in and persevered to get to Him or cried out to Him for healing. Jesus answers no matter the size of our faith. Jairus needed Jesus to come and touch his daughter for her to be healed. The Roman soldier said just speak and I know he will be healed. the levels of faith were very different, but Jesus met their expectation. He met them right where their faith was.

    I firmly believe that we need to tell people to have faith, however, we also need to give them the Word to cling to during times of suffering. I don’t know why God heals some and doesn’t heal others, but what I do know is that He calls me to live a life of faith and to bring others along in the faith.

    Last thought. The Word says that life and death are in the power of the tongue. A witch doctor can speak a curse over someone in South Africa, where I live, and the people will believe it and the next thing you know, they’re dead. They have seen that power work. We need to be the ones that show them that speaking God’s Word over their lives is much more powerful than anything the enemy has. This takes faith. I’ll not die but live and declare the works of the Lord. Heal me oh Lord and I’ll be healed. Save me oh Lord, and I’ll be saved. His breath is life to me. If two or three shall agree on touching any one thing, it shall be done. When we speak the Word, we speak life! Thank you for this post, it truly does shed light on how we speak cross-culturally!

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