A passage from the Old Testament, Psalm 103:3, says the Lord “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” We know God forgives all of our sins. Is it not logical, then, to expect that he will heal every disease, sickness or infirmity that we might have, when we ask in faith for such healing?
We understand the great desire of those who are ill or infirm to receive healing. We do not want to dishearten ill persons from placing their faith in Jesus as the one who can heal all our diseases and infirmities. We can claim the right to ask help from God with any of our needs. The apostle Paul wrote: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). We can certainly pray for our healing, and ask others to do so as well on our behalf. We know God hears our requests and answers our prayers according to his merciful will and purpose in our lives. We do not believe or teach a “no miracles gospel.”
Yet, while the biblical teaching is that a person can receive divine healing from God, we cannot say it is certain and absolute in any specific case. This depends on God’s will and purpose. (Please see the article “Healing,” by Joseph Tkach, which answers specific questions about healing, anointing and medical assistance.)
Let’s begin to understand the question of “divine healing” by emphasizing an important principle of correct biblical interpretation. We do not want to build an article of faith on a single verse, or even a few verses – especially if they have not been analyzed in terms of the context of the passage and the book in which they appear. Rather, we are on much safer ground when we interpret passages on a given matter within the context of God’s overall revelation, which can be gleaned from the general witness of the Bible as a whole. Also, on such matters as healing we need to see what the Christian experience through time has been.
What does the Bible as a whole and our experience teach about divine healing? Our experience and the many biblical examples and principles that bear on the subject show that not every sick or infirm person has been healed by divine healing. Even as you are reading this, there are many faithful Christians around the world who are sick and who have asked God for his healing, but who have not been healed.
Scripture also contradicts the idea of automatic divine healing. The Bible records numerous cases where righteous people were ill and were not healed. For example, Isaac and Jacob were blind in their later years. Elisha died of an illness. Timothy is spoken of as having “frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). Paul said of one of his co-workers in the gospel, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:19). The apostle Paul himself suffered an infirmity that was not healed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). The continuance (rather than healing) of Paul’s illness or infirmity had a purpose – God’s strength could operate in him through his weakness. The same may be true for many other Christians today.
Hebrews 9:27 tells us that human beings are appointed or “destined to die once.” This proves that there is going to be a time when healing does not occur in a person’s life. Hence, it is a mistake to assume that James 5:14 gives us an absolute promise of healing. If that were so, it would contradict the most irrevocable fact of human life: every person eventually dies.
Therefore, to believe that God always heals every disease and infirmity of every true Christian – especially when it is assumed he must do so immediately and dramatically – contradicts both the Bible’s example and our own experience. It also causes people who believe in automatic healing, but who remain ill, to suffer unnecessary guilt by concluding that the reason they are not healed is because they are doing something wrong, or sinning.
How, then, should we understand James 5:14 in the light of what the Bible shows us about healing, and what Christian experience demonstrates? First, we need to be informed by the understanding described above: not every faithful person who is ill is healed by God. Therefore, whatever the passage in question means, its promise must be limited by the reality of how, if and when God heals in a particular case.
Second, we need to look more closely at an important phrase in James 5:14: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” We should notice that there is a condition in this sentence in James 5:14 – “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” There must be faith involved in the healing. But the “faith” mentioned here must be something more than or other than the simple believing faith that the sick person and the one offering the prayer bring. That kind of belief or faith should be assumed. If a person did not believe God could heal, he or she would not ask for prayer, or offer prayers.
Why, then, is the person not healed? Faith that brings the results we seek involves more than our belief in a promise of God, in this case the promise that God heals. In the New Testament, the Greek noun pistis and the verb pisteuo, translated by such words as “believer,” “faithful” and “believing,” speak to the essence of what it means to be a Christian.
The faith of the Christian believer has to do not so much in believing that some specified outcome must occur in our lives, but with trusting a Person – Jesus Christ our Savior. Faith is the attitude of having complete trust in Christ, of relying on him alone for everything, especially our salvation. Thus, when we “believe,” become “believers,” “have faith” or “pray in faith,” we are committing ourselves decisively and completely to the will of our Savior. This means that believing faith ultimately rests on and in whatever the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit decide to do in a given situation involving our lives – including saving us from illness.
John 5:14 tells us that the “prayer of faith” is based on our quiet resting in the will or decision of God. The passage says: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (italics added). A prayer for healing can result in a healing only if it is God’s will to do it in a given situation. Our faith is to put our trust completely into the hands of our Savior for whatever is to be the outcome in terms of divine healing, all of which must work out according to God’s purpose.
If we go further in the context of James 5:14, we see the author referring to the example of Elijah. James writes: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (5:17-18).
It might appear that Elijah decided on his own that it would not rain for 3½ years, and then that it would rain after this time. After all, he believed – had faith – that God was creator and sustainer of all things, and that he hears our prayers. The reasoning would be that Elijah simply offered a prayer to God for the drought and the subsequent rain to occur. They happened because he prayed believing prayers “in faith,” thinking that these were good ideas the Lord would approve. Thus, he would back up Elijah’s prayer with power.
That is not the way things happened. The story of Elijah to which James refers is in 1 Kings 17:1-18:45. The story begins without any background discussion as to why Elijah thought there would be a period of time of drought followed by rain – or why he thought God would perform such miracles. The rest of the story, however, gives us clues as to the basis of Elijah’s faithful prayer.
We see that the word of the Lord comes to Elijah, and he is told to go to a widow’s house in Zarephath, Sidon. The widow would supply him with food. This is when the miracle of the jug of oil and jar of flour occurred. Neither the oil nor flour was used up during the time of the drought and famine.
Why did this miracle occur? Because it was “in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah” (17:15, italics ours). For example, in the third year of the drought, God spoke to Elijah in preparation for rain to come upon the land. The Lord said to him: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land” (18:1). Eventually, the rain came, as God said it would (18:44-45).
So we see that the miracles came about by the prior will of God, which was delivered and communicated by the Lord to Elijah. The faithful prayer of Elijah was based on his steady belief that the will of God in this specific situation would result in a drought and later in rain. Why? Because Elijah had been told by God what his will was. But God does not speak to us directly to tell us he will heal us in the specific circumstances we are praying about. We have only a general promise of God’s overall intent – that he is Healer of disease.
1 Kings 17 tells us that it was God’s will to send the rain. But James 5:18 seems to imply – on the surface – that it was Elijah’s believing prayer offered in faith that caused it. Was it because of the word of the Lord (1 Kings) or Elijah’s prayer (James 5) that made it rain? Is there a contradiction?
The answer is that it was the prior will of God for the drought to occur and 3½ years later for the rain to come. Elijah believed the power and purpose of God to make these events happen, and he prayed in faith according to the Lord’s will. That’s the key. Ultimately, what makes any miracle happen or not happen is the will of God, not our belief or faith that it must happen. In the matter of divine healing, God determines if, when or how healing will occur. We can only pray in faith that whatever God’s will is, that it will be done in our lives. Further, we know by faith, that if God wills our healing to occur, it will absolutely happen. That is what James 5:14 stresses when it encourages the sick person to pray in faith.
Based on what the witness of the Bible tells us about the meaning of faith and praying in faith, we can confidently follow James 5:14 and pray in faith for our healing. Then, trusting in God, we leave the result in God’s hands, asking for his peace and spiritual joy to sustain us in the meantime – and for his will to be done. We thank God that through the indwelling Holy Spirit we can have the faith to accept whatever God’s will in our lives may be – and that we may, therefore, always pray in faith. We are fully confident that when God wills to do something, it will be done. We trust in him, not in the physical circumstances.