“When people don’t get healed, the problem is never at God’s end.” Pithy, popular, memorable, intuitive – but also misleading, and sometimes very unhelpful. Here are three reasons why.
Firstly, it assumes that somebody not being healed this side of the resurrection is always a “problem”. So every time someone is prayed for and remains unwell, we have a problem. Every time someone dies, we have a problem. Not just a tragedy, or a loss, or another painful reminder that the world we live in is still broken, but a problem, with someone to blame. Given that it’s a problem, it’s obvious that it must be at our end or at God’s end. And who wants to attribute “problems” to God?
But this obviously begs the question. How do we know it’s a problem when somebody isn’t healed, especially in the light of the characters we encounter in the gospels (all but one of the “multitude” at the pool called Bethesda) and the epistles (Epaphroditus, Trophimus, Timothy, Paul himself), who weren’t immediately healed? Would we say the same of all suffering – “if someone is still facing persecution, then the problem is not at God’s end” – and if not, why say it of sickness? Would we say it of those who have not been raised from the dead? To assume that these things are “problems”, such that either God or a particular human being is somehow to blame for them, is itself a problem.
Secondly, the extremely pithy nature of the statement – and this is true of almost all bumper-sticker theology – oversimplifies something that is actually quite complex, and collapses a variety of biblical explanations into one all-encompassing überexplanation.
Biblically speaking, some people are sick because the people praying for them have insufficient faith (Matt 17:19-20). Some people are sick because the people praying for them need to pray [and fast?] (Mark 9:29). Some people are sick because there’s something going on behind the scenes that we know nothing about (Job 1-2). Some people are sick because the glory of God is going to be revealed through them in the future (John 11:4). Some people are sick because God created them that way (Exod 4:11). Some people are sick as a result of divine discipline (1 Cor 11:27-32; cf. Heb 12:3-11). Some people are sick because they need to change their lifestyle in some way (1 Tim 5:23). Some people are sick because they have not yet approached the elders for prayer (James 5:14-15) or perhaps because healing is a charismatic gift that not all possess (1 Cor 12:27-31). Paul may have been sick because God wanted to bring him to Galatia to preach the gospel (Gal 4:13) or because God wanted to crush his pride and teach him to rely on divine strength (2 Cor 12:7-10). And with some sicknesses, of course, there is no explanation; we just do not know why Trophimus was ill (2 Tim 4:20), and we shouldn’t talk as if we do. The biblical reality is that sometimes, the reason people aren’t healed is to do with us; sometimes, it’s to do with God; sometimes, it’s to do with both; and sometimes we don’t know.
Practically, of course, we should live and act on the basis that God wills to heal – which the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels demonstrates unequivocally that he does – and make sure that we have done, and are doing, all of the things God has called us to do to see that happen (prayer, obedience, faith, using gifts, and so on). If our starting assumption is “God has ordained my sickness,” rather than, say, “this daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for eighteen years” (Luke 13:16), the chances are that we will never have faith to pray for anyone to be healed. We should also bear in mind the obvious fact that people who believe God always wills to heal, as many Pentecostals and Charismatics do, pray for far more healings, and see far more healings, than people who don’t. But taken simply as a reflection of biblical teaching, the claim that God is never responsible for human sickness simply cannot be sustained. (For what it may be worth, I still regard P-J Smyth’s message on this subject at Together on a Mission, just after his recovery from cancer, as the best I have ever heard). Continue reading