Is Healing Normative or Exceptional?
Does God always heal? Is divine healing normative or exceptional? Can Christians always claim complete healing because of the redemptive work of Christ on the cross? James chapter 5 contains a strong, and seemingly prescriptive, statement of faith in the healing power of God:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (James 5:14-15)
What are we to make of this seemingly absolute declaration of God’s healing? Is this a universal promise that God will heal every Christian of every disease? Is healing to be regarded as normative (universally available) or exceptional (an occasional, merciful act of God)? Many Christians have seized upon this verse to advocate that healing is universally available and normative for Christians. But this position simply cannot be upheld when these statements by James are interpreted in the light of other passages of scripture.
People Who Weren’t Healed In The Bible
Firstly, there are clear examples in the Bible of Christians not being healed of their illnesses. In 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul states that “Erastus stayed in Corinth and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” If healing is universal and normative, Paul would have simply prayed over Trophimus and healed him. The fact that he didn’t do this, tells us that Paul did not have a universalist view of healing. In 1Timothy 5:23, Paul advises Timothy, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” Timothy apparently suffered from an ongoing, debilitating stomach condition. If healing is universal and normative, Paul would have simply advised Timothy to seek prayer for healing. But he didn’t advise this. Instead, he gave some practical advice for managing the symptoms of Timothy’s ongoing illness.
Paul’s failure to advise the implementation of a normative healing protocol in these instances is all the more remarkable when one considers that Paul has previously been involved in some miraculous healings. In Lystra, Paul healed man who had been lame since birth with just a few words (Acts 14:8-10), which caused a huge commotion in the city. In Malta, Paul prayed over the father of Publius (a chief official on the island) who was suffering from fever and dysentery, and raised him from his sick bed (Acts 28:7-9). Immediately following this, we are told that “the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured” (v.9). Clearly, Paul believed in God’s power to heal! Yet, just as clearly, he did not believe that healing is normative.
Lack Of Healing In Paul’s Life
This is evident in Paul’s own life. In Galatians 4:13, Paul writes, “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.” This is an important passage for our understanding of healing. Paul suffered an illness for a protracted period of time, that apparently forced him to convalesce in Galatia and postpone his missionary plans to travel elsewhere. The fact that God used this illness to bring the gospel to Galatia is indicative of the sovereign way God works through our weaknesses and sufferings. But the important point for us to grasp here, is that even in Paul’s own life, he did not experience healing as normative.
Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh
Paul’s lack of healing is further evidenced by his well-known reference to his thorn in the flesh:
“In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.” (2 Cor 12:7-9)
Much has been written about these two verses, not all of it adhering to rigorous hermeneutic principles. The clearest and simplest interpretation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is that it was a physical illness of some kind. This interpretation arises both from the immediate context of chapters 11 and 12, where Paul is talking about his “weaknesses”, as well as the lexical understanding of the word “flesh” (σάρξ), which literally referred to the physical body. Attempts by healing universalists to explain Paul’s thorn in the flesh as an allegorical reference to some kind of spiritual opposition ignore the simplest and clearest interpretation of this passage. Paul’s thorn in the flesh appears to be another example of a prolonged, debilitating illness suffered by Paul, with prayers for healing not being granted.
These significant Biblical examples of God’s people suffering from ongoing diseases and illnesses must be taken into account when interpreting James 5:14-15. Whatever interpretation we decide upon, it cannot contradict the many clear instances of Christians in the Bible who were sick and remained unhealed; for God is not a God of contradictions.
Unhealed Chronic Illnesses Among The Great Saints
If healing is normative, as some people suggest, then not only did the Apostle Paul miss out, along with Timothy and Trophimus, but so too did many of the great saints throughout the ages. In fact, a study of the lives of the great Christian leaders of the past reads like a list of the walking wounded! Here is a brief sample of the chronic, long term illnesses that these great saints endured, without any sign of healing:
- John Calvin – stomach ulcers, migraines, kidney stones and insomnia
- Martin Luther – Gallstones, kidney stones, stomach ulcers and depression
- William Wilberforce – crooked spine, stomach problems and poor eyesight
- Charles Spurgeon – severe chronic gout and kidney disease
- George Whitefield – severe asthma
- Jonathan Edwards – a reoccurring undiagnosed chronic illness that kept him in bed for months at a time
- John Calvin – severe migraines and a disease of the trachea
- L. Moody – congestive heart failure (cardiomyopathy)
- Mother Theresa – cardiomyopathy and pneumonia
This is just the smallest of samples. History is replete with examples of God’s great saints suffering chronic, unhealed illnesses. If healing is normative, then why didn’t God heal these faithful servants?
One should not underestimate the depth of these unhealed illnesses. The following excerpt from “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon”, by Darrel Amundsen, reveals the depth of Spurgeon’s suffering:
“The disease that most severely afflicted Spurgeon was gout, a condition that sometimes produces exquisite pain. What can clearly be identified as gout had seized Spurgeon in 1869 when he was 35 years old. For the remainder of his life he would be laid aside for weeks or even months nearly every year with various illnesses. Space does not permit even an abridged chronicling of his physical sufferings. Some appreciation of them comes from this article in The Sword and the Trowel in 1871: “It is a great mercy to be able to change sides when lying in bed.… Did you ever lie a week on one side? Did you ever try to turn, and find yourself quite helpless? Did others lift you, and by their kindness reveal to you the miserable fact that they must lift you back again at once into the old position, for bad as it was, it was preferable to any other? … It is a great mercy to get one hour’s sleep at night.… What a mercy have I felt to have only one knee tortured at a time. What a blessing to be able to put the foot on the ground again, if only for a minute!”. Spurgeon was seldom free from pain from 1871 on. The intervals between times of forced rest became increasingly shorter, and his condition became more complex as symptoms of Bright’s disease (chronic inflammation of the kidneys) began to develop. Beginning in the 1870s, Spurgeon regularly sought recovery and recuperation in Mentone, in southern France. Spurgeon’s last years involved intense physical suffering. To a friend in May 1891 he wrote, “Goodbye; you will never see me again. This fight is killing me.””
Why didn’t God heal these faithful servants? Why does God allow such suffering in His world at all? That, of course, is another topic entirely; one that requires us to develop a robust theodicy that upholds the sovereignty and goodness of God while acknowledging the reality of significant suffering in the world. But for our present purposes, we must simply acknowledge that Christian history does not support a universal, normative view of healing.
Now that we have reviewed the incontestable evidence of unhealed illnesses from Christian history, both Biblical history and the centuries since, how should we interpret the seemingly universal promise of James chapter 5?
That is the topic of my next post.