What should Christians think when prayers for healing seem unanswered?
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I went forward to ask for prayer at the end of a Sunday morning service in November 2014. That week a strange weakening of my right hand had been diagnosed as an early stage of ALS, a terminal neurological disorder. My doctor told me I had between two to five years to live. I asked the elders of my church in Abbotsford, B.C., to pray for me and they did so, anointing me with oil and praying for my healing. They prayed for a miracle.
At the end of the prayer time I had not been healed physically, although I was encouraged emotionally and spiritually.
Since then many different people have prayed for me. I still have not been physically healed. In fact, the disease has progressed to the point that my breathing and mobility are now both severely compromised. However, I am still here past that five-year prediction.
I’m able to spend rich and meaningful time with family and friends. I have remained mostly positive and calm throughout the steady weakening of my body, although I grieve the loss of the active life I once lived. I attribute this calmness to the Holy Spirit, indwelling me, and giving me grace and peace to sustain my faith.
Why was I not healed in that 2014 prayer meeting? Doesn’t James 5:14–15 promise healing in these situations? When a person is not healed, the reasons generally given are that the person didn’t have sufficient faith, they’re harbouring unconfessed sin or they haven’t prayed long enough.
The more I considered the lives of the chronically ill people I knew, the clearer it became that none of these reasons fit the reality I saw before my eyes. Our church is full of faith-filled people who do their best to live God-honouring lives. Yet despite fervent prayer the sick were not being healed. Why was God not answering our prayers? I could not come up with any biblical teaching to answer my question.
Eventually, I realized Scriptures and experience together provide a clear and simple answer – that God’s normal response and His most common answer to prayer for sick believers is to give them grace to bear what they’re suffering, rather than grant them immediate physical healing.
MIRACLES ARE REAL AND RARE. GRACE IS NORMAL.
Healings and miracles do happen. A friend of ours is watching addiction wreak havoc in her son’s family. In response to my thoughts on God giving grace rather than miracles in a time of suffering, our friend wrote, "Unlike Dave, we are praying for a miracle."
Ouch! Actually I do believe miracles still take place. But if we’re honest, we have to admit they are relatively rare and baffling in their unpredictability.
This is not a criticism of God or disbelief in His power and love. It’s simply stating the obvious. Miracles are a God thing – which means their rarity is most likely the way He wants it. Lee Strobel, author of The Case for Miracles (Zondervan, 2018), puts it this way:
By definition miracles are outside the normal course of events. They’re a supernatural exception to the way the world usually works. Though they are more common than we may think, they are still relatively rare – which means that for most people a sudden and complete healing isn’t going to happen.
What then is God’s normal way of answering His children’s prayers for help? Rather than miraculously removing the trial, He gives his children grace to endure it – abundant strength, peace and even joy despite their circumstances. The epistles are full of teaching on this topic, such as 1 Peter 1, James 1, 2 Corinthians 12 and Romans 8.
The overwhelming experience of God’s people over the centuries shows He almost never miraculously removes the sickness or trial they’re facing. Rather, He gives His children grace to endure while medical treatment and their body’s natural defences deal with the illness. Rather than removing the pain, He walks alongside them to comfort and encourage them, and even give them a ministry in the midst of suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–7).
When God demonstrates a strong preference for grace over miracles, who are we to disagree? We can celebrate this grace rather than live in disappointment when miracles don’t happen.
SCRIPTURE HAS ANSWERS
The purpose of miracles has always been to demonstrate God’s power (Exodus 14:31), to give us glimpses of the future Kingdom (Isaiah 35:5–6) and to authenticate God’s messengers (John 3:2, 2 Corinthians 12:12).
But we need to remember that John the Baptist and many other prophets did no miracles, and healing miracles were only one of the signs that accompanied Jesus and the apostles. When we read passages about Jesus healing someone, such as John 5:1–14, we can remember that out of the crowd of sick people at the Pool of Bethesda that day, Jesus chose to heal only one person.
God’s more common gift of grace in response to prayer for healing is clearly portrayed in 2 Corinthians 12:9. Paul had repeatedly prayed asking God to remove a "thorn." But God’s response was rather to tell Paul, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness."
God was going to allow Paul’s suffering to continue, but there would be grace and spiritual strength so Paul could endure and continue to serve God.
Similarly in Hebrews 4:16 we read, "So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive His mercy and we will find grace to help us when we need it most." God will be there to sustain us through all our times of need, including loss, heartache, persecution and sickness.
LISTENING TO OTHER VOICES
More than 75 people read an earlier version of my thoughts on miracles and grace. Many responded positively including a friend who wrote, "I agree that there is a deep and widespread misunderstanding in the Church on this issue." I also dusted off my academic training and conducted a short online survey of two dozen people and interviewed five others. Statistically defensible research? No, but their responses offer us some insight.
How we define miracles varies significantly. In virtually every case in the Bible miraculous healings are instantaneous transformations from sickness to full health. But half the people I surveyed were also prepared to consider a gradual improvement of health in response to prayer and standard medical treatment as a miraculous healing, especially if the healing seemed to be faster or more complete than doctors predicted.
The rarity of miracles, even with many respondents adopting this wider definition, was confirmed with 23 out of 24 saying they had "Never" or "Rarely, once or twice in my life" seen a miraculous healing. Twenty people agreed that "Jesus-style healing miracles are rare in this day and age." One was not sure "because I went to a healing event in Abbotsford and people were being healed left, right and centre. I don’t know if it was fake, but it made me think it all over. I was not healed on that night, unfortunately."
Half those surveyed think healing miracles may be more common outside Canada, "tied closely with evangelism and taking place more frequently in the lives of seekers or nonbelievers, or in other parts of the world (such as a mission field)."
Some respondents reported amazing stories, ranging from a missionary pilot miraculously delivered from the crash of his helicopter to a boy in Western China healed from terminal bone cancer. A missionary in West Asia reported, "I’ve repeatedly heard and seen that Hindus are very responsive to acts of power" with healings and other miracles serving to "affirm the word of God in order to generate believing faith."
Most people (18 of 24) agreed that "God’s normal response to prayers for sick believers is to give them grace to bear what they are suffering, rather than physical healing." Five others were not sure. One pointed out how God can influence a given situation in many different ways. "There is a difference between God intervening in the medical treatment, an individual’s attitude that improves their healing process and other situations that result in healing when compared to absolute, unexplained miraculous healing."
Most people (20 of 24) also agreed that "God’s strong preference is to give grace over miracles, and Christians should celebrate this and not be disappointed when miracles don’t happen." One wrote, "Why should we have a posture in which we frequently want something other than God’s ordained order of things?"
Two people I interviewed talked about how God strengthened them through times of deep pain and loss. One shared, "I honestly believe God loves us and that He provides the grace we need to get through whatever comes our way." She found "God puts the people in our life that we need at the time."
Another shared that when her three-year-old daughter died from leukemia, she found, "People often want to snatch God’s grace away from us. Christians just don’t seem to want people to find God’s grace in difficult situations. They’re not living in that situation, they can’t imagine anybody else having it."
One of the pastors I interviewed – Jamie Fox, lead pastor at Sevenoaks Alliance Church in Abbotsford – said he sees healings take place "between three and five times per year." He added, "I’ve prayed for a lot of people for healing over the years and I think quite often [it] isn’t physical healing that occurs, but abundant signs of sustaining grace."
He went on to say, "But when [healing] doesn’t happen, therein lies the opportunity, and the call, and the challenge for us, who are pastoral leaders, to help us walk through together the disappointment we may feel."
David Jennings, a retired pastor from The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada said, "I’ve anointed with oil numerous times and prayed for people. Clear answers to those prayers were few. But they were there. More often when the gift of healing has been in operation and expectancy is high, for example, during special meetings."
He added, "It’s easy to be discouraged. I call myself Pentecostal and I’m not seeing what I was taught as a kid, what I learned at Bible school, even the way I still interpret the Bible. I’m not seeing enough of what I’m seeing in the Bible happening. I still believe God’s preference is to heal."
Digging into these issues around healing has been therapeutic for me – it became a bucket list project, something I felt I needed to do. Pondering and writing has actually lessened my disappointment in God and given me a greater appreciation of His marvellous gift of grace.
ALS has taken many things away from me, things I loved doing. Teaching, driving, cycling and hiking are all in my past now, along with dressing, shaving and bathing myself. Fatigue is my constant companion. In trying to keep control of some aspects of my life, I become critical. Sometimes I wound the people caring for me. Without the grace of God, I would be an even bigger mess. But with His grace I can take a day at a time and focus on what I can still do – laugh, and love and be thankful for God’s many blessings.
It is disappointing when God does not choose to miraculously heal us or our loved ones. But we can understand that in the overwhelming number of similar situations through history, in His loving wisdom, He chooses instead to draw close to the sick person, offering grace, peace and joy. We can embrace His gift of grace. May our faith in Him not waver. His love for us does endure forever.
Dave Jeffery of Abbotsford, B.C., retired in May 2019 after teaching 13 years at the Canada Institute of Linguistics affiliated with Trinity Western University. He and his wife Susan served for 19 years with Wycliffe Bible Translators in two countries in Asia. [Update July 2020: Dave Jeffrey has expanded his ideas on this topic into a short book. The paperback is available from House of James Christian bookstore and the e-book on Amazon Kindle and soon on the Apple bookstore.]