My friend, Barbara, is dying with breast cancer. What complicates matters is that she’s also pregnant. The doctors have told her that she must have chemo if she’s going to live. Unfortunately, chemo will kill the baby. They recommend aborting the baby. Her husband agrees. She’s decided to reject the chemo so that her unborn baby can live. She’s taking the risk that starting chemo as soon as her baby is born will not be too late for her. We’ve all been praying for the baby to be well and for her to survive. But, we want to be certain that we're praying properly to get the best results. Can you give us some help? Sincerely, Kelly
Let me share seven observations regarding prayers for healing:
1. The James 5:13-16 healing prayer can really work!
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. – James 5:13-16
Rhonda had suffered for years with radiation burns on her back and spine. Her treatment to eradicate cancer was not then as precise a procedure as it is today.
Sitting in my office, Rhonda read from James 5:14-15:
“Is anyone 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 of faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.”
“Would you please gather the elders and pray for me?" she asked. Unfortunately, it was not that simple.
To begin with, I’d never done it before. Also, Baptist churches were organized around deacons; we had no elders. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure what a "prayer of faith" was. Finally, I had never anointed anyone with oil.
I explained to Rhonda my dilemma and then suggested that we both pray and fast for five days. “I'll meet you in my office next Friday afternoon, and if God tells us to proceed, we will."
Five days later we both wrote on paper what we thought God was telling us. We shared our answers; our conclusions were identical. We made plans for a healing service. Since we had no elders, I invited our deacons.
During the 30 minutes before Rhonda arrived, I explained to the deacons her request, the background to her pain, and what I knew of James 5:14-15. I asked if anyone had participated in a healing service before. No hands rose.
When Rhonda arrived, we asked her to confess any known sins. When she finished, we prepared to pour olive oil over her head.
Fortunately, one of the deacons averted a mess when he shook his head and whispered that a drop on a finger applied lightly to her forehead might work better. We took turns passing the bottle, anointing her with oil, and praying for her.
I wondered if perhaps Rhonda would leap up like on television and shout, "Glory to God! I'm healed!" But nothing happened. She thanked us for our prayers and left a room full of deacons filled with emotions of disappointment and confusion mixed together with some measure of squelched hope.
Early the next morning Rhonda awoke to a strange sensation. By the time she was out of bed, the pain was gone. Many years later I performed her funeral. She was pain-free for decades.
Sometime later Rhonda shared with me: "I think that the reason God did not heal me in front of the deacons was because they might get proud. I think God waited until I was alone so He would get all the glory."
2. It is not always God’s will to heal. Sometimes He has other plans.
In John 9, Jesus healed a man born blind: His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the work of God may be displayed in his life.”
Some sicknesses are designed to mature us to look like Jesus.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)
“All things work together for the good purpose of maturing us to look just like Jesus.” (Romans 8:28)
Some sicknesses are discipline for sin.
In Acts chapter 5, Luke records how Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit. God took their lives away.
Finally, some sicknesses are under death. It is time to die.
David may bring teenaged Abishag to his bed to keep him warm when he was dying. But he was 75! It was time to die!
My father got lymphoma when he was 84. We could pray all we wanted to for him to be healed. But he was 85. It was time to die.
God never guarantees anyone a set number of years. Some live to the ripe, old age of 85. Others fulfill their life destiny by the age of two. But the point is, we’re all going to die. There comes a time to stop praying for healing and begin to pray for God’s grace.
3. 'The Prayer of Faith' verses in James 5 can be exercised only with an understanding of God’s will and intentions.
The prayer of faith does not demand a leap into the unknown. It is not positive thinking. It does not mean believing something so strongly that we make it come true—or that God must do what we want.
The prayer of faith does not rest on human emotions, feelings or desires. It is based on a word from God.
In every case the heroes of Hebrews 11 based their faith on a word from God. The prayer of faith is no different. By definition, it is not possible to pray in faith when there has been no word from God. However, on those occasions when God makes his will clear, it’s exciting to pray in faith knowing that God has promised to answer that prayer.
My first attempt at praying a prayer of faith occurred when a young mother was rushed to the hospital with a brain aneurysm. As I walked down the hospital corridor, I contemplated what words of comfort to share with her and just how to pray about her situation.
Several moments later I sensed that God was saying in my innermost spirit that her sickness was not unto death. She would survive and live to raise her children.
"Surgery is scheduled for Monday," she said. "The doctors want the swelling to subside before they operate. There is no guarantee that the artery will hold until then."
I took a step of faith and delivered God’s message. “God told me that your sickness is not unto death. You’ll live long enough to raise your children. Be at peace." I don’t often have impressions like this one; nevertheless, when I sense God speaking in my inner spirit, I want to do what he says.
My prayer of faith rested on hearing a word from God.
Her surgery on Monday was a complete success. I didn’t see her again for 30 years. We ran into each other at a Little League baseball game at the park. She was watching her grandchildren play.
The truth is, I usually have no idea what God intends when I pray for someone’s healing. In those cases I pray a standard prayer based on James 4:2:
"You do not have because you do not ask God."
So, I ask God for a full recovery with no problems or long-term complications. I want no one to miss out on God's blessing because we failed to ask.
Then, I pray for submission to God's will: “Father, since we do not know Your will in this case, we submit to whatever You have in mind. Your will be done.”
Then, I ask God to pour in the power of Christ with the grace that we need for any situation.
Finally, I ask God to let their guardian angel watch over them carefully through this sickness or surgery.
4. Prayers for healing are not intended to replace medical attention.
Going to a doctor does not invalidate earnest faith. Occasionally I encounter Christians who are afraid that seeking medical help symbolizes a lack of faith. These people need instruction.
Evangelicals seem divided as to the meaning of the anointing oil in James 5. Some anoint with oil as a sacred symbol of the Holy Spirit. Others believe that the oil represented good, first-century medicine. James may well have had both meanings in mind.
Two extremes are to be avoided. One extreme is to pray with faith and refuse medical attention. The other extreme is to resort to medical help and never pray.
God taught me a hard lesson about this. After suffering with an intestinal disease for almost a decade, I decided that it was time to pray in faith for God’s healing. As a young, idealistic student, searching for the boundaries of practical Christianity, I reasoned that taking prednisone and sulfa drugs was a sign of unbelief. I told God that I would stop taking my medicine and place my full faith in Him for my healing.
In less than a month I was hospitalized, and shortly thereafter the surgeon removed my entire colon. My “faith” was sinful, misguided presumption: “Thou shalt not put the Lord your God to the test” (Exodus 20:7)
I encourage people to pray hard and seek the best medical help they can find. Faith plus modern medicine is often a good prescription for healing.
5. God heals in a variety of ways.
"Gifts of healings," as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9, is a double plural: “healings.” I wish I’d noticed that when we first prayed for Rhonda. Then I would not have been disappointed when she did not jump up healed. After many prayers I have learned that God uses a variety of healing methods—some immediate and some resolving over time.
Occasionally healing is spoken directly. Peter said to the lame man, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6).
Sometimes hands are laid on the sick: "His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went into see him and, after prayer, placed hands on him and healed him.” (Acts 28:8).
Sometimes a healing occurs immediately, like with the man born blind (John 9:1-41).
Sometimes it takes a while, like when Jesus healed a blind man and the job was only half-finished: "I see men as trees walking” (Mark 8:24). Jesus then went on to finish the job.
My favorite unusual divine healing happened one Sunday evening after church. A medical student approached me in tears. Cancerous lesions were on her cervix and she and her husband, Anthony, were meeting with her doctor in the morning to plan a course of action. As a medical student, Toni knew the risks and complications involved. If she did live, she may never have children. She wanted prayer according to James 5.
I invited several spiritual men and women to a corner of our now deserted church auditorium to pray for her healing. When we finished, both she and her husband thanked us and departed.
The next morning Anthony called me. “You’ll never guess what happened after we got home last night. We were discussing the prayer time and Toni said, ‘Wasn’t that exciting when the lighting crew turned that bright spotlight on me when Roger began to pray?’"
I said, “What spotlight? Nobody turned on any bright light.”
“She said, “You mean that you didn’t see the light?”
‘”No,” he replied, “There was no bright light.”
“Yes there was.”
“Then, we realized that the lighting crew had left a long time ago. We concluded that the bright light had to be a sign from God that he was answering the prayers.”
She asked her physician to rerun the tests. The cancerous lesions were gone. She needed no surgery, no therapy, no treatment. Toni finished her residency at the University of Arizona Medical School. She and Anthony now have two healthy children. She is a pediatrician in Denver and calls me occasionally to say, “hi.”
6. When God says “no,” stop praying for healing and start praying for grace.
Occasionally, I’m asked, “How long should we keep on praying?”
The answer is simple. We keep praying until God says “yes” or, until we sense that God’s answer is “no.”
There are times when Jesus encourages us to keep on praying and he will give us a “yes.”
On the other hand, no matter how often Paul pleaded, God’s answer was still “no.”
Julie and I were in Turkey leading a conference for Campus Crusade workers in the Middle East. After one evening session, one of the workers asked for volunteers to come and pray with him for his healing.
He related that he’d been praying with people for healing from “restless leg syndrome” for over 10 years.
So, the pleading and praying for his healing began in earnest. Frankly, I was getting a little upset at what felt like misguided prayers.
It was obvious to me that God had already answered his prayer with a “no.” I mean, if God hasn’t said, “yes” in 10 years, the likelihood of him saying it now seems slim. Sometimes, God has other plans. The time comes to stop pleading for healing and start praying for grace to handle well the troubles.
After all, God said to Paul: “I won’t take away the thorn, but my grace is sufficient."
I shared those thoughts with the worker after the prayer meeting. At breakfast he thanked me profusely.
7. God will sacrifice the body every time, if that’s what it takes to mature our inner spirit.
We spend so much time praying for our bodies to be well. God is much more concerned that we’re praying for the maturing of our innermost spirit, which is eternal, than pleading for the healing of bodies which only last for a short time.
I can’t think of any time when Paul prayed for someone’s body to get healed. On the other hand, he prayed continually, in most all of his letters, for the development of the inner spirits of his readers.
Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is a great example:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19).
Well Kelly, I hope that some of my thoughts are helpful to you. I pray that you will pray wisely and with great insight. May God grant you many answered prayers—especially the ones that are part of his plans.
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. Roger will respond in as timely a manner as possible. Due to the large volume of questions, patience is requested. When questions involve mental health issues, no part of any response to an “Ask Roger” question should be interpreted as a substitute for seeking professional counseling from a licensed mental health professional. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Roger Barrier 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.
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