Learning to Pray for Healing

Posted on January 1, 2008

A woman in labor entered the ER where I was a medical student, saying her bag of waters had broken. I checked her and found the umbilical cord coming down in front of the baby’s head. With each contraction, the pulsations in the cord slowed to vanishing, then recovered as her pain eased. I called out for an emergency cesarean, and kept my hand inside the birth canal to keep pressure off the cord. Only when she was on the table in the operating room did I withdraw my hand, and run to scrub to assist the surgeon.

The anesthetist gave us the nod, but before making his incision, and to my great distress, the surgeon paused to acknowledge in prayer our dependence on God and ask his help for a good outcome. I nearly snatched the scalpel from his hand before he was done. What was he thinking by waiting any longer? Thick meconium! Petal distress! Risk of stillbirth! Risk of brain damage! Get the baby out!

That night I asked myself the question; In what sense am I a “Christian physician?" Yes, I am a Christian. I believe Jesus is God become man. I believe his death removed my sin and reconciled me to God. Believing parents nurtured my faith, as did an evangelical church and a Christian college. In these circles I learned to pray.

I learned to heal in a state university. Prayer was not part of my training there. My professors approached patients with compassion, but with no expectation of divine intervention. Healing depended on the proper application of the scientific method.

My shock at the surgeon’s taking time to pray in that emergency revealed to me the extent to which l had unwittingly compartmentalized my faith. I acknowledged God’s redemptive work in people's souls, but simply did not consider God in regard to their physical problems. I practiced medicine exactly like my Muslim, Hindu or atheist friends that trained with me. Only in how I spent my nonworking hours did my Christianity set me apart.

The expression “Christian physician” had become for me an oxymoron: "a combination of incongruous words.” Thus began my quest to integrate my secular, scientific profession of healing with my faith in God, who actively sustains all aspects of his creation. I began by asking myself:

Why do I feel uncomfortable praying for healing?

Because my scientific education makes me skeptical. My heart is Christian but my mind is a product of my culture. My studies convinced me that natural laws of cause and effect are the only decent way to understand reality.

How did I come to take for granted the idea that God does not intervene in the natural order? Our society makes it possible for people of different religious faiths to live peacefully together by making science our common language for public debate, and relegating religion to our private lives. Though a Christian, I unconsciously came to restrict my faith to church on Sundays. My workaday world on weekdays I lived by the principles learned in school, turning to secular science for answers as to why we get sick or why a tornado struck. My worldview allowed God free reign in the spiritual domain but did not expect to see him act in the physical domain outside the laws of nature he established.

Because I feel that praying for healing is “putting God to the test.” Not only is that something that we are not supposed to do, but also if I asked for a patient’s healing and nothing happened, I wouldn’t know what to think of God. I (or they) might lose faith in a loving, all-powerful God. It is safer not to ask.

How do I change my way of thinking?

Revisiting the example of Jesus is the best way to begin to unite the physical and spiritual realms. Jesus carried people’s illnesses as well as their sins. 1 Jesus, the image of the invisible God, consistently viewed sickness as an enemy to rebuke, 2 a work of the devil to undo. 3 I learn from watching Jesus that God delights in dispelling pain, restoring sanity, straightening crooked limbs, openings blind eyes, feeding hungry people and forgiving sinners. God revealed himself in Jesus as being on the side of wholeness in spirit, mind and body. Jesus challenged poor people to believe the Good News of a loving God, who forgave their sins and healed their hurts.

Did Jesus expect his followers to stay involved in healing?

Jesus set an example for his followers, and then he gave them authority to healfirst to the twelve 4 and later to the seventy-two. 5 After his resurrection, he repeated that they were to continue his work in the power of the Holy Spirit. 6 In Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus says that "those who believe... will place their hands on sick people and they will recover.” 7

In the book of Acts, Peter, Stephen, Philip, Ananias and Paul all healed people as Jesus did. 8 And for the next several centuries, churchmen such as Clement, Justin, Tertullian and Cyprian continue to mention healings as part of normal church life in their time. 9

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians living in Corinth, he mentions that some in the church received from the Holy Spirit the ability to heal for the common good. 10 I grew up thinking the gifts of healing, miracles and speaking in unknown languages were signs and wonders necessary to impress people in the first century of the Christian era with the power of the gospel. Once the church was established, I understood that God withdrew these gifts.

But today as I reread the section on gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:27 through 13:13, I see that none of the gifts disappears until "perfection comes,” which I understand to mean until our Lord Jesus returns and we are forever in his presence. We only lose what we fail to use. 11

It is impressive to review the invitations—commands even—to ask God for what we need. Here are a few of them: 12

Ask and it will be given to you.
Ask the Lord of the harvest.
Ask and you will receive and your joy will be complete.
Ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault.
You do not have because you do not ask God.
If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
Jesus sums up: “So I say to you: Ask!”

Thus asking becomes an act of obedience. God promises his people, “I know you have needs. Ask me for them and I will supply.” The starting place in praying for healing is gaining the confidence to ask, trusting wholly in his concern for our well-being; possessing the assurance that asking for healing is in accordance with God’s will.

How do I pray for the sick?

The Holy Spirit gives gifts of healing and discernment to the Body of Christ to be God’s means for restoring people to wholeness—whether of a physical, emotional, relational or spiritual kind. 13 A service of healing in a local church based on the principles of James 5:13-16 is the ideal place for a team to minister to hurting people in the presence of Jcsus. (Upon request, the author will send suggestions for getting started in a church-based healing ministry, which go beyond the scope of this article.)

In praying for sick people one-on-one, whether in a medical office or in homes, the Lord’s Prayer gives a helpful pattern. In his ministry, Jesus showed just what “May your will be done on earth” looks like: the sick are healed, widows are helped and justice is done. When I pray “Your will be done,” I mean “through I am an agent working with God to accomplish his purposes. In my prayer on another’s behalf, I make a conscious contribution to the unfolding of the course of events in my corner of the world toward life, love, joy and peace. I pray as God’s fellow-worker, asking for what is needed for the joint work.

“Give us today our daily bread” is an invitation to ask God with confidence for the food, the strength, the wisdom and the health needed to do our task of bringing honor to his name and extending his kingdom.

“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The act of forgiving ends the chronic anger, resentment and bitterness that acts as a cancer to the soul.

"Deliver us from the evil one” is a prayer for rescue from all the ways and works of Satan—from sickness as well as from sin.

In my office, I use my experience and the medicines at my disposal to aid healing. With willing patients, I take their hand and pray, seeing them as God created them to be—his image-bearers, filled with shalom. I pray with confidence, believing God’s will is ordinarily to restore to wholeness persons who ask. I also pray with thanksgiving, knowing that in his sovereignty he can turn sickness to useful purposes in our lives. Whether and when the person recovers depends on God, not on my own powers. I don’t change God’s mind by prayer, but cooperate with God’s providence.

What happens if I pray for healing and the person stays sick?

This is a common situation, even in Scripture. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane to avoid death, but God did not grant his request. 14 The apostle Paul was a healer, yet illness did not disappear from his life or those of his companions. 15

As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.
Epaphroditus is distressed because you heard he was ill.
There was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me.
Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your... frequent illnesses.
Erastus stayed in Corinth and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.

The writer to the Hebrews says something very startling about Jesus: “God, For whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.” 16

The experience of suffering played a role in making the Son of God "perfect," or “complete, mature” (Gk. telios). Whatever else this means, it is clear that suffering can have an extremely important and beneficial effect in the life of Christ’s followers. It can draw us into closer dependence upon God, cause us to review the state of our lives, and strengthen our faith that God will never leave us or forsake us. An enforced rest can get our attention or redirect us; we may experience the care of the Body of Christ for the first time.

Paul’s handling of his experience with the “thorn in the flesh” described in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is very instructive:

  • He was not surprised that a Christian should develop a physical affliction.
  • He saw the affliction as something evil, a “messenger of Satan,” not a blessing from God.
  • His first response was to pray that it leave him, to ask God for healing. It was normal for him to pray for the removal of sickness rather than its acceptance.
  • His own prayer for healing went unanswered, though he had prayed successfully for others.
  • He gained new insights into God’s grace through the experience of suffering.
  • He had discernment about when he should stop asking for healing, while continuing to trust.

We believe that it is God’s will for all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, 17 and so we continue to pray in faith for unsaved loved ones for years without seeing the salvation of that person. In the same way, we can persist in praying for healing without doubting God’s power or willingness to heal, like Abraham, whose faith did not waver through 25 years of waiting.“

I needed to learn to pray for healing in order to bridge the compartments I'd made, and invite Jesus to participate in my healing profession. But I’ve also learned that praying just for healing may be asking for too little. The big request, springing from our deepest desire, is to know God, enjoy him and experience the comfort of his presence. And often, it is in trials that this happens.

When we are convinced of God’s good intentions toward us, we can pray, “Lord, I want to be healed, but I’ve discovered that I want you even more than I want health. You decide how I can be made complete in my knowledge of you—as an invalid (or a widow, or an insomniac, etc.) or as healthy.” Instead of insisting that I must have this one thing done for me, I free God to act on my behalf in any way he chooses.

What is the take-home message?

We have God's permission to ask for healing! When we get sick, remember the many ways that he invites us to ask for healing. If, as we ask for healing, we relinquish our lives for his glory, surrendered to him for the extension of his kingdom, we may see God turn the experience into a good we didn’t anticipate.

When our children are sick, let's pray with them while we give them Tylenol, so they come to rely on "the LORD, who heals you,” 19 not just on the pill.

If our local church or churches in the community in which we minister do not have a healing service, let’s encourage forming one.

Let’s rejoice that God loves us! We believe that God both wants and has the power not only to heal but also to reveal himself to us in intimate ways.

Let’s resist the atheistic patterns in our thinking. Many of us because of our training and background simply do not believe that God intervenes directly in people's lives, nor do we have any evidence from our own experiences that he does. We have lived our lives with such a view for so long that it will be a struggle for us to think otherwise.
Let’s renounce the sin of King Asa, who “was afflicted with a disease in his feet. Though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord, but only from the physicians.” 20 Consider how Isaiah 31:1 sounds with these substitutions:

Woe to those who go down to {doctors} for help, who rely on {pharmacists}, who trust in the multitude of their {hospitals} and in the great strength in their {medicines}, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD.

Let's affirm that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus 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.” 21 This reconciliation extends to our mortal bodies as well as our sinful souls. This same Lord, who was so quick to heal while he was on earth, now sits at the right hand of God, holding all power in heaven and earth. Let’s not limit the present exercise of God’s power by failing to ask him for healing wherever we see it needed, leaving the results of our prayers entirely in his loving hands. “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” 22

For Further Reading

  • Graf, Jonathan L., ed. Healing: The Three Great Classics on Divine Healing, Christian Publications, 1992. (A compilation of The Ministry of Healing by A.]. Gordon; Divine Healing by Anclrew Murray and The Gospel of Healing by A.B. Simpson in one volume.)

  • MacNutt, Francis, Ph.D. Healing, Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1999.

  • Pearson, Maxk A, Christian Healing: A Practical and Comprehensive Guide, Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 1995.

  • Lewis, C.S., Letters to Malcom, Chiefiy on Prayer, New York: Harcourt Brace & C0., 1963.

  • Marshall, Catherine, Beyond Our Selves, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1961

  • Miller, Darrow L., Discipling Nations, Colorado Springs, CO: YWAM, 1998

Praying for sick children and adults:

Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd of the sheep, you gather the lambs in your arms and carry them in your bosom: We commend to your loving care this child N. Relieve his pain, guard him from all danger, restore to him your gifts of gladness and strength, and raise him up to a life of service to you. Hear us, we pray, for your dear Name's sake. Amen.

Almighty God and Father, you strengthen the weak and comfort the suffering. Have mercy on us and hear us, we pray. Give your power to N. that her sickness may be turned to health and her sorrow to joy and peace. Fill her with your grace that she may serve you with her whole heart in the knowledge of your love for her. This we ask in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus, Amen.

1 Matthew 8:16-17, Psalm 103:3

2 Luke 4:39, 41

3 Luke 13:16, 1 John 3:8

4 Luke 9:1-6

5 Luke 10:1-9

6 John 20:19-22

7 Mark 16:15-13

8 Acts 3:6, 6:8, 8:4-8, 9:17-18, 28:7-10

9 Healing: The Three Great Classics on Divine Healing, Compiled and edited by Jonathan L. Graf. Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1992. pp. 155-159, 271-275.

10 1 Corinthians chapter 12

11 Matthew 25:28-29

12 Matthew 7:7, 9:38, John 16:23-24, James 1:5, 4:2, 1 John 5:14, Luke 11:9

13 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28, 30

14 Matthew 26:39

15 Galatians 4:13-14, Phil. 2:26-27, 2 Cor. 12:7, 1 Tim. 5:23, 2 Tim. 4:20

16 Hebrews 2:10, 5:7-9 NLT

17 1 Timothy 2:4

18 Romans 4:17-25

19 Exodus 15:26

20 2 Chronicles 16:12

21 Colossians 1:20

22 1 John 2:6 NLT

Steve Hawthorne, MD, received his B.A. degree in Biblical Studies from Wheaton College in 1981, and his M.D. from the University of Illinois in 1985. After finishing a residency in Family Practice, he and his wife Mary went to Bolivia where they have been working since 1989 as medical missionaries with SIM International among the Quechua people.

Tags: H&D, Doctors, Biblical Principles


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