One of the most significant memories that will stick with me from my visit to India is the several occasions on which I was asked to pray, one by one, for sick people after several of the meetings in which we participated. Although, as I have previously indicated on various occasions on this blog, I am a continuationist, and believe in the current operation of the so-called "sign gifts," I have not, in the past, been quite so intensely involved in praying for sick people as I was on this trip to India.
This was not something that I sought out on my own. I was asked, on several occasions, if I would be willing to pray for the sick. Believing that, in some way or another, God might be able to use me, I agreed to do so. After the meetings, the people lined up, and one by one, I asked them what was their particular prayer request, laid my hands on them, and lifted them before the Father. Some of them brought with them a small vial of oil, and handed it to me. In those cases, I poured a little bit on my hands, and rubbed it on their head, as I prayed for them.
While I was in India, I was told that pretty much across the board, throughout all the Christian groups and denominations that are seeing any significant response to the Gospel, a good part of this response is linked to praying for the sick and miraculous healing. From what I have read, in books such as The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins, this is true as well for most areas of the world that are experiencing significant church growth, especially among the so-called "two-thirds world."
I cannot say for sure whether anyone I prayed for was healed as a result of my prayers. I did not ask them directly. However, this experience in my life gave me cause to reflect on the whole issue of praying for the sick. The following are some of my observations:
*God still miraculously heals people today. From my study of Scripture, I see no reason to conclude this is not the case. I have also heard too many credible testimonies of miraculous healing to discard them as mere emotionalism or exaggeration.
*The term "the gift of healing" is a red herring in the whole discussion on continuationism. The biblical text, in the original Greek, says literally, "gifts of healings" (1 Corinthians 12:9, 28). As such, the argument that, if someone had "the gift of healing," they ought to be able to go into hospitals and heal people indiscriminately, is unfounded. I believe that God, in his sovereignty, has distributed the gift of being able to pray for people, and see God heal them as a response, in differing degrees, to different people, in different circumstances, at different times.
*I also believe that physical healing is included in the atonement. A thorough examination of the biblical context of the phrase "by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24) makes it hard to relegate it to the strictly spiritual sphere. However, the full effects of Jesus’ death on the cross, especially in the physical realm, are not extended to us completely until "the redemption of our bodies" at the last day (Romans 8:18-25; Revelation 21:4). This does not preclude the possibility of God, on occasion, sovereignly bringing forward, into the present day, some of the blessings reserved for us, as his children, in eternity. In the biblical records of miraculous healing (both O.T and N.T.), I believe this is precisely what happened. Whenever God miraculously heals, whether physically, psychologically, or spiritually, He does so on the basis of the blessings won for us by Jesus on the cross of Calvary (see also Exodus 15:22-26).
*I believe that many who purport to have "the gift of healing" are spiritual charlatans. Whenever people use supposed spiritual gifts, accompanied by manipulative techniques and a motivation of personal aggrandizement, there is no way that God can be pleased. Therefore, as believers, we need to use a healthy dose of spiritual discernment in our evaluation and support of such ministries. However, I believe we need to be careful, at the same time, to not "throw the baby out with the bath water."
*I also believe that the degree of our faith does play a role in the efficacy of our prayers for healing. There are too many verses in the Bible that say this too clearly to deny that it is so. However, I believe that, at the same time, it is a travesty to lay the blame for people not being healed on the supposed lack of faith of those being prayed for. Biblically, there is evidence of God responding to the faith of the sick person him/herself, the faith of the one praying for the sick person, and the faith of the one bringing a sick person to someone else so that they might pray for them. I also believe that it is blatant Scripture-twisting, not to mention extreme irresponsibility, to suggest that going to the doctor and taking medicine manifests a lack of faith.
*One of the main motivations for healing in the Bible is compassion towards those who are suffering. As a result, whenever we pray for someone who is sick, we need to be very careful to do so in such a way as to not add to their suffering by either laying the burden of the responsibility for their healing on their faith or lack thereof, or raising their expectations for miraculous healing, only to send them crashing down to the ground afterwards.
*Although it is certain that not all sickness comes as the result of individual sin (John 9:1-3), it is also true that many ailments, whether spiritual, psychological, or physical, have their root in unconfessed sin in our lives. I believe the context of the passage in James on calling for the elders to pray for the sick (James 5:13-16) implies taking this possibility into consideration ("if he has sinned, he will be forgiven"). As ministers of God’s grace, though, we need to be very careful, compassionate, and spiritually discerning, in the way we deal with this.
*I do not believe all sickness comes as a result of demonic activity. However, there does appear to be a clear link, in many instances recorded in the Bible, to certain physical conditions and spiritual bondage. I believe that some people are more spiritually gifted than others at discerning when this is the case. I also believe that our authority, as believers, over the power of the enemy and the spiritual bondage he inflicts, is more direct and complete in this present age, than any authority God may happen to give us over purely physical phenomena. As a result, I believe it is generally a good thing, whenever we sense that demonic activity or spiritual bondage may be at the root of physical sickness, to appropriate in faith the authority God gives us as his children over "all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:19).
*For some reason, God’s miraculous power in healing seems to be more active in certain areas of the world, and in certain periods of history, than others. We therefore need to be careful not to judge what God may be doing in a certain place, at a certain time, on the basis of what we may have observed at another place and another time.
*At the present time, from all evidence, God appears to be working in unusual ways in many places around the world to raise spiritual awareness and prepare a great harvest of souls. Much of this seems to be tied in with miraculous healing. I believe that we, as God’s servants, and particularly as those associated with Southern Baptist missionary efforts, need to be "in tune" to what God is doing, and join him where He is at work around the world. While we do need to use discernment and not be too quick to jump on the bandwagon of the latest spiritual fads, we, at the same time, need to be just as careful to not cast a scornful eye, and miss out on some of the mighty works of God, as a result of our spiritual skepticism and cultural presuppositions.