Each Sunday, we have an opportunity to share our prayer requests. Very often people share requests for physical healing, either for themselves or for their sick loved ones. Have you ever thought about what we expect to happen? Is saying a prayer for a sick person, simply a show of solidarity, like when a person says they will keep you in their thoughts? Or do we believe that God will intervene in some miraculous way? There are a wide variety of opinions on this. I have Christian friends who believe you just need to put in the request and God will heal every time. Unless there is some deep sin or a great lack of faith, healing should be a regular occurrence. There are others who strongly insist that God never heals anymore, it was a temporary measure until we had a Bible. Others think that healing is technically possible but highly unlikely. I have a friend who applied James teaching on healing out of obedience to the Bible but with full assurance that nothing would happen. The Roman Catholic sacrament of last rites began as what James describes but since people often died right after it developed into last rites. So what are we to do with all of this? Let us work through James teaching on this.
The way James is describing the anointing of oil and the prayer of faith, it looks as if he expects this to be an ongoing part of the church’s activity. There is no sense that it is an empty ritual. Nor is there a sense that it is only temporary and that after the Bible was compiled that it would disappear. We have to understand this in the context of the rest of early Christianity. There are a few examples of physical healing in the Old Testament, but it is not a frequent activity. But things change dramatically in the New Testament. One of the things we see Jesus doing very often is the healing of the sick. Jesus, replying to the doubts of John the Baptist, said this: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22 ESV) It could be argued that healing was only a part of the activity of Jesus, a sign that he was the Christ and the Son of God. Is there any indication that healing would be a part of the activity of Christians? At one point, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples and this is what happened: “And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” (Mark 6:13 ESV) When we get to the book of Acts, we see healing continuing to be a part of the activity of the church. “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3:1–8 ESV) We see Paul involved in the same sort of activity. “It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” (Acts 28:8–9 ESV) Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, includes gifts of healing as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit available to Christians. The biblical witness is that healing of sickness does take place. But what about experience? Is there evidence that Christians experience supernatural healing? While perhaps not as often as we would like, there are many examples of such experiences. If you are skeptical after seeing healing evangelists on TV with people piling wheel chairs and sticks for the blind on the stage, I understand. Unfortunately, there are some charlatans that take advantage of the desperation of the sick. However, the existence of frauds does not mean that the real thing does not exist. We know that there is counterfeit money but we don’t reject the reality of genuine cash. I have heard many testimonies of people who have been healed. Many were skeptical about Christianity in general and were shocked when they were healed. Sometimes it was the person who prayed for the sick person who was the skeptic and they were the one shocked. This happened to me. I was asked to anoint a person in a Bible study with oil and pray for their healing as the doctors seemed unable to help. I had no faith that the prayer would help and yet the next week they reported that they had been healed. We should, as James teaches, have an expectation that God will heal when we pray in faith.
Wait a minute. Why are there so many people in the hospital? Why do Christians get sick and die? Why are there disabilities? What is going on? It is one thing to say that God does heal and it is another thing, as some Christians claim, that God always heals. A good reminder is this verse: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 John 5:14 ESV) According to God’s will. This is hard for us to take sometimes, but it is God who is in charge, it is his will that counts. Unfortunately, there are times that God’s will does not include physical healing. I am sure that Joni Earkson Tada prayed for healing. While God’s refusal may have been disappointing, looking back we can see the working of God’s will, as she has been used and continues to be used for God’s kingdom in a way that could not have happened if she had been healed. Some would say that it was a mistake on Joni’s part that she was not healed, as it is always God’s plan to heal. That is why we have to go to the Bible. There are a number of examples of people who were not healed but the best is the example of Paul. “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9 ESV) We don’t know the details of Paul’s thorn but we do know that Paul prayed for healing and was refused. If Paul was refused, it seems strange that we would expect that we would always be healed. The final point is a matter of logic. The way our world works is that people are born and people die. While we are deeply disappointed when certain people are not healed, what do we really expect? Do we think that we can keep coming back and getting healed, indefinitely putting of death? All those people that Jesus healed during his earthly ministry, all of them eventually got sick again and died. That is the way of human existence. Our question should not so much be why a certain person was not healed but rather why they were healed.
Having looked at the biblical data, we may be more confused than before. Does God heal or doesn’t he? Yes. Yes God heals and yes sometimes God does not heal physically. Does that mean that we should pray for people with a doubting attitude, not really believing anything will happen? No, we are told to pray in faith. But how do we pray in faith if we don’t know if God is going to heal? Look closely at what James says. “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:15–16 ESV) The sick will be saved and the sinners will be healed. That is exactly the opposite of what we would expect. I think that suggests that healing can look different than we expect. It is not always as straight forward as a person has a disease, a prayer is prayed and the disease is gone. Sometimes it is emotional or spiritual healing that takes place. While that might not be our preference, sometimes it is more important. My dad was sick for three years not being able to produce his own blood. I wanted a physical healing for him but that did not take place. What did happen was that a couple of weeks before he died, my dad prayed to accept Jesus after years of refusing to even talk about God. That was far better than what I could have ever hoped for. Remember what I said about the Apostle Paul praying for healing and God refusing? That is not exactly accurate. God refused to remove the thorn but granted Paul grace to endure. Who are we to say that grace is not healing? We need to pray for the person with cancer and we need to pray for healing. That healing may include becoming cancer free. Or it may include the healing of a relationship that had been broken for a decade. That healing may include peace and strength for facing the challenges ahead. The point is that when we pray, we must trust that God will respond with his healing power. We might not be able to predict what that healing will look like, but we should have faith that God heals.
Does God still heal? The Bible paints a picture of a church with God’s healing power very active. That healing includes physical healing. Physical healing is not a guaranteed blessing, despite what some groups teach. The truth is that everyone will get sick and die. But God demonstrates his love for us from time to time with special gifts of healing. Sometimes, healing is about the mind, heart or spirit. Sometimes healing comes in unexpected ways. We can never predict the way God will answer our prayers. But we must pray in faith, trusting in the Lord our God. As James reminds us: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16 ESV)