Can prayer actually bring about physical healing in a person’s life? Is it right to pray for someone to be healed? How do we make sense of those times when we pray and the person is not healed? Are “divine healings” really just fraudulent parlor tricks?
Let’s start with Jesus.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus shows his authentically divine power to heal on several occasions. Sometimes he heals simply by touching the sick person; sometimes healing comes through his spoken word. Occasionally, a person is healed by making contact with Jesus, even when he doesn’t realize it is happening. And, every once in a while, Jesus prays during the healing event:
A deaf man with a speech impediment was brought to Him, and the people begged Jesus to lay His hands on the man to heal him. Jesus led him away from the crowd so they could be alone. He put His fingers into the man’s ears. Then, spitting on His own fingers, He touched the man’s tongue. Looking up to heaven, He sighed and said, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened!” Instantly the man could hear perfectly, and his tongue was freed so he could speak plainly! (Mark 7:32-35 NLT)
Jesus was “the channel by which healing energy flowed into the deaf man’s body, making him well.”* But he can do that, because he’s the Son of God and he lives in perfect communion with God the Father. What about his followers?
The book of Acts shows that the healing power of Jesus is accessible to his followers, too. Peter prays for a disciple of Jesus named Tabitha who had died; she comes back to life (Acts 9:36-43). Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta and brought healing to many sick people in that community (Acts 28:8-9). Both men were known for this amazing ability to heal (Acts 5:15, 19:11-12) – or, rather, to be the channel of God’s healing power, like Jesus had been.
But is divine healing possible today? People have very good reasons to be skeptical of anyone who claims to have this healing power.
It’s important to remember what scripture describes as the fruit of the Spirit (God’s life), as opposed to the works of the flesh (our human tendencies). Authentic followers of Jesus should have all of signs of God’s Spirit in their lives, and none of the signs of our sinful desires:
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Galatians 5:19-23 NLT)
People who are truly faithful disciples of Jesus, marked by the fruit of the Spirit, can indeed “be channels of divinely miraculous power so that others will experience a positive change when in their presence.”*
But this can’t be manufactured or produced on demand. It is unethical and spiritually inappropriate to try to conjure up (or fake) a divine healing, as if we were the ones doing the work. God heals when God chooses, and it is more important for us to be in tune with God than to try to force God’s hand to meet our desires. When we pray for healing and the person worsens or even dies, we must continue to pursue the fruit of the Spirit and not our sinful desires. Prayer in these circumstances is not meaningless; prayer draws us closer to the heart of God.
Medical science has long acknowledged that real, honest prayer can have a therapeutic effect on the sick. Prayer for healing is a powerful tool that should be used by Christians with the best of intentions and the most humble of spirits. After all, as one of the early Church of God songwriters once wrote, Jesus is just the same today; his compassion is still the same for each person who seeks refuge in his name.
For more on divine healing, please read this pamphlet by Arlo Newell, an important and respected voice in the Church of God.
* These quotes and many (but not all) of the above thoughts come from Gilbert Stafford’s book Theology for Disciples (Warner Press: Anderson, 1996), pages 414-417.