Faith and Healing

In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a crippled beggar and later attribute the healing to faith in Jesus’ name. This raises all sorts of questions, especially in our culture this one: How can I get the same thing? How can I have that kind of faith so I can be healed? The danger of turning faith into a formula is pretty high.

When I preached on this a few days ago, I suggested that true faith wasn’t about accepting fate or brandishing a formula, but involves unconditional surrender to God’s unconditional love. One part of the application was from Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to “keep on asking, seeking, and knocking.” I was asked by a friend if this doesn’t just become a formula. A good question.

The verse from Matthew 7 says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Now is it true that “everyone who asks receives”? Well, it certainly doesn’t seem that way. So maybe Jesus was exaggerating (like telling people earlier in the sermon to cut off their hands and gouge out their eyes–the disciples all sinned, and as far as we know completed life with both hands and both eyes). Or maybe we can redefine one or more of the words so that Jesus is still right, and it also fits our experience. Maybe the question is what we receive–an answer of yes or no? In the “there are no unanswered prayers” Christian bumper sticker vein?

I am not sure exactly what to do with the text, but the second half is much more puzzling than the first.

Now, clearly this cannot be applied as a formula. I mean, the crippled beggar in Acts 3 received, but he did not ask, seek, or knock. The highest hope he had was a bit of loose change. So if, as Peter said in the sermon explaining the incident later in the chapter, that the man was healed through faith in the name of Jesus, was it this man’s faith that did it?

Back to Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount seems to be organized like this: Turning the world upside down and spelling out our new identity (Beattitudes and salt/light stuff). Higher righteousness that fulfills the law (“you have heard… but I say….”). Practicing Righteousness/Justice (“When you give/fast/pray…”). Radical trust in God’s provision (evidenced by not living anxiously, not judging others, asking God for what we need, and loving our neighbors). Finally, the prophetic wisdom in the two paths we can choose from, with two possible outcomes (life and death).

So it looks to me like the “Keep asking…” verse is a part of that description of the quality of life of someone who lives out that radical trust. So how would radical trust motivate persistent prayer? Or, from the opposite side, how would a lack of trust lead to prayerlessness? Well, that one seems easier to me, because I can see how if I didn’t believe God wanted to provide for me, I would not address my concerns to him. I would take care of it myself. And maybe that’s just the thing–that the ones who receive are not those who can take for themselves, but the ones who ask. If indeed “the meek shall inherit the earth.” See, we pass over that one at the beginning like we understand it, but then we bristle at what is merely an implication later in the sermon.

The asking is probably related to the instructions he’s already given about asking–not to worry about food, drink, or clothing because our Father knows what we need before we ask. So the asking he’s talking about here has probably not broadened to include things like luxury cars. The seeking he’s already defined as well when he instructed us to “seek first the Kingdom.” And the knocking is probably explained by the comments that come next regarding the gate that leads to life.

So the question is, Does this apply to healing? I would not encourage people to persist in asking for stupid, selfish things from God. I would not even encourage them to persist long in asking for things that are neutral, or even good, but that have little to do with their deepest concerns and needs. The thing is that Jesus seemed very concerned throughout his ministry with the total healing of persons he met. Sometimes Jesus even seems to be prodding people a little to display more faith that he could heal them. I think healing would be something Jesus wants us to keep on asking about.

Even with a chronic condition most of us would still go to the doctor regularly. Why then would we stop praying? The point from the Acts passage was that this crippled beggar had, in all likelihood, seen Jesus, but Jesus passed him by. There are several “Jesus passed me by” moments in the Gospels, and the walking on water story in Mark’s version is one of them (almost…). I was hoping that people who had lost hope for their healing, which may spring from a loss of faith in God’s power to heal or a doubt about his loving concern, would see that Jesus passing them by doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

Trying to encourage people to pray for healing is such a delicate thing. I don’t want people to be disappointed, and we tend to do such strange things with scripture and to each other when this topic comes up. But I sense that if we’re going to make headway in the missional church plant in Alton, some people are going to have to be healed in pretty dramatic ways to get the community to see the light. So I want to gently encourage a surge of genuine faith that will look like radical trust in God’s provision.

Radical trust may be a formula, but ironically, the first step would have to be renouncing all formulaic attempts to manipulate God.