I’m writing this article in the hopes of helping others to gain—and keep—freedom in one vitally important area: whether or not it is God’s will to heal.
Why I Now Think That I Haven’t Gone Far Enough
When I first discovered the book The Bible and Healing: A Medical and Theological Commentary by John Wilkinson, I was very excited about it. In early 2019, I wrote of it, “This book’s table of contents is like a who’s who of the topics I most care about when it comes to the Bible and healing. This book was so helpful.”
And in many ways, it was helpful.
But as my faith has continued to be stretched this year, I’ve realized that one of the assumptions Wilkinson made when he wrote about James 5:14-16 is also one of the primary assumptions that held me back for too long in many ways—and I want to be careful not to perpetuate it. I wish for no one to be caught for a minute longer in a web of misunderstanding about God’s will to heal. That has already persisted for too long.
Wilkinson’s book was an important stepping stone for me in really examining James 5:14-16, but the stepping stone also had some slippery moss on it. So, as much other good information as is in Wilkinson’s book, I’ve removed it from my recommended reading list. I didn’t do that because I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but because there is a point about God’s will to heal that is so vital to the church gaining ground in carrying out its ministry of healing, that I don’t want to contribute to error about it in any way, even indirectly.
What was the point about God’s will to heal in which Wilkinson went too far? What was the assumption that he—and I and many others—made that held me back for far too long?
I believe Wilkinson went too far when he subjected James 5:14-16 to the “unexpressed qualification” (an added condition not mentioned in the text) that healing has to also, of course, be the will of God (my paraphrase of Wilkinson, page 247)—as if the fact of James’s writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a statement that was included in canonized Scripture that says believers will be healed in response to a certain type of prayer by certain persons was not already clearly indicative of the primary general will of God to heal.
In this matter, Wilkinson went beyond the text of Scripture to make an argument that I don’t believe is supported by Scripture as a whole at all—that James 5:14-16 only happens in certain cases when it is God’s will. A careful reading of James 5:14-16 will reveal that it speaks clearly for itself about the conditions of its own fulfillment—and all of those conditions are incumbent upon those praying for the sick person—not on some unmentioned additional decision by God.
Further, it is my conclusion that even Paul’s thorny case—the only one Wilkinson cites in support of his argument—is not proof that it is not always the will of God to heal. I discuss that idea more fully in my book Faith with Grit, but following is a brief summary.
My View of Paul’s Unhealed Thorn and God’s Will to Heal
If someone has received a direct word of God about their status, as Paul did, then that person can know that another factor has (at least temporarily) supplanted, delayed, or contravened their healing. But even at that, I do not agree that it was—or is, or will continue to be—not the will of God to heal that person.
God always wants to heal.
I base this assertion on several pieces of evidence.
• When God revealed himself to the Israelites as their God, he told them he was “Yahweh who heals you” (Exodus 15:26). Healing is in his name.
• Both the scope and the success rate of Jesus’s healing ministry, as recorded in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), indicate the pervasiveness of God’s will to heal.
• Jesus made a direct statement (recorded in John 14:12) that believers in him would do even greater things than the works he did, indicating that he intended for widespread healing, done by his authority and through God’s power, to continue.
• Scripture says that God gives believers spiritual gifts of healing to use to strengthen the rest of the church (1 Corinthians 12:9, 25, 28-30).
However, God’s will is not always done on earth.(1)
This point is chiefly made by the teaching of Jesus to his disciples to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:9-10). There would be no need to pray such a prayer at all if God’s will were always automatically done.
Consider the insight that Daniel 10:12-14 provides about a specific instance of demonic interference with God’s will being carried out, and the details of the spiritual battle that caused the delay in that case. In that example, it was God’s will to grant Daniel understanding because of his prayers for understanding, but the messenger bringing God’s answer was delayed for 21 days because of the messenger’s spiritual struggle with a supernatural opponent. God’s will did eventually prevail, and on day 21 of Daniel’s prayers, Daniel finally was given the understanding he had sought from God.
Applying the principle Paul later taught in 2 Corinthians 1:11, I find it reasonable to think that Daniel’s continued prayers during those 21 days aided in the victory of God’s messenger in the spiritual battle that had delayed him. But God’s will wasn’t at issue—spiritual opposition to the enacting of his will was.
Even when God’s will is not done, however, it is important to know—and Scripture teaches—that God brings good from bad (Romans 8:28) and that God’s ultimate purposes will be achieved (Job 42:2; Proverbs 21:30; Isaiah 14:27).
The tough reality for individual lives is that there is an easy way and a hard way for God’s purposes to be achieved, and in this age, it will often be the hard way, because God’s will is not always being done in every single matter in every single one of our lives on earth in this age. There is a very real conflict in this world between good and evil. Rather than viewing this scenario through the lens of victims, however, we need to view ourselves as part of the powerful forces of good that God intends us to be. We should be dedicated to growing spiritually in order to gain more and more spiritual victories, and help others do so, as well.
Sometimes there may be need that is greater in God’s sight than the need for healing, so that God may be willing to postpone or set aside an individual’s healing—either for a time, or for an entire earthly lifetime—in order for the other need to be met.
This situation may be rare. Because of our limited knowledge as humans, it is only by God’s revelation that we know when this scenario is actually the case. But because there are several such examples recorded in Scripture (Job, Lazarus, and perhaps Paul), we know that this does occur at least some of the time.
• Job’s experience is an example of this in the Old Testament. In my book Faith with Grit, I discuss several ideas about the greater need God was potentially meeting by not healing Job sooner.
• Lazarus’s ordeal was an example of this in the New Testament. In Faith with Grit, I discuss more fully the tremendous scope of God’s purposes in Lazarus’s case, all of which are drawn from Scripture.
• Paul’s remaining unhealed as protection from the sin of pride may also be a New Testament example of some other pressing Kingdom need outweighing God’s will to heal for at least a time. Paul had seen surpassingly great revelations (2 Corinthians 12:7) and he was called to lay the original foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10) of Christ’s church. Therefore, both the risk and the kingdom stakes were exceptionally high. Paul’s great need for protection from falling to the sin of pride may have had extra weight in the case of his non-healing.
Do I know for sure whether Paul’s case was an example of God’s will to heal not being done and God bringing good from it, or was an example of God’s will to heal being outweighed for a time by something God valued more highly than healing? No. Scripture does not prove whether the hidden truth in Paul’s case is definitely one of these two explanations—or even some other scenario not presented here. (I talk more in-depth about Paul’s situation in Faith with Grit.)
However, a summary of my current thinking (my opinion) is that either…
A) God’s will to heal Paul was not done for some reason we were not told, and that the good God brought from the bad (Romans 8:28) was to put the thorn into God’s service to protect Paul from pride;
B) God was only postponing Paul’s healing for as long as Paul needed the protection the thorn offered against pride, and that if the day had come when it had been spiritually safe for Paul to have the thorn removed, God would have gladly removed it—but Paul did not reach that level of spiritual maturity (so as to not fall to the sin of pride without the aid of the thorn) prior to his death.
So, to wrap up my view of Paul’s unhealed thorn and God’s will to heal: I don’t think Paul’s case proves at all that it is not always God’s will to heal, because I find no evidence in Paul’s case that it was not God’s will to heal him.(2)
If God Wants to Heal, Then Why Aren’t More People Being Healed Today?
Turning to the vast majority of unhealed people today, I find it highly likely that it is God’s will to heal them, but that the fact of God’s will not being done on earth as it is in Heaven—a condition which can arise from a number of causes—is what is standing in the way.
I’ve already mentioned the type of supernatural struggle of good versus evil mentioned in Daniel 10 that works against God’s will; and Job’s case, in which a different kind of supernatural situation (also part of the war between evil and good) was unfolding, about which Job was not informed (Job 1-2).
However, while both of those types of scenarios may be repeated today (and perhaps more often than we might suspect), there is another factor I think we are too quick to glide over in our reading of the Scripture. That is the factor in which God’s will is not done because his human children have failed to carry out the part of it for which we bear responsibility.
Believers have been given the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and authority to be the agents of God’s will. Yet, many of us—myself included—remain largely inactive in this area of healing prayer and healing, often because we lack awareness of the role we need to play, or we don’t understand the importance of it. Yet, it is God’s explicitly stated will (John 14:12) for us to carry out works like those done by Jesus and greater—works that demonstrate the power of God and destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). I, for one, do not want to miss out—for any reason—on doing all of those things that God has prepared in advance for me to do (Ephesians 2:10).
Yet my wrong assumption—held for far too long—that whatever happened must have been God’s will and that my prayers for the healing of others had only minimal impact on changing the course of events is one of those seemingly innocuous, yet completely wrong, patterns of thinking that has held me back from being the type of effective disciple that Jesus described in John 14:12.
Believers have a great obligation to carry out those parts of James 5 that call for action on the part of the one praying for the sick. At the very least, these Scriptures call for specific things from the various parties mentioned—things like righteousness, fervent prayer, prayer in faith, and confession. Why aren’t those matters—and not what Francis MacNutt calls “abstruse questions about God’s will”(3)—the first place, or at least one of the places, we look when our prayers for healing haven’t brought healing?
I think it’s because we’ve been so used to chalking unanswered prayers to “it wasn’t God’s will.” No more.
Wilkinson Went Too Far In His Willingness to Disregard the Relationship Between the Pray-er, the Prayer, and the Healing
Wilkinson wrote (on page 247): “The unqualified nature of the two statements in [James 5] verses fifteen and sixteen that prayer will result in healing is worth noting. However, we may not draw from this unqualified relationship of the prayer of faith and healing, the apparent corollary that if healing does not occur then either the prayer has not been earnest enough or the faith has not been strong enough. This apparently sound logic is not the logic of faith, for there are other reasons why healing has not occurred.”
I completely agree with Wilkinson that the unqualified nature of the two statements in James 5:15-16 is worth noting. However, I don’t agree at all with Wilkinson’s conclusion that taking Scripture at its word “is not the logic of faith.” Isn’t that exactly what faith is—believing what God said until I see it (2 Corinthians 5:7)? Just because Wilkinson’s pronouncement sounds authoritative, doesn’t make it true.
Furthermore, I see no reason that we should be forced—initially, or at all—to disregard that in cases of non-healing, the human conditions of this Scripture may not have been met. Even if there are other reasons for non-healing, if the corollary between conditions and outcome as described in this Scripture is “apparent,” as Wilkinson labels it (and I agree that the corollary is apparent in Scripture), then why must we throw the corollary out? Are we too afraid to consider the possibility that among the church’s elders may be unrighteousness (such as in the form of unconfessed sin), so that the prayer said by such an elder was not that of a “righteous” person (a person in right standing with God)? And why must we lay aside the reality that some church elders may pray a rote prayer for someone’s healing merely out of a sense of duty, rather than praying in faith with the sort of earnestness of Elijah that James specifies in chapter 5? Haven’t we already been warned that in the last days (in which we now live), people will have a form of godliness while denying its power (2 Timothy 3:5)? It is a good warning, and one I take seriously in terms of evaluating my own faith. (I can’t yet say, with Paul that “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29, ESV).)
I think that we have to consider how we can fulfill the qualifications of pray-ers as noted in James 5, because I think that one of the reasons that we are not seeing more people healed is that believers are not carrying out their God-given task effectively. It may be that we are unaware of our calling to pray for healing or of how to live it out in daily life—or that we are trying but are not succeeding for some reason. (Francis MacNutt has written encouragingly and informatively on this topic in The Power to Heal, a book I highly recommend for its practical and compassionate help in this and other key areas.)
In the meantime, I am not as eager to dismiss the conditions of James 5:14-16 as Wilkinson was. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach of what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (NLT).
If there were ever an area where the believer needs to be prepared and equipped to do every good work, it’s the healing ministry of Christ. Since James 5 is Scripture inspired by God, we should be able to profit from its teaching, correction, preparation and equipping. So let’s not be so eager to give ourselves a pass on this one. Let’s let this Scripture say what it says to us, and let’s take it to heart.
If we take an honest look at the conditions of James 5:14-16, and ask why we are not seeing more healings arising from believers’ prayers, including our own, then we can arrive at two conclusions directly from the Scripture:
- Perhaps God is waiting for church elders to fulfill all of the instructions and conditions of James 5:14-16
- Perhaps God is waiting for other believers to fully carry out their roles as specified in James 5:14-16.
Before you say, God wouldn’t allow the failure of humans to prevent another person’s healing, re-read Matthew 17:14-20 and Mark 9:17-29. We know from Jesus himself in that case that there are times when it is God’s will to heal, but it is the spiritual state of the believers who are trying to be the conduits of healing that is the obstacle to the healing God wants to give.
There is spiritual opposition to healing in this world, and it takes something real to overcome that opposition. The authority and power of Jesus can overcome spiritual opposition, but there is a way for us to cooperate with Jesus so that God’s healing power can be applied; and there is a way that doesn’t work—as Jesus’s first disciples learned the hard way in the account mentioned above. We, too, need to learn how to cooperate with Jesus in carrying out the healing ministry today (John 14:12).
If we do the things the James 5 passage says, we can believe for what it promises. However, if we just slide by without fully doing our part, yet blame God for not delivering on his part, we haven’t been faithful at all—not to God or his Word, and not to our sick sisters and brothers in need of prayer that heals. And, grievously, we will also have missed an opportunity to demonstrate to the unsaved world that there is really power in the name of Jesus, and this is not all just “a lot of talk” (1 Corinthians 4:20).
Wilkinson Went Too Far In Adding a Condition that is Not in the Scripture
Now that I have made several points of my argument for and from the Scripture, I think the foundation is laid for me to address how Wilkinson went too far in going beyond Scripture.
Wilkinson wrote (page 247), “This is why most commentators tone down these statements by saying that we must understand the unexpressed qualification that healing will only occur if it is the will of God. This is a legitimate qualification and is in accord with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. For instance, we have already seen how Paul prayed three times to be healed of his thorn in the flesh according to 2 Corinthians 12:8, but healing was not granted. God had another reason why his affliction should continue and so healing in his case did not include removal of his disease, but a new use for it in Paul’s relationship to God and his fellows.”
Why were Wilkinson and the commentators he gathered behind him so ready to disbelieve God’s Word in James 5:13-16?
If “most commentators,” are engaged in “toning down the statements” of Scripture, then I think we should not put stock in their commentary. Scripture says that faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17). If believers have settled for a “toned-down” commentary on the Word, perhaps that explains what has happened to our faith in the Word.
And if the qualification these commentators are expressing is “unexpressed” in Scripture, as Wilkinson states, then perhaps we shouldn’t add it, either. Wilkinson’s calling the added qualification a “legitimate qualification” that is “in accord with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament” is an unfounded claim. On what basis is the qualification legitimate? It is not in accordance with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. The entirety of the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—contradicts his claim. The New Testament broadly demonstrates, instead, that it is the will of God to heal. The New Testament is filled with healings, and in no case—not even Paul’s— is the will of God cited as a reason for someone not being healed.(4, 5)
The only discussions of the will of God to heal in the gospels—apart from the testimony of the widespread healings of everyone brought to Jesus for healing, as well as other healings where Jesus and his disciples went to and healed people who didn’t ask for healing, which I count as a major indication of God’s will to heal—affirm the will of God to heal (see Mark 1:41; Luke 5:13; Matthew 9:20; Matthew 17:17-18; Luke 9:40-42). Even when Jesus waited until after sick Lazarus died to come to him, his intention was to heal, and he did heal (John 11).
The only evidence Wilkinson cites for God’s so-called will to not heal is Paul’s case, which I have already addressed above. As I demonstrated earlier, Paul’s case is not evidence that it was not God’s will to heal. The only way to find a negative will of God for healing Paul’s thorn in the flesh is to read into the text what is not there. Look very carefully in Scripture at what God did and did not say to Paul about this matter. God never said it was not his will to heal Paul. From God’s words to Paul in this matter, Scripture does not reveal whether God was at work in a Job-like situation in some court of heaven about which Paul was never told, or whether even some other, undisclosed metaphysical cause was the root reason that Paul was not healed.
All we are told about it is this:
• Paul stated the reason that his thorn in the flesh had been given for pride prevention, (2 Corinthians 12:7).
• And in answer to Paul’s request for removal of the thorn, God told Paul that his grace was sufficient, that this weakness would not be an obstacle to the completeness of God’s power working through Paul (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).
Scripture never says that God didn’t want to heal Paul.
To sum up, therefore, I do not find that either of Wilkinson’s examples adequately supports his statement that “we must understand the unexpressed qualification that healing will only occur if it is the will of God.”
If God Doesn’t Heal a Person, What Does It Matter Whether God Wants to Or Not?
Some may think I am only talking about semantics and that the matter of God’s will to heal when healing has not come makes no difference. After all, they might say, what difference does it make whether God wanted to heal Paul or not, if God did not heal him?
To that my answer is: The point makes a great difference. It matters greatly to the faith of a sick person and to their relationship with God when they erroneously believe that the God who is supposed to love them doesn’t want to heal them.
It is of vital importance to believers to know that God does want to heal. And that if anything comes between them and that healing, it is not because God didn’t or doesn’t want to heal them. Yes, of course God will give sufficient grace to live unhealed, and yes, of course he will “cause all things to work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28, NASB). But that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t want to heal, or that because a healing hasn’t happened yet, it won’t ever happen. We have to stop believing those lies. They are lies and they have caused some people to give up on praying for and believing for healings that could still come, and they have also caused the withering of faith and trust in God and the cooling of love for God.
And just as important to unhealed believers is to not hear what I am not saying here: I am not saying that everyone will be healed in this life. I am making the distinction between what God wants and what could be possible for us in far greater measure if we believers would grow into praying healing prayers and carrying out effective healing ministry in the power of God’s Spirit in the way that the gospels indicate we can—and the current state of affairs, in which many Christians unquestioningly accept a status quo filled with sickness because we assume that most of it is God’s will, or at least unalterable.
A Vicious Cycle of Nothing
The church has been caught for too long in a web of lies about the healing ministry of Christ, which has led to the erosion of the healing ministry itself. (On this point, I greatly appreciate the book The Healing Reawakening by Francis MacNutt.)
I believe that we have been caught in a vicious cycle of expecting only what we’ve seen happen, which is not much at all, which feeds our expectations for more of nothing much happening when we pray for healing.
And the problem is more than just shriveling faith and a nationwide epidemic of chronic illness to the point that we think it is normal to live with one or more unhealed conditions apiece and to spend a large portion of our resources on management of medical issues. The problem is also this: God’s works of healing are meant not only to heal sick people, but to bring more people to faith in God. Where we are failing to carry out the works Jesus gave us to do, we are failing at bringing about indisputable displays of God’s power that fully present the gospel of Christ (Acts 4:14).
Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum.
Romans 15:18-19 (NLT)
“For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power” (1 Corinthians 4:20, NLT).
God’s power revealed through healing is about more than just relieving an individual person’s suffering—although God cares deeply about that (for evidence of that, read the accounts of Jesus’s words and actions surrounding multiple healings recorded in the gospels, including those in Luke 13:10-16; and Luke 14:3-5).
Displays of God’s power through healing are also about fully presenting the good news, which results in expanding the kingdom of God.
What To Do Now
Now, what is the action to take at the end of all this discussion? Is it to point fingers at those who have prayed for sick people who have not yet been healed? (If so, there would be a large number of fingers pointed at me.) Thankfully, however, that is not what we need to do.
And, as I read James 5, we also are not required to wait only for elders to fulfill the human conditions of James 5.
Blessedly, Scripture indicates that all believers are given the ability of fulfilling this call to pray for each other so that we may be healed. Therefore, we all have work to do.
I am calling us to be believers who break this cycle of spiritual weakness in our own lives, for our families, our churches, and our communities.
It is not God who is falling down on the job here, in this matter of James 5. One of the reasons God’s expressed will to heal is not being done is that I am falling down on the job that Jesus said all believers in him would do (John 14:12), and so are other believers.
Faith is to believe that God will do what Scripture says he will do. And until we see God doing it, we should speak to him humbly and honestly about the apparent discrepancy, and ask him to reveal to us our part in closing the gap between what Scripture says and what we are actually experiencing, and then ask him to help us do it.
I have much growing up to do in my spiritual life so that my prayers will do what God said through James (James 5:16) that our prayers will do. It is clear to me that I haven’t come far enough yet. I know this by asking the last 5 people for whom I prayed for healing whether they have been healed yet.
But if I believe the Word of God—which I do—what other choice do I have but to continue to pursue the kind of life and faith and prayer that will result in God’s healing those for whom I pray—healing that will reveal his power and his kingdom?
And why would I not want to?
1. God didn’t want humankind to die physically (Genesis 2:7), but because of evil in the world, we all will (Hebrews 9:27). Some will be permitted to die young in order to be protected from the evil of others (Isaiah 57:1). And some who persist in evil may even be put to death physically by God because of their own decision not to be in a right relationship with him (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). God doesn’t want anyone to perish spiritually (2 Peter 3:9), but unless an individual is reconciled with God, they will perish spiritually (Revelation 20:15).
2. I have heard some say that Scripture doesn’t make clear whether Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical sickness. Whatever it was, Paul said it was in his flesh, and it tormented him. So whether it was physical, emotional, mental, or even some spiritual trouble of some kind that affected his flesh, it was some real torment that made Paul a candidate for some type of healing that God had—and has—the power to work.
3. In The Power to Heal by Francis MacNutt, Ave Maria Press, 1992
4. I could make a case for the will of God being the cause for a delay in healing, and I do, in my book Faith with Grit.
5. Someone may ask about God’s will to heal in cases when it is a person’s appointed time to die. While Scripture is clear that humans will die (Hebrews 9:27), I think the “but what if it’s time for the person to die” argument is somewhat beside the point to what I am discussing here. Humans don’t require sickness in order to fulfill our appointments with death. Humans can die without being sick (see Deuteronomy 34:7).