Despite what many television preachers tell us, the Bible does not teach that God’s response to a prayer to cure illness is an immediate physical healing. The overall teaching of the Bible is that sickness can have different origins. Therefore, claims that all illnesses can always be cured by “believing prayer” or “casting out demons” are simply not biblical. Let me explain why.
Sometimes God’s answer to prayer that requests physical healing is “yes.” Sometimes it is “no.” Sometimes it is by healing in other realms or another way, as exemplified by Tom’s story.
Tom grew up in a small local traditional church, as had his dad and his dad’s dad. Going to church every Sunday was just something that people in his hometown did.
The minister was nice, but his sermons never led Tom to consider anything beyond Sunday morning religion — such as his need for a personal relationship with God. Perhaps Tom wasn’t led because the minister never had such a relationship himself. His desire was to serve others, not inspire them.
The pastor and Tom never really got to know each other.
During a routine physical exam, Tom’s family doctor found a lump in his prostate. Further testing confirmed that it was a potentially lethal form of cancer. Radical surgery offered the best hope of cure.
The alternatives — watchful waiting, herbs and vitamins, or radiation therapy — could, according to the consultants, mean the spread of the cancer to other parts of his body. Tom was terrified.
Tom remembered a Sunday school lesson on the book of James that taught sick people to see their church elders for prayer and anointing with oil. So Tom talked with his pastor. He asked if God might cure him.
To his surprise, the pastor didn’t think God healed people these days. More disappointingly, the pastor didn’t offer Tom anything that gave him hope.
The night before surgery, Tom slept fitfully. Waiting in the preoperative area, Tom became increasingly nervous and frightened. He wanted to call out to God; he wanted to pray — but he didn’t know how.
Then he saw his family doctor, dressed in green operating room scrubs. “Tom,” he said, “I know surgery can be scary. For most of us, it brings up questions about God. Every time I’ve ever taken patients to the OR, they’ve wanted to somehow talk to God and ask for his protection and healing. Would you mind if I had a little prayer with you?”
Tom was dumbfounded. Never had he seen religion like this — played out in the workplace. Object? No way!
When the doctor bowed his head, Tom reached up and grasped his hand. As the doctor prayed, Tom felt a sense of peace and something he could not remember feeling for a long time — tears running down his cheeks. Tom found himself squeezing the doctor’s hand.
After the prayer, Tom dried his tears and felt somewhat embarrassed. The doctor asked if he had any questions. “Just one,” replied Tom. “You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“Tell them what?” inquired the doctor. “That we prayed?”
“No. That we held hands!”
In the days following surgery, Tom’s pastor stopped by his room to talk briefly. It was a nice gesture, but that was all.
To Tom’s surprise, his family doctor suggested that Tom begin looking at what the Bible had to say about health, prayer, and recovery.
During his reading, Tom realized he did not have a personal relationship with God. His doctor suggested he read the gospel of John.
Verses 12 and 13 of the first chapter hit him hard: “Yet to all who received [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Tom realized he had never had the spiritual birth described there. Tom wanted a personal relationship with God.
He prayed for forgiveness and thanked God for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross that paid the penalty for his sins. He pictured Jesus standing at the door and invited him in (Revelation 3:20).
God could have healed Tom’s cancer miraculously, but he chose instead to let Tom be healed through human agency. God could have appeared personally to Tom, but instead he sent a messenger — another human being.
Tom was allowed to grapple with his cancer so that God could bring about the ultimate healing: spiritual restoration of Tom’s relationship with God.
Part of the general healing available through Jesus Christ is the total and complete forgiveness of sin, which provides a person relief from both the penalty of sin and the guilt of sin.
This forgiveness cannot be earned by keeping rules or performing rituals.
Forgiveness is available as a free gift from God: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8 – 9).
We believe this is an important aspect of the connection between healing and confession described in James 5:14 – 16.
God can use disease to draw people toward himself. How we respond to disease or disorders that he causes or allows is very important to him.
According to the Bible, he can use these experiences (illness and injury) to refine or purify his people: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3 – 5).
The World Is Not the Way the World Should Be
The healing experienced by Tom went deeper than his body.
The Bible teaches that there is a very general way in which sickness is connected to sin. The world is not the way God intended it to be: it is a fallen world in which suffering occurs. When sin entered the world, humans changed — not only spiritually, but mentally, emotionally, and physically.
With the entrance of sin, humans lost intimacy with God and became alienated from God (spiritually).
This resulted in the progression from health to disease (physically), wholeness to emptiness (emotionally and psychologically), and harmony to anarchy (socially). Spiritual separation from God, physical disease, psychological dysfunction, and social disorder all find their origin in sin.
When the New Testament writers mention people being sick, they rarely associate the illness with spiritual issues. The implication is that much illness is of natural origin and exists simply because people live in a fallen world.
We can even gain some hope from the knowledge that the world is not the way God wants it to be and that he promises us a better future:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
The Dark Side
We cannot ignore another source of illness described in the Bible. Many people today deny or scoff at the existence of a demonic realm. Yet the biblical worldview makes little sense without the inclusion of evil spiritual beings. The Bible mentions these beings repeatedly, particularly in the New Testament.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh that caused him illness is described as a messenger of Satan (2 Corinthians 12:7 – 10).
The gospels of Matthew and Luke are especially clear that illness can have a demonic source (Matthew 4:23 – 25; 17:14 – 21; Luke 13:11).
Some Christians claim that all illness has a demonic origin and that therefore all illnesses can be healed through confession of sin and prayer. They hold that since illness is from Satan and healing is from God, prayer expressed in faith always leads to healing.
Their belief is that if people pray persistently and are not healed, they either lack faith or are infested with unconfessed sin.
However, the New Testament simply does not paint a picture of demonic activity causing all illness. Clear distinctions are made between illness of demonic origin and illness with other causes.
Consider these examples:
News about [Jesus] spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them.
[Jesus] called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.
The overall teaching of the Bible is that sickness can have different origins. Therefore, claims that all illnesses can be cured by casting out demons are not biblical.
This has important implications for what are called “deliverance ministries,” healing through casting out demons. While deliverance ministries may have a role in the church, claims that the primary focus of the church should be on delivering Christians from demon possession must be seriously questioned.
Pentecostal scholar John Christopher Thomas notes that since only about 10 percent of the infirmities described in the New Testament are attributed to demons, “it would seem wise to avoid the temptation of assuming that in most cases an infirmity is caused by Satan and/or demons. . . . The current specialization in exorcisms by some in the church is misdirected at best.”
On the other hand, one of Satan’s most effective tactics in the Western world has been to convince people that he does not exist. This means that the role of demons in illness and suffering is often completely ignored.
We believe that if an illness, after careful and prayerful discernment, is deemed to be caused by demons, Christians can be confident that the power of God can bring healing.
God’s power is greater than any demonic power. Referring to evil spirits, John encourages the early believers, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Failure to accept the biblical teaching on the existence and activity of Satan and his demons has another important consequence. People who do not believe in evil spiritual beings will have little concern for their own safety and well-being as they dabble in spiritual practices, including some promoted as therapies, that can be spiritually harmful.
An Uncomfortable Improvement
Mary, a secretary for the president of a large department store, began having backaches that seemed to start for no particular reason, though she realized she had poor posture when working at her computer.
The backaches got worse after the man Mary thought might propose marriage broke off the relationship. She also began working a lot of overtime. Sleeping became difficult.
Mary went to a new wellness center, recommended by a woman at church who said the center had helped a relative with arthritis. Mary was advised to make some simple changes to her work area and begin taking walks outside, in sunlight, to alter her mood.
Encouraged by her improvement, Mary tried a healing technique called Reiki that the center said was similar to the laying on of hands, only older.
The practitioner told Mary her body had “energy blockages” that he would “unblock” by using his hands to direct energy to her.
“I did feel better after the treatments, though I later realized I felt no better than after I changed my lifestyle,” Mary said.
“I also had the feeling that this Reiki was some New Age practice that had nothing to do with God. When I asked the practitioner, he said if I wanted to believe that Universal Life Energy was God, I could. It would not hinder my healing.”
Afraid that some Reiki practices went against Christian teachings, Mary stopped the treatments.
The woman who had recommended the center held a different view, saying if Mary felt better, the treatment must be good.
“After all,” she said, “we know that all healing comes from God.”
We couldn’t disagree more. And, in the next blog I’ll tell you more about the fact that all healing is not from God.