One of the most perplexing problems with which I have had to wrestle for many years is that question involving the extent to which God answers prayer, and more specifically, prayer that invokes God to heal. However many articles I may have read and studied in relation to this subject, I had never felt deep down in the recess of my heart that anyone had actually tackled the problem head-on as it were, come what may, except perhaps Sir Robert Anderson in his book "The Silence of God."
To suggest that God would not involve Himself in anything that might be related to the physical aspect of a believer's life would raise a hue and cry from most Religionists, and most surely from that certain class of Evangelists whose whole life is so totally integrated with physical hopes and aspirations. Then of course, there are the few who hold that prayer of any kind whatever, either for physical or spiritual blessings is merely an exercise in some kind of spiritual gymnastics leading one towards "grace." The fallacy of this latter view was most ably shown by the late Alexander Thomson in his many papers on the subject of Prayer.
I must confess, however, that of later years, I have been hesitant to dwell upon the subject at all, preferring to tuck it away in a drawer so to speak, hoping that someone else would come forward and commit himself, anyone else so long as it was not me. For whoever it may turn out to be, that one would certainly be laying himself open to such criticism that perhaps in the long run, it would be better to leave it alone and "let sleeping dogs lie" as the saying goes.
But now I am weary of sidestepping the issue. Yes, come what may, the whole question has to be dealt with, has to be met head-on, and though I dared not even think, let alone breathe my thoughts in articulate words, the time has come to ask the bold question "Does God heal physical infirmities?" On this subject of healing and more particular on human suffering, I once wrote a dear brother a letter to which he apparently had no satisfying answer. It read in part:
". . . . . I must confess that I too sometimes say in my heart 'Why, oh why does He allow it to happen?' When I see and read of helpless young boys and girls with bloated bellies lying in the gutters of Greece dying of starvation, and Vietnamese mothers bleeding to death clutching on to new born babies, others dragging about useless legs and arms and I say to myself, 'What have these poor innocents done to deserve this.' And of course, one cannot help thinking back to the Inquisition and the most horrible and unspeakable deaths of torment suffered by those faithful men and women of God. Oh, I've heard all the reasoning about it, Adam's sin, all born in sin, all dying, even the innocents, Day of Grace, God not acting now, God can see the end from the beginning and He is satisfied that all will work out. And I am not denying all this, in fact, as far as I know, these are the answer to the problem. But what I am thinking about also is God Himself. What does He think about all this, and, mind you, where we see and hear a little of the world's sufferings, He sees all of it! One of the very nicest things I learned from Alexander Thomson was that God is 'intensely human.' More than that, when He made us, He made us in His very image and likeness. Imagine that! And then Paul 'even His kin are we'! And then we read of God's intense and His altogether unimaginable love, and then we put all this together with all of the human suffering that we see and then we realize that He not only sees all of it now as we see it, but that He has seen it for centuries! And then we ask the question: If all of this world's human suffering can affect us so much, yes, perhaps even make us weep, what must all of this do to Him Whose love is perfect? How can He look at this world's human suffering every day and not be crushed? Even knowing the end, the consummation of all this, how can He not be so full of compassion but that He literally weeps? Even I, born in sin and subject to mortality and incompleteness cannot stand to think about it, how much more so must it be for Him? And yet He is powerless to act because of the restraints He Himself put upon Himself! We might shoot a rabbit or kill a cow and we might cause them untold suffering in order that we might eat them, and though it may bother us somewhat, we know that these creatures are no kin of ours. But when unspeakable terrors happen to humans, these are not just other creatures, other animals, THESE ARE GOD'S KIN! I will repeat this, THESE ARE GOD'S KIN! Can you see then how He must suffer too? Can even His perfection forbid this? Yes, I think I can understand why even believers prefer to shy away from the subject, prefer not to think about it, prefer not to write about it."
But how many who are reading this have asked themselves the same questions? How many have themselves been terribly ill or who have had loved ones suffering horrible agonies, perhaps even near death and have had to stand by helplessly as I had to do many times with my own mother, and finally, in desperation, not knowing what else to do, have dropped to the knees and with soul-wrenching perseverance and supplication, begged the loving Father and Saviour to step in and save. AND HE WOULD NOT! How many have begged for mercy and received naught but the terrible silence of heaven? How many have known faithful brethren who have suffered the agony of a lingering and tortuous sickness, bodies racked with pain even begging to be let go, while others slip away in their sleep peacefully, unaware that their time had come. Did God make the decision who was to suffer and who was to be spared the suffering? These are the burning questions in the minds of many, but not many dare to ask them and to meet the dilemma head-on. For too many centuries, believers have been praying to the God of love and compassion for physical healing in their time of need. Who would dare to suggest that He would not act upon such faithful prayers?
It is undeniably true that in the days of our Lord's ministry many startling miracles were performed in healing of the sick, and later, even the apostles were given the power to heal. In those early days, believers were immature, requiring signs and wonders to sustain them such as healing and speaking in tongues. Wrapped up and enamoured with physical blessings, they showed their immaturity until Paul, writing to the Corinthian ecclesia said ". . . and yet, shew I unto you a more excellent way." (I. Cor. 12:31). And what was the more excellent way? He tells them in a word but using the entire following chapter to dramatize it, LOVE. No longer immature signs and wonders, healing of the sick, speaking in tongues which gifts he tells them must pass away whereas love never fails (13:10). From about that time on we see a change from physical blessings to spiritual blessings. We find young Timothy plagued with stomach trouble and no one to heal him. "Take a little wine for thy stomach's sake" is all that his beloved Paul can offer in the way of succour (I. Tim. 5:23). And this is the same Paul, who, during the "Acts period" could send a handkerchief he had merely touched far away and this was sufficient to effect a cure of physical infirmity. On one occasion, he was unable to send Epaphroditus to the ecclesia at Philippi as his fellow worker was "sick nigh unto death," yet Paul was apparently unable to help him (Phil. 2:25-30). In writing to his beloved Timothy, he tells him that he had to leave Trophimus ill at Miletus (II. Tim. 4:20). Even Paul's own physical infirmities drove him to beg the Lord for healing, but instead, the reply came "My grace is sufficient for thee" (II. Cor. 12:8-10).
In view of this, when one now thinks back to the hundreds and thousands who died faithful in the arenas of Rome with no one to stay the hand of the gladiators or to force the thumb of the Ceasars up to save them, or to muzzle the jaws of the flesh tearing lions, then one asks the question: "If I should ask God to heal my infirmity or to save me from physical danger, what evidence is there that He will, or that He even might?" During the dreadful Inquisition when literally thousands died faithful to the Lord, where was He when their terrible screams must have caused even the angels of heaven to pause and take notice? And if He did not act upon their faithful and soul-wrenching cries, what evidence is there that He will hear those today who cry out to Him out of a pure heart for physical blessings?
Again the answer is given. . . . "and yet, shew I unto you a more excellent way." The more excellent way is the way of Love, is the way of Spiritual not Physical blessings. Nowhere do we read where our beloved Paul ever promised that we should be blessed with every physical blessing on this terrestial sphere. Rather is the promise "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials in Christ" (Eph. 1:3). When our prayers, even those special ones that are soul-wrenching, are offered to God for purely physical blessings, we are showing again that immaturity from which we were liberated. To ask God for those things which He does not grant in this day while Grace reigns is to pain Him beyond measure, for He too must suffer when His own suffer. How could He not when true love can only manifest itself through extreme suffering? Borrowing out of context a phrase from R. B. Withers' booklet "The Problem of Correct Cutting" will show what I mean where he wrote: "In our blindness, we have failed to see that in uncircumcision there can be NO fleshly spiritual blessings, but in circumcision there can be NO OTHER than fleshly spiritual blessings."
So then, it is my belief that as long as the Evangel of the uncircumcision is in force, just so long as grace reigns and we are still here, it is sheer folly to expect God to reverse His dealings with us and to bless us with all physical blessings, whereas when we are snatched away, and once again the Evangel of the circumcision is in force, and God begins to conclude the new Covenant with His people, then once again will come the physical blessings for them. I have by no means overlooked the pregnant scripture at Phil. 4:6, but I leave this for others to force into it (anything that might indicate our Lord's willingness to alter His dealings with us and to bless us physically. Nor am I not aware of the many who will not only insist but defend what they term their personal answer to prayer which invoked God to heal them, but once again I must insist that past history of the faithful martyrs for Christ, and the terrible sicknesses of the saints who finally succumbed though many prayed for them, is a sure indication that God doesn't deal with us at this time in other but spiritually.
As for me then, when my,needs are of a financial nature, then I go to those who are able to assist me, and when my needs are "of a physical nature requiring a medical adjustment or correction, then I go to those whose authority and talents I can depend upon to do whatever is humanly possible to help. But when my needs are of a spiritual nature, then I go to the only One with the Authority and the ability to bless me spiritually, that very One Who blesses us with every spiritual blessing among the celestials in Christ Jesus.
So once again I ask the bold question: "Does God heal physical infirmities?" I do not think so. I used to believe that He did, but now I refrain from paining His great heart further by pleading for those things which He has not promised and which He does not grant in this day while grace reigns. It is now my personal feeling that regardless of the foreknowledge of God, that He can see the end of human suffering, yet, with us, He lives with our NOW and sees our suffering NOW, and in seeing it, cannot help but suffer Himself, particularly when He hears those immature saints pleading for those things for which He must answer, "No, My grace is sufficient for thee."
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The above paper was previewed by some dear friends in the United Kingdom before it was published and they brought up the matter of Epaphroditus and the fact that "God had mercy on him" (Phil. 2:27), and it is upon this that I would like to add a few thoughts for what they may be worth. Now first, we must not read into this that God had healed Epaphroditus in answer to prayer. The scripture merely states that "God had mercy on him," and whatever might be embodied in that "mercy" can it be anything other than that extended to Paul while he suffered from his thorn? Could it be other than that "grace" which was to be sufficient for him? I am always mindful of Romans Chapter 2 and the fact that in His judgements, God is no respecter, or rather is not partial to persons. Can we then expect Him to be partial and to reverse His dealings with us and bless SOME of us but certainly not MOST of us when we pray for physical blessings? Should He hear and act upon your fervent prayer for healing but be deaf to my equally soul wrenching plea for the same thing? In the past, in praying for those things not spiritual, I continually found that the heavens were as Alexander Thomson used to say "brass," and I could feel that my prayers were simply not "getting through" as it were, but the moment I lifted my thoughts to loftier heights, the brass curtains would part and I would feel a closeness with God: that is quite indescribable.
Our God has a grand purpose, a purpose that was devised long long ago, a purpose that nothing, absolutely nothing will thwart. If it becomes necessary for Him to heal someone in order that some aspect of that purpose might be fulfilled, we must not construe from this that He is partial, or that He is bestowing physical blessings at this time. In such a case, perhaps as with Epaphroditus, would it not be simply a means to an end?
Our God and Father must delight in bestowing spiritual blessings upon those of His kin that request them, and like us, He must also look forward eagerly for the consummation of all human suffering when He can once again bestow physical blessings as well. But presently, this is the day for the healing of the infirm spirit. This is the time for spiritual gifts of knowledge and understanding of His word, and the spiritual blessings that proceed there from. Let us direct our efforts and time of prayer to these things and forgo the futile efforts towards requests for physical blessings. Our brief sojourn on this sphere is much too fleeting a thing with which to become preoccupied in comparison with that life which is to come and which is endless.
R. J. SHEFFIELD Last updated 10.10.2008