What God Doesn’t Promise–Physical Healing

This week I am starting a 3 week series of posts touching on the goodness of God. This week we’ll touch on the topic “What God Doesn’t Promise.” I’m hopeful that these posts will generate discussion, that the good work will be done collectively in the comments.

I stood before an evangelist at the tender age of five and told him that I wanted rid of my asthma. He smiled at me with compassionate condescension and quipped, “with enough faith all things are possible.” He marked my forehead with an olive oil cross and prayed that my lungs would open.  He claimed my healing by the stripes of Christ, praised God for my physical wholeness as a woman shook a tambourine for added glory. “We rejoice in this boy’s healing even now,” he said, then closed in Jesus name.

After the amen, he stooped and asked me whether I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit like fresh wind in my lungs . I told him, “I think so,” but that was really just my way of sparing him hurt feelings. The truth is, I didn’t feel anything despite my child-like faith.

It’s been nearly thirty years since that healing service. I am still asthmatic. Perhaps I have too much Thomas in me.

*****

What when the prayers of healing, mustered with all the faith in the world, don’t work? What when children are born with genetic defects that are absolutely incurable? What when faithful servants are persecuted to the death? If we say that prayers of faith will change all situations, if we make healing contingent on that which we muster, we are positioning ourselves precariously on the cliff of doubt and potential apostasy.

I’ve scoured the scriptures my entire life trying to find support for the faith-healer’s prosperity position, all to no avail. And though I sincerely believe that God can (and does) heal, I do not believe that our faith in Christ is magic medicine. In fact, I am firmly convinced of this one thing–God does not promise an end to our physical suffering in this world.

What’s more, God promises quite the opposite–“in this world you will have trouble.” But in that, he tells us to “take heart,” because he has transcended the world. And from his transcendent position he tells us, “you can be sure that I am always with you, to the very end.”**

**Thanks to you who pointed me to the words of Jesus last night via email. You know who you are.

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22 Responses to What God Doesn’t Promise–Physical Healing

  1. Brittany Tomaszewski says:

    When I was 15, my brother was in ICU after a dreadful car accident. For 8 days we had family and friends and church members and those random people-you-don’t-know-but-they-knew-of-or heard-of-your-relative-at-one-point-or-another rallying around us in prayer. Literally, the waiting room was a zoo. I remember standing in those circles of prayer or sitting near by while they prayed, eyes wide open thinking, “What is the point?” I kept wondering why we were all so intent on praying that he wouldn’t die if, in the end, God’s will determined that his time here had come to a close. Can our fervent and sincere prayers change the will of God? I don’t think they can. But after 8 days of others praying and my heart and mouth and mind not uttering a single prayer, I was ridden with guilt when he did die, when he was no longer here with us. The message that is conveyed so often is that things don’t work out the way you want them to because your faith wasn’t big enough or your prayers weren’t holy enough. When in reality, I don’t think I could have prayed my brother back into existence. I believe in a just and merciful Father who foresees more than we can imagine. I believe in a God who wants his babies home. And my brother? Seven years later I can see that had the prayers been answered, had he lived, he would have suffered far worse things in this world than death. The peace that was in the room that day was most certainly His promise to be there until the end. And it was certainly merciful.

    • sethhaines says:

      “The message that is conveyed so often is that things don’t work out the way you want them to because your faith wasn’t big enough or your prayers weren’t holy enough. When in reality, I don’t think I could have prayed my brother back into existence.”

      Nobody actually says this, but there always seems to be that implication somehow– doesn’t there? I know I’ve done this to others before, and I’m genuinely sorry for that.

      There is salve in “kingdom come,” and in “I am always with you….” Sometimes, it’s good to just revel in that, I think.

      Thanks for sharing here.

      • Brittany Tomaszewski says:

        I think this came off a little more indignant than I had intended. I’m learning that God doesn’t JUST show up in those moments of perceived ‘big faith.’ But even when I feel like my faith is small, He’s still God. How much faith I have in that moment is irrelelvant to His will. (For the record, I’ve done it, too- said without words that others just didn’t have enough faith to get what they wanted. It’s easy to believe when you’re not the one warring for your cause…)

    • Your story is eerily similar to mine, only it was my brother at age 15 in the ER after a car accident, and me at 20 in the waiting room. It was in the space of the next six months where I saw that God’s mercy sometimes is to spare us from the tsunami that’s coming. My family was wrenched apart in the months following my brother’s death. God’s mercy doesn’t look like our mercy sometimes and when we squint to see God through the lens of our earth encrusted glasses, we will come empty. Thanks for sharing your story here Brittany, I pray that God’s mercy has been evident to the rest of your family as it has been to you.

      • Brittany Tomaszewski says:

        My momma was the first one pointing to that mercy.

        I hope your family has found peace since.

        Love and love.

  2. Jessica Y says:

    This is long sorry. It’s from AW Pink “The Attributes of God”.
    There are seasons in the lives of all when it is not easy, no not even for Christians, to believe that God is faithful. Our faith is sorely tried, our eyes be dimmed with tears, and we can no longer trace the outworkings of His love. Our ears are distracted with the noises of the world, harassed by the atheistic whisperings of Satan, and we can no longer hear the sweet accents of His still small voice. Cherished plans have been thwarted, friends on whom we relied have failed us, a professed brother or sister in Christ has betrayed us. We are staggered. We sought to be faithful to God, and now a dark cloud hides Him from us. We find it difficult, yea, impossible, for carnal reason to harmonize His frowning providence with His gracious promises. Ah, faltering soul, severely tried fellow pilgrim, seek grace to heed Isaiah 50:10, “Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of His servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, AND STAY UPON his GOD. “
    When you are tempted to doubt the faithfulness of God, cry out, “Get thee hence, Satan.” Though you cannot now harmonize God’s mysterious dealings with the avowals of His love, wait on Him for more light. In His own good time He will make it plain to you. “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” (John 13:7). The sequel will yet demonstrate that God has neither forsaken nor deceived His child. “And therefore will the LORD wait, that He may be gracious unto you, and therefore will He be exalted, that He may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for Him “ (Isa 30:18).
    “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace, Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread, Are rich with mercy, and shall break In blessing o’er your head.”

  3. Matteo Masiello says:

    I don’t have a theistic view of God in the orthodox sense. I believe God is and I try to change my mind or allow it to be changed by various disciplines. Thinking of God as a person with human attributes has only led me to conclude that God is a failure toward His children. My faith and trust in God in nontheistic terms can only lead me to trust and have faith in that which Is. God. So no matter what happens there is no knowable reason for it just that it all will “be okay” as all that comes from God is good. There is no evil apart from that goodness from God.

  4. Glynn says:

    Last December, I had an anointing and healing ceremony for the ruptured disc in my back. I had studied the passage on this, and knew it wasn’t about being immediately healed, or even healed at all. It was more about submission. The pastors and elders involved also didn’t expect or promise immediate healing, or healing, period. And no immediate healing happened. Some eight weeks later, I was able to stop using a cane. A few weeks after that, I rode my bike for the first time in nine months. And a month after that I “graduated” from physical therapy. What I believe happened wasn’t a healing — it was me submitting and being content with whatever happened. (But it is wonderful that the pain is gone.)

    • sethhaines says:

      I’m glad you shared this, Glynn. Whether healing or not, there is something about submission, something to learning the secret of being content. Frankly, that’s probably something I need to learn better.

      Thanks for stopping by here.

  5. David H. says:

    You know, over the years, the “Why …” parts of God have become much more relevant and much more heart-level (as opposed to philosophical) than they used to be. My wife, who grew up overseas helping her parents in an orphanage with absolutely soul-battering conditions, has been the source of that grace. I say it’s a grace to embrace those questions, and I mean it. It has made me softer, slower to speak, humbler, and more dependent on God. My wife and I talk about the pains of the world often. We weep over it together. We wrestl with the contradictions of God’s power and goodness and the state of the world. We wrestle with that regularly. We probably always will, while we look through this glass, dimly (“For we know in part…” – Rom 8). It seems like the more real pain becomes, the fewer answers there are. Job’s right theology didn’t put a stop to his questioning – it intensified it. What prophet didn’t at some point say, “God, this is messed up and you’re not fixing it. Why?” (This is a central theme of the book of Habakkuk)

    In the present nearness of this struggle, it has never been more comforting to me that God became a man and dwelt among us. My comfort of late flows from these thoughts. In John’s epic opening, he says that Jesus has “explained God” (John 1:18). To me, this means that Jesus’s life on earth has made known to us the character, attributes, posturing, and actions of God (“I do nothing of myself. I do exactly what the Father tells me.” – Jesus, about 3,000 times in the book of John). There are the typical extrapolations of this, such as that Jesus exemplifies God’s love, kindness, healing, etc… But one implication of Jesus explaining God that causes me much pause is the story of Lazarus.

    I regularly return to this story in awe (and puzzlement) towards Jesus. Jesus deliberately allows Lazarus to die by waiting three days before visiting His sick friend. During His visit, Jesus, true to His nature, is explaining God to us. Here I see the Son of God “groaning in spirit” over Mary’s grief. Here I see the Most High God stand over the tomb of his dead friend and weep. And here is the part of this story that really amazes me – He already knew He would bring Lazarus back from the dead! (John 11:40) So then, why the sorrow Jesus? Why the tears? Why the groaning in spirit? I think in Lazarus’s death, Jesus saw and felt The Fall typified – death and grief. And it was this present state of the world that led Him to weep.

    This story speaks volumes to me. It answers no questions of “Why?” It simply reminds me that Jesus, too, wept over the state of the world (Luke 9:41). Jesus, too, regularly experienced sorrow; so much so that it was one of his prophesied attributes (Isaiah 53:3).

    Again, I am not a philosopher. My soul cannot find comfort in lofty reasonings of why things are the way they are (even if these explanations are true). My soul finds comfort in a High Priest that completely, totally relates to my weakness (Heb. 4:15). And that’s all I’ve got. That when I turn to Jesus in my pain, it is not to a cold, impervious God who has not walked in my shoes. I turn in my tears to Jesus weeping over the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Jesus weeping over the pharisees; and I hear Him say, “I know how you feel. I know this is hard. I am sad over this too.” And that’s about where it stops. No answers to why. Just the calm assurance that Jesus knows, understands, feels our pain and grief, and helps us in our weaknesses. And out of that posture, I begin to find peace.

    My thoughts pertaining to this story and other similar lines of thought run much longer than a comment box. I hope this provides a starting point for meditation for you all as well, as so many of you have done for me.

    • This is a beautifully written and thoughtful response. Thank you. I, too, turn to the Incarnate One when I run up against the horrors of this life. And John’s gospel – and this particular story – are indeed helpful and comforting. I agree with Seth’s conclusion – that we are not promised healing.

      But I also think that sometimes our view of healing is severely constricted and terribly limiting. I can think of three people in my own family who died younger than most of us would think is ‘right’ or ‘fair’ – and in each of those cases, I can now see that they were delivered from a life that was already filled with pain and would likely have plummeted even further into the depths. So, sometimes – hard as it is to imagine – even death can be a ‘healing.’

      I’m also with Glynn in his understanding of the admonition in James – submission is often at the root of whatever it is we’re wrestling with, perhaps never so markedly so than this issue. AND healing can often take place over time, as it did for him. In fact, I believe that is true more often than not.

      I struggle hard (and sometimes loudly!) with the battering done in the name of being ‘biblical’ when people imply (or outright state) that faith is insufficient, or fervor lacking, or prayer somehow insincere. Hogwash. I think we pray for healing as often as we feel led to, all the while asking for the ability to accept whatever comes. . . maybe even the ability to accept it as a form of healing, whatever comes? So much of this faith journey is about
      walking the thin beam between two truths and not falling off onto one side or the other. Perhaps this particular beam requires praying with both expectancy AND with acceptance?

  6. For me, “heal” is a four-letter word.

  7. amberhaines says:

    Good grief. I love you people, especially you Seth. I think we’ve needed to have this conversation for a long time now. What’s cool is that healing is such a part of our story, you know? We have experienced it both physically and spiritually.

  8. Tanya Marlow says:

    Bit late but…
    I have an interesting perspective on this. I was miraculously healed when I was 6 days old of a brain haemorrhage (which is what led to my parents becoming Christians). So I believe, without any doubt, that God can and does choose to heal. But for the last decade or so, I have had a chronic autoimmune illness, and for the last two years it has been so severe that I have been almost entirely housebound, needing to spend the majority of the day in bed.

    God can heal, and has done so once in my life. But I don’t expect him to heal me of this. Miracles are miracles because they don’t happen very often. I ask, every now and again, but it is not my unending, single prayer. I guess I figure like you said – it’s hard, but isn’t that part of being in a broken world? Why should Christians get an easy time of it? Doesn’t that then become about the gifts rather than the giver?

    All the same, it would be nice to be healthy, to be able to go out shopping maybe, to a coffee shop with friends, to run around with my boy. Some days I find it harder than others. My longing is that I find contentment somehow within it, but I also want to be honest with myself and others that it is just plain hard.

  9. This is so fabulous and clear and direct. I’m especially glad they shook the tambourine for your five year old sweet self. We received a most blessed handkerchief to put over my son for healing. While we believe fully in the power of God and not “things” do you think we used it? Absolutely. We were pretty desperate and while we felt ridiculous, we did it anyway. And God answered our prayers not by healing my son but leaving room for hurt and anger and faith all tied up together.

  10. Donna says:

    For years now, I’ve been in the ‘I don’t know’ camp about physical healing. I don’t know why sometimes God heals and sometimes He doesn’t. I just don’t. I know people who have been physically healed, and I know people who have prayed for people who have then been physically healed… but I know of a lot more people who have prayed for healing and haven’t received it.
    I think blaming the sick person for their lack of healing is repugnant.
    I tend to find myself praying for God’s will when healing is needed, while part of my brain tells me that’s a cop-out. I don’t know…

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