In the Church today we spend a lot of time praying for the sick to get well. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. When they do, we rejoice in the power of prayer. When they don’t, we feel confused, frustrated and sad. We wonder where we went wrong. If you’re tired of riding this roller coaster, or if you’re wondering how to respond to a sick friend who is asking for your prayerful intervention, then this post is for you.
WHAT WE WANT
When the people we care about are sick, we want them to get well. The more we see them suffering, the more intensely we desire their recovery. But if we’re going to mature in the area of prayer, we need to take a hard look at what is really behind our desire for the sick to be healed. Isn’t it just a desire for souls to have comfortable lives on earth? There’s nothing wrong with such a desire, for God has designed us to not like pain. He also tells us to treat others as we would want to be treated, and we would certainly want someone to wish good things for us. But as Christians, we know that this earthly life is merely an introduction to a much longer existence in eternity. We also know that earthly treasures, comforts, and blessings are far less important than pleasing God and developing an intimate relationship with Him. We know this in our heads, but we rarely let these truths direct our prayer life. When there are sick in our midst, we quickly revert back to our earthly priorities and pray for things that have no eternal value whatsoever: physical health and comfort. Too often we put all of our energy into pursuing plastic when we should be pursuing diamonds. Spiritual maturity begins with deciding to set our sights on higher, more worthy goals.
God’s standards are the only ones worth considering, for in the end, everything will be measured according to His system of values. God says that He is the greatest treasure. Knowing Him, communing with Him, pleasing Him, and being commended by Him—these are the things which God holds up as utterly priceless. These are the goals which He tells us to aim for. He is the great reward we are to pursue with all of our beings.
Now we are faced with a decision. We must choose between two sets of priorities: our own or God’s. Our own priorities feel correct in the moment, but God says that our feelings delude us. He says that His priorities are the ones which are truly correct, and they are also the ones which will truly benefit us.
Now it becomes a matter of trust. Are we going to trust that God is telling us the truth about what is best for us? He certainly has excellent credentials. After all, He created us. As the One who designed our very beings, He should certainly know what is best for us. Yet it is very difficult to trust God’s wisdom in the face of suffering. It’s also hard to trust that He cares about us as much as He says He does when He lets our suffering continue. So even though God has told us to focus on higher priorities, we decide to keep focusing on low ones and we pray for healing. Not just once, but many times. And as we pray, we cling to a belief that our requests can somehow influence God’s actions. But can they?
THE POWER OF PRAYER
Can we get God to do what we want through prayer? Is human prayer a portal to some kind of mystical power that even God cannot resist? Can prayer restrain God’s actions, force Him to change course, or talk Him out of doing what He was going to do? This is God we’re talking about, not a human being. The answer to all of these questions is a resounding no. It’s not well, maybe sometimes. It’s absolutely not. Prayer does not change God. Prayer is not about directing God. We only think it is because we’re taught wrong on all sides.
If you want to go far with God, who should you look to for guidance on how to do this? Other humans? A book which the Church has labeled as infallible? Or should you be looking to God Himself? Clearly God is the One you should be relying on to teach you about what He wants. There will be times when God will speak to you through other humans and the Bible, but no created thing should be treated as a substitute for God in your life. If we want to know the truth, we can’t just go scouring through a sacred book. We need to be asking God directly to teach us, then we need to be open to Him communicating His truth to us in a wide variety of ways. When we do this, God will start to teach us that there are certain soul attitudes that He wants to cultivate within us. Trust and submission are two of those attitudes.
TRUST & SUBMISSION
Trust and submission are alike in that they both deepen over time and grow stronger through testing. Mary might think she trusts you, but when it comes to leaving her wallet or child in your care, she suddenly finds herself hesitating. The greater the risk, the more effort she must put into trusting you. But the farther she steps out on that limb and you prove to be trustworthy, the more secure she feels in her relationship with you, and the closer she feels to you in her heart.
We experience a similar type of progression with God. We say that we trust Him, and we say that we submit to Him as the highest Authority. Yet for these beliefs to grow stronger, they must be tested. Physical illness is an extremely effective tool for deepening our trust and submission. Why is it important to gain more of these things? Because we can’t get close to God without them. Why is it important to get close to God? It goes back to our core values: God says that He is the greatest treasure.
So then, how much do you care about other people? Do you really want to love them like God does? If you do, then you will put the needs of their souls far above the needs of their bodies. This is how God loves them. God wants every soul He creates to experience His highest and best—not settle for some cheap substitute. God also knows that to experience His best, we need Him to challenge us. If we are ever going to really grasp His love for us, we need to learn to stop doubting it the moment our circumstances look bad. If we’re going to really feel secure in His care, we need to learn to trust Him even when His care of us looks lacking. If we’re going to experience rich communion with Him, we must learn to submit to His will even when we find it repulsive, frightening, and painful. Illnesses are extremely effective tools in accomplishing all of these things. The panic we feel the moment we hear a grim diagnosis reveals the limits of our trust and confidence in God. The way we turn bitter and accuse God of cruelty reveals the limits of our surrender to Him. Now let’s not wander off into shame and condemnation here: we all start off with very fragile trust and shallow submission. This isn’t something to feel bad about, it’s natural. You don’t expect a baby to sit up and feed himself, and God doesn’t expect you to wholeheartedly trust Him when you are still spiritually young. God is no more disappointed in our spiritual immaturity than a father is disappointed that his newborn son doesn’t know how to walk yet. God’s expectations of us are far more reasonable than we think. And like a good parent, God thoroughly enjoys every stage of our development. He doesn’t want to skip over the toddling years. He wants to move through each stage in order—but He does want to keep moving. A mother would be quite distressed if her ten-year-old was still walking around saying “dada” and sucking on baby bottles. Likewise, God does not want us to start stagnating in our relationships with Him. He wants us to keep progressing and growing, and He knows exactly what to do to make that happen. Physical illness is such an invaluable tool in prodding souls along.
So what about your sick friend or that sick parishioner who is asking you to pray for them? What should you pray for? What would God want you to pray for—physical healing or a closer walk with Him?
STRENGTHENING THE CHURCH
We talk a lot about building each other up in the Church. Indeed, we should be building each other up, but how exactly do we do this? How do we strengthen God’s kingdom here on earth? We strengthen the whole by strengthening each individual soul. A Christian is only as strong as he is mature in his relationship with God. How do we mature? By embracing God’s priorities for us. God wants us to be closer to Him.
Now though we can group up on Sundays, we are still a collection of individuals. Pastor Ben cannot make you cooperate with God’s plan for your life, he can only encourage you in the right direction. If Ben has a friend whose marriage is on the rocks, he can’t make her stay committed to her spouse. He can only encourage her in that direction, but the final choice is up to her.
We have all been given free wills by God, and He will not let you control how other souls respond to Him or vice versa. How fully you align with Him in your heart is a decision you make alone, and one that you alone will be judged for. The most other Christians can do is try to encourage you to pursue the right priorities by aligning with God’s will for your life. When it comes to praying for other people, this is what our goal should be: to encourage them to pursue God’s best for them.
When we pray for other people, we shouldn’t be praying for what they want. Instead, we should be remembering that God is already taking the best possible care of them. Is He going to compromise His care of them to suit our requests? No, He’s not. Our prayers do not change God. If God is withholding healing, then obviously it isn’t His best for them right now. When we refuse to acknowledge this, we just end up wasting hours of time praying for something that God is not going to give us. Later, when He decides the trial has run its course and He does heal them, we will foolishly conclude that our prayers had something to do with His decision. No, they didn’t. Prayers do not change God. When we refuse to learn this principle, we only end up deluding ourselves by creating cause-and-effect relationships where none exist.
THE PURPOSE OF PRAYER
So if prayer isn’t about changing God or getting Him to do what we want, what’s the point? Prayer is an invitation for God to change us. Prayer is about aligning ourselves with God’s will. Always in prayer, the focus should be on us changing, not on Him changing. God is always calling us to some higher way of thinking and we are the ones who must change to meet Him. We change by receiving His invitations to come closer to Him, and this is where prayer comes into it.
If we’re doing it right, our prayers should always be a response to God’s invitation. God always initiates. You might think that you asked to be closer to Him on your own initiative, but you didn’t. The Holy Spirit first stirred your heart in that direction and you aligned with His desires for you, which is why you then felt inspired to ask God to draw you closer to Him. Is prayer powerful? Oh, yes. It has awesome power, but it’s not the kind of power we promote at church and in prayer huddles. We teach that prayer has the power to change God. We prove this by the way we’re constantly directing God about.
Please heal Jane’s mother.
Please keep us safe on our vacation.
Please bring us more money.
Please make the tumor shrink.
Look at these requests and ask yourself who is doing the changing. God is. Jane’s mother is sick and she won’t get any better until God helps her. You’re going to go on that vacation regardless, but you want God to pay extra attention to you. You can’t make money appear out of the air or shrink the size of your own tumor. All of these requests are asking God to align with human agendas. These requests aren’t going to have the slightest effect on God. They are completely useless. The only possible benefit they can have is that by praying them, we are at least turning our minds in God’s direction. Yet if we’re only thinking of Him in terms of how we can direct Him about, our efforts will only end up dragging us backwards, not forwards. How many times have you heard a Christian taking partial credit for events that occurred on this earth?
My neighbor finally came to the Lord—I’ve been praying for her for ten years, you know. Just shows the power of prayer.
Did you see the new visitors in church on Sunday? Hallelujah, God answers prayers.
This is delusional thinking. The longer we rehearse it, the more foolish we become until we finally start drawing images of buff armored knights using sword and shield to fend off mighty demonic dragons. We like to title such images “Prayer Warriors in Action.” What arrogance. To go about calling ourselves “prayer warriors” is to go about bragging that we have some great power over the spiritual realms. No, we don’t. We have nothing. We are nothing. It is only God who accomplishes great things on this earth, and it is only God who deserves the glory. Prayer is not about changing God, it is about changing ourselves to align with Him.
God isn’t going to change His plans for our sake. He is like a man who goes strolling past your house. He calls out to you to join him, but he keeps on walking. If you refuse to come, it’s your loss. Now in real life, God gives us countless opportunities to align with Him. When we stall around, He hangs about and urges us to stop what we’re doing and come follow Him. But when we just can’t be bothered, the day comes when He stops inviting us to go certain places with Him and it’s our loss.
God is never going to change to suit us. He will always be His independent, magnificent Self. We can either cherish His invitation to know Him better or we can try to demand that He align with our human agenda. We can demand all day, but God will never give in to us. This is what is so glorious about Him. This is what separates Him from humans who are so easy to manipulate. God is immovable. He cannot be manipulated, and He cannot be changed by us. He loves us dearly, and He delights in sharing Himself with us. But if we are going to know Him, we will get there HIS way, at HIS pace, and according to HIS schedule. We do not get to direct God one iota. Ours is merely to respond to His invitations and we do this through prayer.
Lord, make me all that You want me to be.
Have Your total way in my life.
I want to be as close to You as I possibly can.
Teach me how to honor You more.
Help me learn everything You want to teach me through this trial.
These are powerful, life-changing prayers. These prayers are going to change the course of your eternal future, and every one of them was inspired by the Holy Spirit. How do we know this? Because our desire for God comes from God. Just as no one can be saved unless God calls them, so also no one can desire more of God unless He inspires them to. This is why it is so thrilling to find a desire for more of God burning within your soul, for it can only be there if God put it there. It is an invitation and God always honors His invitations. If we accept them and desire what He is telling us to desire—a closer walk with Him, a life that is pleasing to Him—then He will surely give it to us.
So then, your sick friend wants you to pray for her. What do you do? Do you know if God is planning to heal her? No, you don’t. She could get well or she could get worse. You don’t know the future, but you do know the Character of God and you know that He wants what is best for your friend. Don’t focus your prayers on the outcome of the situation, for that is setting her sights too low. Instead, you want to encourage your friend to set her sights on the higher things. No doubt she’s struggling with trust and submission, so these are the areas you want to encourage her in by showing her how to train her mind. If she wants you to do the praying, then you say something like:
God, we know that You are in complete control of this situation and that You are working everything out for Mary’s spiritual best. Thank You for being so faithful to her. Thank You for giving her what You know she needs, even when it’s not what any of us want. Help us to trust You with this situation. Help us all to be drawn closer to You because of it—especially Mary. We know that You love her dearly. We know that You totally understand how scary and upsetting this is for her. We know that You are always with her, even when her emotions can’t sense Your Presence. We don’t see what Your specific goals are in this, but we know that You are good and we know that we can totally trust You. Help us to desire Your will above all things, because we know that Your will is what we would truly want if we could see things from Your perspective.
Notice how you hardly made any requests. Instead, you rehearsed essential truths that Mary really needs to focus on. And when you did make a request, it wasn’t God you were asking to change. Instead you were asking Him to change Mary and yourself to align with His agenda. This is the way to pray for sick people. This is how we strengthen our brothers and sisters in Christ—by turning their focus onto truths about God and reminding them of how secure they are in His hands. This is how we encourage them to stretch their trust and submission a few more critical inches. We can’t actually do the work for them. You can’t make my muscles grow by pumping iron on my behalf. At some point, I have to choose to hoist the weights up myself, but you can certainly stand by and cheer me on. Encouragement is powerful, but we must be careful how we use it. We don’t want to encourage our brothers to try and change God through their prayers. We don’t want to encourage them to cling to doubt and fear by modeling “God please make it all go away” type requests. We want to model the higher things and shine a light on the highest road.
When we really care about other people, we want what is best for their souls. A closer walk with God is what is best for them and we want them to get as close to Him as possible. Once we realize that ALL trials are designed to help them in that direction, we stop praying their opportunities for growth away and instead encourage them to embrace that growth with both hands. It doesn’t mean it’s a sin to go to the doctor or seek treatment or take medications. God will guide each soul down different paths and we err when we demand that His help come in certain forms. But while we’re feeling stressed in the interim and unsure of what the final outcome of our circumstances will be, there is great gain to be had by learning how to use prayer properly. God has always intended prayer to be a tool through which we align ourselves with Him. It’s never been about trying to change Him. We all start off in the wrong place out of ignorance, but we don’t have to stay there.
Now let’s be realistic: will our friends get mad when we don’t pray for miraculous cures on their behalf? Yes, most of them will. Sadly, most of them are not willing to lift their sights to the higher goals. Most of them want to remain in a fantasy land where humans use prayer to coax God into doing what they want. So where does this leave us? Should we regress to foolish ways of praying and dishonor God by rejecting the insights He has given us? Should we lower our standards to be approved of by friends who don’t want to grow? Certainly not.
Real love keeps a grip on the eternal view and it refuses to compromise what it knows what is right. When we love souls as God does, we want His best for them, and that is what we keep putting in front of them no matter how many times they shove it away and demand something else. It is only when we don’t really love our friends that we encourage them in lies and delusions in order to save ourselves the discomfort of being disapproved of by them. So then, what kind of friend are you going to be?
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