Does God always intend to heal? This week at New Wine people will hear a speaker with a strong pathos ministry [a ministry crafted through personal pain/suffering] say something like: ‘he doesn’t always intend to heal, and it’s a mystery why he sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t’; and another younger minister say, ‘he does, and it’s a spiritual battle we are not always winning that explains why healing does not universally occur.’ Both are very humble people, well-known in their own circles, both who believe in God healing people today, and who have seen him do so, but each with a fundamentally different modus operandi. How do you navigate through these healing theologies without cynicism, despair, confusion, superiority or smugness?
I wrote a lot on this 15 years ago, and am still not confident enough in my own ministry or experience to think that I don’t have a lot to learn from both of the above people. They both see something more clearly than me and I want to grow by listening to them.
But I do have a theological framework on healing to offer. This helps me to help place them, and the plethora of other speakers who talk about healing and listen to them with an awareness of what other (often equally gifted/learned/sensible/powerful) people may have said.
The framework has 2 axis’s, and builds on the work of a Pentecostal Theologian called Knight.
He talked about the faithfulness vs the freedom of God (horizontal axis 1) and the faith of the healer/community of faith vs the faith of the ill person (horizontal axis 2).
Some healing practitioners consider that God is constrained to be ‘faithful’ to his prior promise to heal everyone. Jesus prayed for heaven on earth, and in heaven there is no sickness. Before the fall there was no sickness. When Jesus prayed for people in several verses it says ‘everyone was healed’. Some would add that physical healing is in the atonement – paid for at the cross because, ‘by his stripes we are healed’. God wants to restore all things. It is wrong to say he has purpose in suffering. Actually his purpose is to destroy the works of the evil one… and in terms of the local church James is unequivocal when he says the elders should pray for the sick and they will get healed. There is no opt out prayer ‘if it is in accordance with your will’ because we know it is in accordance with his will. Every death and disease that then prevails is a spiritual defeat and tragedy.
How this healing is activated is often a matter of style more than substance… sickness is prayed against, rebuked, spoken to, healing is prayed for, commanded, spoken into being. Jesus himself employed multiple styles suggesting that there is no set formula… mud on the eyes, touch, words, from a distance and from up close and personal.
But the core for those who emphasise the ‘faithfulness of God to heal’ is that God is always ready to do the works of the Kingdom, to defeat Satan and anything that is the fruit of satan or sin.
At the other end of that axis are those who point out that presumption is one of the great sins in the Scriptures. To presume that you know what God’s will is in each and every situation means God is reduced to the size of your own understanding. They point out that Jesus may well have passed by the beggar whom Peter and John dramatically heal at the start of Acts, that Paul left Timothy behind ill and in need of wine as a remedy. Also that Paul planted the church in Galatia because of an illness, and travelled with a doctor (perhaps because of the injuries he sustained due to persecutions). They reference the story Jesus told that there were other widows Elijah could have gone to but didn’t, and prefer to see God’s occasional miraculous interventions as signs of the Kingdom often given for a particular purpose (mission/ breaking new ground spiritually) than a wholescale agenda to take over the health services of the world. After all, Jesus often left behind areas where his miracles were in full flow because he wanted to get on with preaching the message of repentance and the coming Kingdom.
The biggest problem at this end of the axis was referenced by the ‘pathos’ speaker. It’s not a problem you have if you don’t believe in healing today at all. It’s not a problem you have if you believe God always wants to heal today. It’s a problem for those in the middle. It’s called the scandal of particularity, but more commonly known as ‘why not me?’ IF God healed x person in China, raised z people from the dead in Mozambique, and even made my wife’s sister’s friend’s headache disappear in Bognor, why do I still have to go to chemotherapy today? Is God arbitrary and capricious. If he chooses some to heal, why not me / my mother / my friend / or even my nation in my era. Why not me?
But at the other end of this axis the problem of non-healing also remains. And if you take the will of God out of the equation, then all you are left with is a faulty mechanism for the activation of this healing.
So where is the fault? Again two ends of a spectrum, two ends of another axis. At one end is a faulty delivery system, at the other end a faulty recipient system.
A faulty delivery system could be either the healer or the community not having enough faith. Jesus had to deal with the later himself – he couldn’t do many miracles in his home town, and he expelled the noisy mourners before raising a child from the dead. The former bit he got right perfectly because he had a perfect relationship with the father. We don’t so we don’t get it right all the time, but we have the same power in us Jesus did, and crucial to this theology, it was only through the Holy Spirit that Jesus healed people (cf Peter’s speech in Acts), so technically we could get to the point where we became as effective agents of healing as he was. Luke-Acts seems to back up this point by showing that the apostles at least replica the healings of Jesus and maybe even surpass them (healing with shadows, handkerchiefs etc).
A faulty recipient system means that there is a ‘blockage’ for healing in the ill person.
This could be a ‘deeper issue’ – unforgiveness, sin, demonic oppression, emotional pain, lifestyle choices. (As one speaker at a prominent USA church I visited said: ‘you don’t need to come and pray for healing you need to get out of your air-con cars, walk to church and stop eating the after-service doughnuts’!)
But it could equally be a lack of faith from that person for healing.
So, scenario one. Person ‘A‘ with cancer goes to meeting with well-known healing evangelist, in atmosphere of faith, healing and freedom. Preacher empahsises the faithfulness of God to heal – God always wants to heal. Person A who is not healed at that meeting goes away sure that the blockage is them – either a deeper issue they are not yet aware of or there own lack of faith. Result: Person A has a double problem: 1) they still have cancer 2) they have a suspect spiritual life and feel extra bad about themselves.
Scenario two: Person ‘B’ receives prayer and is able to conceive a much longed for child in the same week that a close relative finally succumbs to a fatal illness.
Because of this (common) scenario many/most pastoral minded healing practitioners do spiritual somersaults to try and minimise the likelihood of Person A feeling backed into the corner and responsible again for their own lack of healing, and Person B having a sort of spiritual survivors guilt. The biggest spiritual somersault of all is called the ‘now and the not yet of the Kingdom’. The Kingdom is breaking in but hasn’t fully broken in. A big toe may be healed in Timbuctoo, but the Kingdom power is not fully here yet to wipe out the HIV/AIDS epidemic down the road.
This somersault tends to move people further away from the end of the axis where God has to heal (faithfulness end) towards the freedom of God to heal end. Whether it is God who is being ‘capricious’, the individual who has not got the faith, or the healer & community who are not yet perfect conduits for healing is often left unexamined – for obvious reasons. IT has moved in the realm of mystery.
But from the realm of mystery healing quickly moves into the realm of unexpected (why me?). And from the realm of unexpected into the realm of unlikely, and then the realm of unseen. So you have ‘Kingdom’ or charismatic churches up and down the country who believe in healing and miracles, but are pretty sure they’re not likely to come to them…
And then at some conference or other a speaker comes on the stage with a strong personal story and conviction that God heals. They challenge the spiritual slumber from their place of certainty, and awake a dulled conscious that says this may be possible still…
It took Wimber a year of consistent praying for the sick before he started to see people regularly healed. Much of healing theology remains a mystery, and some of the answer comes by asking the more fundamental question of what healing actually is [clue: biblical healing isn’t about making you look like a BUPA advert forever].
But one think is crystal clear: God demands faith in his ministers. He wants us to break through to a place of confident power in prayer. Being provoked to faith and prayer is no bad thing for us as Christians. Step out again like Wimber did.
Another thing that is clear is that God is good. He really, really loves people and restores all things… If it is not his will to always physically cure people immediately, it would have to be because he has a deeper definition of what health and healing may be, and a higher agenda than the preservation of these ‘tent’ like bodies we live in for now before receiving our ‘homes’ in heaven.
So whatever you take away from this year’s divergent teaching, ask yourself how does God want you to grow in faith: By trusting for your unseen (eternal) future, by stepping out in healing, by shaking off your disappointments, by receiving rest for your soul?
God is good. All the time. And you get to join in the adventure. Just start from where you are.