Healing, healing, healing—is it all about healing?
A significant part of Jesus’ ministry involved healing. The motive for Jesus’ healing ministry was compassion. “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). In John’s Gospel, healing, along with other miracles, were also signs confirming that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.
It would seem that an emphasis on healing has taken center stage in many American churches. Some even think that if a church does not have a healing ministry, even specific healing rooms, it is deficient and that there must be something wrong with that church. This does not apply to all Christian churches in the USA, since the healing focus is still largely among Pentecostal and charismatic churches, but healing ministries, along with prosperity teaching, seem to be spilling over into churches that are neither Pentecostal nor charismatically inclined.
Why is this so? The most obvious reason may be that healing draws large numbers of people. It certainly did so in the ministry of Jesus. Many passages from the Gospels could be quoted to verify this. However, simply because an emphasis on healing may attract crowds, that alone is not sufficient to justify a healing ministry. No, adhering to biblical precedent and faithfulness is foremost. Our work as Christians cannot be driven by seeming success in terms of ‘nickels and noses.’
Whatever we do must clearly conform to established biblical methodology. My point is that the current popularity of healing ministries is not grounded in Scripture.
Miracles, miracles, miracles
People will traverse the globe hoping to see a miracle. This has long been known, and it is not to be associated only with the past. Places like Lourdes in France have been internationally famous for centuries and provide millions of pilgrims with the hope of a cure. Today thousands flock to churches and ministries that focus on healing, often with nothing other than a desire to witness a miracle. Certainly, many either have a need for some sort of healing or have loved ones who do. This is understandable.
Why do people like me then caution against seeking the miracle of healing? Notice the word “caution” as it is not wrong to seek God for healing.
One reason is that abuses may easily occur under such circumstances. People are so eager to be healed that such will be claimed when, in fact, no healing took place. This can be dangerous. Based on what I have found, miracles are claimed without any verification that an actual healing corrected an actual injury.
Another reason is that healing ministries are vulnerable to what I call “mind bending.” Healings will be reported when none occurred, simply to support a healer and avoid the emotional conflict associated with cognitive dissonance. Few are able to protest in front of a congregation that is rooting for both the healer and the subject of the healing. Most will simply go along. Standing in the midst of hundreds of people, I would likely “bend” to the obvious will and need of those watching.
And then, not all healings are from the Spirit of God. Jesus warned, “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect (Matthew 24:24). “Signs and wonders” is a phrase often used in the New Testament and included physical healing (see John 4:48; Acts 4:30; Acts 8:4-13). This warning came toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and something akin to it came at the beginning. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty words in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Paul spoke similarly in 2 Thessalonians 9. “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders.” This depiction of the end of history and the working of Satan would likely involve healing, since we see the phrase “signs and wonders” used here in the very same manner we see it used to describe actual healing by God’s Spirit. Satan indeed is a counterfeiter.
A last reason to be cautious about the present, renewed, emphasis on healing is that it is a distraction from the central ministry of the Church. Jesus commanded His followers to preach the Gospel in what we call the “Great Commission.” He did not command us to go about healing (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8), although the longer ending of Mark 16:9-20 does contain these words: “they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:18). The longer endings of Mark are clearly later additions to the Gospel and not original, but most editions of the King James Version of the Bible do not reflect the lack of early manuscript evidence, so many who rely on that version believe the ending is authentic.
Those who challenge churches that focus on miracles and healing will do so on the basis that there is little or no Gospel proclamation involved. And those intent upon a healing emphasis have dismissed the criticism by insisting that the Gospel is indeed preached along with the healing work. However, after reading the literature, attending meetings, and surveying the many blogs covering the healing efforts, I would deny that the presentation of the Gospel is anything more than a casual mention, and even then it is, in my opinion, not the purpose of the minister to preach salvation.
The primacy of preaching Jesus, His person and His work, is what marks an authentic Christian ministry. One may be healed and yet be unconverted. Witnessing a miracle, or being healed, is not the same as being born again. However many times someone might be healed, he or she will one day die. Then there is the judgment, and heaven or hell will be the final outcome. Healing is of significance, but, as Paul understood, it is at best secondary: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
The hunger for miracles
Miracles are addictive—seeing one is not enough. The miracle work of Jesus produced some untoward attention as well. In John 2:23-25 are these very revealing words:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
Though many “believed,” it is apparent that the believing was not of a saving nature. Saving faith is trust in Jesus alone for salvation and not a cognitive acknowledgment that Jesus is a miracle worker. Thus Jesus, knowing the great desire humans had to witness the supernatural, refused to be caught up in the inordinate excitement.
Ah, to be a miracle worker
During the Jesus People Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of us did witness miracles, and healing was included in that mix of signs and wonders. For a period of several years I prayed for people to be healed, accompanied by anointing with oil and laying on of hands. The problem for me with the healing ministry was the notoriety it brought. It was overly intoxicating, but it was also short-lived. We watched the healings and other miracles wane, even cease, as the Jesus People Movement ebbed away. The experience of seeing these miracles disappear caused many of us to question ongoing charismatic claims, but I now think that one could even be a cessationist—believing that the charismatic gifts did not survive the apostolic period—and yet believe in healing. (I identified at that time as a charismatic, but I no longer would be considered such in the sense that the word is used today.)
Let it be noted that I am one who is very aware of the power of the devil to imitate miracles and produce counterfeit healings. In addition, I am aware of the power of suggestion, the placebo effect, and the fact that nearly 50% of all doctor’s visits have to do with psychosomatic complaints rather than true disease. Even still, I will attest to being a witness to real miracles, including healing.
My concern here is that we do not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, that we keep what is biblically faithful and reject what which is not. My view of it is that the instruction of James 5:13-15 is normative for the Church in all ages:
Is anyone among you suffering: Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful: Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Some have argued that the letter of James is sub-Christian, a “right strawy epistle” as Martin Luther thought. However, even after considering the historical context lying behind the letter of James, my view of it is that it is not error that we have the small letter included in our canon of inspired Scripture.
Could it be that many biblically-oriented Christians have ignored anything to do with healing, de-emphasized it at least, because it has been hijacked and abused by the wealth and health preachers?
Must we be charismatic faith healers?
When requested, I will yet pray for people to be healed, basing my action on James 5 and the general compassion-based ministry of Jesus. Very few, if any, are healed in these current times. In fact, I rarely even speak of healing. But it is often in the back of my mind that dear people in the congregation are ill and need attention.
Is there a format for healing ministry? Must one anoint with oil and lay hands on the person to be healed? Whose faith is operative, the person who needs healing or the one(s) doing the praying for healing? These questions are difficult to answer. Jesus used no set pattern in healing. Sometimes He healed from a distance, sometimes He simply commanded it, and sometimes He touched, spit, made clay, and so on. If we think certain procedures must be carried out, like oil anointing or hands laid on, we are coming dangerously close to magical thinking. This occult-oriented notion must be strictly avoided. Regarding whose faith is operative or how much is needed, we simply have the words, “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick” (James 5:15). There is a mystery here, but the one who is prayed to is the One who heals. That much is certain.
Whether or not people are obviously, verifiably healed must not motivate my decision to pray for them to be healed. In the same manner, I will proclaim the grace and mercy of God in salvation, whether people are converted in front of me or not.
A simple plea: It is important for me not to break fellowship with my Reformed brethren who may not view things as I do. I am hoping that my willingness to engage in praying for people to be healed will be seen as an intramural debate among brethren, rather than an extramural dispute involving serious breaches of established biblical doctrine.
No one is a healer. I am not a healer. I would not be numbered among the charismatics. But I will pray for healing, because it is God alone who heals. Sometimes, especially in outpourings of the Spirit in awakenings, there are healings. Even in the Jesus People Movement some, but not all, were healed. We did not know why, nor could we predict outcomes, and we refused to blame the minister or the one who needed healing if there was no healing. Some were healed however. That is my testimony. In the years since the Jesus People Movement, during what might be referred to as “normal times,” compared to times of awakening, few are healed. Over the last three decades I have prayed for about twenty people, and to my knowledge not one was healed. Maybe it is better to be faithful, biblical, and hopeful than successful; in any case, in light of the current confusion and error regarding healing, I am beginning to reflect on my views and ministerial practices. Thus I am considering including an opportunity for any who would like to have the elders of our church pray for them along the lines of James 5. If I do so, it will not make me a charismatic healer or a quack. And if a healing should occur, then to God be the glory. And if healing is not given, then to God be the glory.
January 27, 2010