A few years ago I was in Kenya, a beautiful country in eastern Africa. As a group of my friends, both Africans and Americans, were sharing the good news about Jesus, we approached two ladies with the hopes of building a friendship and sharing Jesus with them. As we began talking, we learned that due to multiple illnesses, one of the women could no longer hear out of her ears and had trouble seeing in one of her eyes. Immediately we had a strong sense of compassion for the woman, as it was apparent that her life was full of challenges and pain due to her blindness and lack of hearing.
Before I had a chance to even think about how we could help the woman, one of the young men I was with began to pray for the woman. He asked Jesus to heal her and for God’s love to fill her up. Though I believed God could heal people, I was so shocked by the quickness at which my friend began praying that I found myself staring at him with wide-eyed wonder at what was going to happen!
If you spend any time reading the Gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus devoted a substantial amount of time during his public ministry to healing people. Jesus healed blind people (Matt. 9:27–31), caused the deaf to hear (Matt. 11:5) and made the lame walk (John 5:1–15). He cleansed lepers (Luke 5:12–16), healed fevers (Mark 1:29–31), and even stopped a hemorrhage (Mark 5:24–34). Additionally, Jesus restored a withered hand (Mark 3:1–6), replaced a cut-off ear (Luke 22:51), and healed a wide variety of other physical illnesses.
The Gospels, quite frankly, are full of story after story where Jesus healed people. Everywhere he went, Jesus spent time restoring the order of his good creation. As the kingdom of God came, people’s brokenness and pain was healed. After all, Jesus inaugurated the dynamic rule and reign of God in his earthly ministry. This means that the power of God was on display and that physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual healing was experienced by many.
But does God still heal people? Or perhaps another way to ask that question is this: Are we, the church, supposed to continue the ministry of Jesus? Are followers of Jesus also supposed to participate in healing ministry?
Yes. Yes, we are.
THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF HEALING
The Church is the Body of Christ, his hands and feet, so to speak. We exist to continue his works under the power of the Holy Spirit and toward God’s great and glorious mission! The spiritual gift of healing is one of those ministries that are part of God’s mission.
Technically, the spiritual gift of healing should be referred to as gifts of healings. Notice the use of plural nouns, “gifts” and “healings.” This is the best way to translate the Greek in 1 Corinthians 12:9, charismata iamatōn (cf. the ESV, NAU, KJV, NIV, and NET translations). This leads me to conclude that this category of spiritual gifts should be less about a person having this gift and more about gifts of healing occurring.
Unfortunately, many people are under the impression that they have to have the gift of healing in order to pray for people to be healed. But that is, quite frankly, not how the New Testament frames this manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s work. The fact that the Apostle Paul uses the plural nouns leads me to conclude that this “manifestation” is given not as a permanent “gift” to a person, but that each occurrence of a healing is a “gift” in its own right.
A better way to approach the subject of healing is to view the Holy Spirit showing up in unique situations and healing people in the areas where their life needs to be touched. So whether a person has the flu or has a heart attack or is suffering from depression, the Church can and should pray that God would heal them! This is how we continue the ministry of Jesus and represent properly the kingdom of God.
As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee notes, “Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the early church lived in regular expectation that God would heal people’s physical bodies.” The early followers of Jesus held to the hope of God’s healing because the Old Testament promised that God would “heal” his people. For example, in Isaiah 53:4-5 we read that it is by the wounds of the Messiah that we are healed. In the New Testament, Isaiah 53 is applied as a metaphor for salvation (1 Pet. 2:24) and as a promise given for physical healing (Matt. 8:17). Throughout Acts, healings regularly accompanied the ministry of the Apostles (Acts 3:1-10).
PRAYERS OF FAITH, TRUST, AND LOVE
When people come to me and are suffering from any type of sickness, it is my assumption that God wants to express his love and compassion to them. As Ken Blue writes:
“If Jesus truly reveals the character of God to us, then we may cease speculating about and arguing over God’s will in sickness and healing. Jesus healed people because he loved them. Very simply, he had compassion for them; he was on their side; he wanted to solve their problems.”
I realize this doesn’t solve the complex question about why some people are healed and others aren’t, but I believe we are called to live in the tension of trusting that God loves people and wants to rescue them from their problems while also knowing that God is sovereign, and that we live in a fallen world that has been deeply broken while also believing that God will ultimately make all things new.
HOW TO PRAY FOR PEOPLE
So let’s just assume that God is inviting you to join his mission by partnering with the Holy Spirit. Let’s assume that the people around you are deeply loved by God and that God wants to demonstrate his love for them. How can you pray for people without being weird or coming across like a crazy?
If you’ve ever watched television preachers, you might have seen them pray for people’s healing while doing really weird things like slapping them, shouting at them, or doing lots of other weird things. Do you have to mimic those people’s actions in order to see results?
I sure hope not!
Over thirty years ago, a man named John Wimber, one of the founders of and the early leader of the Vineyard movement, developed what’s now known as the five step prayer model. This is a simple and practical way for followers of Jesus to pray for people’s healing. The steps are as follows:
Step 1: The Interview (Matt. 20:32). This is where we ask the person we are praying for, “What do you need Jesus to do for you?” As you listen to the person explain to you their needs, do your best to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings.
Step 2: The Diagnosis. Overlapping with step 1, this is where we attempt to identify the root of the person’s problem. Why do they have the condition they want healed? There are a number of reasons why people may need help, such as natural causes (diseases or accidents), sin (committed by them or to them), emotional hurts causing physical or emotional pain, relationship problems (lack of forgiveness), etc.
Step 3: Prayer Selection. Invite and bless the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit. As you do so, do your best to listen for where the Holy Spirit is leading. While you listen, you’ll need to choose what type of prayer to offer. Perhaps the person needs you to pray for an experience with the Father’s love. Maybe you need to command the forces of the enemy to leave. Or you need to ask Jesus to heal the person’s eyes, ears, etc.
Step 4: Prayer Engagement. As you are moved by compassion, in the name of Jesus pray for the person. Remember, Jesus and the Apostles laid hands on people when they prayed, so don’t be afraid to ask the person if they are okay with you doing the same. It’s perfectly normal to ask people what is happening as it doesn’t disturb what God is doing and can help you know whether you need to keep praying or if you should begin to thank God for healing! It’s also okay to go back to steps 2 and 3!
Step 5: Post Prayer Direction. Just because you’ve prayed for someone doesn’t mean they don’t need more ministry. Has the Holy Spirit apparently finished ministering? Has the person said they are finished? Are you tired and need a break? When you are finished praying, make sure to affirm the person and encourage them to keep trusting Jesus. You may also want to encourage them to set up a meeting with a pastor or a counselor to talk about some of the things they are asking prayer for.
The 5 Step Prayer model is not the only way to pray for people’s healing. It’s just one model that is easy and practical for people to get started with!
A THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING, SICKNESS, & FAILURE
As a pastor, people often ask me the complex question about why people aren’t healed. Many people have answers for that question, with some suggesting that the lack of healing is a result of not having enough faith and others say that it’s because people have sin in their lives. I have an undergrad degree, two graduate degrees, and I’m working toward a PhD and this is all I know: ultimately, I don’t think anyone other than God can answer that question with any sense of certainty.
Faith is certainly a contributing factor in some of the Gospel accounts of healing (Luke 8:48; 17:19), as well as the type of prayer that James 5:14-15 indicates should be prayed. Yet it’s not the only theological explanation for why healing doesn’t occur. In the New Testament we see that the kingdom of God has come, continues to come, and will ultimately be consummated in its fullness in the future. That is to say that we see expressions of the kingdom now and yet have not yet entered into the time where the kingdom is here on earth in fullness.
So while I believe we should be persistent and should pray, pray, and pray some more, I also believe that we need to live in the tension of the “now and not yet.” Because the kingdom is not in its fullness, we need to have some type of theological response that adequately recognizes that suffering, sickness, and failure will happen. If we are living as Jesus’ disciples, engaging in the works of the kingdom, we’ll see “manifestations of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 14:12) that lead to people being healed of sicknesses that the world’s doctors say are incurable. At the same time we will also attend funerals as we bury those we love. That’s the tension of living in a world that is slowly experiencing the kingdom, as Kent Annan writes in Slow Kingdom Coming:
“Two thousand years ago Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven.” We see hopeful signs of and steps toward a better world where love and peace rule, but have to confess the prayer is still a long way from being answered. We’re surrounded by a lot of speed these days, but this is a slow kingdom coming.”
SEEING THE SLOW KINGDOM COMING NOW
As I stood on that dusty dirt road in Kenya, watching a bold follower of Jesus lay hands on a woman in need of healing, I longed for God’s presence to come and for her to experience the goodness of God. I went from being a nervous observer to an active participant. I too laid my hands on the woman, and I too verbalized the cries of my heart for her to encounter God’s peace and power.
After we prayed for about three minutes, we had another lady that was standing nearby ask the woman being prayed over if anything new or different was happening for. But before her friend could answer, the blind and partially deaf woman answered our question in broken English and told us she could see! She began to tell us that as we were praying her eyes progressively cleared up until she could see everything around her just fine. She was so shocked she didn’t even realize that her partial hearing had also been healed until she started telling us she could see!
And the best part of this encounter was that she became a follower of Jesus, was baptized, and became an active member of a local church in her small village.
This is why I pray for people to be healed and why I believe it’s important for Jesus’ followers to always be willing to pray for people to be healed of sicknesses, emotional pain, and of being outside God’s kingdom. God is certainly sovereign and it is the Holy Spirit who distributes spiritual gifts of healings to people (1 Cor. 12:11), yet we read throughout Scripture examples of people having faith and trust in the Lord to heal what is broken, ultimately knowing that someday everything will be made right when the kingdom of God comes to earth in its fullness (Rev. 21:1-4). When we pray for healing, we need to pray prayers of faith, trusting God (James 5:14-15). After all, healing comes through Jesus and though his kingdom comes slowly, it comes.