The Powerful Prick or the Impotent Benevolent?
One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Luke 5:12-14, the story of the leper who comes to Jesus and says, “If you were only willing, you could completely heal me.” To this Jesus responds, “Of course I’m willing, be healed!” ‘Of course I’m willing,’ says Jesus, ‘why would you doubt otherwise?’
The leper in this story typifies the beliefs of many Western theists (be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian) – they believe God is capable of healing them, they just don’t believe he wants to. Some doubt God’s willingness because of the lies we’ve already covered: they think God is punishing them for past sin or they think God is teaching them a lesson. Some doubt God’s willingness out of a poorly developed understanding of God’s present Kingdom – they push healing to a future age, not to be apprehended now. Still others entertain doubts about God’s character, they doubt he is as Good as the Bible portrays him to be. Whatever the reason, within the family of God there is widespread doubt about God’s willingness to intervene in a tangible way in the life of an ordinary person.
Outside the family of God, particularly among atheists and Eastern religions/philosophies, the doubts are much different. For many of these people, they believe that IF God existed, then he would certainly be willing to heal because it is the good, right and compassionate thing for a deity to do. They just don’t believe God exists and is, therefore, incapable of healing. So here is the spread: Western religions tend to believe in “the Powerful Prick” (able, but not willing to heal) and Eastern philosophies tend to believe in “the Impotent Benevolent” (extremely willing, but ultimately unable to heal).
Fortunately, God’s ability to work in our lives isn’t totally dependent upon our beliefs. Unfortunately, our beliefs often throw up a smokescreen so that we can’t perceive God’s work in our lives even when it is present. Since I am writing for a primarily Christian audience, I’ll spend the bulk of my time tackling the issue of God’s willingness, but I’ll first address the idea of God’s power.
God is Able
I find it fascinating that among non-religious people, even among atheists, there is an understanding that, if God were to exist, he should be able to heal. Across time and culture, humanity has always associated divine presence with healing. Also, as I mentioned in a previous post, in many cultures, demonstrating the power of the God of the Gospel is the primary means of evangelism. This is also true among the non-religious in the West. Demonstrating God’s ability to heal also demonstrates God’s existence and validates the exclusive truth claims of the Bible. I can’t say for certain, but this seems to be the main reason why healing happens so readily when evangelizing non-Christians. God works with us to proclaim and demonstrate the Good News of the Resurrected and Returning King, Jesus.
Therefore, when ministering to a non-Christian, their belief in God and his power (or lack thereof) is largely irrelevant. As the one authorized by God to operate in his power and authority, your willingness to obey overrides their unbelief and gives God all the opportunity he needs to reveal himself. Can God heal? Absolutely. He does it often. Just yesterday he healed two people of back pain in our morning service. You could also Google “Randy Clark,” “Todd White” or “Robby Dawkins” and you’ll have hours upon hours of testimony as to what God has done, and is doing, in the earth.
I don’t believe we experience a lack of healing in Christian and non-Christian communities because of a lack of power. I believe we experience a lack of healing because of our wrong beliefs. Our distorted theology leads to distorted practice. Let’s examine some of those distortions before we move on…
Common Distortions of God’s Character
I heard Randy Clark once say, “whenever we beg God to heal someone, we are subtly implying that we have more mercy and compassion for that person than God does.” I think that is a perfect summary of the way we approach God for healing. When we step back and look at the words we use when we pray for people or minister healing, they are quite revealing of our beliefs and attitudes towards God.
“God, if it be your will, please heal…” This phrasing is tricky because it sounds biblical and humble, but think about the implications of this prayer. First, it implies that it may not be God’s will to heal someone of their sickness. Where is that in the Bible? Jesus always healed everyone who came to him. He even commissioned his disciples to go out and find people to heal (Matthew 9) to affirm their proclamation of the Gospel.
Secondly, if the person is not healed, then that clearly implies that God wants them to be sick. That isn’t a huge deal if it is a migraine, but it is a big deal if it is a little kid with cancer. Seriously, it isn’t God’s will to heal kids with leukemia or epilepsy or lyme’s? Or the advancement of God’s Kingdom requires little children to die of disease? Or God is trying to teach both the child and his/her parents a lesson by keeping this child deathly ill? Of course those things aren’t true, but that is what we tell people when we pray “if it be your will” prayers. It is always God’s will to heal, just as it is God’s will for all people to be saved. Sadly, God’s will is not always perfectly enacted here on the earth.
Thirdly, “if it be thy will” prayers undermine the Word of God. They are unbiblical, “having a form of godliness but denying it’s power.” Look at the following Scriptures:
* Luke 9:2 – “He [Jesus] sent them [the Twelve] out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”
* Luke 10:9 – (to the Seventy-Two) “Heal the sick… and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.”
* Mark 16:15-18 – “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to all creation… and these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons… they will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.”
* Matthew 28:18-20 – “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (As seen above, Jesus commanded the disciples to heal).”
I think those passages make it abundantly clear that God desires to heal. More importantly, those passages make it clear that God desires to work through us to minister that healing. There is no question about God will or desire, there is only the question of our obedience. Will we obey Jesus and do what he has commanded us to do, or not?
Another common distortion is the notion of “God’s timing” as in, when someone isn’t healed, “Well, it must not be time for that.” When Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John in Mark 9, a man brought his son to the remaining nine disciples so they could heal the boy of demonically inspired epilepsy. They couldn’t, but when Jesus returned, he could. Afterwards, the nine disciples came to him to ask, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus replied, “This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”
Notice that the disciples came to Jesus for an answer. Notice too, that there was an answer, there was a cure for their impotence. What the disciples did NOT do was create a theology to excuse away their lack of power. They didn’t say, “It must not have been God’s timing,” or “He just didn’t have enough faith,” or “God doesn’t heal on Tuesdays.” No, they came to Jesus to find an answer because it is inexcusable for a child to remain in torment. If Jesus could drive out the demon then the disciples needed to be able to do it too, for a servant who is fully trained is like his master.
Bogus theology that excuses our impotence allows the Enemy to savage the children of this world. Child abuse is illegal in the Kingdom of God and if we do not stand against it we are complicit in it. Theology is not meant to make us comfortable and justify our substandard discipleship. We are not called to be comfortable and feel good, we are called to be like Jesus. The Bible establishes the baseline of what it means to be like Jesus – it is the standard we strive to attain. Rather, it is the standard we should expect to experience as those saved by grace through faith and reborn as the children of God through the Holy Spirit.
There is always an answer for why people aren’t healed. It might not be something we can do anything about, but there is an answer. Unanswered prayers, unhealed people, are meant to provoke us to greater levels of devotion, they are meant to aggravate, irritate and drive us to our knees in prayer and fasting. It is not OK for anyone to die of disease, but we have come to accept it as “the circle of life.” But just because a lot of Christians believe it doesn’t make it true.
God is Willing AND Able
Acts 10 describes Jesus as someone anointed by God to do good, primarily by healing those oppressed by the Devil. 1 John 3 tells us that the reason Jesus came was to destroy the work of the devil, primarily sin, but also sickness and death. The prophets of the Old Testament also looked forward to the Messiah as the one who would heal, redeem and restore. Yes, God is willing to heal – so much so that he sent his Son to do it and to teach others to do it.
Luke does the Church an immeasurable favor by tracing for us the expansion of Jesus’s “show and tell” ministry. Luke first shows Jesus proclaiming and demonstrating as a single person. Then Jesus commissions the Twelve (Luke 9), then the Seventy-Two (Luke 10), the One Hundred Twenty (Acts 1:8, 2:4), the the Church (Acts 2:42 and also Matthew 28). From one man to hundreds to thousands, Jesus systematically trained and deployed an ever increasing number of people equipped and empowered to do the work of ministry with the intention that it would be stewarded into an increased measure, that future disciples would do “greater things than I,” (John 14:12).
Somewhere along the line, the Church dropped the baton. God’s willingness to heal hasn’t changed, but the Church’s willingness to minister that healing has. We now think it is presumptuous to minister healing, that we are standing in the place of God. Others go so far as to say that this ministry of healing by the Spirit is demonic in origin. How far we haven’t come. These issues were encountered by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 12. There will always be those who resist God’s desire to heal or who are afraid of it, but God calls us, commands us, to heal in any case. We are called to re-present the Truth of God’s character to the world and that requires us to truly know him. God is willing to heal. God is able to heal. God has entrusted his Church with all of the authority and power we need to heal every disease. The question really is, what are we doing with it?