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Prayers for Healing

May 13, 2019

In yesterday’s adult Sunday school class we got into a discussion about praying for healing when healing doesn’t happen. How does this affect how we pray? I would like to explore this a little further.

In the ministry of Jesus there are several examples of Jesus calling on people to pray with faith. In one famous passage, he says that if your faith is as large as a mustard seed you will be able to move a mountain “and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). In another passage he says that if you ask anything in his name it will be given (John 14:14). Several of his parables also call on his followers to be persistent in prayer and believe that if you ask, it will be given (Matthew 7:7-11; Luke 18:1-8). And many of his healings are attributed to the faith of the recipient (Mathew 8:5-14; Mark 5:24-34).

From these many passages one certainly gets the impression that Jesus saw physical, mental, social and spiritual healing as God’s will for people (and a sign of the in-breaking kingdom of God), and that our faith is a key component in those healings. Praying for power and success is never envisioned by Jesus; prayer is for that which is unselfish and brings wholeness and the deepest well-being. So if we are praying for what is helpful and healing for another, we ought to pray for it with utter faith and confidence and persistence, without any doubt at all (James 1:5-8). This was the way I was determined to pray when I was a teenager and college student.

After my freshman year in college, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and taken to the hospital for surgery. I prayed with utter faith that she would be healed. To prove my faith, I told other people that she was now healed. The surgery found no cancer. I felt elated and vindicated.

Following that experience, I became even more convinced of the power of faith in prayer. During a semester in Honduras, I worshiped with a Pentecostal-style church that was growing rapidly and practiced what I would call “fighting prayers.” Those prayers were like wrestling matches with God (and the devil)–not letting go until we got a blessing. That church experienced one wonder after another.

When I became a pastor, following years of seminary, I was drawn again to this way of praying. I read a book by a cancer doctor called “Love, Medicine & Miracles” that encouraged the use of spiritual visualization to help hold cancer in check and overcome it (supplemented by chemotherapy). It was a kind of “power of positive thinking,” unleashing the healing energies of love, laughter, and imagination.

A middle-aged man in my congregation had a rare form of cancer, and a huge tumor was removed from his abdomen. The chances of the cancer coming back were over 90%, so the congregation got to work praying. We prayed for this man–a man beloved by everyone who met him–fervently and regularly. I encouraged everyone to have absolute faith. A year later, the doctor thought his cancer had returned, and ordered surgery; but when they opened up his abdomen, all they found was scar tissue from the original surgery. When the man came out of the anesthesia and was told what had been found, he raised his fists in the air and shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!”

But another year later the cancer did return–with a vengeance. He was so full of cancer, the surgeon simply sewed him back up. Chemotherapy was ordered. Several months later, when his time appeared to be short, he told me he had heard a voice tell him, “I have work for you to do.” It gave him confidence that his time was not yet up. But a week later he was dead.

This was not my only experience of deep disappointment following intense prayers of faith. I had prayed for others as well, utterly confident that God had brought about physical healing, only to to see them die as well. I needed to rethink prayer.

There were various ways I could view what had happened:

  • I hadn’t prayed with enough faith (or the person being prayed for did not have enough faith).
  • A hidden sin or negative attitude had blocked the power of healing.
  • I had prayed wrongly. God had not wanted healing for those particular people.
  • God had indeed healed them, but not in the way I had envisioned.
  • Prayers for healing don’t work.
  • Prayers for healing have limited effectiveness.

I didn’t agree with any of these options. None of them was right, or right enough.

I looked again in scripture. I noticed 2 Timothy 4:20, “Trophimus I left ill in Miletus.” And 2  Corinthians 12:8, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.” Not everyone gets healed, even in the New Testament.

Of course the most famous example of God not fulfilling a prayer is Jesus’ own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus prayed this repeatedly. Surely he was not lacking in faith or goodness. The key line is when Jesus says, “Yet not what I want but what you want.” Our faith must never be that our prayers and desires are perfect; our faith must never be in our prayers; our faith must always be in God–and we are not God. The purpose of prayer is not to get what we think is good and right. The purpose of prayer is to strengthen us to do what is good and right and to trust in God no matter what the consequences or outcomes.

Life contains tragedy and absurdity. Abraham discovered that when God told him to sacrifice the promised child–the miracle baby Abraham and Sarah had hoped for for so long. Job experienced it when all that he loved was violently taken away. Jesus faced it at his arrest and while dying on a cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Tragedy and absurdity are littered around us. God allows it. It is part of the human condition and the larger condition of nature. What God wants us to do is not cave into despair. Instead, God’s will is for us to believe in goodness and love and hope regardless of what happens. God’s will is for us to work and pray and cry out for these things without ceasing. Because in that crying and praying and hoping and loving the darkness is surely pushed back. The mountain will move.

God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. That’s what Paul discovered when the thorn in his flesh would not, could not, be removed. Our acceptance of our weakness; our acceptance of mystery; our persistence in hope and love and letting God be God–that’s how we are healed.

I pray for healing for those around me (and for myself as well). I pray for physical healing, but more importantly, for spiritual healing. I anoint with oil. I bless. I believe in the healing power of God through words and signs and faith. I use medicine. I pray for physicians and nurses and medical technicians to be used by God. I pray for peace, stillness, letting go of all fear. I pray that ultimately God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.

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