The Compassion of Christ and Healing
Often times people argue that the primary (if not sole) purpose for the healing ministry of Jesus was to confirm his messianic identity and deity. Others suggest that it was also designed to signal and confirm the in-breaking of the kingdom of God and to provide us with a foretaste of the blessings that will be ours when the kingdom is consummated upon Christ’s return.
Whereas there is truth in both of the above noted explanations, we must also consider the expressly stated purpose of Jesus himself. On several occasions he healed because he had compassion on those who were afflicted. Some are then prompted to ask, “Should we conclude from the scarcity of healing today that God is less compassionate than he was in the first century?”
The answer of course is No. God is as compassionate today as he was then and no more or less compassionate now than he will be in the age to come. But whether or not he manifests that compassion equally at all times is subject both to his secret and sovereign purpose as well as the depth of zeal and faith with which his people pray.
Ultimately, of course, our inability to fully understand why God does or does not heal can never justify diminishing commitment in praying for the sick. Confusion is never an excuse for disobedience. Neither is the lack of experience.
Similarly, God is always gracious. But he does not always save the souls to whom we witness or for whom we pray. But still we must pray. If more souls should be saved in one generation of the church than another, we must not think that God has diminished in his love for the lost or that we now have an excuse not to pray with the same fervency and frequency as we did those in times of great spiritual harvest.
There are actually a number of reasons why God doesn’t always heal the sick. Although we must be careful in giving more weight to the role of faith than does the NT itself, we also must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith that God delights to honor (see Matt. 9:22, 28-29; 15:28; Mark 2:5,11; 5:34; 9:17-24; Mark 10:52; Luke 17:19; Acts 3:16; 14:8-10; James 5:14-16).
Sometimes healing does not occur because of the presence of sin for which there has been no confession or repentance. James 5:15-16 clearly instructs us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed. Again, please do not conclude from this that each time a person isn't healed it is because he/she has committed some specific sin of which they have refused to repent. But in some cases (not necessarily all) this is undoubtedly true. We have to reckon with the possibility that lingering bitterness, anger, resentment, envy, or unforgiveness in our hearts and our refusal to confess and repent of such sins is the reason why God withholds physical healing from our bodies.
Although it sounds odd to many at first hearing, healing may not happen because the sick don't want it to happen. Jesus asked the paralyzed man in John 5:6, “Do you want to be healed?”
Some people who suffer from a chronic affliction become accustomed to their illness and to the pattern of life it requires. Their identity is to a large extent wrapped up in their physical disability. I realize that sounds strange to those of us who enjoy robust health. But I’ve actually known a handful of folk who in a very real sense enjoy their dependence on others and the special attention it brings them. Then, of course, in some instances people don't want the responsibilities that would come with being healthy. To their way of thinking, it’s easier (and perhaps even more profitable) to remain the object of someone else’s beneficence and good will than it would be to be healthy and thus expected to get a job and show up 9-5 on a daily basis.
We must also consider the principle articulated in James 4:2, where we are told that “you do not have, because you do not ask.” The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray. Perhaps they pray once or twice, and then allow discouragement to paralyze their petitions. Prayer for healing often must be prolonged, sustained, persevering, and combined with fasting.
Some are not healed because the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed. I am not suggesting that all physical disease is demonically induced. But we must also consider the case of the woman in Luke 13 “who had a disabling spirit [or, a spirit of infirmity] for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself” (Luke 13:11). According to Jesus, “Satan” had “bound” her (Luke 13:16; see also Acts 10:38).
We must also consider the mystery of divine providence. There are undoubtedly times and seasons in the purposes of God during which his healing power is withdrawn or at least largely diminished. God may have any number of reasons for this to which we are not privy, whether to discipline a wayward and rebellious church or to create a greater desperation for his power or to wean us off excessive dependence on physical comfort and convenience or any number of other possibilities. If this leaves you confused, that's why it's called a mystery!
Often times there are dimensions of spiritual growth and moral development and increase in the knowledge of God in us that he desires more than our physical health, experiences that in his wisdom God has determined can only be attained by means of or in the midst of or in response to less than perfect physical health. In other words, healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can only be attained by means of physical weakness.
Let me personalize this principle. If I believe Romans 8:28, that God sovereignly orchestrates all events in my life for my ultimate spiritual good (and preeminently for his ultimate glory), I can only conclude that, all things being equal, if I'm not healed it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that he, in his infinite wisdom and kindness, knows can only be attained by means of my physical affliction and the lessons of submission, dependency, and trust in God that I learn from it.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the great multitude he had compassion for them and healed their sick (14:14). My question is simple. As the exalted Son of God looks down from the right hand of the Majesty on High, does he feel differently toward the sick and infirm? Is he now less compassionate or, dare I say, apathetic toward their pain?
No one denies that healing now is less frequent than it was then. But what shall be our response to this? Personally, I am not content to deal with this problem by minimizing, if not denying, compassion as a preeminent factor in why God heals the sick. I would rather ground my confidence in the immutability of God's character, lay prayerful hands on the sick with the unfailing assurance that whereas the church may have changed, God has not, and live with the mystery of unanswered prayer until Jesus returns.
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