Suffering, Healing, and the Prayer of Faith - Part Six
We’ve looked closely at James 5:13-18 and must now address the question: Why doesn’t God always heal the sick? The reason why many are not healed may be answered in any one of eight ways. Continue reading . . .
We’ve looked closely at James 5:13-18 and must now address the question: Why doesn’t God always heal the sick? The reason why many are not healed may be answered in any one of eight ways. I’ve written on this more extensively in my book, Tough Topics (Crossway) in case you wish to go into more detail than is found below.
(1) Although we must be careful in giving more weight to the role of faith than does the NT itself, we also must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith that God delights to honor. This does not mean that every time a person isn’t healed it is because of a defective faith or that if only a more robust and doubt-free faith were in exercise that healing would inevitably follow. But it does mean that faith is very important.
(2) As we’ve just seen in James 5, sometimes healing does not occur because of the presence of sin for which there has been no confession or repentance. Again, please do not conclude from this that each time a person isn’t healed it is because he/she has committed some specific sin of which they have refused to repent. But in some cases (not necessarily all) this is undoubtedly true.
(3) Although it sounds odd to many at first hearing, healing may not happen because the sick don’t want it to happen. Jesus asked the paralyzed man in John 5:6, “Do you want to be healed?” What on the surface may appear to be a ridiculous question is seen, on further examination, to be profoundly insightful.
Some people who suffer from a chronic affliction become accustomed to their illness and to the pattern of life it requires. Their identity is to a large extent wrapped up in their physical disability. I realize that sounds strange to those of us who enjoy robust health. Why would anyone prefer to stay sick? Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to be healed? But I’ve actually known a handful of folk who in a very real sense enjoy their dependence on others and the special attention it brings them. They are convinced that the only reason people take note of them and show them kindness and compassion is because of their affliction. If they were healed they fear losing the love on which they’ve come to depend. Remaining sick is to their way of thinking a small price to pay to retain the kindness and involvement of those who otherwise would simply ignore them. Then, of course, in some instances people don’t want the responsibilities that would come with being healthy. To their way of thinking, it’s easier (and perhaps even more profitable) to remain the object of other’s generosity and good will than it would be to be healthy and thus expected to get a job and show up 9-5 on a daily basis. This is not a common phenomenon, but it does happen in a few cases.
(4) We must also consider the principle articulated in James 4:2, where we are told that “you do not have, because you do not ask.” The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray. Perhaps they pray once or twice, and then allow discouragement to paralyze their petitions. Prayer for healing should be prolonged, sustained, persevering, and on occasion combined with fasting.
(5) Some are not healed because the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed. I’m not suggesting that all physical disease is demonically induced. But consider the case of the woman in Luke 13 “who had a disabling spirit [or, a spirit of infirmity] for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself” (Luke 13:11). According to Jesus, “Satan” had “bound” her (Luke 13:16; cf. Acts 10:38). It takes considerable discernment, time, and patience to determine if an illness has a demonic cause, together with even greater commitment to praying for that individual and leading them to address the reasons for their spiritual oppression. When these factors are ignored, healing may not be forthcoming.
(6) We must also consider the mystery of divine providence. There are undoubtedly times and seasons in the purposes of God during which his healing power is withdrawn or at least largely diminished. God may have any number of reasons for this to which we are not privy, whether to discipline a wayward and rebellious church or to create a greater desperation for his power or to wean us off excessive dependence on physical comfort and convenience or any number of other possibilities.
(7) Then there is 1 Peter 3:7, where the apostle says to men: “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
If you want your prayers to be helped and not hindered you have to live with your wife in gentleness and kindness and with concerted effort to understand what makes her tick and what she needs most from you. You must speak of her and treat her as someone who has experienced God’s saving grace no less than you have. You must honor her! All belittling and criticism and sarcasm and devaluation of her must stop! Now! And forever!
[But what must we say when the problem isn’t the absence of faith or the presence of a demon or the refusal to repent or the failure to pray or a lack of desire or the failure to honor our wives? How then do we account for on-going physical affliction?]
(8) Often times there are dimensions of spiritual growth and moral development and increase in the knowledge of God in us that he desires more than our physical health, experiences that in his wisdom God has determined can only be attained by means of or in the midst of or in response to less than perfect physical health. In other words, healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can only be attained by means of physical weakness.
More important to God than our physical health is our spiritual holiness. This isn’t to say the body isn’t important. God isn’t a Gnostic! He values and has redeemed our bodies and now dwells within them as his eternal temple. But while we live in this corrupt and decaying world, inner and spiritual conformity to the image of Christ often comes only at the expense of or at least simultaneous with physical deterioration and suffering (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
If I believe Romans 8:28, that God sovereignly orchestrates all events in my life for my ultimate spiritual good (and preeminently for his ultimate glory), I can only conclude that, all things being equal, if I’m not healed it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that he, in his infinite wisdom and kindness, knows can only be attained by means of my physical affliction and the lessons of submission, dependency, and trust in God that I learn from it.
In the final analysis, we may never know why a person isn’t healed. What, then, ought to be our response? In the first place, don’t stop praying! Consider the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” which he repeatedly asked God to remove from him (2 Cor. 12:7-10). But why should Paul bother to pray for release from something that God wills to inflict? The answer is because Paul didn’t know what God’s will was in this particular case until such time as God chose to make it known. And neither do you or I know God’s will with regard to any particular illness that we may suffer.
If the Lord had never said in response to Paul’s prayer, “No, it isn’t my will that you be relieved of this thorn,” Paul would have been justified, indeed required, to continue to pray for his healing. I once heard my friend Jack Taylor put it this way: “Never cease praying for healing until you are shown otherwise either by divine revelation or death!” If you are able to discern, as did Paul, through some prophetic disclosure or other legitimate biblical means that it is not God’s will now or ever to heal you, you may cease asking him to do so. Otherwise, short of death itself, you should persevere in prayer. You never know but that God’s ultimate and long-term will for you is complete healing after he has for a season accomplished his short-term sanctifying purpose.
In Paul’s case, the only reason he ceased asking for deliverance was because God, in effect, told him to shut up! “No, Paul. I’m not going to heal you. It isn’t my will in this instance that you be set free from this affliction. Rather, I have a higher purpose in view: your humility and my Son’s glory manifest in the context of your on-going weakness.”
Finally, we must be willing to bear the stigma of perceived failure. It isn’t failure. But it may be “perceived” by others as failure. We have succeeded when we have obeyed the Scriptures to pray for the sick. Whether or not they are healed rests with God.
John Wimber once said, “I decided long ago that if one hundred people receive prayer and only one is healed, it is better than if none receive prayer and no one is healed” (Power Healing, xviii). I agree.