Praying for the Sick–Part 2
A few days ago I received an email from a friend whose daughter has recently been diagnosed with a very serious brain tumor that will, unless something unusual happens, take her life in the next 12-24 months. She and her husband are missionaries with a very effective outreach to the men and women serving in the Armed Forces. We know them well and have great confidence in the work they are doing for the Lord. My friend’s daughter is only 40 years old. Here’s a snippet from the email I received:
There are literally now thousands of people praying for God to intervene, and we thank you immensely. Keep it up–we believe in a miracle-working God.
He closed his email with these words:
Teary eyed, but believing good things are ahead,
Almost every day I receive emails like that. We all do. Here in the United States we’re currently debating health care precisely because we have so many sick people. And every day we’re reading about the spreading H1N1 flu pandemic. I have a friend in cancer treatment in Dallas, several more in Tupelo, and not a week goes by without someone asking me to pray for them regarding cancer, either their own or the cancer of a friend or loved one. Another friend is in the hospital with a rare strain of encephalitis. We have been praying for all these, and of course for Colson Taylor who was born on June 26 and has had a hard go of it ever since.
There seems to be no end of disease and sickness. It goes hand-in-hand with living on what playwright Noel Coward called this “death-sentenced planet.” And for two thousand years Christians have followed the example of Jesus in caring for the sick and dying. In every branch of the Christian movement, our people have started missionary clinics, hospitals, sanitariums, rest homes, leprosariums, rural health care clinics, pharmacies and medical schools, and we have worked to provide clean food and water for those without it. Christians are not the only ones doing these areas, but in many places we have led the way. From Chittagong to Galmi, from Jos to Asuncion the followers of Christ have prayed and given and sacrificed to help the suffering in the name of Jesus.
For two thousand years Christians have followed the example of Jesus in caring for the sick and dying.
As my friend’s email demonstrates, often the concern comes very close to home. He knows fully the medical prognosis for his daughter. I know he knows it because he has written about it openly. And in light of that, knowing that at the present time there is no medical cure for her brain tumor, he thanks people for their prayers, and then he says, “Keep it up-we believe in a miracle-working God.”
When I read those words I thought to myself, “That’s the right balance. That’s how a Christian talks and prays when faced with a medical emergency.”
You get the best medical help you can.
You face reality squarely.
You ask your friends to pray.
You remind yourself and others that we believe in a miracle-working God.
And you keep believing, though it be through teary eyes, and even though the “good things” that are ahead may come in heaven, not on earth.
Because the daughter so firmly believes in Jesus, her eternal destiny is secure.
Because the father believes in the sovereignty and the goodness the Lord, he is able to keep believing.
What Healing Really Means
So that brings us back to our central text. In Part 1 of this message, we looked at James 5:14-15 in detail. I’m going to repeat those verses here, adding the words of verse 16.
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
As I consider this passage in light of the whole Bible, the following two statements seem very true to me:
1) It is not always God’s will to heal physically or no sick believer would ever die.
2) It is often God’s will to heal or else why is James 5:14-15 in the Bible?
Sometimes we focus on one statement to the exclusion of the other, but we need to hold on to both of them. I do think that we often define “healing” too narrowly. Healing means more than simply “removing the disease.” Healing does not mean running the clock backwards so that the accident never happened or the cancer never came. Life doesn’t work that way. Healing always moves us forward. We are “healed” as we come into a right relationship with God. Then it touches every part of life–body, soul, and spirit. It involves the healing of broken relationships and brings us to a place where we can receive God’s blessings in a new and powerful way. Let me mention again the quote that clarified the issue for me: “Healing in the Bible is not becoming what we were but becoming all that God intends us to be.” Think about that for a while. When we pray for healing, we dare not focus so much on the physical that we forget about the spiritual, emotional, and relational sides of life. We are not healed until we are made whole on every level of our existence.
Healing always moves us forward.
Our vision of “healing” often means, “Change these circumstances.”
God’s vision of “healing” involves making us more like his Son (Romans 8:28-29).
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t pray fervently for healing in the first sense of the term. I’ve been there more than once with my loved ones. In those desperate moments, all we can see is the suffering of someone who means the world to us. We can hardly do more than to pray, “Lord, please heal because you are our own hope.” Those prayers are good and right and we definitely should pray that way. But even as we say those words, we also know that we are like children looking through a keyhole.
We see so little.
God sees so much.
We see a part.
God sees the whole.
And this is where our concept of healing needs to include becoming all that God wants us to be. So that means we must say by faith, “Lord, do what you know to be best in this situation. We ask for physical healing through whatever means you choose to grant it. Glorify yourself through the prayers of your people. Build our faith to trust more deeply in you. Do what is truly best in your eyes, whatever that may be, so that we may become more like Christ and you may be glorified and the watching world may be drawn to Jesus.”
Some Conclusions Based on God’s Character
As I study James 5, my overriding sense is that praying for the sick should be the normal work of the church. This is a noble ministry that should be recovered in our day. Perhaps we would see God’s power in a greater way if we dared to believe and obey his Word.
Here are eight conclusions that summarize my current understanding of how James 5:14-16 should be applied in our day.
A. Since God is sovereign, we cannot know in advance what the outcome of our prayers will be. Therefore, we should pray with humility, not making promises we can’t keep. At the end of the day, God is God and we are not. We must keep this perspective before us while we pray for the sick.
Praying for the sick is a noble ministry that should be recovered in our day.
B. Since God is omnipotent, we should expect that God will move from heaven in answer to our prayers, often in ways we cannot humanly explain. Therefore, we should pray boldly and ask God for the healing we seek. Sometimes when visiting the sick, we may feel almost intimidated by the gravity of the situation. But if we have our eyes upon God, we will not fear to ask him to heal his children.
C. Since God invites us to pray, we should pray fervently for what we need. James 5:16 says that the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective. To borrow a phrase from an older version, they “avail much” with God. They matter to God. He pays attention to fervent prayers. The Greek word for “fervent” means “boiling.” Boiling prayers get God’s attention. Do you know what a “boiling” prayer is? You’ll discover what that means when the doctor says, “We’re taking your child away for surgery. It will probably last two hours.” When they wheel your child away, you’ll learn what “boiling prayer” means. Nothing can distract you then. Praying like this speaks of total concentration. Better a short prayer from the heart than a long prayer that puts you to sleep.
D. Since everything God creates is good, we should view both prayer and medicine as gifts to help us when we are sick. This point seems obvious to me but it may be controversial to some people. God doesn’t ask us to choose between prayer and medicine. Pray, and take your pills to the glory of God. Seek the Lord when you are weak and ask for his help. And do not despise his help if it comes in the form of surgery or chemotherapy.
Boiling prayers get God’s attention.
E. Since God knows what is best, we must believe that when healing does not come, it is for our good and His glory. This is nothing more than a summary of what Romans 8:28 teaches. Sometime we will see this very clearly and others times we must choose to believe it by faith. But it is still true in every case whether we fully understand it or not.
F. Since faith is a gift from God, we understand that God will give the faith to believe when he wants to move in unusual power. In any case, our job is always to pray regardless of our own “feelings” one way or the other. Many times when I pray for the sick I am not certain how God intends to answer my prayers. But I’m not responsible for the answers, only for the prayers. I do believe that sometimes as we pray, we will sense God’s presence in an unusual way. If someone is healed in answer to our prayers, it is not our faith that did the healing. Faith is only an instrument for God’s power, and even faith itself is a gift from God.
G. Since sin may block God’s healing power, we are fully justified to inquire as to a person’s spiritual state before we pray for them. Compassionate elders will know how to deal wisely with the sheep that are entrusted to their care. Certainly we need to ask, “Are you aware of anything in your life that may have brought this sickness upon you or is hindering God’s healing power?” When the answer is yes, we can then deal with that issue as part of the whole healing process.
H. Since God’s Word is true, we glorify him when we obey his Word, regardless of the outcome. We don’t have to fully understand James 5:14-16 in order to pray for the sick. All we have to do is obey the part we do understand. Prayer always involves us in mysteries that go beyond mere human experience. Who can explain how prayer “works"? Not me. And yet I know it does. And that is the testimony of Christians across the centuries. We believe what we do not fully understand. God doesn’t call us to understand every detail in advance. We are to obey what we do know and then leave the results with him.
Who can explain how prayer “works"? Not me.
Partial and Temporary
There is one final word that needs to be said. As important as healing is, we must remember that all healing in this life is partial and temporary. Ultimate healing will not come until the dead in Christ are raised when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This strikes me as a very important point. Sometimes we speak of believers who died after a long illness as having been healed in heaven. But the Bible doesn’t say it that way. It’s true that those who die in Christ are with him in heaven from the moment of their earthly death (2 Corinthians 5:8). And it’s also true that their sufferings in every sense are over forever. But as long as their physical bodies lie buried in the ground, we should not say that they have been truly healed. We won’t be completely healed until our mortal bodies put on immortality in the resurrection when Christ returns (1 Corinthians 15:50-53). Biblical salvation includes the redemption of the body, not just the redemption of the soul in heaven (Romans 8:23). If we deny or downplay the physical resurrection of believers, we are no better off than the followers of various Eastern religions who don’t believe in any sort of resurrection of the body.
All healing in this life is partial and temporary.
I’m thinking as I write these words of my dear friend Gary Olson, who died in November 1999. He has been on my mind as we approach the ten-year anniversary of his death. I know that he is in heaven and I know that his suffering is over and I also know he is in a state of perfect heavenly joy. Is he in a better place? Yes. Has he been healed? Not completely. Not as long as his mortal remains are still on the earth. I will not be satisfied until I see him once again, hear his hearty laugh, and feel him put his arm on my shoulder and say with his distinctive deep voice, “Pastor Ray, how are you doing?” Dreams are fine and memories are sweet, but nothing can take the place of seeing our loved ones once again.
A Foretaste of Things to Come
If I think of it that way, then the question of physical healing comes into proper focus. Can God heal the sick? Yes. Does he? All the time. Does God sometimes move from heaven to deliver someone from desperate illness? Yes, and I think it happens more often than we expect. We should rejoice in every healing, no matter how large or small it seems to us. But let’s remember that everyone healed in this life will die eventually. Death still reigns on planet earth (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Biblical salvation includes the redemption of the body, not just the redemption of the soul in heaven.
It’s almost as if God is saying, “So you’re impressed with what I can do about cancer? Just wait till you see what I can do with a dead person.” All physical healing is like a tiny down payment, a deposit, a tantalizing foretaste, a guarantee of greater miracles to come when the dead in Christ are raised and transformed at the Second Coming. When I think of all those I have buried over the years and how much I miss them, I want to say, “Lord Jesus, come back today. Empty the graveyards, and let the celebration begin!”
Of the 41 people who experienced miracles of healing in the gospels, all died eventually. Even Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11) eventually died again. And my friend Libby Redwine (about whom I wrote in the last message) died over a decade ago. She lived 12 or 13 years after we prayed for her (for which I give thanks to God), but she eventually died, as I will too unless I should live until the coming of the Lord.
Why are some prayers for healing answered and some not? There is no one answer that can fully explain God’s purposes, but I am content with the words of Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” I can state my own theology of prayer for healing in one sentence: We do the praying, and God does the healing, in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will. We are to pray earnestly, fervently, unitedly, repeatedly, obediently, and with all the faith God gives us. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
We do the praying, and God does the healing, in his own time, in his own way, according to his own will.
I come to the end of this two-part series on praying for the sick with great joy in my heart even as I bow before the mystery of a God whose ways are far beyond my meager understanding. Through prayer we have the privilege of lifting the burden from our brothers and sisters. Through prayer we may become agents of healing to those who are sick. What an honor to be used of God in this way.
Here is my final exhortation. Let us pray boldly, confidently, humbly, in faith believing that as we pray for the sick and dying God hears, he cares, and he will do what is best in every situation. When we pray for the sick, we are doing the work of Jesus in the world. Fear not, keep believing, and keep on praying.
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Praying for the Sick
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