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.

Lack Of Healing 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.

Propositional Statements Regarding Healing

Before we settle upon an interpretation of this passage in James, however, we need to take note of a second category of scriptural references that provide a broader context. These are the propositional passages of the New Testament that make clear, prescriptive statements about healing and sickness. Has Christ’s redemption on the cross made healing normative? Does the New Testament promise that Christians no longer have to suffer sickness? The answer is a resounding “No”! In fact, quite the contrary. Revelation 21 indicates that it is only after the final resurrection and the creation of a new heaven and earth that there will be no more sickness for God’s people:

“God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  (Rev 21:4).

In the meantime, Christians are not exempt from the common experience of humanity. We continue to live in a fallen world, with imperfect bodies that are subject to frailty, infirmity and disease:

“We groan inwardly as we eagerly await our full adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”  (Rom 8:23-25).

Christ does not place a protective bubble around His followers. We continue to live with the universal consequences of the Fall (Genesis 2-3). Work is hard. Weeds grow in our gardens. Childbirth is painful. We stub our toes. We fall and break bones. We catch colds. We get headaches. We ingest bacteria and suffer diarrhea. We inhale viruses and catch influenza. Cellular DNA is sometimes damaged in replication and cancerous cells are created and multiply. This will be our experience, along with the rest of humanity, until Christ returns. Until then, we “groan inwardly as we eagerly await our full adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). This passage indicates that the redemption of our bodies from sickness and infirmity is ours as an inheritance, but we do not have it yet. We must wait for it. For in this hope we were saved. But who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom 8:25).

Healing And The Cross Of Christ

It is this future inheritance that is referred to in the commonly cited passage in Matthew’s Gospel: “This was to fulfil what was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah; “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases”.”  (Matt 8:17). This is a verse that is often misunderstood. Interestingly, Matthew is quoting Isaiah 53:4, but his quote differs from the original; “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering (Isaiah 53:4). This probably indicates that Matthew was quoting from the first century Septuagint version of the Old Testament (a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). Matthew, however, is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and under the Spirit’s guidance he uses this translation to broaden our understanding of our future inheritance. When we combine these two passages, Matthew 8:17 and Isaiah 53:4, we find that the work of Christ on the cross has purchased our future deliverance from infirmities, diseases and pain/suffering.

The key question, however, is, “Do we get this inheritance now, or must we wait for it?”. Some Christians claim that this is our inheritance now; that the cross of Christ has purchased our complete redemption from sickness in this life. But this view fails to interpret these verses consistently. If we are to claim complete deliverance from “diseases”, based upon these verses, we must also claim complete deliverance from “infirmities”. What are infirmities? The Greek word “infirmities” (ἀσθενείας; astheneias) is a much broader term than mere sickness. It refers to the normal deterioration of the body due to ageing; grey hair, loss of hair, wrinkles, fading eyesight, hearing loss, arthritis, brittle bones, loss of strength and agility, calcification of cartilage, diminishing of height etc. If you are going to claim complete deliverance from disease in this life, you must also claim complete deliverance from growing old! This of course, would be nonsensical! Similarly, you would also have to claim complete deliverance from pain, because Isaiah lists that as part of our inheritance package. To be consistent, you would have to claim that, in this life, you would never again stub your toe or fall and hurt yourself or jam your finger in a door or burn your hand on a hot utensil.

Clearly, the only sensible, logical interpretation of Matthew 8:17 and Isaiah 53:4, is that these refer to our future inheritance: the complete deliverance from pain, infirmity and sickness that will only be received after the final establishment of God’s perfect Kingdom at the end of the age. Until then, we must “wait for it patiently” (Rom 8:25).

Interpreting James Chapter 5

Now, at last, we can return to James chapter 5. We have all the necessary contextual background to guide us in our interpretation. Given the significant Biblical examples of Christians who were not healed, together with the prescriptive passages that indicate that we will not be completely delivered from sickness in this life, we must interpret James chapter 5 in a way that is not contradictory. How, then, are we to view this passage that strongly advocates prayer for healing? Let us remind ourselves of the precise wording:

“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 5:14-15a)

At first glance this appears to be a universal, unequivocal promise. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”. But we have already seen that this cannot be a universal promise, otherwise scripture would be contradicting itself. Is there anything else in the immediate context of this passage which might suggest an alternate interpretation? Yes, there is. The verses that immediately follow introduce another element to the scenario:

“If they have sinned they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (verses 15b and 16).

This changes everything! James is apparently not referring to general sickness here, but to sickness that has been inflicted upon church members by God as a disciplinary measure for their sinful behaviour. That God sometimes disciplines Christians in this way is corroborated by Paul’s denunciation of the Corinthian church’s abuse of the Lord’s Supper, when he says,

“Those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ, eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 11:29-32).

There is a lot more to be said about the role of sickness as a means of God’s judgment, and it must be stressed that not all sickness is God’s judgment. But this passage in 1 Corinthians establishes the fact that God sometimes uses sickness to discipline wayward Christians, in order to restore them to Himself when they repent.

It is this kind of sickness that James is referring to in chapter 5 of his letter. Apparently, there were some in the church who had sinned and had fallen sick as a result of God’s loving discipline. To these people, James issues the unequivocal promise of forgiveness, restoration and healing if they “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (vers 16). It is only in this context that James promises that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (verse 15). The phrase, “the Lord will raise them up”, describes not just being raised up physically from their sick beds, but being restored in their relationship with God and in their fellowship with their fellow believers.

This passage in James 5:14-16 is a classic example of the vital need to always interpret scripture with scripture. It also further illustrates the importance of taking careful note of the immediate context of a verse or passage. Often the interpretive key to a verse is already in plain sight in the surrounding verses, and only requires that we read a little wider. Failure to follow these important hermeneutic principles can, and often does, lead to interpretations that are misleading and even harmful.

God Sometimes Heals, But It Is Not Normative

What can we conclude about healing? The New Testament clearly records instances where God healed people of their illnesses, and just as clearly records instances when He didn’t. Furthermore, there are no prescriptive passages within the Bible that promise universal healing as a normative element of the Christian life.  Passages which are commonly cited as prescriptive promises of healing have been misinterpreted, as a result of ignoring some of the basic principles of hermeneutics.

If we take the New Testament as our guide for faith, and if we believe that God continues to work today in the same way that He did in the first century, then only one conclusion is left to us: God sometimes heals and sometimes doesn’t! Both of those outcomes are clearly in evidence within the lives of the first century Christians, and continue to be evident in the lives of Christians today.

Unhealed Chronic Illnesses Among The Great Saints

As a post script, it is worth considering the significant, unhealed illnesses that plagued many of God’s great saints throughout history. 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.

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