We prayed for healing, but she died

What James 5 teaches us about the prayers of the righteous for healing

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We were sure God had promised healing. We prayed for it. We called the elders of the church to pray, we anointed with oil, laid on hands, held prayer vigils, fasted, did everything that we could. Yet the cancer brought about exactly the physical and mental deterioration the doctors had predicted. Where was God? What about the promise that the prayer of faith would make the sick person well?

When our loved ones are dying, we cry out to God for spiritual resources to meet the crisis, and God gives them. But we also cry out for physical healing and sometimes it is denied. Where does that leave the believer who reads the Gospel accounts and gains the impression that everyone who come to Jesus for healing receive it? Where are those “greater things” that Jesus says will be accomplished after he leaves? And what about James 5:14-18 and its promise that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”?

We long for simple answers, but the Scriptures and the experiences of life are too variegated to be squeezed into one mold or model.

A single model is not adequate 

The model that says, “God always gives healing if we pray with the right sort of faith” ignores about half of the evidence of Scripture. The model that says, “Gifts of healing went out with the last of the apostles” rests on faulty biblical interpretation and ignores the irrefutable testimony of many modern believers. The model that says, “God is concerned with spiritual matters, not physical healing” is totally foreign to the principles by which Jesus lived. “God’s ways are inscrutable; we cannot expect to understand” short-circuits our responsibility to learn God’s ways.

No single model is adequate. Each in its own way generates contorted biblical interpretations and often unfair loads of guilt. (“You didn’t pray in faith!” “Sin in your life blocked God’s answer!”) Because each model is inadequate on its own, we can hold to a single model only until it fails us. Then we find ourselves scrambling to find a better one.

Unfortunately, we also castigate those with different models and call them unspiritual, unbiblical or unconcerned. I know whereof I speak. I have been a proponent of more than one model in my time. I have also been on the receiving end of advice from people in many camps. Simple answers are so attractive, but when they fail, then who will pick up the pieces?

I do not claim to have the definitive word on healing, but I do urge that unless we find ways of holding several models in our theology at the same time, we will be unbiblical and unprepared for the time when a cherished model fails. If we want to construct a well-rounded theology of healing, we would do well to begin at the critical text on prayer for healing, James 5:14-18. There are those who will urge that this text, above all others, warrants the conclusion that if we pray aright, healing will always be granted. Does it really teach that?

If we want to construct a well-rounded theology of healing, we would do well to begin at the critical text on prayer for healing, James 5:14-18.
The prayer of healing

James 5:14-18 teaches at least three things. It establishes a pattern: the sick call the elders to pray. It promises results: the sick will be healed. And it furnishes an example of how the model works: Elijah’s prayers for a three-and-a-half year drought to begin and end.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus cites that example? Moses and Elisha have more healings credited to them than Elijah does. If Elijah is somehow important, why the drought? Why not the time he raised the widow of Zarephath’s son? It would seem more relevant to James’ healing context.

If a drought is somehow important, why this one? The one in Joseph’s time is twice as long. If the concern is simply to find a spectacular answer to prayer, why does James not look seven verses farther back in the Elijah narrative? Surely fire from heaven is more amazing than rain!

All in all, it seems James selects a very strange example to prove his point—unless perhaps we have misunderstood the real significance of the example and therefore also misread the passage about healing.

Remember the time Elijah is in despair because he thought he was the only faithful Israelite left? God encourages him by telling him that there were still 7,000 faithful Israelites he knows nothing about. What do you suppose they are doing during the three-year drought? I imagine they are praying for rain. It seems the appropriate thing to do if the nation is perishing for lack of food and water. That is, it would be the appropriate thing if one does not know why the drought is happening and how long it will last. Seven thousand faithful believers pray for rain, and nothing happens. Are they lacking faith? Are they out of step with God? No, they are simply ignorant of God’s purposes and timing.

That is where Elijah is different. He does not spend three years praying for rain. He knows the reason for the drought, and he knows its duration. He does not bother praying for rain until God’s appointed time. When he knows that time has come, he prays, and, not surprisingly, it rains.

So why does James cite this example? Is it to tell us that whenever we pray fervently for a drought or for rain (or for healing), we can expect it to happen? Hardly. Only one out of 7001 faithful Israelite pray-ers has that sort of success rate.

So, what is the lesson about praying for healing? Is it to tell us that whenever we pray fervently for physical healing, we can expect to see miracles? I think not. Does it not rather teach that if we have special insight into the plans and purposes of God, then we can speak the authoritative “Stand up and walk!” and we will see it happen? Perhaps James 5:14-18 focuses far more on discerning God’s doings than on priming the pump of faith.

It seems Jesus always knew what will happen when he pronounces healing. On at least one occasion Peter and John know as well (see Acts 3). When we know exactly when and how God will act, we can say “Stand up and walk!” But most times are not like this. That is why we need to look a little deeper.

Balancing models

I think it is clear that the James 5:14-18 model does not cover all cases. We are far more often like the 7,000 who do not know God’s plans and whose prayers do not move God’s hand. What then? Then we should stop reading this text as if it guarantees healing every time and read it rather as a call to discernment about when and how God might heal.

Which model would James want to suppress at all costs if it really is his concern to teach that physical healing in response to prayer is the norm, or even that knowing God’s purposes and timing is the norm? Obviously, the example of Job. It does not fit this model. Job does not know why his disease is there. He does not know if or when his health will be restored. Moreover, the purposes of God in Job’s case can be fulfilled only because Job does not know them. Ignorance of God’s doings is as central to God’s purpose for Job as knowledge of God’s doings is for Elijah.

But James does not suppress the example of Job. On the contrary, he holds it up high, right in the middle of James 5! Why? Because James never intends his readers to think that one model covers all cases. James knows that the Job model is also valid. It tells Christians something important about how God uses illness for divine purposes. And it gives believers another valid model for appropriate behavior in time of sickness.

The Elijah model urges “effectual fervent prayer” when we understand what God is doing. The Job model urges “perseverance” when we do not (5:11). The Job model puts its focus on “what the Lord finally brought about.” That is why perseverance is so important. Job lives to experience not only physical healing but a doubling of his fortunes. In the end, God’s character is vindicated, and Job experiences God as one “full of compassion and mercy” (5:11).

But what if neither the Elijah model nor the Job model fits? Not all live to experience God’s merciful healing. Some die. We simply cannot count on either God’s miraculous healing (the Elijah model) or God’s eventual doubling of our fortunes (the Job model). God’s character is always vindicated in the end, but sometimes that end lies beyond the grave.

Sometimes God expresses compassion and mercy by taking a child home, where sickness and pain are no more. When that happens, we realize that our “theology of healing” is incomplete without a third model, one which promises healing only in the life beyond.

James knew of this third model; he alludes to it in 1:12 and 4:14. So does the man who penned Psalm 73. He writes of his struggle to find and accept this third model. It does not come easily. It troubles him when the wicked seem to get a better deal in this life than the righteous – better health, greater wealth, fewer troubles. “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (73:16ff).

The psalmist learns that God is indeed good to the pure in heart (73:1) but that the measure of that goodness is not in health or wealth or happiness. “It is good to be near God” (73:28). The good news is that God is good when a prayer of faith raises the sick (the Elijah model), when we suffer, knowing neither why nor how long (the Job model) and even when suffering ushers us into glory (the psalmist model). “I am always with you,” says the psalmist (73:23), “and being with you, I desire nothing on earth” (73:25).

James promises that “the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (5:16). It does indeed. Sometimes its effect is to change our circumstances, and a sick person is dramatically healed (the Elijah model). Sometimes its effect is to change our character, and we learn to persevere and trust God more deeply (the Job model). Sometimes its effect is to change our priorities, and we rest in the assurance that “my flesh and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26, the psalmist model).

We dare not build our theologies, our ministries or our lives on less than these models. In some cases, the authoritative “Stand up and walk!” announces the miracle that God is bringing about. In some cases, long and patient suffering is crowned with restoration and blessing. In some cases, the flesh fails, and mortality is swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4).

The challenge is not one-dimensional but three, for we are called continually to discern God’s ways, to persevere when we walk in the dark and to fix our eyes on things above, not on things on earth. In all this, God never fails us. If we draw nigh to God, God draws nigh to us, and therein we experience the good life that the writer of Psalm 73 discovered.

Tim Geddert
Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. He is a member of the U.S. Conference Board of Faith and Life.

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