I had a conversation recently with someone concerning the effectiveness of prayers for healing. That conversation prompts me to post this piece that I wrote a while back:
We pray regularly to God to “comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; give them courage and hope in their troubles, and bring them joy of your salvation” (Prayers of the People, form IV, BCP 389). Many of our churches hold regular healing prayer services. Some others offer prayers and the laying on of hands for healing at some point during the regular Sunday Eucharist. What do we expect when we pray for God to heal someone?
When thinking of healing prayer, we want to avoid presuming too much on the one hand and assuming too little on the other. We do not presume to have God figured out such that our prayers bind God to particular responses, whether healing or otherwise. Nor do we assume that God cannot, or will not, act. Rather, prayer (for healing and in general) is our placing the totality of our lives in the reality of God's mercy and grace where all is gift.
Therefore, we pray with expectancy, believing that God hears, that God cares, and that God responds. How that "works" is wrapped in the mystery of God's hidden wisdom. Miracles happen, but we cannot control their occurrence. It is not something we control by getting the formula right. That is the difference between prayer and magic.
I had a friend in college who had cerebral palsy. Every now and then, someone would suggest to him that if he prayed with more faith he would be able to get up out of his wheelchair and be healed. I have another friend who was told when his son’s mental illness was not healed that it was likely because of some secret, unconfessed sin in his family. Such attempts to explain why healing doesn’t happen in the way expected, suggest a magical notion of prayer.
I wonder if such attempts to explain the apparent lack of healing aren’t motivated by a desire to protect a certain way of understanding God – as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot there to protect us from all harm. There must be some “reason” why someone who prays to God does not receive the healing they desire. Otherwise, how can I hope God will deliver me from the changes and chances of life? This way of thinking not only reduces prayer to a magic formula, it suggests a God who is parsimonious with his mercies. But, the God we know in Jesus Christ is mysterious, not stingy.
We do not pray for healing because we believe that God is supposed to remove every tragic element of life according to our timetable. Short of his Kingdom, we all will die in need of healing and forgiveness. Even those who can claim spectacular healings of one kind or another still live in the reality of human brokenness and sin. Everyone Jesus healed, including Lazarus, continued in this veil of tears until they experienced whatever terminal illness or accident that took their life. As with them, whatever healing we experience, as with whatever forgiveness we experience, is but a foretaste of that ultimate wholeness God has promised us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Healing prayer is one way we seek to enter into that promise and place ourselves in its light.
Because we are Easter people, we believe the restoration of creation has begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit. We do not presume that God must respond in the ways we want or that there is a formula by which we can induce God to act in particular ways. But, in light of the resurrection, we can assume God acts in our lives. We live into that promise and pray and hope for anticipatory healing and forgiveness as we await with expectancy the fullness and wholeness of resurrection.