The Bible teaches that Christians ought to pray for healing and that God routinely answers such prayers (Jas 5:14–15 et al.). But what exactly should we expect from God when we pray to him for healing? As I see it, there are basically five discernable responses to this query:
- Some praying Christians expect out-and-out miracles of healing. What I mean by this is that they pray for something so patently supernatural that a miracle cannot be credibly denied (Acts 4:16). I find this category of praying Christians to be relatively small—not an empty set, surely, but a small one. To test whether you are in this category, ask yourself whether you would pray seriously for God to spontaneously regenerate a missing limb. If your answer is “Yes, absolutely,” then you’re in this category. If not, read on.
- Some praying Christians expect true miracles, but typically ask only for small and/or clandestine miracles of healing. My experience suggests that this category is a large one. These will not pray for the regeneration of a missing limb, but will pray, for instance, that a person gravely ill with advanced-stage cancer would be miraculously healed. And if such a person is cured, they will staunchly affirm that a miracle has occurred. Most in this category, however, eventually stop praying for healing in “hopeless” cases and will transition to prayers for grace in the lives of the terminally ill, believing that while God can do miracles, he often does not.
- Other praying Christians, while not denying the possibility of miracle, tend to express their prayers for healing as requests for immediate divine intervention to effect secondary causes of healing. These will pray, for instance, that God will “help” doctors to make correct diagnoses or assign appropriate treatment plans, or that God will “guide the surgeon’s hands” during a delicate operation. Many in this category retain an outside hope for miracle, but concede that God rarely heals by miracle today. Still, their prayers anticipate that God will do something immediate in answer to prayer, arguing at times for an undefined category of “special” providence that occupies the narrow space between miracle and ordinary providence.
- Some praying Christians pray for God to heal through the outworking of ordinary providence, ever tempered by an understanding that God’s means to healing include a vast network of intersecting activities within God’s decree, one of which is the prayers of God’s people. Christians in this group do not believe that their prayers can alter God’s eternal decree, but they do believe that their prayers are necessary within the outworking of that decree, and that they are effective thereunto.
- A final category of praying persons is fatalistic. These do not believe that prayer can accomplish anything (excepting, possibly, the spiritual/psychological improvement of the one who prays), and rarely pray beyond the simple request, “Thy will be done.” In fact, they seldom pray at all. And to the degree that this is true, we may legitimately doubt whether they are Christians at all.
Analysis: The Bible plainly teaches that God is capable of miracles and, further, that he cannot be constrained by his creatures either to perform or not to perform a given miracle. The creature cannot “put God in a box.” But this does not mean that God acts with caprice in the exercise of his miracle-working energies. God always acts deliberately and intentionally and we may at times, by biblical study and the observation of biblical patterns, discern what his intentions are.
New Testament miracles of healing are not, it would seem, intended primarily as expressions of God’s compassion or as redemptive corroborations of his existence. If they were, we should expect them routinely. Instead, NT miracles of healing seem to be more narrowly intended. As attestations of the true Messiah (Acts 2:22), “signs of an apostle” (2 Cor 12:12), and “powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5), NT miracles of healing appear to be restricted to the spectacular validation of the Messianic King, of his apostolic legates, and of their respective words. This being the case, the primary impetus for miracles of healing in the Church Age has passed us by.
This observation does not explicitly disallow miracles today, but it does suggest that any diminution of miracles (by redefining them to include clandestine and/or disputed phenomena) or expansion of miracles (by seeing them not as signs of an apostle, but as the expectation of believers generally) detracts from the revealed purposes of miracles.
As such, I am convinced that the fourth option above (that the believer’s prayers themselves and God’s answers to those prayers are part of a vast network of providential activity whereby God works out his whole good pleasure) is the most biblically defensible expectation of Christian prayers for divine healing today.