The more you pray for the sick, the more you will see healings take place, which is an incredible joy and privilege! Yet, simultaneously, the more you pray for people, the more you will see some not being healed (at that time, at least). Tragically, there will be a few people that you pray for who end up dying of that illness or injury.
At some point, someone will ask you, “Why wasn’t I (or my dad/ child/ friend) healed?” If you’re anything like us, you will feel a sudden weight press on you as you recognize the seriousness of what they’re saying, and the importance of what comes out of your mouth over the next minute.
In these moments it is vital to identify what sort of question is being asked, in order to determine whether the response they’re looking for is more pastoral or theological in nature.
The Pastoral Response
If the conversation comes in the midst of heartache, hospitals, and hopelessness, you must understand that what that person most needs to hear is the loving heart of a shepherd. They are facing up to loss, disappointment, frustration, and heartache. Even if they don’t realize it, they’re not actually asking you for a theological explanation. Instead, their greatest need is to experience the compassion, kindness, and love of God, ministered through you.
Sometimes this means looking past the actual words that are coming out of their mouth. “Why would God allow this?” is not always an invitation into a detailed debate about the nature of suffering in a fallen world. Instead, recognize that their question might instead be more of an expression of pain and a cry for help. Your response should be dictated by that deeper reality.
There are occasions when the most biblical thing to do is to wrap someone in a compassionate hug, and simply repeat, “I’m so very sorry.”
At that point in time, the most important thing this person needs to know is that they’re loved and not forgotten. Through your words and actions of kindness and care, you will also bring the love of Jesus into that situation, even if in that moment the person is furious with God.
If appropriate – and use great sensitivity here – it can be good to ask some open questions that might help the person identify where God is present with them. Examples might be, “Were you aware of God’s presence? How did Jesus meet you in the pain? What did you sense in your spirit? Has your perspective changed on your situation?” Sometimes it’s in the darkest moments that God seems extra present.
As an aside, where there is a lot of pain, someone might speak out some tough, even awful, things about God and how they feel about Him. If that’s the case, don’t feel the need to become Jesus’ defense attorney – He’s more than capable of fulfilling that role Himself! If you’re offering a pastoral response, simply shepherd and love them well, and resist the urge to correct every piece of angry theology they vent. The wisest thing Job’s friends did was to listen for a long time. It was only once they started talking that they messed up! Instead of debating, you can simply pray with and for them, and ask for God’s loving care to flood around them. His character is still true and dependable, and we’ve seen Him answer many such prayers with His loving presence.
As time progresses, your presence and care in the crisis might open up the way for more substantive theological conversation, but never neglect or underestimate the importance of the pastoral response.
One way to spot the difference is by sensing whether this is wartime or peacetime for the person asking. In wartime, where the spiritual battle is fiercest and lives can literally be on the line, the pastoral response is what’s needed. A pastoral response builds up the individual emotionally and spiritually, strengthening and encouraging them to keep in the fight. Peacetime, by contrast, is usually well away from the sick bed and emergency room. Instead, it’s a time when a more reflective and nuanced conversation can be had and abstract principles processed without causing emotional distress.
The Theological Response
Separate from the intense crisis moment where the pastoral response is what’s required, there will be other occasions when you’ll rightly enter into a discussion about why sickness happens, especially in light of our claim that Jesus is a God of love.
Very rarely is this what is required at the hospital bedside or with a grieving relative. However, there will be plenty of other, more appropriate contexts for this conversation to take place.
We have already discussed the nature of healing earlier in this book, but by way of summary, we find our conversations tend to go back to a few main points:
- God is good and full of love. This means that He does not operate in a capricious, unkind, or cruel manner. Therefore we can confidently ask Him, our loving Father, for good gifts such as healing, because He loves to give us such things.
- Sickness is not part of God’s eternal heavenly Kingdom. This is the same Kingdom that we’re commanded to pray will come daily around us here on earth. While He can use anything for our good, this does not mean sickness comes from God. Therefore we boldly seek to attack sickness by ministering supernatural healing.
- The Kingdom is both now and not-yet. Jesus’ ministry was built upon His bringing the loving kingly rule of God into people’s lives. His death on the cross and resurrection sealed that great victory, and so God’s dynamic activity on earth is now permanently present and visible. But we still have a wicked and cruel enemy, who still has some influence in this world until Jesus returns. Specifically, sometimes this means that we’ll see amazing supernatural healing occur (the Kingdom is now), while other times we’ll be left frustrated, even heart-broken, when there isn’t healing (the Kingdom is not-yet).
Candidly, we rarely know why the not-yet has come to the fore. However, recognizing that both realities (the now and the not-yet) can simultaneously be true provides a helpful framework for theological understanding. We can honor the greater truth that Jesus is at work, His Kingdom is advancing, and His followers are called to join Him in that endeavor, which includes operating in the gift of healing. At the same time, we have a way of understanding why our prayers aren’t always answered and the enemy can seem to gain a victory, without turning God into some sort of moral monster who dwells high up on Mount Olympus.
- We always have an eternal hope. Even when the healing doesn’t come, we maintain our longing for our reunion with God and our entering into the fullness of Jesus’ Kingdom rule. We look forward to either our joining Him in heaven, or His return to earth and the making of all things new, including the final destruction of sickness, sin, and death. This doesn’t mean we don’t mourn those who die, or pretend there’s no struggle with unanswered prayer, but those things are simultaneously paired with this greater hope.
- Which type of response – pastoral or theological – are you more comfortable offering? How can you grow stronger in both approaches?
- Who do you know who does the other approach better than you? How can you learn from their example?
We Need Your Help!
Last month we released our new book, Healing the Sick: Biblical and Practical Wisdom for Healing the Sick in Naturally Supernatural Ways. Many of you have already bought this resource – thank you!
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Thank you so much!
Alex & Hannah