Sunday, 9 May 2010

The prayer of faith

This morning I preached on the closing verses in Job. They contain the statement, The LORD blessed the latter part of his life more than the first. I asked if this means everything will turn out well in the end for the believer?

I suppose we could answer: ‘yes, but it may not be in this life!’ Think of the Apostle Paul, after years of faithful service, imprisoned and awaiting execution; but filled with hope in the life to come. Sometimes a struggling believer prays for healing or deliverance for some awful burden. It never comes. Yet at their funeral someone says, ‘they are healed now, they got their release, their pain is over now.’ It may sound glib, but it’s true!

After the service I was approached by a friend who said that he disagreed with me. He suggested that by telling people that it was not always God's will to heal us I was sowing the seeds of doubt. He felt I was inhibiting people from praying with faith. We had a heated discussion (and I am glad to say we still love each other). My initial argument was to ask him if he was going to die; did he not realise that sickness gets the better of all of us no matter how faithfully we pray?

I want to mention one set of texts used by those who argue that full and complete health is God's only will for all believers: those Scriptures that show how God honors faith (e.g. Matthew 9:29, Mark 11:23-24, John 14:12, Hebrews 11:6, James 1:6-8 and James 5:14-15).
We must understand these verses in light of full biblical revelation.
Romans 8 teaches that the whole creation, including the human body, is in "bondage to decay" (Romans 8:21), and will continue to be so until we receive "the redemption of our bodies" (8:23). Elisha preformed many miracles, including healing; yet there is no suggestion of a lack of faith on his part when we read, Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died (2 Kings 13:14).
The writings of the Apostle Paul provide problematic for those who believe it is only because of a lack of faith that people do not have perfect health. Neither he nor his associates experienced perfect health. When Paul writes to his colleagues about their health problems he never accuses them of lacking faith. Paul leaves Trophimus behind in Miletus because he was sick, he neither heals Trophimus nor suggests that his ill health was a lack of faith (2 Tim. 4:20). The young Timothy clearly suffered illness, but Paul does not tell him that he needs to pray with more faith, instead he proscribes taking some wine for his stomach (1 Tim. 5:23).
Paul teaches that 'outwardly we are wasting away' (2 Cor. 4:16), we do not yet have our imperishable resurrection bodies. He testifies that it was of because of an illness that he first preached in Galatia, presumably he went their to recuperate (Gal. 4:12-15). While the nature of Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' is debated, it is interesting that though he prayed three times for it to be removed (and presumably he prayed with faith) it was God's will for it to remain (2 Cor. 12:7).
So what are we to make of those texts that promise things like, "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes what he says will happen, it will be done for him" (Mark 11:23). How do we square that with Paul praying three times for the 'thorn in his flesh' to be removed and being told that it was God's will for it to remain? I suggest that we should pray with faith; that ought to we believe that God can, and often does, do such things and healing; but that we do not move from their to assume that it is always his will for his people to have perfect health; and, that we take the promise above and realise that God can accomplish the impossible, according to his sovereign will. After all when Jesus gives a similar promise in John 14 he talks about asking in my name, meaning, in part, that we pray consistent with what he desires.
So the prayer of faith for the sick ought to look something like this:
'Lord I believe that you can do all things. I believe that you can make this sick person well. I ask that you would heal them. But if it is not your will to heal them please give them the strength to hold on to you in their illness.'

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