Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at roger@preachitteachit.org.

Dear Roger,

How many times must I pray for someone to be healed? I have friends who want me to pray again and again for their healing. The call goes out from the church to pray for somebody who is sick and we are encouraged to pray again and again while nothing happens. Frankly, I get rather tired of it sometimes. Is there a limit to how many times we should pray for someone’s healing?

Sincerely, Many Questioners Throughout the Years

Dear Many Questioners Throughout the Years,

In some cases three times is enough. Praying any more might actually be a waste of time!

Julie and I were in Turkey when I was invited to a healing service for an American missionary serving in the Middle East. For over ten years he'd asked people to pray for his healing. He was at his wits' end. As we prayed, it became increasingly obvious to me that he was struggling with brain chemistry-neurotransmitter imbalances.

When the prayer time ended I gently told him that it was time to stop praying for healing. “If God hasn’t healed you after ten years of praying, then another year will probably not do it either. It seems to me that God’s answer to you is, 'No. Stop asking Me. My grace is sufficient for you. I fully intend to pour the power of Christ into your life so that you may live victoriously with the sickness.'”

I've heard and prayed perhaps several thousand prayers for God’s healing hand to touch people with complete healing. I've been privileged to witness some great healings. I'll never forget how God brought life back to Ralph, healed the perpetual radiation pain and burns for Vi, and the bright light that overshadowed Tina and healed her in such a way that her upcoming surgery was simply canceled.

However, I suspect that your prayers and results are much like mine. While some are healed, most are never healed. Many receive medical attention that alleviates their problems. Others die from their sicknesses.

I conclude two things: first, it is not always God's will to heal; second, He has reasons that He wants some sicknesses to remain unhealed.

I’ve thought a lot about Paul’s healing prayers for others. There are none—except for the three times He prayed for God to remove the satanic stake twisting in his own flesh.

I am certain that Paul did pray for people to be healed physically, but those prayers were not recorded—perhaps because curing sickness is not nearly such a big deal to the Lord as it is to us.

What Paul’s prayers do reveal is his deep concern for the maturing of the internal, eternal human spirit. He never (as far as we have it recorded) prayed for anyone’s body to get well; conversely he never stopped praying for the development of the inner person. Let me share a couple of examples.

"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, ...may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe" (Ephesians 1:15-19).

"I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being" (Ephesians 3:14-19).

When Timothy was sick with various stomach ailments, Paul did not pray for his healing or send him to the local-Christian faith healer. He advised him that a little wine would be good for his stomach (1 Timothy 5:23).

I think we might do well to follow Paul’s example when he prayed for Jesus to remove the "thorn" from his flesh. Three times was enough:

"To keep me from becoming conceited, because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But, He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

“Thorn" is the Greek word describing a tent stake that is driven into the ground. The Babylonians used the word to describe the sharpened trees used for impaling people. “Torment” is a Greek boxing term meaning, “to beat, to strike with the fist.” Paul had a stake impaled in his body tormenting him to keep him humble.

There are four primary guesses as to the nature of Paul's thorn:

  • First, he was ugly—probably a result of his five beatings with rods, three whippings, and one stoning (2 Corinthians 10:10).
  • Second, he was incapacitated with malaria contracted in the marshy areas of the southern coast of Turkey.
  • Third, he struggled with epilepsy which was considered in the ancient world to be caused by demons (Galatians 4:3-14).
  • Finally, and most probable, he had some sort of debilitating eye trouble. Think about the blind scales falling off of his eyes at his bright-light conversion in the desert, and the comment about his eyes he made to the Galatians (Galatians 4:15Galatians 6:11; and Acts 23).

I think that we might consider following Paul’s example. If we are not healed after three prayers, we might assume that God has other things in mind.

Too often we are obsessed with removing pain and problems. God, on the other hand, is obsessed with sensitizing our inner spirits. God will sacrifice the body every time if that is what it takes to mature the eternal!

We can pray seven times to be healed of cancer; nevertheless, eventually, we will still succumb to death. Life is a terminal disease. Praying for healing is not eternally effective. There are no biblical verses which describe angels rejoicing when bodies are healed. On the other hand, the angels rejoice when a lost sheep enters into eternal life!

Too many Christians beg for God to change their situations and heal their bodies while not having the slightest idea of God’s eternal intentions. We must pray to see things from His perspective and interpret the circumstances surrounding our souls and bodies in light of how our requests affect our inner spirits.

To one degree or other, we are all like Paul in our weaknesses. Pray three times for healing. If He answers, "Yes," then rejoice and go on with life. Otherwise, look for a reason why Jesus is saying, “No.” If no healing occurs, consider that God wants us to live with it and find grace and strength accordingly.

Of course there is more to this story. Just because Paul (and God) handled his thorn in one way does not mean that He will always handle our troubles likewise.

One of the Disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-13). He shared the Lord's Prayer and then told a parable about a man who received a visitor late at night. It was customary to feed a guest upon arrival. Unfortunately, the man with the guest had no food. This was a big deal in their culture.

So, he went to his neighbor and asked for some bread. HIs neighbor was bedded down for the night and refused to get up. The man seeking bread begged and pleaded but his neighbor refused and refused. Finally, to get rid of him the neighbor got out of bed and  gave him some bread.

Then, Jesus said, "Though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless persistence he will surely get up and give you as much as you need."

Then, Jesus followed up the parable with these encouraging words, "Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you." Some translate the three Greek verbs in the imperfect tense as "keep on asking; keep on seeking, and keep on knocking…" However, I think that in this context, translating the imperfect here as ongoing action misses the point of Jesus' parable. The implication as translated here is that we have to keeping praying and pleading with God and if we are persistent enough, He will give us what we ask, seek and knock for. I don't think that this is what He meant.

He continued on to say that if sinful earthly dads know how to give gifts to their children, then how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Matthew records Jesus' follow-up like this:

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

When we put the entire passage in context we see that Jesus is doing everything possible to communicate that God is not at all like the sleeping neighbor who had to be pestered and pestered until he finally gave the man that he wanted in order to get rid of him.

Our God is not like that at all. He is a Father who delights to give good gifts to those who ask, seek and knock. We don't ever need to beg, plead and cajole. All we have to do is ask because He can hardly wait to give good things to us.

When I was thirteen, the Dallas doctors told us that I had a hole in my heart and needed surgery to close it. I was only thirteen but I knew how to pray. Praying for God's healing work was as easy as asking mom for breakfast. Without a doubt, many others were praying for me, too.

Two weeks before the surgery I dreamed that God answered the prayers and healed me. It never dawned on me to ask the doctors to recheck. I told mom about the dream and she said, "Oh, well, that is interesting."

Several days later the heart surgeon sat on my bed in the I.C.U. "I hate to tell you," he said, "but we made a terrible mistake. There is nothing wrong with your heart. I held your heart right in my hand, I slit it open to find the hole and there was none. I put it back in and sewed you up. You have a perfect heart."

God was delighted to give me what I'd asked for. I imagine that He was just waiting for the moment when I first asked Him to do His healing work. Unfortunately, I failed to check on His answer, even when He sent me a dream. I've tried to listen to Him more closely ever since.

How many times you pray for healing or the removal of difficulties is between you and God. I am not about to try to limit the times you want to pray for something.

What I do hope is that you will see that God is not lingering or waiting until you have begged enough before granting your desire. If the answer is to be, "Yes," then He never hesitates. He passes it on as soon as possible.

What I do hope is that when God says, "No", that you will stop praying for healing, and begin focusing both on how God is using your trial to mature your inner spirit and on how He intends to use this trouble to bring Himself glory.

Now, back to our missionary friend in the Middle East...

After the prayer meeting, he and I discussed the genetic implications of his disorder. We shook his family tree and all sorts of ancestors with the same malady fell out. "There is a medical treatment which can give you great relief. Go see a doctor.” The next morning the missionary approached me as I was eating breakfast and said, “Thanks, I needed those insights about Paul and his thorn. I’d forgotten that His grace is sufficient.”

Well, Questioners Throughout The Years, I hope this gives you some insight into how and when and how much to pray for all sorts of things.

Love, Roger

Ask RogerDr. Roger Barrier recently retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.

Publication date: June 5, 2012