God performed dramatic miracles in the Old Testament and in the New. Many of these were dramatic healings. God still heals today. He still gives financial blessings, emotional blessings, spiritual gifts and other miracles.
However, we cannot claim any guarantees—except that God will do what is best for us in the long run. We can claim only the right to ask for whatever we want (Phil. 4:6), and know that we receive blessings from our good and wise Dad in heaven, even though the blessings do not always come in a form we would have chosen.
Sometimes the answer to our prayers for help comes as soon as we ask, sometimes it comes after years of persistent prayer, and sometimes it comes without our even asking. God cares about us, knows what is right and good for us, and we have to trust him.
Some Christians get enormous financial blessings. Most do not. Some get spectacular gifts. Most do not. And some get miraculous healings. But again, most do not. Those who are physically healthy can be thankful for their health, and pray for wisdom that they are using their health in a way that pleases God. But those who are sick often struggle with many questions, perhaps chief among them the question of why God has not healed them.
Rumor has it that sudden wealth can be hard for the newly wealthy person’s friends and family. One study of lottery winners shows that some of the effects of sudden wealth were greedy friends, jealousy among family members and strained relationships in general. Blessings for Christians can also have a down side: unrealistic expectations, envy, unfavorable comparisons.
The same can be true with miraculous healing. It would be natural for people who continue in illness to have mixed feelings about those who are healed. It would be natural to ask: "Why them and not me? What have they done that I have not?" A miracle for one person might be discouraging for another person—or it can give hope. The sick person might think: "The God who intervened for that person, for no reason that I can understand, may yet intervene for me. Or he may not. He knows best, and I just have to trust him. At least I know he is able to do it."
That’s the bottom line as we wait for God: trust. We walk by faith, not by sight, and God acts for reasons that we cannot see. We might think that an immediate healing is in our best interest, but God has a higher perspective, and perhaps we are simply unable to understand the complexity—or the importance—of what God is working out in our lives.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful for me to address a few points about healing.
Some have asked whether we encourage sick people to be anointed by the elders of the church. Yes, we do, following the instruction in James 5:14-15, which tells us: "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up."
Why are we to anoint with oil? There is no magic in the oil, of course. It is a symbol. Oil was a medical ointment of the time (Luke 10:34), and the elder (representing the church) uses a token amount of it to symbolize the church’s concern and practical care for the sick. And hopefully the elder’s prayer is representative of the prayers being offered for the person by the whole church.
Such prayers are offered in faith, that is, in trusting God that he will do what is right and good in this situation. Such prayers are not offered merely with the intention of getting what we, in our limited perspective, want. It is an active expression of putting ourselves, and those we care about, in the hands of our gracious God whom we trust to stand with us no matter how bad things seem to be.
At certain times in the church’s history, miraculous healing has been common. At other times, it has been rare. The curious thing is that in our own lives it sometimes seems that miracles are more common when our faith is weak, and less common as we mature in the faith—as we learn to trust God more fully with our lives and seem to have less physical evidence of his presence. "Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?" cried the Psalmist (Psalm 44:24).
Regardless of where on the maturity level we think we are, regardless of how much faith we think we have, our hope is still in God, and we display that trust as we call for the elders, pray in faith and trust in God to do what is right and good for us.
Some have also wondered whether it would be a lack of faith if they use medicine or surgery. The answer is no. We should all realize that no medicine or surgery is a guarantee of health. Some people who use medicine have no faith, while others have much faith. Faith and medical science are not a matter of "either/or." Faith does not mean that we refuse to do anything to help our situation (this is just as true for health concerns as it is for financial concerns or safety concerns). Faith should be combined with wisdom in using sensible methods that are within our means.
There is no spiritual virtue in avoiding treatment or in using "natural" treatments, as though such treatments are more "spiritual" or "faithful" than conventional medical techniques. Choices of treatment should be based on many factors, including likelihood of success, quality of care, cost and common sense. God does not only work through special supernatural intervention. He is also continually at work through his creation. Theologian Millard Erickson explains it in terms of God being both transcendent (different from creation) and immanent:
The meaning of immanence is that God is present and active within his creation, and within the human race, even those members of it that do not believe in or obey him. His influence is everywhere.... Immanence signifies that God does much of his work through natural means. He is not restricted to miracles. He even uses ordinary unbelieving humans such as Cyrus, whom he described as his ‘shepherd,’ his ‘anointed’ (Isa. 44:28; 45:1). He uses technology and human skill and learning....
If we emphasize transcendence too much ... we may expect God to work miracles at all times, while he may purpose instead to work through our effort. We may tend to mistrust the creation, forgetting that he himself is present and active there. We may depreciate the value of what non-Christians do....
God is not limited to working directly to accomplish his purposes. While it is very obviously a work of God when his people pray and a miraculous healing occurs, it is also God’s work when through the application of medical knowledge and skill a physician is successful in bringing a patient back to health. Medicine is part of God’s general revelation, and the work of a doctor is a channel of God’s activity.... God is providentially at work as much in the cure wrought by the physician as in a miraculous healing" (Introducing Christian Doctrine, pp. 76-77, 134).
So I encourage sick people to consult a doctor, to gather information, to get a second doctor’s opinion if necessary, and to use good judgment in what they do—and especially to rely on God in faith for guidance and wisdom. The meaning of life is found in God, not in physical health, medicine, surgery or miraculous healing. We are to be good stewards of the bodies he has given us, and to make wise decisions about what we do with those bodies.
Redemption of our bodies
Here’s a third question: What is the theology of healing? What gives God the "right" to intervene in our physiology? I see a twin foundation for his healing work in our lives: creation and redemption. He can intervene in nature because he created it, and because he redeemed it through the death of his Son.
Paul writes, "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Col. 1:19-20). Through Christ, God has redeemed all creation. Though sin corrupted the creation, God redeems it (Rom. 8:19-23). Creation belongs to him, and he can do with it whatever he wants. He can work through natural processes, or he can intervene in supernatural ways.
But we do not yet see the liberation promised for all creation (Rom. 8:21); nor do we see the redemption of our bodies (v. 23). It will be done when Christ returns, but for now we live in a world that is still in bondage to corruption. We see a conflict between present reality and the promise of Christ. That is where faith enters, and as Hebrews 11 makes plain, faith means believing in realities we do not yet see.
It takes more faith to trust God when we are not healed, than to trust him when we are. When we receive what we hope for, then it is visible, in the realm of sight, no longer of faith. Faith looks to the future, and trusts in God whether or not we are healed.
God still heals in miraculous ways. A healing might be compared to the spies sent into the Promised Land, who brought back some of the fruit of the land even before the Israelites occupied the land. In a similar way, a miraculous healing is like a foray into the future, bringing back a token of the redemption that Christ achieved on the cross. It is only a token—our future bodies will be far better than anything we know in this age. Even the greatest miracle of this age (raising a dead person, perhaps) is only a shadow of greater things to come.
Miracles should increase our faith in God, our trust in him. Faith does not mean a belief in guaranteed miracles, for God has not promised us that. Faith means trusting in God even when there are no miracles. And when we hear of miracles, we can rejoice with those who rejoice, without ceasing to trust in God to do what is good and right for us. We have resources at our disposal, and he expects us to use them wisely. But no matter what we do, we are to trust in him.