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When God doesn’t heal: Practical help for the hurting

Wes Sutton, director of Acorn Christian Healing Foundation, offers guidance on how to respond when God doesn’t heal our loved ones

I was once asked to pray with a lady who had endured irritable bowel syndrome for eight painful years. My prayer was simple; it is the only way I know how. She laid her own hands on her stomach and I laid my hand on top of hers. I prayed that the pain would cease and for God to heal.

I saw her the following week. She’d had her first pain-free week for eight years. One month. Two months. Three months. We’re now one year on and she’s still going strong.

I often ask those who have high blood pressure to lay their own hands on their own body. Without anyone else touching them, we pray as those who stand in the name of Jesus that blood pressure obeys the word of God and returns to a normal and safe level. After praying at a recent healing service in Guildford Cathedral, I suggested that the next time people visited their doctor they ask for it to be checked. Last month a man came to tell me he did just that. From a dangerously high reading, it had gone down to the level of a 30-year-old – not bad for a man well past retirement. His doctor wanted, understandably, to check it a second time. The result was the same.

But here’s another story. A grandfather told me that he has pancreatic cancer. Our prayers were faithful and faith-filled. We were compassionate, and not presumptuous. He and his family were grateful for our love and support. But we went to the funeral some four months later.

Everyone has a similar story of someone, loved and now lost, about whom we would ask God the question, “Why, weren’t they healed?” As the director of the Acorn Christian Healing Foundation, I know this question is rarely academic; it is personal and often painful. During Acorn’s weekly ministry of healing services, prayer and training courses we often face issues like this.

Why, God?

Why God allows suffering is one of life’s greatest theological puzzles. But the question “Why didn’t God heal my wife/son/daughter?” in particular is the kind of searing, personal question we feel most keenly.

Our turmoil is rooted in emotion rather than intellect; we feel it more powerfully than we can analyse it, because every life is precious.

Everyone believes in healing. We sense what represents normal and healthy for us. When we feel a ‘disease’ we seek out ways to rectify it. We take a tablet for a headache, or see our doctor if things feel more serious or sustained. The body is a selfhealing organism; cut yourself and the blood has a process of clotting to keep the wound clean and stop the flow until the skin can heal over. In praying for others we are often asking God, as creator, to accelerate the body’s internal healing processes.

We must be mindful that we are dealing with the whole person, not a ‘ministry opportunity’

Medical science functions to aid the body’s healing processes and we should not see miracle and medicine in opposition; they are both the work of God. However, we are commanded to pray for the sick in the confidence that God is thoroughly good, and is an interventionist at heart.

Three years ago in Premier Christianity (Jan 2015), US church leader Bill Johnson said that he did not have a theology of suffering because “I refuse to have a theology for something that shouldn’t exist.” There is much in Bethel’s ministry that is helpful, but I did find his statement a little disingenuous as he clearly does have a way of pastorally ordering the world when his prayers have not yet been answered.

The New Testament does make a clear distinction between suffering and sickness, and Jesus did heal all who came to him; in this I agree with Johnson. But, we are not yet seeing everyone healed (or saved, for that matter) and we need a way of understanding this tension. We can recognise suffering without legitimising it. Faith is not the absence of doubt. Rather, faith is what we choose to believe and how we choose to act in the face of doubt.

The will of God

Strange as it may sound, I don’t believe that God always get his will done in the way he would like it. Roger Forster says about the Lord’s Prayer, “sometimes God gets his will done on earth, as it is in earth”, ie God works with what humanity and other agents make available to him, even though it may not be what he would choose.

When life and God’s desires for us do not work as we hoped, we are waiting in what church leader Peter Scazzero calls “the confusing in-between” of pain and resolution. Christy Wimber, a Vineyard pastor, recently warned charismatics in this magazine (October 2017), “If you have no theology for suffering… the damage is massive.” We need a more coherent theology of suffering and endurance because it will sustain us through the process of finding “grace…in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, NRSV). Sharing in this journey is as much a part of the Christian healing ministry as anything else.

Teaching at a healing conference, I got into conversation with a doctor. She told me of her own journey with her terminally ill mother and being asked about why she was not healed in response to her prayers. She ended with a statement I’ve carried with me: “I have been a practising GP for over 30 years. I know that not everyone leaving my consulting room has done so with a cure, but I would never consider giving up medicine, and perhaps that is also true for Christian healing prayer?”

When I pray for others, I pray on the basis that God can only be true to his character and his word. At the heart of reality, God is the constant. Likewise, “Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true” (Romans 3:4, NRSV) is a statement Paul wanted Christians to grasp as they grappled with some hefty issues in his letter. When I minister to others I am acting on what I know to be true about who God is, and on what he has already said, regardless of what the circumstances may tell me.

Asking God whether it is his will to heal people, be it body, mind or spirit, is a bit like asking if he wants the sun to rise in the east and set in the west. There are some elements of reality that have already been set out by the exercise of God’s free will. The challenge is how I work this out where I am and with those I serve. It is not a science nor a formula, but about us stepping into the arena where the kingdom of God collides with our reality, until the two become the same.

We may not see everything work out 100 per cent of the time but, as long as we minster with compassion, we can get better at releasing God’s life. God does not need us to protect his reputation, but does call us to act with Christ-like compassion.

Praying the dead will rise

One of the world’s most inspiring and influential Christian apologists died aged just 34 last year. Nabeel Qureshi was raised as a Muslim but became a Christian following an intellectual journey and a series of miraculous dreams which pointed him to Jesus as Lord. Through his bestselling book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (Zondervan) and international speaking engagements, Nabeel made the case for Christianity in a powerful yet winsome way.

In August 2016 the apologist announced he was in the advanced stages of stomach cancer. A worldwide network of intercessors sprang into action. Thousands were praying for his healing, but just 13 months later, Nabeel died. This understandably led to serious questions for many Christians around the world. Why would God allow such a gifted apologist and evangelist to die so young?

As the senior pastor of the same church for 19 years, I have had my fair share of moments with families and friends who have lost loved ones, even after the church prayed. Some battles we lost. We did not get what we asked for.

Were we wrong, even to the point of praying at the bedside moments immediately after death? (Nabeel Qureshi’s widow, Michelle, also prayed for her husband to be raised from the dead.) It depends on whose shoes you stand in, and those you stand alongside. Some are seeking ‘faith to live’ while others are seeking ‘peace to die’. In truth, you can only respond to the journey the individual and their family are taking with God in that moment. We don’t know why Nabeel wasn’t healed, but his family, friends and supporters truly believed it was God’s will to do so. The answers may have to wait till the other side of eternity.

Whichever path we choose, it’s important to acknowledge that we can prepare for ‘dying a good death’ as well as ‘living a good life’, without trading our ‘faith’ for expediency. Some want to ‘fight’ to the very end, while others need the steady reassurance that death is not the end.

Persevering in prayer

In a church community, loss is painful and also public. It can have an impact on our confidence in our calling and mission. Having prayed and lost, how can we ever bring ourselves to pray with faith again?

Having lost that grandfather to cancer, would I pray just the same, next time around? Absolutely. At Acorn, there will always be another time around, yet we are getting better at understanding suffering, endurance and how healing is given and received.

At our School of Healing we recently focused on ‘Praying for those with chronic and long-term illness’. I told a friend’s story. Both the woman and her husband had been heavily involved in ministry within their church, but when she became chronically ill, everything changed.

She told me: “As it became clear that the leaders’ prayer ‘moment’ had not worked as they supposed, it felt increasingly as if we were an inconvenient truth. Visits became less and we were mentioned less publicly during prayers. It felt as if my body was letting Jesus down; it was not making him look good and tarnishing the Church’s message of: ‘Come to Jesus and everything will be fine!’ Some people tried lovingly to protect us from too much exposure, but the net result was that we became invisible.”

We must have a methodology that reflects God’s compassion and enhances the dignity of those we minister to. We must be mindful that we are dealing with the whole person, not a ‘ministry opportunity’. When I pray, I pray with faith, but I cannot guarantee that a person’s body will be healed. I can be sure, however, that the person before me is loved by God. I can be sure that Jesus is present within us to become involved in their life, and that there is nothing about which God will say, “Too hard.” I can promise that we will continue to journey with them whether there is an immediate impact, a gradual change, or neither.

Faith, not certainty

We can have a healing ministry without a revivalist culture. God does not need hype to be ‘persuaded’ to become involved, but instead looks for people he can work through who will persist with wisdom, faith and compassion. Faith is not a certainty card that we play in extreme circumstances. Faith focuses on the person of Jesus, not on producing a specified outcome.

Our prayers need to be faithfilled, but not leaning towards the incredulous. We must have the humility that comes from knowing not everyone we pray for will necessarily be healed, yet maintain a gentle, tender spirit with everyone.

My mentor, Ken McGreavy, taught me to “be committed to obedience not success”, and on that basis, I have decided to pray, with compassion and faith, for every person who will let me pray for them.

Rev Wes Sutton is the director of Acorn Christian Healing Foundation 

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