I don’t mean to stand in judgment of anybody’s personal commitment or relationship with God, but I get more than a little irritated at those “religious” people among us who make what they call “faith” all about gaining earthly rewards, securing physical healing, and obtaining the material blessings of this present world. You know the kind I’m talking about: those, “Holy Roller, Hallelujah, Thank Ya Jeeezzzzus!” so-called “faith healers” who claim to have some kind of greater spiritual connections to God than the rest of us and who are, they think, endowed with special powers whereby they are able to miraculously make us all better. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of God and the miracle of prayer. But I don’t believe in these people who get in your face and tell you that the reason you’re sick, or the reason you’re not being healed, is because you don’t have enough faith.
I remember when we invited some people to come up to our house to pray with our family, we thought, while my 14 year old nephew, Gatlin, who was battling cancer, was visiting with us here in Hawai’i. No sooner had they sat down than one of them got right in Gatlin’s face and began literally preaching right at him and telling him that the reason he had not been cured of cancer was because he had so little faith; and that he was certainly going to die if he didn’t get some soon. Gatlin, a sweet and gentle child who loved the Lord with all his heart, and who had more “faith” in his little finger than their whole party combined, just sat there, eyes as wide as silver dollars, looking dazed and confused.
I could feel myself becoming a little unhinged and, were it not for the restraining power of the Holy Spirit, along with some severe glances from my wife and my sister Judy—Gatlin’s mom—both shaking their heads at me, things might have gotten ugly. I was thinking to myself, “How dare these people make it their aim to strike fear in this beautiful little boy’s heart, take away his peace, and make him feel as though something was wrong in His relationship with God; even while he was facing something as monstrous as cancer and in need of all the strength and encouragement he could get.” Needless to say, that fellow’s “sermon” got cut pretty short and we soon escorted him and his party out of our house has gently and efficiently as possible.
Now, the fact is that, sometimes, in the historical record contained in scripture, people were miraculously healed because of their faith. And, sometimes, they were miraculously healed, despite their unbelief, in order to create faith. But, in either case, the power to heal did not depend on the person being healed, but on the authentic working of the Holy Spirit through humble men of God.
I’m all about the power of prayer. What I believe is what the scriptures teach when James says:
Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (James 5:14-17, NASB)
I also believe what the scriptures say about prayer when we’re told that,
This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (I John 5:14-15, NASB)
But let’s not stop there, and run off “half-cocked” in our arrogant and self-willed religious piety; thinking that, just because we ask, God is bound to deliver exactly what we ask for in just the way we imagine that He should. That is not what this passage is saying. Notice, that the text includes the clause “according to His will” (verse 14).
So, okay, what does it mean to ask “according to His will”? Remember, the Apostle Paul’s story about his own sickness:
…to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NASB)
Did Paul ask for healing in faith? Sure he did! Was Paul’s prayer heard by his heavenly Father? Of course! And, did the Father answer him? Yes! But it wasn’t exactly the answer Paul was expecting. God had a bigger plan. There were ways in which Paul’s sickness—whatever it was—served God’s purpose more than his health would have.
Do you remember the story of Lazarus, the close friend of Jesus, who fell ill and died? As the story goes:
… the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. (John 11:3-5, NASB)
Interesting, isn’t it, that rather than rushing back to Bethany, as Mary and Martha expected, Jesus deliberately lingered up in Galilee until He knew that Lazarus was dead. And yet, Jesus had stated that “this sickness is not to end in death” (verse 5). Of course, those of us who’ve read our Bibles know the rest of the story. When Jesus finally got back to Bethany, “Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died’” (verse 32). There was much weeping; even “Jesus wept” (verse 35). None of their requests had been answered in the ways they had wanted, or expected. Why not? Because God had a bigger plan! A few minutes later, Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come forth” (verse 43), and “The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (verse 44).
I learn from this that, typically, when it comes to God’s children, the good that comes out of our suffering, and even our death, is incredibly greater than anything we might have originally imagined. Can we trust that God knows what He’s doing with us?
But, perhaps, the greatest example of what it means to pray “according to His will,” is demonstrated by Jesus Himself in His prayer at Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion. The Bible says:
And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation. (Luke 22:39-46, NASB)
Wow! I don’t know how prayer gets any more intense than that. Jesus didn’t want to have to die on that cross. Apparently, He was exploring other alternatives whereby the mission might be accomplished. But He couched both His agony and His request in the context of “Father, if You are willing…” Ultimately, we know the answer to that one, don’t we? The pain and agony associated with the cross was big, not to mention the spiritual suffering of taking upon Himself the sin of the world and tasting the death that we all deserve. That’s big! But the heavenly Father’s plan was BIGGER! What followed His suffering was a beautiful resurrection, a wondrous ascension, a glorious enthronement to “the right hand of the Majesty on High” (Hebrews 1:3, NASB), and here’s the clincher, our eternal “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7, NASB).
Sometimes we let our hearts get so wrapped up in the “here and now” that we forget the bigger picture. God always has a plan, and it’s big—bigger than we can ever imagine. We get to be a little part of it all. Can we trust God with that?
For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7-9, NASB)