This morning we are looking at the topic of healing. This is an important subject, as this is one of the main concerns during our time of congregational prayer.
I would like to start by telling two quick stories. I remember attending a service that was being led by a healing evangelist. He addressed the question of doctors and explained, “I have no problem with doctors. Doctors are great for non-Christians and Christians without faith.” His belief was that supernatural healing should be the regular expectation of Christians.
I talked to another pastor of a strong Bible-believing church. He told me that they follow the instructions given by James for praying for the sick. But he told me that he knows they will not be healed and they do it not out of hope but only out of obedience to the teaching of Scripture.
We might be able to see some problems with both attitudes but these stories highlight the controversial nature of healing.
Even in a western culture with ready access to advanced medical technology, divine healing is very close to our thoughts. It was five years ago at this time that I was very sick. I was very aware of my need to rely on God and I found great comfort in the hundreds of people across Canada and the United States that were praying for me. Was I healed? Let’s hold that until later.
In this passage, James teaches us that people in the church who are sick should seek prayer by the leaders in the church. The question is, what do we expect the results to be? In the Roman Catholic Church, this prayer became Extreme Unction or Last Rites. If you are receiving Last Rites, probably the expectation of your healing is not very high. That is not to say that Baptists always get this passage right either. It may be helpful if we ask a number of questions in order to wrestle with the concept of if and how God heals.
Why Did Jesus Heal?
As we look at James, we need to take a moment and look at his half-brother Jesus. Healing was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. The Gospels tell us that many people in the crowds were there not to seek the truth but in the hopes of either witnessing or experiencing a healing. The question we need to ask is about the motivation behind those healings.
Some Christians see the purpose of the healings of Jesus as a demonstration that it is always against God’s will for people to be sick. Why did Jesus heal? Because God wants everyone to be healthy and Jesus wanted to show what our normal experience should be. I’m not convinced by that argument. So why did Jesus heal?
I believe that compassion was a part of it. Jesus encountered certain people who were sick, he had the power to heal them, and because of that compassion, he healed them. But I don’t think that was the primary motivation.
All of the things that Jesus did, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, preaching the truth, exposing error, all of it was for one purpose. To announce the coming of the kingdom of God. The reign of God in this world was beginning with the appearance of Jesus and the miracles and other activity were signs of that coming. Not that Jesus didn’t care about the sick, but bringing in the kingdom of God was the number one priority. The healings were signs that Jesus was who he said he was and had the authority to announce the kingdom of God was at hand. This is important to keep in mind.
Why Are Some Not Healed?
One of the hardest questions for some people is why a certain person was not healed. Often the question revolves around a specific individual that has been so faithful to the church and God. If anyone deserved healing it was that person. We can all think of someone like that. For some people, this question is so important that it leads to an abandonment of the faith. They conclude that either God doesn’t exist or a God that wouldn’t heal the person is not worth worshiping.
Part of the problem here is our idea of who gets healed. Some people think all Christians should be healed. Others think the most faithful Christians should be healed, hence the talk of deserving healing. But none of that is taught in Scripture.
It also assumes that the default position for the Christian is strength and not weakness. That is a mistake, even Jesus when he accomplished his greatest victory on the cross, did it in a state of weakness. The Apostle Paul, reflecting on how God refused to heal him of his thorn in the flesh, concluded that God is strongest when we are weak.
We have had friends get frustrated with us that our children still have autism when all we have to do is ask and they will be healed. The message is that it is something wrong with us that they are not healed. If you are here and you are longing for a healing but have yet to experience it, I want you to hear something clearly. It is not your fault. God operates by the principle of grace and not merit. I have experience the most dramatic answers to prayer after being disobedient and after praying without faith. Do not let people condemn you for things that none of us understand.
Why Are Some Healed?
For many the question of why people are not healed is important. For me, it is the question of why some people are healed. I don’t believe that the Bible teaches that we should all be constantly being healed. But there are some pretty convincing testimonies of people being healed. If this is not a part of our normal experience, why did it happen? Instead of asking why wasn’t that person healed, we should be asking why that person was healed. I believe healings are not just the way things are but are signs of something that God is doing. God has a specific purpose for healing a person. I know a person who was a paraplegic and who was healed and today is able to walk fine. Yet I know many others who are still in wheelchairs. It is the young man who was healed who needs to do the hard work of figuring out why he was healed. God has something in mind for that healing and it is his responsibility to discover that plan. But I will say that it is not about being better or having more faith than other people.
I’m convinced that God does heal from time to time. Some are able to demonstrate their experience with medical records. But this does not contradict that God works mightily through the experiences of people who have an illness or who have a disability. Such people are not less perfect, they are living the normal human life, God’s strength in human weakness.
How Does God Heal?
So far we have been working with some specific assumptions. We have been assuming that healing is a supernatural intervention that changes the physical structure of our body. And that happens. But God is not limited to that one form of healing. For example, I don’t think that we should separate medical intervention from God’s healing activity.
Sometimes the healing has nothing to do with our physical bodies. Our children still have autism and yet we have seen miracle after miracle in their lives. There is no sense in which God has abandoned them or us. Some of the most dramatic answers to prayer have involved our children and yet the autism remains.
Healing can include everything from peace and patience in suffering to restored relationships to the support of a loving community. My father had a very serious illness that ultimately took his life. If I had my way, he would still be alive. But what did happen was that he moved from refusing to tell me whether he believed in God to praying with a pastor friend of mine to accept Jesus Christ as Lord, just weeks before his death.
I mentioned that I myself had been very sick and many people were praying for me. Was I healed? Well, I ended up with a different disease than the one I feared, which made me happy. More than that, the experience made me more aware of my connection to God and my Christian community.
Is it possible that God heals more often than we think? We may not even notice the little miracles he does every day.
It is completely normal for us to seek healing, for ourselves and for our loved ones. We don’t want to suffer and we don’t want others to suffer. But we also need to remember that suffering is a part of this present existence. When we look at the life of Jesus, we see a life marked by suffering. Suffering is not a sign of God’s displeasure.
We live in a unique time. It is the time between the first and second coming of Jesus. Jesus at his first coming inaugurated the kingdom of God and at his second coming, he will bring the kingdom in its fullness. Healing is available and is the experience of some people. But the elimination of sickness and suffering will not take place until Jesus returns and we experience the resurrection. I would like to conclude with these words, words originally given to Christians in the midst of suffering:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)