Trials: Divine Healing — What, Why, How?

Illness is a serious matter, but it is simple to define — it is a physical malfunction of one’s body. (Even mental illness is often caused by a physical, chemical malfunction in the brain.) Now that we have seen illness in these simple terms, unencumbered by erroneous concepts of “physical sin” (which the previous chapter showed to be incorrect) — then divine healing also becomes a simpler matter to understand.

But myths and misconceptions about divine healing abound! Therefore let’s survey the subject of healing throughout both testaments of the Bible. By so doing, we will dispel misconceptions about the subject, such as the misconception that few if any Bible heroes were seriously ill. Or that if they were, they were always quickly healed. Or that sickness is unique in a spiritual way from any other trial.

Most importantly, we shall learn the answer to the frequently-asked question, “What is the process of divine healing?”

Healing in the Old Testament…

We will begin in the Old Testament, since God begins there. Disease and divine healing are mentioned a few times here, but are by no means dominant themes. Old Testament references are in the form of examples of sickness rather than doctrinal dissertations. This hints at the truth that healing is not a mysterious, highly complex subject. (If it were, we would not expect a lack of detail about the subject.)

One of the earliest examples of illness recorded is that of Sarah’s barren womb (Gen. 17:17; 18:14), a problem not uncommon neither in her day nor ours. The fact of her healing, and the subsequent joyous birth of Isaac in her old age, is one of the most beloved of Bible stories. The healing of her womb heralded the eventual spiritual healing of the world through Jesus Christ, who was her descendant.

Her example teaches that God’s healing may be delayed a long time in certain cases, and that God had an overriding purpose in her life that went beyond the physical — as he does in the lives of all whom he calls. As every Christian knows, every trial — not just illness — serves great purposes that go beyond the physical and the temporary.

Genesis 27:1 tells us the patriarch Isaac was blind for many years. Genesis 48:1, 10 says that Jacob was “sick” at the time of his old age, and blind. They were not healed of these afflictions — a fact surprising to people who equate righteousness with excellent health or instant healing.

God allowed more or less debilitating health conditions to go unhealed even in key figures of his master plan. No doubt the lessons to be learned from these handicaps must have been more important to God than the physical health of the people involved.

Exodus 15:26 lists an important and much-quoted promise of God about healing, or at least about sickness. The Lord said,“If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” (ESV). This is a promise not to afflict with illness — not a promise to heal. The promise is national, for Israel, it is conditional on obedience, and it refers to not inflicting on Israel certain illnesses that God used to afflict Egypt.

Exodus 23:23-25 goes further than Exodus 15:26 and is a promise by God to take away sickness “from the midst of” the Israelites if they obeyed him and put him first. It is, again, a national blessing conditioned on obedience and is coupled with other blessings, such as pure water and the fertile womb.

Chapters 13 to 15 of Leviticus discuss the plague of leprosy and give rules of quarantine. These chapters refute any notion that the children of Israel lived free from all illness, or were always instantly healed.

Deuteronomy 7:15 likewise says God, contingent again upon the Israelites’ obedience, would take away sicknesses. Deuteronomy 32:39 confirms that God heals (“I heal”). Deuteronomy 28:21-22, 60-61 gives the other side of Deuteronomy 32:39, proclaiming illness as a curse for disobedience.

In 1 Kings 17:17-24, Elijah healed the dead son of a widow as a show of God’s mercy and power. 2 Kings 4 lists another miraculous resurrection, by Elisha, for similar reasons.

The book of Job records one of the most famous sickness-and-healing episodes in the Bible — that of Job. His experience teaches us that sickness may befall even the righteous for reasons known only to God. It also shows us that illness can be one of the most excruciating of trials, and that friends of the ill person should guard against a condemning attitude!

David had health problems in his senior years, such as an inability to sustain full body heat (1 Kings 1:1). The Psalms also contain numerous appeals in sickness, as well as thanks for healing. David did not enjoy perfect health nor instant healing every time he became sick. See Psalms 30:1-3; 38:1-22; 41:4-8.

The death of David’s son, born of his adultery with Bathsheba, is also a powerful example of illness without healing. God had decided the child would die, and no amount of prayer would change what God deemed best for all in the long term. David was forgiven, but the child died.

Psalm 103 is a much-loved Psalm that says God “forgives all your iniquities [and] heals all your diseases” (verse 3). The question of whether this verse makes an absolute promise to heal every person every time will be dealt with in detail later. The answer may surprise you!

The illnesses of Kings Asa (2 Chronicles 16:12-13) and Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:1-4) are often cited as examples to reject the use of medical doctors. Both examples deserve our focused attention and will be dealt with in a later chapter. Along the same lines, 2 Chronicles 21:12-19 details an illness of the bowels inflicted on King Jehoram because of his wickedness.

Elisha’s death by illness was no indication of unrighteousness.

Two more incidents of illness deserve special comment. The first is that of Elisha, a great servant of God who became sick and then died from the illness. God then resurrected a man who had been dead when the man’s corpse came into contact with Elisha’s bones. Elisha’s death by illness was not an indication of unrighteousness!

Finally, we read of the healing of righteous Hezekiah from an illness God had said would kill him (2 Kings 20:1-7). His prayer, and God’s subsequent extending of his life, is proof that God hears the prayers of those who love and obey him. Certain aspects of this case will also be cited later.

…And in the New Testament

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament virtually showers us with examples of astounding healings. However, the truths we learn about healing are for the most part ones we must deduce from examples. Christ and the apostles have not given a direct and unambiguous doctrinal explanation of the matter. Again, this tells us something about the relative importance of this subject when compared, for example, with weightier matters like baptism or grace.

The vast majority of New Testament healings are those done by Jesus Christ. The accounts ring loudly with common traits that we may collect and list. Although Christ at times healed simply out of his great and loving compassion (Matt. 20:34), his ultimate purpose was much more universal. His healings were closely coupled with preaching the gospel message. Matthew 9:35 cites that “Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (ESV).

Matthew 4:23 also notes that Christ traveled throughout Galilee teaching, preaching and “healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” And Luke 6:17-18 testifies of the large crowd that “came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.”

It takes little imagination to understand one important purpose of Christ’s public healings: Such healings would attract great attention and attract people to hear the gospel. But the healings had other results far more profound than merely drawing listeners. Dramatic healings lent proof to what and who Jesus was — the promised Messiah, of whom the prophets had written. Thus Matthew 8:17 points to a prophecy of the Savior in Isaiah 53 and identifies Isaiah’s words as a prediction of Christ’s coming and his healing of the sick.

Christ pointed to his healings as evidence of his Messiahship when speaking to the doubting disciples of John the Baptist, whom John sent to Christ while John was in prison (Matt. 11:2-6).

The effect of such miracles as healing would be to show what great power the Messiah carried (Mark 3:15). But Christ displayed such power not merely for its own sake, as some modern-day public “faith healers” may seem to do, but for a far more transcendent purpose: By showing his power to heal, he showed his authority to forgive sin. As explained in chapter 1 of this series, this is the point of the story of the paralytic man lowered through the roof as described in Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5.

Now notice some other points about Christ’s healings: They were nearly always public, but were not spectacles. And they were virtually all immediate or nearly so, and they were dramatic. No one doubted whether a healing had been performed (Matt. 15:21-31). Further, he healed a broad variety of people, young and old, male and female. Of some Christ demanded faith (Matt. 9:29). Of others he seemed to require virtually nothing (Luke 7:11-17)!

This brief summary serves to underscore the great variety of his healings, while reminding us that his primary purpose was to enhance the preaching of the gospel, and show his power to forgive sin.

New Testament examples and instructions

The New Testament also records examples of healing by the apostles. Acts 3:1-16 describes the case of the lame man healed by Peter and John. This example is remarkable because no statement is made that the man had faith. He was not even asking or expecting to be healed at the time, but was begging for money.

The apostle Peter performed some outstanding healings. “They brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them” (Acts 5:15). Acts 9:36-42 records how Peter healed Tabitha by raising her from the dead!

Acts 19:11-12 shows how “handkerchiefs” or “cloths” sent from Paul worked great healing miracles. Acts 20:7-12 describes a breathtaking resurrection performed by Paul after a young man fell from a balcony and died. 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 finds Paul telling the Corinthian church that healings among them were rare because of their lack of understanding.

1 Corinthians 12:9-10, 28-30 lists “gifts of healing” among the spiritual gifts of Christians, but does not elaborate, and lists healing after such gifts as leadership or wisdom.

The New Testament record continues with examples showing that even apostolic-age ministers had health problems from time to time, including Paul (2 Cor. 12:7). These servants of God were not always healed, in spite of what we might expect.

Finally, we find the apostle James giving one of the Bible’s very few doctrinal instructions about healing. It is his directive in James 5:14-15 that sick members should call for the elders of the church.

The process of healing

This brief summary of healing in the Bible is not exhaustive. But one thing is undeniable: There is no one common set of circumstances nor special formula that runs through all these examples that stamps illness or the process of healing as any different from any other kind of trial.

ALL God’s servants eventually died — and some, if not most, died of an illness God did not heal!

Some who were healed had faith, some did not. Some who were healed were righteous, some were not particularly close to God. God at times healed his servants, sometimes he did not heal them. Sometimes illness was a punishment from God, but most often it was simply the result of physical causes or of sin. Sometimes healings were instantaneous; sometimes (as in the case of healing Sarah’s womb) the healing was delayed over many years. Sometimes God extended the life of an ill person, sometimes he did not; and of course, ALL God’s servants eventually died — and some, if not most, died of an illness God did not heal!

This is critical to understand! The Bible does not differentiate sickness from any other trial that can befall us. And consequently (aside from the directive to call for the elders — James 5:14-15), divine healing does not entail a spiritual process different from that required for any other answered prayer for deliverance from a trial!

Sickness sometimes results from time and chance. Sometimes it comes because of broken laws of health. Sometimes it is the result of sin (sometimes not any sin of the sick person, but sins of others). But these things are common to all trials. And the connection of the sacrifice of Christ with healing is the same connection as with all miraculous interventions.

All answered prayer is linked to Christ’s sacrifice. Our whole relationship to God — and answers to our prayers of all types — are based on our reconciliation with the Father, which comes from Christ’s death and resurrection to life. Answered prayer for healing is the same as answered prayer in the face of any other type of trial. Divine healing is God’s miraculous answer to the prayer of the sick person. The prayer is answered for the same reasons and subject to the same conditions as any other answered prayer.

But, having seen that illness is a trial like other trials and that divine healing is the answer to a person’s prayer for relief, other questions remain. Does God promise to answer yes to our prayer for healing every time we are sick? Does he promise to do so immediately, or just eventually? Or is there a promise at all? In other words, is healing an absolute promise, or merely an optional blessing God sometimes provides? You need to know the encouraging answer!

An absolute promise?

Some commonly cited verses about healing, at first glance, can give the impression that healing is an absolute promise of God. For example, James 5:14-15 directs a sick person to call for the elders of the church and to be anointed, with the promise that “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” Such a statement sounds like a promise! After all, it says, “the Lord will raise him up.”

Psalm 103:3 also sounds like an absolute promise to heal every person every time, saying God is one “who forgives all your iniquities; who heals all your diseases.” Since we know that God forgives every iniquity, it appears only logical that God also heals every disease. That seems to be what the verse says.

But biblical examples and contemporary experience prove that not every Christian is divinely healed of every disease every time. This is true even though the person has been anointed, baptized and had all sins forgiven (as Psalm 103 says).

The Bible records numerous cases where righteous persons became ill and were not healed. As mentioned earlier, Isaac and Jacob were blind in later years. Elisha died of an illness. Timothy had “often infirmities.” The apostle Paul had an infirmity that had a physical component, and it was not removed. Therefore, to say that God always heals every true Christian, or every person who has faith, contradicts both Scripture and our own experiences.

The nature of God’s promise

Healing is both a promise and a wonderful blessing God bestows in his good judgment!

Is healing a promise of God, or merely a blessing God gives only sometimes, based on his own choice? The surprising answer is tremendously reassuring! It is this: Healing is both a promise and a wonderful blessing God bestows in his good judgment!

The question of whether healing is a promise or a blessing presumes some erroneous concepts about the nature of God’s promises and his blessings. It assumes that blessings and promises are opposites. Any promise (whether from God or not) is an “oral or written agreement to do or not do something” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). By this definition, numerous Bible statements about healing are promises, because many statements say God will heal.

But a promise may be either conditional or unconditional. An unconditional promise is one in which the promisor will fulfill the promise without any action on the recipient’s part. Thus, if God has promised to heal everyone every time immediately upon request, then he has given an unconditional promise.

conditional promise, on the other hand, is a promise to do or not do something, but only if some event occurs or if some action is taken by another party. Thus, if God has promised to heal us, but only if we ourselves do something first, then God has made a conditional promise.

There are few truly unconditional promises in the Bible. 

There are few truly unconditional promises in the Bible. Some condition is almost always stated or implied. Some have described God’s healing promises as “absolute.” By saying this they want to emphasize that God is totally reliable — that he will do what he promises to do. That is true — God is totally reliable. He will always do what he promises. But what is it that he has promised to do?

God has not promised to heal everybody every time. Even those who believe God’s promise is absolute understand that. But what are the conditions for God’s promise of healing? And how should we understand James 5:14-15, Psalm 103:3 and other verses?

Conditions for healing

One condition long understood to be a condition of healing is the condition of faith or belief. In Matthew 9:29 Christ promised to heal if the man had faith. Faith can be a condition for healing. Yet, it would not be correct to say that faith has always been a condition of healing, nor that it must be present every time God heals. The Bible records examples of healing where faith doesn’t seem to have been a factor. Acts 3:1-8 is such a case.

Further evidence that faith has not always been required for God to heal is that Christ healed the unconverted crowds. Since they were not yet converted, they did not have God’s Spirit in them (Rom. 8:9). Without the Spirit of God, one cannot have spiritual faith. Christ honored their own faith or belief. On the other hand, faith can be required today as a prerequisite of healing. James 5:15 clearly conditions healing on faith: “the prayer of faith will save the sick.”

But faith is not the only condition necessary for healing. As 1 John 3:22 states, “whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” No one would even think of believing that God has bound himself to heal all unrepentant sinners! Still, we must ask whether God has bound himself to heal every person who has faith and obeys him.

The answer is no, God has not bound himself to heal everyone who has faith and obeys. There is another condition! It is found in the Bible, not just essential to healing, but to every answered prayer for relief from every kind of trial. It is this: God heals on the condition that such healing is good for you in terms of his overall plan for your life.

What is God’s will?

God’s great purpose for you is to give you eternal life as his own child in his kingdom. He will do nothing to you or for you that will jeopardize his purpose, nor that will lessen your potential reward. 

Sometimes it just is not God’s will to heal us, because the suffering has an overriding purpose in our lives.

1 John 5:14 states that God hears us whenever we ask anything in prayer “according to his will.” Sometimes it is not God’s will to heal us, because the suffering has some other purpose in our lives. We may never know what it is — we just have to trust God to do what is best for us.

Jesus did not heal every person with whom he came into contact, nor does he heal every Christian now. It  is not his will to remove all suffering in this age. God sometimes does not heal the faithful and obedient, not because he does not love, but because in his great love he wants eternal life for you. To gain that eternal life takes faith — the faith that comes, sometimes to our chagrin, through suffering illness and death. Jesus Christ himself suffered in excruciating pain and humility to become the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. As Hebrews 2:9-10 makes clear, he became “perfect through sufferings.” We all must become perfect through suffering, even if that means the suffering of disease.

Christians know that every prayer they pray for help in time of need is predicated upon God’s will and his overall view of what is in our ultimate — not necessarily our immediate — best interest. But when it comes to sickness and disease and healing, these things are hard to remember.

But illness is a trial like any other. Just as in any other trial, we must trust that God will do what is best in our lives. This is merely another way of saying that we must have faith — not simply for healing, but for God’s overall direction in our lives.

Correct understanding of key scriptures

Let’s look now at Psalm 103. Here we find the “benefits” of serving God. Look at verse 3. Some say that in this verse God promises to heal every illness as surely as he promises to forgive every sin. But it does not say that. In the case of healing, the conditions are often faith and obedience, but always the condition of what is best for the person’s eternal life — God’s will for the person!

Healing has a condition that forgiveness of sin does not — namely, the condition of what God deems best in our life. But this is only because it is always in our best interest to be forgiven immediately, but not always in our best long-term interest to have the suffering of illness instantly removed (1 Pet. 5:10).

Now let’s examine James 5:14-16.

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (ESV)

Does this passage promise that God will heal everyone every time? Although the statement, “and the Lord will raise him up” appears on the surface to be written without qualification, it sits amidst the rest of the Bible and is qualified by it. Every verse of the Bible must be read in the context of the whole Bible — not in isolation.

Here, as in every other case of a request for answered prayer, is the implied condition of healing being in the best interest of the party. It is an implied condition, but it is stated by the Bible to apply to all prayer! “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

Some commentators have noted that the word translated save in James 5:15 is a Greek word that is used only a few times in the Bible in reference to a person being made well from sickness (e.g., Mark 6:56). The vast majority of times this word is used in the New Testament, it is used in the sense of spiritual salvation. Likewise, the word translated raise in this same verse can mean “to rouse from sleep or lift up as from a bed or floor,” but most often is used in the New Testament to refer to the resurrection from the dead (see Matthew 10:8; 11:5; 14:2; 16:21, etc.). James in this verse is using terminology that can refer not only to physical healing, but also to the spiritual resurrection from the dead (also based on conditions not stated here but found elsewhere in the Bible).

We must address here a related point. One view of James 5:14-15 is that James meant that God heals every time — but he heals some now and some at the resurrection of the dead.

It is true that God heals some now and that in the resurrection the saints will have perfect, immortal bodies. But this is not the right way to explain why God does not heal every time in this life. Eventual healing of the body by the resurrection is not what sick people are asking for in their prayers to be healed. They already know they will not be sick in their resurrected state.

God has promised to heal us, but has set conditions on such healing — the conditions of faith and allegiance to God, and always the condition of God’s will. These conditions may seem easy to understand. But when a person becomes ill, these simple concepts can become confused. Usually the confusion is over the matter of faith, although it may be stated in the form of questions such as, “If God loves me, how can he see me suffer and not intervene?” Or, “How can I have faith that God will heal me if I don’t know whether it is his will to do so now?”

To answer these important questions, we must look at the oft-misunderstood but vital connection between faith and healing.

Author: Joseph Tkach, Sr. & Bernard Schnippert

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