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Prayer for Healing

Many years ago I heard the story of a man who walked across a dangerous waterfall on a tightrope. After he had made his successful crossing, the tightrope walker asked the cheering crowd, “Do you believe that I could walk back across the river carrying someone on my shoulders?”  The crowd roared in affirmation. Yes, they believed he could. Then the man called out, “Who will be the volunteer to ride on my shoulders?” Suddenly, the shouts died away and the crowd grew strangely quiet. 

Adventists, in theory, believe in miracles. Our official documents suggest that we believe in a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God. But when it comes to putting that theory into practice, many of us hesitate. While recognizing the psychological value of prayer, we may struggle with the concept of God’s miraculous intervention in response to human supplication. Does God wait to heal until we ask? Do we change his mind? Won’t God do what is best regardless of whether or not we ask?

A brief article such as this cannot begin to answer these questions in any sort of substantive way.  I won’t even try. Instead, I simply share three of my personal hopes related to the issue of prayer for healing. 

First, I hope we will make an effort to learn more about prayer for healing. 

While a student at Andrews University, I had the chance to hear non-North Americans pray for healing. Nearly always, I sensed that there was something different about those prayers. I prayed like a lawyer–systematically making my case, closing all the loopholes without leaving anyone liable for damages should my request not be granted. When my brothers and sisters from the “developing” world prayed for healing, it was with greater clarity, passion and power.  Their prayers were paradoxically both confident yet humble. I politely offered God suggestions. They called down fire from heaven. 

I have come to believe that North American Adventism is less experienced and even less informed about healing prayer than Adventism in some other parts of the world. I’m not sure why that difference exists, but I would hope that we would be willing to learn from our brothers and sisters on other continents who I suspect have a better biblical and experiential knowledge of healing prayer.

Second, I hope that we can be more open about the mystery and uncertainty surrounding prayer for healing.

When it comes to the subject of prayer for healing, I already mentioned that many of us struggle with questions. We have heard the stories of incurable diseases and lifelong emotional wounds disappearing in response to prayer. We may know of infertile couples now raising miracle children conceived because of God’s intervention. While a pastor, I participated in an anointing service for a man with a cancerous tumor who was preparing for surgery. By his next appointment just prior to that surgery, the tumor was gone. 

We have also lived other stories of prayer. These are the prayer experiences that don’t typically appear in the church newsletter. In my family’s case it began when my sister noticed a lump in her upper abdomen, along with some pain. Then came the shocking diagnosis of pancreatic cancer followed by months of “treatment.”  There were fleeting moments of hope. And there was always prayer. Prayers prayed by her husband and daughters, her parents, her siblings, her friends, her pastors and her extended Christian family around the world. She prayed too.  Without ceasing, even, asking for just a few more years. She wasn’t able to speak much during the last few days of her life, but I suspect she was praying until the very end. 

In some ways, it would be easier if the answer to our requests for healing was always “No.” But when the answer is sometimes an astonishing, unbelievable and unexpected “Yes,” it makes the “No” all the more difficult to understand. We ought to be able to openly acknowledge this mystery and the agony it brings. 

The Bible models this for us by recording both sorts of stories. The servant of the high priest had his severed ear restored by Jesus, but Jesus never reattached the head of John the Baptist. James was put to death by the sword, while Dorcus was raised to life. Through Paul, the father of Publius was healed of dysentery (Acts 28:7-9), but Paul himself, despite his repeated pleadings, had to live with a “thorn in his flesh” which tormented him (2 Cor 12:7-10).

I hope that we can openly share and listen to both types of stories without trying to explain the different outcomes. We should be able to celebrate and sorrow together, to praise and to lament.  This process itself can help to bring healing. As we listen and share, we may also realize that healing comes in ways that we never asked for or expected. An apparent “No” may bring us to a beautiful “Yes.”

Finally, I hope we will pray together for healing on a more regular basis.

There is certainly no shortage of opportunities for healing prayer. We live in a broken world, surrounded by people who are nearly incapacitated by their deep emotional and spiritual wounds.  Some suffer chronic physical pain while still others are literally dying from disease. Some have become vegetarians, they have seen Christian counselors, they have had the latest treatment at Loma Linda University Medical Center, and still they are wounded, sick, and dying. Do Christians have something to offer besides hospice prayer for comfort and patience in the midst of pain? Would we even consider praying directly for restoration? While we may do so in our private prayers, I think we are afraid to pray for healing together

One of the most common fears is that we may pray and nothing will happen. Then who will be blamed? God? The sick person? The one who prayed? Does God not care? Or do we lack faith?

While I can identify with this fear, I have been comforted by a discovery regarding the role of faith in Jesus’ miracles of healing. I saw it first in Luke 5, which tells the story of a paralyzed man who had some very determined and courageous friends. These men lowered the paralytic through the tiles of a roof, down into the crowd in front of Jesus. Luke tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’” Jesus then continued, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

As I read the account, the phrase, “saw their faith” caught my attention.  “Is faith visible?” I wondered. Then I began to pay attention to the way faith is connected with healing elsewhere in the Gospels. My conclusion was this: in the context of healing miracles, faith is best defined as trusting Jesus enough to bring the problem to him. Faith is lowering a man through a roof, or reaching out to touch Jesus through the crowd, or simply calling out like the blind man did, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Faith is not convincing myself that I know what Jesus will do with my sickness. None of us know exactly how God will respond when we bring our brokenness to him. But we need not be afraid.

For me, this is perhaps the first and most important step in prayer for healing. We don’t have to deny our questions or our fears. We certainly should not try to frantically conjure up a 100 percent degree of certainty that we will get the miracle for which we ask. Instead, let us bring our problems to Jesus. We can trust him with our story, our wounds, our hopelessly broken minds and bodies. As we present our invalid selves to him, we will find that he is already reaching out to touch us. And I believe we can trust his touch, whatever it brings. 

Paul Dybdahl is a professor in the School of Theology at Walla Walla University.

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