I have an old friend whose month-old child has been fighting for his life since he was born. Another well-meaning friend recently wrote to many of us, explaining the ‘theology’ of sickness and faith-healing, and urging us to pray. I was deeply appalled, because under such sensitive circumstances it was abundantly clear what devastating consequences such theology could have if believed. It reminded me again why the NT spends so much time urging us to keep our theology healthy.
The letter that I received included the following (emphasis added):
We should not question as to what God can do, but in what man can do in believing God and His Word. It’s a settled fact that “all things” are possible with God. Any question of God’s will concerning anything that He has already promised and provided for all men is an excuse of unbelief and must be repented of…
Faith in the compassion as well as in the power of God should be the true approach to Him, for when God has compassion, action will be taken to meet human needs. Stating once and for all, regardless of what it is or who it is, that prayer will be answered providing there is unwavering faith…
Finally, your personal faith will get from God that for which it believes. This is an unfailing law. Go on believing until what has been asked is received. Remember that Jehovah-Ropheka – the Lord our healer and peace is always with us to call upon him with unwavering faith to heal the sick.
So — the theory goes — God, who can do all things, has promised to heal, and faith is the means by which God’s promises are claimed. Whatever we ask for in faith, God will do, although (following, perhaps, Romans 4:20 and James 1:6) our faith must not waver. If we harbour unbelief, we will receive nothing from the Lord.
Presumably, doubt is the catch-all get-out clause for this theology. God has the power and the will to heal, and has promised that he would, so the overwhelming number of failures of healing to take place must all be as a result of human weakness: people must have wavered. I can’t see how one avoids seeing God as the ultimate insurance crook. He makes big promises, but he’s got a clause in the small-print of his contract that allows him to avoid paying out, and so he watches his clients with his infinite gaze until he spots a momentary inward flicker of ‘what if’, and then he goes ‘Aha!! Too bad!!’ and tears up the contract.
The end result of this theology is that all the attention is diverted onto human effort. God will keep up his end. All the attention falls on whether or not we are strong enough to banish every shred of doubt, and so to ‘activate’ God’s power in our situation. Can you block out the doctor’s bad news? Can you ignore common sense? Can you shut your ears to the devastating weight of non-healings in history? If you can, then you should rightly take a share of God’s glory if things work out well. You made it happen. You opened the floodgates of heaven.
If not, then You are at fault for the sickness. Your mother just died of cancer? You killed her! God wanted to heal her, in fact he promised to do so, but you stood in his way!
What is remarkable is that Christians who hold to this kind of theology are happy to destroy people by adding guilt to their grief (well, their faith was culpably weak in any case, right? so they deserve it), but they’re very slow to check whether they’ve understood God’s promises correctly in the first place. They make no end of listing Christ’s healings and biblical promises of healing, but they do not pay attention to the context of redemption history or to what the healings signify. If they did, they would notice that healing points to restoration and to resurrection life, which are not yet consummated (cf. Acts 1:6-7).
While this is being ignored of healing, the same teachers believe exactly this with regard to God’s promises about eternal life. Jesus often speaks about giving eternal life in the present tense (e.g. Jn 3:36, 10:28), and about believers not dying. Jesus even raises the dead as a sign of these promises, but no ‘claim your healing’ theologian thinks that eternal life is physically available until the final resurrection of all men. No one rushes to the bedside of a stiffening 90-year-old and prays for a resurrection. They know that death is still a part of life. Yet despite having had the data of experience convince them that death is part of life, they will not let the equally compelling data of experience about death’s bedfellow convince them that sickness is also part of life.
Inattentiveness to scripture extends also to their evidence that human doubt is the culprit. Consider the two verses cited above:
Ro. 4:20-1 Yet he [Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.
Ja. 1:6 But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
Both passages are speaking about unbelief, rather than mere doubt that God wills to do this or that. Unbelief is the quality of the non-Christian who follows his own word, rather than God’s word. Both passages are talking about double-mindedness — i.e. a person who has not fully decided to follow God or not — not the person who is a believer, but has questions and uncertainties (which are natural).
That this is true is evident in Romans. It says that Abraham ‘did not waver’ and was ‘fully persuaded’. This is the same Abraham who laughed when God told him that he and Sarah would have a child together, and whose wife laughed when an angel delivered the promise again. His faith was far from perfect, yet God still kept his promise, and Paul could still say that Abraham did not evidence unbelief.
In James, it is again clear that faulty faith is not the problem, and that double-mindedness is. In the verse before, God is described as giving ‘generously to all without finding fault‘. A god who withdraws his promises as soon as he sees a finite mind at work is the fault-finder supreme.
Even when Jesus was among us, he calmed the storm in spite of the disciples’ unbelief, he fed the 5000 in spite of the disciples’ incredulity. He raised the dead girl in spite of the laughter of the crowd and the resignation of the father, and he raised Lazarus in spite of continuing questioning and disbelief from the disciples and the family. Those are perhaps his most awe-inspiring and significant miracles in the gospels, and yet the human involvement is all deeply negative. These miracles show no concern with how much faith the protagonists had, but rather that they should continue to trust Jesus. They show that his power ISN’T limited by us (sure, the hostility in his home town prompted a withdrawal of his power from them, but that’s not to say that he is limited by our weakness). Notably, if he forgave the Prodigal Son (the harder eternal thing) while he was still far off; why would he refuse to heal (the easier temporal thing) if he sees the tiniest flicker of imperfection in our faith?
Scripture is abundantly clear that suffering and other trials are part of the expected order of the church age, and there is every suggestion that sickness remains too (Gal. 4:13-14; 1Ti. 5:23 where Paul urges dietary change, not stronger faith!; 2Ti. 4:20). We do not live in an age when everything has been restored to Eden-like conditions, and any foretaste that God gives us is just that: a foretaste. Instead, we are told to wait patiently, and we are told to hold faithfully to the hope that we have (i.e. future consummation of promises), not to claim what properly belongs to the End. God’s promises of complete restoration will be fulfilled when he returns. ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’.
Making out as though sickness and death are somehow caused by lack of faith that restrains God’s hand is a cruel mistake. Positive thinking is great, but the reality is that children like my friend’s son die every day in spite of the most fervent prayer. If this happens, stupid theologies that claim badly analysed resurrection promises place tacit blame for the death of their child on the bereaved. We’re effectively telling them that if God hasn’t healed, it means that they were too weak to pass the test, and to boot, they’ve been punished for their weakness by losing a child.
This kind of theology sounds pious and pretends to encourage faith in God, but it is ignorant, human-centred, and destroys faith and encourages condemnation when it goes painfully wrong.
God doesn’t want you healthy; he wants you to learn to trust him through thick and thin. Part of this means getting your theology healthy. May disgusting health-wealth theology be consigned to the pit where it belongs.