When a Healer Comes to Town: Faithfulness and Freedom of God in healing theology

Have you ever gone to a conference, picked up a book, listened to a podcast or heard someone preaching on healing and thought – “YES – but”, or “I’m pretty sure the last person I heard/read on that subject said something a little different!”?

That’s because there is a whole pole of different opinions about healing out there in the charismatic/pentecostal world. More often than not those opinions are birthed in some wonderful and dramatic personal experiences that are then universalised as being appropriate for everyone. What it often comes down to are a few diagnostic questions:

  1. Do they see healing as physical cure? (see last post)
  2. How much healing do they think is available now?
  3. Is there any place for suffering or should suffering all be shunned?
  4. What is the role of faith in the sufferer?
  5. What is the role of faith in the friends/minister?
  6. Has God promised that he will always cure if we have enough faith?
  7. How do they see the role of modern medicine?
  8. Do they believe that healing (physical cure for today’s ailments) is paid for and our right in the atonement (what Jesus did on the cross)?
  9. Who do they think ‘does’ the healing?

These questions can begin to help you work out whether Great Aunt Mildred’s TV preacher was right when he said: “Throw away your pills, you’ve been cured”, and how you might pray for your friend with leukaemia.

In this post I’m going to introduce two of these key questions:

FAITH

The issue returned to by most commentators on the subject is how their theologies relate to faith. The key question is obviously: Is faith necessary for healing? But if the answer to that is Yes: What is it faith in?

For some healing theologies it is faith in a writen promises from scripture. The prayer might read ‘it says in your Word, Lord that Aunt Mildred should be well – so let it be to her according to your word’.

For other healing theologies it is primarily is it faith in Jesus Christ – who is the same yesterday, today and forever? “Jesus you always healed people, thank you that you will heal Aunt Mildred as well’.

The faith question that is perhaps most sensitive of all is does a sick person have to have faith to get well – or can it just be the faith of those praying for healing that is necessary?

And this ‘faith’ question is massively impacted by the next category:

FAITHFULNESS AND FREEDOM:

The other significant issue is how these theologies relate God’s faithfulness and God’s freedom. A Pentecostal theologian called Henry Knight has managed to arrange a broad spectrum of charismatic theologies in a rough typology ranging from ‘faithfulness’ to ‘freedom’.[1] What does he mean by this?

Knight defines ‘faithfulness’ as God being faithful to his own promises.[2] Theologies that emphasis this either believe God has promised it either through a general promise in Scripture or a specific ‘prophetic word’[3]. Those who think it is generally promised in Scripture may turn to a proof text e.g. the servant song in Isaiah 53 that includes ‘by his wounds we are healed’. Then because of God’s nature he will by be faithful to that promise. From God’s side the result is a no brainer – ‘HE HAS GUARANTEED TO HEAL’. So the mechanism for healing becomes as automatic as putting money in a vending machine and waiting for the merchandise. Human failure to ‘meet the conditions for healing’[4] is then the only reason for healing not taking place. A variation on this was the case of a once New Wine speaker Roger Sapp who focused on a more general ‘revelation’ that can be summarised by ‘Jesus always healed, and as he perfectly revealed the will of his Father in heaven God always wants to heal today’. It’s not hard to spot how this can be a bad place to get to pastorally.

As problematic as the ‘God has to be faithful approach’ may seem, the ‘God has to be free to decide case by case’ isn’t much easier to get your head around… If you think about it an emphasis on ‘freedom’ produces quite different results. This allows God the liberty to select how, when and if to act. It is what older theologians have called the ‘scandal of particularity’ which can make God’s activity seem completely capricious and unpredictable. He heals whoever he wants to and not others… On what basis? Why? It’s easy to start to cry out that’s not fair. It’s even understandable to back away from offering healing prayer wholesale… why hurt people twice by raising hopes and dashing them? There’s a verse in Psalms that says God gives sleep to those he loves. Does he not love me if I am an insomniac. Does he hate me if he makes me ill and then refuses to cure me?

Of course no healing preacher believes that. When they talk about healing being a mystery with no guarantees then the positive result is that in the event of a sick person not being healed they don’t blame that person for not having enough faith. Rather it is God own mysterious will that is being carried out. This does however provoke other theological (and pastoral) problems concerning the goodness and character of God, particularly when physical healing is allowed to be seen as an ultimate goal within this earthly realm. As Knight concludes:

So what these ‘healers who come to town’ emphasis will about God will directly affect the shape of a healing ministry and the lives touched by that ministry.

In the next post we will start to explore specific healers and what they believed…

[1] Knight (1993) p. 65

[2] ibid.

[3] Here the probably misguided distinction between rhema and logos that was prevalent among charismatics particularly in the 1970s and 1980s comes into play. See Farah p. 47 for an example of the outworking of this distinction.

[4] Knight (1993)

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