Spring, March 22, 2023
When I was a young boy so many years ago I lived in a small farming town. The nearest hospital was in the neighboring county about 40 miles away, but we had a town doctor. The volunteer fire department would gladly fire up the ambulance and take you to the hospital for a life-threatening medical emergency. But, otherwise, you called the town doctor, who would show up at your house a few hours later with his little black bag. He would listen to your lungs, measure your pulse, look down your throat, and invariably in my case give me a shot of penicillin. In today's world, the diagnostic and treatment options have grown exponentially, but it has also led to specialization and you guessed it - no more house calls. One thing has not changed, however, and that is our practice of taking our more serious ailments to God in prayer. Even when we have complete confidence in our doctor's capabilities, we all think he or she could use God's help to make sure he or she gets it right. And so we pray for comfort, we pray for healing, we pray for a cure.
For most of us, a serious illness is outside of our personal field of expertise; it leaves us feeling vulnerable; and it is one time we are not too proud to ask for help. We remember all the stories in the Bible of people being healed of a wide variety of ailments, and so we turn to God. In fact, James advised us
James 5: 14-15 Is any 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.
It was verses like this that prompted our congregation to pray for our Pastor this past Sunday. (If you missed it, be sure to check out the recording on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/live/kqPlHlD0IWM?feature=share ) He was facing surgery in the coming week and we wanted to pray for a favorable outcome and a speedy recovery. For some, this may have been the first time they have witnessed a "laying on of hands" and a prayer for healing. For others, it brought back memories of the feelings and questions we had the first time we witnessed such a prayer. If the ailment in question was relatively minor, we may not have thought much about it. But if the ailment was significant - the consequences dire - the intensity of our reactions may have risen accordingly. The people who have shared their experiences with me over the years to such situations seem to ask two sets of questions:
what if the patient is cured? will my faith be strengthened? should this affect the way I lead my life going forward?
what if the patient is not cured? will my faith be weakened; how will I react?
And if the ailment is so significant that it seems like a miracle would be required to save them, dare I pray for a miracle? Do I believe I have the right to ask for such a big thing? Do we even believe such miracles are possible in the modern age? While this latter question seems very modern, it is not. Augustine, who lived back around 400 AD, lived most of his earthly life thinking that healing miracles ended with the Apostles (New Testament era). But then after he happened to witness a healing in his church and talking with the healed man afterwards, he changed his mind. The power of God working in that situation was unmistakable to him - it was something that he could not write off, or explain as mere happenstance or coincidence. His reaction was so profound, that from that point on, he devoted a considerable amount of time and energy looking into miraculous claims and documenting the ones that could be verified, as a way to strengthen and encourage other believers. Even in our own church there are people, who believe that God has been so active in their life and the lives of family members, that the only reasonable response is
"Thank you, Thank you, Thank you" every morning for getting them through the night, and "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you" every night for getting them through the day!
And yet we also know anecdotes, where God seems to use an unexpected illness for other purposes. I recall being in a church many years ago, where the Pastor was leading a prayer time. He mentioned that one of their members had been taken to the hospital with a heart attack during the prior week. And while he said that he had visited when she was first admitted, he did not know her current status, and asked if anyone in the congregation had a update on her condition?
One of the members stood up and stated, that they could not understand why God would allow such a wonderful saint to have gotten a heart attack, and be put through such an ordeal. But, they had to confess after visiting her in the hospital, that her witness was so powerful, that if she had to stay in the hospital for another two weeks, she just might convert the whole floor! Richard Wagner once observed,
God engineers circumstances in your life based on prayer - but not always as you expect. And God heals - but not every time.
And I like the way Jessica Randall put it when she shared elements of her testimony with us a few months ago. She said,
I think the theme in my story is that you have to surrender WHAT you expect your life to be. You have to surrender WHEN you want things to happen. You have to surrender HOW you want things to happen. And when you do, the most wonderful things will come to you.
And Oswald Chambers brings it back around to a very key point, when he wrote,
There are cases recorded in the Bible, and in our own day, of people who have been marvelously healed. For what purpose? For us to imitate them? Never, but in order that we might discern what lies behind - namely the individual relationship to a personal God.
Many many years ago, I had the occasion to be a Sunday School teacher for a group of ten or so college-age students. We had many illuminating discussions and I sometimes think I learned as much from them, as they did from me.
One such discussion began with a seemingly simple question: Is God good?
I say seemingly simple, because while the Bible gives at least five "definitions" of God:
God is Love (I John 4: 8)
God is Light (I John 1: 5)
God is Consuming Fire (Hebrews 12: 29)
God is Spirit (John 4: 24), and
God is Peace (Jehovah Shalom) (Judges 6: 24)
There is no verse that directly declares God to be the personification of Good in the same way. That being said, we did all conclude that God acts in a way, that we would describe as having the quality of being good, and we cited the verse where Jesus says,
Luke 18: 19 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good - except God alone."
This might seem like the same thing, but we concluded there is a subtle, but important distinction. We concluded that the Bible is telling us, that we cannot define God as being good by some separate universal standard of meaning. Because, what the Bible is telling us, is the other way around - that Biblical "good" is defined by whatever God does.
Putting it in plain terms, God's character is not bound by our definition of good. Biblical good is by definition, whatever God wants it to be; and what He does. For those who like and want to put God in a box, this may seem disconcerting. But when you then look at verses like,
Jeremiah 29: 11, 12 For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me, and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.
We see that while God is not bound by our definitions of good, He chooses out of His love for us, and in His own divine free will to listen to us when we pray, and has plans to "prosper us, not harm us, and give us hope and a future."
In other words, there is no law of nature that He has to treat us well, but He chooses to anyway.
Consider these seven truths about healing prayer:
1. Healing is a big deal to God. There are many today who will low-ball the concept of healing prayer in the modern world, but healing is something that God consistently saw as important throughout the Biblical period. God miraculously healed time and time again in the Old Testament. And Jesus certainly thought healing was significant, as He did more healing than almost anything else during His ministry. Likewise, the early New Testament church records many instances of healing miracles in the book of Acts. Our physical well being is a big deal for us. Because of God's love for us, it is a big deal for Him too.
Exodus 15: 26 For I am the Lord who heals you.
2. It is not always God's will to heal. Some contend that God always heals the sick and never allows sickness to enter a person's life. When it does not happen that way, they then blame a lack of faith, or sin. As popular as this "health gospel" may be in some circles, it is not consistent with the teaching of the Bible, or the life of Jesus and His disciples. God looks at the present in light of eternity, so what makes sense from our limited perspective, may not make sense from God's longer term viewpoint.
Oswald Chambers put it this way,
If it was God's will to bruise His own Son, why should it not be His will on occasion to bruise us as well?
3. Healing prayer is a temporary solution, not a permanent fix. Christian author, C.S. Lewis had a close friend with a sick son, who was feared to have a terminal disease. However, when this report turned out negative, Lewis wrote to his friend,
Thank God. What a mare's nest! Or, more grimly, what a rehearsal!
Lewis, in his dry wit, gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to Christian healing. If the person you pray for is healed, you can and should rejoice, but the fears and concerns you had before the healing took place are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for what will inevitably happen some day. You, I, and that person just healed are all still going to pass from this earthly life at some point.
Consider healing prayer from the proper perspective.
Jesus came to heal the sick, but He came for something far more permanent than curing leprosy or blindness. He came to reconcile sinful humans with God for eternity.
4. The faith of the person praying is important, but it is not the source of healing. The target of our faith should be God himself, not the certainty of a favorable response from Him. Our faith should always lie in the confidence we have that God listens to our prayer and will answer it according to His will. An effective healing prayer is related to the faith of the person praying, but we should never confuse it with the real causal factor. God, himself, is the sole cause and power behind any healing.
5. Healing prayer does not shut out the doctor. Healing prayer works in conjunction with modern medicine and should never be seen as a substitute for it. The Bible always shows that treating and praying for the sick go hand in hand with God's works. The Good Samaritan did not only pray for the healing of the injured man on the road. He also treated his wounds and cared for him. Ask yourself this question: was the answer to our prayer for the person, whose heart needed a pacemaker, the surgeon who placed the pacemaker in the patient, or was it the inspiration that led to the device's invention years earlier, so that it was an available option when needed?
6. Any Christian can offer healing prayer. In I Corinthians 12: 9, Paul writes that some Christians have a gift of healing. However, even if some people have this gift, they do not have a monopoly on healing prayer. In the same way, Paul says that some people have a gift of evangelism. But all of us are required to share our faith and contribute to making disciples of all nations. Similarly, all Christians are empowered to pray for healing.
7. Encourage corporate healing prayer. The one instructional teaching on healing prayer in the New Testament is found in James 5, that I alluded to at the beginning of this DeacoNote.
James 5: 13-16 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 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.
James' key point here is that people in the church are not alone. Members of Christ's body should be able to count on others for support and prayer, especially when they are sick, suffering and vulnerable. He suggests that the elders should be on call to respond to the illness of any member, and that the church as a whole should be alert to pray for the needs of all of its members.
Finally, I offer Paul's benediction to the church at Thessalonica
I Thessalonians 5: 16-18 Be joyful always; Pray continually; Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.
Amen, I invite each of you to comment on this DeacoNote, or share a related story of your own in the comments below. Your Brother in Christ, Warren Warren J. Ayer, Jr. Chairperson, Board of Deacons United Church of Colchester