Our series on prayer continues and tonight we come to what is known as “healing prayer.” And of all the different types of prayer we’re discussing this is probably where a lot of us might get uncomfortable, and for good reason. There’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds healing prayer. After all, not everyone is healed, and even for those who are, their restored health is relatively short-lived. For example, consider the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11. Lazarus has been dead for four days and Jesus calls him out of the tomb. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus says. And Lazarus miraculously comes to life, leaving his tomb – at least for a couple more years because eventually Lazarus gets sick, dies, and he’s put back in that exact same tomb.
And so let me begin laying out a theology of healing prayer by saying this – the Bible tells us that at the end of time God will heal everything that is broken on this earth – the earth we now inhabit. In other words, end-time salvation involves a healing of the physical universe, which obviously includes our bodies. And so when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, He wasn’t a disembodied spirit or a heavenly ghost. He was a resurrected person. It was Jesus’ new, resurrected, and healed body that ascended into heaven to be with the Father – not just Jesus’ spirit.
Now, there’s a reason we have to understand this. Far too often we forget that God cares for the body just as much as He does for the soul. We forget that the redemption we have in Christ is complete, that it involves every aspect of who we are – our soul, our mind, our will, our spirit, and of course our body. What this means is that whenever we pray for bodily healing what we’re asking is for God’s future healing to break into our present lives.
Now, what I want us to see is that this in-breaking of God’s future healing is something that should be happening in every single one of us from a spiritual perspective. For example, consider the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As Christians, these are virtues we should all be growing in. But do you see what’s happening when we grow in love and joy and peace? God’s future – where love, joy, and peace are all normal realities – is breaking into our present lives. And because of that, growing in the fruit of the Spirit is nothing less than the healing of our Spirit. Praying for physical healing, therefore, is the other side of this same coin. In both cases, God’s future healing is breaking into our present lives through the power of His Spirit.
I think the Gospel of John captures this idea pretty well. In the Gospel of John, the word miracle is never used to describe Jesus healing someone. Instead, John uses the word sign to describe physical healing. John wants us to see that physical healing, when it does happen, is a sign. Why? Because a sign’s primary function is to point to something else. In other words, what John is trying to say is that anytime Jesus heals someone it’s a sign – that the purpose of healing is to point people to God’s future Kingdom where the entire creation will be healed. In other words, no one is ever physically healed just for the sake of being physically headed. Remember, Lazarus was healed – but all that did was prolong his death. And so any healing we experience now is always intended to point to that future healing that awaits all of God’s people. Now with that in mind, let’s take a look at what James says about healing prayer.
James 5: 13-16
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 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.
Now, there’s a lot about this passage that interests me. For example, notice James’ question – “are any among you sick? They should call the elders and have them pray.” Did you notice how confidently and quickly James answers his own question? What this tells me is that James flat out assumes that the church he’s writing to has a ministry of healing prayer. James expects healing to be a part of the church’s life; otherwise he would have explained himself a bit more. The tone of the letter makes this clear. It’d be like me saying, “are any among you sick? They should go to the doctor.” I’d be speaking in a tone that assumes doctors can heal sick people, and so if you were to respond, “doctor – why would I go to a doctor?” it’d be an incredibly strange thing to say. Because in our world we all believe that healing happens when doctors go to work. But in James’ world they all believed that healing happened when the church got together and prayed for God to go to work. Healing, in James’ world, was just assumed as something God would do every now and again.
Now, does this imply that healing prayer should replace medicine? Of course not. James tells the elders to anoint the sick with oil. In Jesus’ day oil was used for the soothing of the body and the softening of the wounds. In other words, oil was medicine. And so at the very least, this passage tells us that healing prayer isn’t supposed to replace medicine – it’s supposed to supplement medicine. According to Richard Foster, “There may be times when God asks us to rely upon prayer alone for healing, but this is the exception, not the rule. The refusal to use medical means to promote healing may be a gesture of faith – but more often than not it is a gesture of spiritual pride.” (Prayer, 204) In other words, medical science – like all science – is a gift. And healing prayer doesn’t reject that gift.
Now that being said, what does healing prayer require? I’d like to focus my attention on two things: the prayer of faith and the confession of sin. “The prayer of faith will save the sick,” James says, “and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” And so let’s look at these.
1. The prayer of faith
James says that the “prayer of faith” will save the sick. What exactly is James saying? Well, I’ll tell you what he’s not saying. James isn’t saying that for someone to be healed they can’t have any doubts, or worse – that if someone isn’t healed its their fault. “They just didn’t have enough faith.” It’s called the prayer of faith; not the prayer of certainty. You may recall, there’s this great scene in the Gospel of Mark where a man asks Jesus to heal his son and Jesus responds, “All things are possible for those who believe.” And the man then says something profound. “Lord I do believe, but help thou my unbelief.” In other words, “I believe – kind of. But, please heal my son anyway.” And Jesus does. And so the prayer of faith isn’t a prayer of certainty. And so what is it?
The prayer of faith is a very specific and direct request. Sometimes we don’t know how to pray for people and so we just “lift them up to God.” “Lord,” we say, “I don’t know what this person needs but you do.” But the prayer of faith that James mentions is different – it presumes to know exactly what’s needed. If the person suffers from migraines, the prayer of faith isn’t “thy will be done.” No, the prayer of faith presumes to know God’s will. We ask for the migraines to be removed.
This is what Richard Foster says about the prayer of faith. “As we come to clearness about what is needed, we invite God’s healing to come. We speak a definite, straightforward declaration of what is to be. We do not weaken our request with ifs, ands, or buts. [Instead] we speak with boldness.” (Prayer, 211) The prayer of faith, then, is a bold request for our Father in heaven to bring His future healing into the present in a very specific way.
2. The confession of sin
Now, you’re probably wondering – what does sin have to do with sickness? And the answer is everything. Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that physical illness results from personal sin. That was actually the predominant view in Jesus’ day and Jesus firmly rejected it. But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection between spiritual sickness – or sin – and physical sickness. Remember, the redemption we have in Christ is total and complete. Our body is not the decaying prison-house of our soul, as Plato argued. Salvation isn’t about escaping the body. Salvation is about God restoring and healing the body. And so our body isn’t a prison-house but a temple – a temple that God wants to restore so that He can fill it with His own life. And so there is a strong connection between the healing of our body and the healing of our spirit.
Now, this is a dangerous point I’m trying to make, and it’s easily misunderstood, and so I’m going to leave the realm of theology and appeal to medicine and social science. Does anyone know what a psychosomatic illness is? Psychosomatic illnesses begin in our minds and our emotions – with anger, fear, stress, and grudges – things like that. In other words, they begin with sin. Psychosomatic illness is what happens when these harmful, spiritual realities overflow into our body. And so perpetual anxiety and fear can become an ulcer. Chronic stress can turn into migraines. Psychosomatic illness – that means it’s all in your mind, right? No, it’s all in your kidney. It just starts in your mind.
Now, medically speaking, what I’m saying isn’t very controversial. And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that all sickness – or even most sickness – is fueled by emotional problems, i.e., by sins that need to be dealt with. But I am suggesting that the relationship is much stronger than we think, and I’m proposing that all physical healing needs to be accompanied by spiritual healing. Of course, Jesus taught the exact same thing. More often than not before he’d heal someone physically Jesus would say something like, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Physical healing and spiritual healing go together, and that is why James tells people seeking physical healing to first confess their sins.
This is what the late Ed Friedman – a famous family systems psychologist – observed regarding the connection between our emotional or spiritual health and our physical health. “Whenever I develop [physical] symptoms,” he said, “I know that I’ve been lying to myself.” (Failure of Nerve, 223) Wow. In another book Friedman says this. “New discoveries in medicine have laid the groundwork for understanding the emotional … aspects of physical illness, and have thus diminished the notion that individuals are simply “victims” of disease. It is no metaphysical leap to say that the care of our soul [will] affect the overall health of our body.” (Generation to Generation, 123 & 129) Now, Friedman wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t using the Book of James to develop an alternate theory of physical healing. Friedman was merely recording what he observed over forty years of professional work – that a correlation sometimes exists between spiritual sickness and physical sickness.
And so before we ask for physical healing we need to do a moral inventory and see sickness as an opportunity to repent, i.e., to renew our relationship with God – to look for areas in our life where we’re not obeying God and to confess that disobedience not only to God but also to someone else. You see the beauty of sickness is that it lays bare the truth of our spiritual condition – namely that we’re weak, vulnerable and dependent creatures who need God for absolutely everything. And when we’re healthy that truth is never something we seem to appreciate. When we’re healthy we feel like we can do anything. We feel great. We’re in control. We’re masters of our destiny. But then we get the flu. Or our back just gives out. And in these moments of utter dependence we are forced to see the truth – the truth that we are feeble creatures in desperate need of the healing that only God can give.
The week I outlined this talk I received an email telling me that a member of All Saints – someone I care about – had cancer. And the immediate response, not on my part but on the part of her small group, was to ask me to put together a healing service. And so on a Thursday night in the middle of August eight of us gathered to pray for her healing. We read the Gospel. We celebrated the Eucharist. We laid hands on this woman and we prayed the prayer of faith. And we were bold. We asked God to take away the cancer. We asked God to give her a radical and powerful experience of His grace and His love. We asked God to bless the doctors and that her treatment would be effective. I have to say, this was an incredibly powerful prayer service because what we all experienced that night was the church being the church – gathering together in the name of our Lord for no other purpose than to cry out for healing. This is the Scripture we read that night.
Revelation 21: 2-5
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
Let us never forget that all healing on this earth, whether physical or spiritual, is a sign – a pointer – to the great healing that awaits us all, where death and crying and pain will all be a thing of the past. Now, I know that there’s a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty that surrounds healing prayer, but at the same time in the early church healing was just a given – something James assumed would be happening in the Christian community that he wrote to. The question I leave us with tonight is this –have we stopped assuming that healing should be happening in ours?