Healing and Faith: What’s the Connection?

Healing and Faith: What’s the Connection?

There are no “rules” or “laws” but there are basic principles

Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.”

 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. . . [The father] said, “. . . It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”

 Jesus said to him, “If you are able!  All things can be done for the one who believes.”

 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

 Jesus . . . rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “. . . Come out of him, and never enter him again!”

 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.”

 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When Jesus had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?”

 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.” —Mark 9:17-29

Healing and miraculous works were integral not only to Jesus’ earthly ministry, but also to the ministry he assigned to his followers:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  —Matthew 10:8

The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.  —John 14:12-14

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit. . .  —John 15:7-8

. . . If you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. . . Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.  —John 16:23-24

A great number of people would gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing [to Peter and the other apostles] the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.  —Acts 5:16

 [When Paul was on the island of Malta] . . . the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were healed. [NB: These were not believers being healed, but pagans.]  —Acts 28:9

God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing. . .   —1 Corinthians 12:28

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them. . . The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  —James 5:14-16

These statements correlate with a concept that has led to a great deal of tension among God’s people—i.e., that God’s powerful intervention in human affairs is tied to our faith:

[Jesus] could do no deed of power [in Nazareth], except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.  —Mark 6:5-6

To the woman who had been healed because she had crawled up in the midst of the crowd and touched his cloak, Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. . .”  —Luke 8:47

“Don’t fear. Only believe, and she will be healed.”  —Luke 8:50

To the centurion Jesus said, “. . . let it be done for you according to your faith.”  —Matthew 8:13

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.  —Matthew 15:28

[Jesus] said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  —Mark 5:34

Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  –Mark 11:22-24 RSV

Concerning the lame man who had just been healed and was walking and leaping, Peter said,  “. . . By faith in [Jesus’] name, his name itself has made this man strong. . . and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health. . .”  —Acts 3:16

Paul, looking at [the man] intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk.  —Acts 14:9-10

You may have heard of the complexities in translating the Greek noun πίστις  pistis that is translated faith, and that in verb form means believe or trust. The major problem is that it also can mean faithfulness. Sometimes it appears to mean both. Usually only context can determine the writer’s intention. But for our purposes that doesn’t matter. Whether it’s our faith that permits God to intervene powerfully in this world, or our faithfulness, the dilemma is still the same: It seems in part to depend on us, on our choices, on our spiritual state.

Alas, in some Christian circles it is common to “blame the victim” when a miracle fails to materialize—a destructive but unfortunately widespread error. Usually the issue is healing. There are variations, but a typical application of this doctrine might occur if a sick person comes to me for prayer. I pray, and the person isn’t healed, so I say some variant of the following: “Well, sister, there must be something in your life that is preventing your healing. You don’t have enough faith or you haven’t repented from [whatever]. . . or you have sin in your life or your healing is blocked by a spiritual inheritance from your parents or [any number of other accusations].”  This kind of talk virtually always has devastating results. The idea is wrong. I’m NOT advocating anything like this pernicious doctrine.

There is no legitimate place in Christian experience for putting our faith in our faith, or in our own level of righteousness or purity—our confidence, our trust, is in God alone.

If you are ill and you (and/or others) prayed for healing and nothing seems to have happened, it is not appropriate for me to say to you, “If you only had enough faith, you would be healed.”  Even should I genuinely believe that was the case (and I certainly would not), it would be hurtful to state my suspicions out loud.

If what I just said is correct, however, that leaves us with a conundrum, namely, what to do with all the passages about faith that I quoted above!?

Babies, bathwater

Attempts to avoid the blame-the-victim heresy often create serious collateral damage: In order to sidestep that fallacy, many believers have gone so far in the other direction that it has become taboo even to discuss faith in connection with healing. If you mention faith and healing in the same breath, you may be accused of blaming the sick person for being a “bad Christian.” But this is discarding the treasure along with the trash. Yes, it is true that it is entirely inappropriate to blame sick people for not being healed, accusing them of failing to possess sufficient faith or of being too sinful or whatever. But No, it is not true that faith is totally unrelated to healing. Refusing to see the connection between trust and healing can be as destructive as the blame-the-victim mentality.

To see this conundrum from a more objective viewpoint, let’s turn to other matters that carry slightly less historical baggage. Many statements in scripture, having nothing to do with healing, are equally problematic to anyone who soberly considers them. Examples:

Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.  —Romans 6:14

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.  —I John 3:9

We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them.  —I John 5:18

Does that describe anyone you know? I doubt it. The Bible says it, but observation tells us it’s just not true!

Note also the following:

[Addressing Judah] When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  —Isaiah 43:1-2

Bless Yahweh, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases. . .  —Psalm 103:2-3

Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you. . .  —Psalm 91:9-10

Trust in Yahweh, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in Yahweh, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  —Psalm 37:3-4

Do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  —Matt. 6:31-33

I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.  —John 14:13-14

What do we do with statements such as these? Generally, we ignore them—an understandable approach, because they are highly troubling to many of us. They don’t reflect our experience. Most of us are quite ready to say, “I don’t care what it says in I John, I’m not free from sin; I sin all the time.” And even when attempting to trust God with all that is within us, we have seen innumerable instances when we were not protected from harm. And plenty of believers go hungry, and lack adequate clothing and shelter. And no, we don’t experience anything that even closely resembles the promise that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, God will grant.

Are all these statements simply wrong? Are they hyperbolic? They’re so far from our experience, are we not justified in ignoring them, just as we generally ignore the link between faith and healing?

We ignore them to our own detriment.

I suggest that these statements reflect, in some profound way, the heart of the Father. They are inestimably valuable.

 They reveal the way God himself would like to see us live. I believe he wants these things to be true even more than we do (which means, of course, that they are not out of the realm of possibility). The economy of the spiritual world is infinitely complex. God has given free will to us as well as to billions of other human beings and spiritual beings. In the dynamics of the spiritual realm, nothing is simple—there are no straightforward “laws” that say, “Do this and such-and-such will happen.” Nevertheless Christians sometimes say that if you act or believe in a particular way, “God has to respond” (I’ve heard those precise words on several occasions). No way! That’s just wrong-headed, and it’s little different from pagan magic. Simply “claiming” something to be true, or “claiming” a healing to be real, for another example, doesn’t make it true or real, in spite of the common assertion by many Christians that such is the case. Remember the statement about Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Tales: “He’s not a tame lion, you know!”

Come fly!

There is a correlation between faith and God’s ability to work miracles and to respond positively to our prayers, but it’s not a one-to-one correlation. These scriptural promises must not be taken as immutable laws: We must not take the commandment to have faith in a legalistic sense, with the idea that failing to have strong faith offends God and makes him less inclined to bless us. Rather, I believe we should see these commands to trust—as well as the staggering promises of God’s protection, the promise of sinlessness, the promise that he will give us whatever we ask, and so on—more as joyous calls for us, to use a phrase from the Narnia Tales, to go “further up and further in.” I believe God is saying, “There’s no limit to what I can do and what I want to do in your lives. It’s a complex world, and I’m not stupid—I’m as aware as you are that life doesn’t look like this. But I want you to know that, whatever the level of interaction I have with you, more is always available. Don’t be satisfied with what you are currently experiencing. There’s more! Let’s explore together the further inroads for wholeness and justice that I can make on this planet, with your cooperation.”

We tend to make the concept “Have faith” into a stern COMMAND, in the same way that we ensnare virtually every other aspect of our relationship with God in a morass of legalism and religion. An example: God told his people to have a “family day” each week (the fourth of the ten commandments, loosely but I believe sensibly translated); but that was quickly made into a legalistic commandment that people felt they had to follow meticulously in order to avoid getting onto God’s bad side. Yet the entire purpose of the “family day” God gave his people—a.k.a. the sabbath—was to bless them, to help families draw closer together, to give them (as well as their employees, slaves, and even working animals!) a brief vacation. It was not intended as yet another burdensome hoop to jump through.

Patrick is the third of our five children. When he was nineteen months old and our family was hiking in a park, Patrick climbed onto a boulder that was about six feet high. I held out my arms to him and called, “Jump!” If you’ve ever tried that with a toddler, you know the routine, which I learned from our two older children when they were small: They would reach out and grab my arms, and then they would “jump.” And of course I would make a big deal of their “flying” through the air, and they would laugh, and I would laugh, and we would all have a great time. So I expected little Patrick to grab my arms. That’s what toddlers do. Imagine my total surprise when, as soon as I called out “Jump,” Patrick, with a sly grin on his face, launched himself toward the sky! In my surprise, I almost didn’t catch him, because I had no expectation whatsoever that he would actually do it! Tears came to my eyes as I realized, “He trusts me! He trusts his Daddy enough that he was willing to leap into the air, knowing that if I didn’t catch him he could have been hurt pretty badly!” I was filled with joy and with deep appreciation for my child’s boldness.

Immediately I understood in a more personal way what it means to our heavenly Father when we trust him. It gives him tremendous joy!

And, of course, it gives us joy as well. Patrick jumped for sheer joy—and his reward was that for a few seconds he flew!

When I said “Jump,” it wasn’t a rule or a law or a commandment. It was an offer!

We must not see “Have faith!” as an imperious command. We should see it as a joyous challenge, an opportunity: “Hey, you’ll encounter consummate joy and power when you trust me, when you throw your entire life into following me! Try it! Do it! Come on! You’ll fly!” Instead, we make “Have faith!” into a daunting imperative, and fret that we’ll offend God if we don’t believe—that by failing to obey the commandment to have faith we will fail to please God, and he therefore won’t bless us, or he won’t heal us, or whatever.

But God doesn’t condemn us for not having the faith to open ourselves to his miraculous working, anymore than I would have condemned Patrick if he hadn’t jumped. Please do not misunderstand me: I truly believe that we don’t see a lot of healings in the church in part because of our lack of faith. I’ll even make it personal: I believe I am not seeing a lot of healing and a lot of miracles in my own life, in part because of my failure to trust God.

But it’s not a question of my offending God, or failing to jump through the correct hoops, or being a second-class Christian because I’m not seeing the powerful works he would like to do in my life. There is no place for guilt. The blood of Jesus has taken care of all that. It would be totally inappropriate for me to say, ”Oy, I’m such a bad Christian! I don’t have enough faith to let God heal me. The Father must look on me with such disappointment!” I would have felt terrible if my two older children, who like most kids weren’t eager to jump unless they were holding onto my arms, had responded, “I’m such a horrible child, I didn’t have enough courage to jump when you said jump. I was too afraid! I’m just a second-class toddler!” Such a response would have depressed me deeply. If they didn’t want to jump, that was fine. I loved them! They grew into absolutely lovely adults! When they insisted on reaching out to grab my arms, and “jumping” only when they already had hold of me, that was great—I let them do that, and I hugged them, and we laughed, and there was joy all around. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! There is no guilt!

But there is still the opportunity to fly! It gives the Father great joy when we do it, when we are willing to leap out in faith and trust him; and we experience great blessings also. But God doesn’t condemn us when we’re not able to exhibit that kind of faith, and we certainly mustn’t condemn each other or ourselves.

But what is “that kind of faith” that somehow makes us more able to access God’s blessings? What does it look like?

Hanging in there

Victorious faith is much too complex an issue to cover in this essay, and I frankly am no expert. I’m not a healer or a worker of miracles. Yet I do want to cover one crucial aspect of “soaring” faith: persistence. I believe that if I genuinely trust God, I will persist in seeking him till I have obtained an answer from him.

In Luke 18, Jesus told a parable about the need “to pray always and not to lose heart”: A crooked judge was annoyed by a widow who incessantly demanded that he give her justice. He eventually said, “Just to get rid of her, I’ll give her what she wants!” Jesus then said that, if this jerk of a judge responded that way to someone who kept bothering him, how much more will our loving Daddy respond favorably “to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”

You see, this “crying day and night” demonstrates greater faith that simply asking once and stopping. The practice of asking only once, or perhaps a few timid times, is simply hope—not in the Biblical sense but in the common, anemic sense of the English word. We hope God will do something, but we’re not at all convinced he will. Jesus said to persevere in prayer:

Keep asking, and it will be given to you; keep looking, and you will find what you are seeking; keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you.  —Luke 11:9 (transl. BCM)

In Daniel 10, Daniel prayed and fasted for three weeks before an angel finally appeared to him to deliver God’s response. The angel said that warfare in the spiritual world had delayed him for three weeks. We rarely know what’s going on in the spiritual realm, unless God happens to lift the veil a bit and lets us know. But generally he doesn’t do that. There are innumerable factors: billions of players who have free will, who have spiritual power and influence, some for good, some for evil. It’s not simply a question of my saying once or twice, “God, I’d like a better job,” and voila, it’s mine! The important thing is to persevere until we have an answer. That’s faith! Daniel prayed and fasted for three weeks until he received a response.

Remember the Canaanite woman in the 7th chapter of Mark and in Matthew 15? She persisted in seeking healing for her daughter, even when Jesus appeared to dismiss her. She argued with the son of God! And you know what? Jesus praised her for her faith and gave her what she sought.

The apostle Paul prayed three times (and I can’t imagine these were simple five-minute prayers) to be delivered from his “thorn in the flesh,” until he finally got an answer, which was, “No, I’m not going to heal you. My grace is sufficient for you.”

Our friend S. told about a man who could neither hear nor speak, who had not been healed on the last night of an evangelistic service in Uganda several years ago where S. was one of many people ministering. This man was so persistent, he secretly followed the ministers back to their hotel and sat outside for hours, waiting for them to emerge to catch their plane back to the States—whereupon he accosted them and somehow communicated his need. They prayed for him, and he was healed of both his deafness and his inability to speak. He would not have been healed had he not been so persistent.

W., who was part of our local church for many years, told us of a night when his young daughter was extremely ill with a bad cough. He sat on her bed praying for her, with laying on of hands, as she tried to sleep. He had prayed for about ten minutes when he noticed her cough began to get less violent. When he stopped praying, it got worse again. He kept at this for a long time, with similar results—as long as he persisted in prayer, his daughter gradually got better. When he stopped praying, the cough returned. But eventually, the cough was gone completely. He ended up praying for a very long time. He was actively engaging God and the spiritual world in his prayer.

We need to actively engage God. More often than not, there’s little actual engagement when we pray. We state our desires, then sign off. Of course, there are many occasions when we are not able to devote as much time to engage God as would be ideal: Come to our church to ask the healing prayer team to pray for you, for example, and you get all of twenty minutes! And, glory to his name, God often manages to answer those prayers anyway. God himself is not a legalist in these matters!

It’s never a waste of time to pray, no matter how much or how little effort we put into the prayer. (For example, read Larynx Healed Instantly, which describes an instantaneous, perfect healing that resulted from a friend’s two-minute prayer during a worship service; or Lifelong Defect Healed Instantly, which describes the same thing but in another context. The friends who prayed for me on each of these occasions were probably as surprised as I to learn of the miracle that came from their prayers. If nothing else, these healings demonstrate that God is in no way a legalist about coupling faith with answered prayer.) But if we want to get serious about something, the probabilities of success are immeasurably better if we throw ourselves spirit, mind, and body into seeking God about our concern, and keep at it until we have truly engaged the mind and the heart of the Father—and until we have learned his will and his intentions regarding our concerns.

We must learn to persevere in prayer. Some call it “praying through.”

That is, we pray until we have an answer.

Daniel prayed and fasted for three weeks till he got his answer. And that was the prophet Daniel—he got a book of the Bible named after him! Will it be any easier for you and me? If he needed to persist, we need to persist. And once we have our answer, we can relax.

No guarantees

Note: we want to pray till we have an answer, but the answer may not be what we want.  If I’m praying for healing and I finally receive my answer—“You’re not going to be healed in this life”—then that’s cool. I’ve heard from God, I know his will, and I know he’s working things for his glory and for the greatest blessing not only for me but for those I love.  But if I just say an occasional prayer, and maybe get a few other people to pray for me a couple of times, I can’t be certain that I’m going to reach that point when I can say, “Aha! So this is the answer God has for me! Praise him!” Instead, I’ll just be hoping that maybe he’ll do something. And, of course, gracious Daddy that he is, he often does act: The vast majority of my prayers that God has answered in rather overt, even dramatic ways have been of the “I hope he does something” variety. And when the miracle happened, I was astonished! Very happy, but astonished!

The discipline I want for myself, however, and for you as well, is that, when it really counts, we will pray till we have an answer. Perhaps you are like me: I often deceive myself—I pray about something, and I don’t receive what I’m asking for, and I conclude that the answer is No.

But very often, and in my case the vast majority of times, that’s just a cop-out resulting from my own laziness. God hasn’t really said No—the truth is, I have no clue what he has said.  I haven’t prayed till I got an answer; I just prayed till I was tired of praying, and since nothing happened, I persuaded myself that the answer was No.

 Now this practice of praying till we have an answer is the kind of undertaking that often won’t be appropriate in large assemblies, or even in small groups of Christians, where there is limited time to do everything we need to do. But there are times when it is important for individuals or families or even groups to seek God, and seek God, and seek God—to engage him until we have his response, whether that takes fifteen minutes, a few hours, or even months.

I remain highly suspicious of anyone who says God’s answer to a prayer is No,  unless I am convinced that person has heard that word from God’s own mouth. Usually, they were simply too lazy to keep praying till they had an answer.

 And I include myself in this indictment.

 Hearing/seeing clearly

I believe a major key to this puzzle is found in Jesus’ own experience:

The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.  —John 5:19

But how can I do that if I can’t see what the Father is doing? How can I pray “till I have an answer” unless I’m able to perceive the answer? In other words, how do I learn to hear God’s voice in order to know his answer to my prayer? One suggestion: make hearing God’s voice the first subject of persevering prayer—i.e., let us seek God with determination until he is able to show us how, in our own lives, we can begin to hear and see more clearly what he’s doing. (See the essay Hearing God’s Voice and the other two essays that begin with that phrase.)

I am convinced that God will gladly honor our desires to make ourselves more available to him. If nothing else, I believe the myriad statements in scripture about prayer and healing point to the fact that God is not the limiting factor in whether our prayers are answered. We are. He doesn’t condemn us for failing to make ourselves more available to him, any more than I would have condemned Patrick for not jumping off that rock into my arms. Condemnation, guilt, and accusations have no place in God’s kingdom. He loves us just as we are, no matter how intimately we relate (or don’t relate) to him. Yet he longs to pour out blessings that we often don’t experience because we’re too busy seeking our own ways and seeking the comforts—physical and emotional—of this fallen world. He longs to give to his children. He’s constantly saying to us, “Come further up and further in! Jump! I’ll catch you! You can fly!”

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.  —Ephesians 2:14b-21