Cruel to imply insufficient Faith when Healing Fails by J I Packer

Cruel to imply insufficient Faith when Healing Fails by J I Packer

All the passages below are from J. I. Packer’s book, “God’s Plans for you,” published in 2001.

     Poor health has been a fact of life since the Fall. Had there been no sin, there would be no sickness. As it is, both are universal, the latter being a penal result of the former. So Scripture implies. So, too, did yesterday’s Christians view the matter. They did not find poor health and chronic discomforts an obstacle to faith in God’s goodness. Rather, they expected illness and accepted it uncomplainingly as they looked forward to the health of heaven.

     But today, dazzled by the marvels of modern medicine, the world dreams of abolishing poor health entirely. We have grown health conscious in a way that is itself rather sick and certainly has no precedent—not even in ancient Sparta where physical culture was everything.

     Why do we diet and jog and pursue health-raising and health- sustaining things so passionately? Why are we so absorbed with physical health? We are chasing a dream, the dream of never being ill. We are coming to regard a pain-free, disability-free existence as one of man’s natural rights.

     It is no wonder that Christians nowadays are so interested in divine healing. They long for the touch of God, as direct and powerful as possible, on their lives (and so they should). They are preoccupied with physical health, to which they feel they have a right. (How much there is of worldliness in this preoccupation is a question worth asking, but it is not one we will consider here.) With these two concerns dominating their minds, it is not surprising that today many claim that all sick believers may find physical healing through faith, whether through doctors or apart from them. A cynic would say the wish has been father to the thought.

     But is that fair? That it was natural for such a thought to emerge in our times does not make it either true or false. It regularly presents itself as a rediscovery of what the church once knew and never should have forgotten about the power of faith to channel the power of Christ. It claims to be biblical, and we must take that claim seriously.

     This teaching uses three arguments from Scripture.

     First, Jesus Christ, who healed so abundantly while on earth, has not changed. He has not lost his power. Whatever he did then he can do now.

     Second, salvation in Scripture is a holistic reality, embracing both soul and body. Thoughts of salvation for the soul only without, or apart from, the body are unbiblical.

     Third, blessing is missed where faith is lacking and where God’s gifts are not sought. “You do not have, because you do not ask,” says James. “Ask and it will be given you,” says Jesus. But Matthew tells us that in Nazareth where Jesus was brought up, he could not do many mighty works because of their unbelief.

     All of this is true. So does Jesus still heal miraculously? Yes, I think that on occasion he does. I do not deny healing miracles today. There is much contemporary evidence of healing taking place in faith contexts in ways that have baffled the doctors. B. B. Warfield, whose wife was an invalid throughout their marriage, testily denied that God ever heals supernaturally today. But it looks as if he was wrong.

     However, what often is claimed is that healing through prayer, plus perhaps the ministrations of someone with a healing gift, is always available for sick believers, and that if Christian invalids fail to find it, something is lacking in their faith.

     It is here that I demur. This reasoning is wrong—cruelly and destructively wrong—as anyone who has sought miraculous healing on this basis and failed to find it or who has had to pick up the pieces in the lives of others who have had that kind of experience knows all too well. To be told that longed-for healing was denied because of some defect in your faith when you had labored and strained every way you knew to devote yourself to God and to “believe for blessing” is to be pitch-forked into distress, despair, and a sense of being abandoned by God. This is as bitter a feeling as any this side of hell—particularly if, like most invalids, your sensitivity is already up and your spirits down. Nor does Scripture permit us to break anyone in pieces with words (Job’s phrase, it fits) in this way

     What, then, of those three arguments? Look at them again. There is more to be said about each one.

     It is true that Christ’s power is still what it was. However, the healings he performed when he was on earth had a special significance. Besides being works of mercy, they were signs of his messianic identity. This comes out in the message he sent to John the Baptist: “Go and tell John what you hear and see. . . . Blessed is he who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4, 6 RSV). In other words, Jesus was saying, “Let John match up my miracles with what God promised for the day of salvation.” (See Isaiah 35:5W) “He should then be in no doubt that I am the Messiah, whatever there is about me that he does not yet understand.”

     Anyone today who asks for miracles as an aid to faith should be referred to this passage in Matthew and told that if he will not believe in the face of the miracles recorded in the Gospels, then he would not believe if he saw a miracle in his own backyard. Jesus’ miracles are decisive evidence for all time of who he is and what power he has.

     But in that case, supernatural healings in equal abundance to those worked in the days of Jesus’ flesh may not be his will today. The question concerns not his power but his purpose. We cannot guarantee that because he healed the sick brought to him then, he will do the same now.

     It is also true that salvation embraces both body and soul. And there is indeed, as some put it, healing for the body in the atonement. But perfect physical health is not promised for this life. It is promised for heaven as part of the resurrection glory that awaits us in the day when Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Full physical well-being is presented as a future blessing of salvation rather than a present one. What God has promised and when he will give it are separate questions.

     The wife of a pastor friend bore a “miracle baby” after physicians had declared pregnancy impossible. But the child was malformed and died within a week. Preaching the following Sunday, my friend applied to this bereavement the truth that Christ’s death secured bodily healing: “God healed Joy Anne,” he said, “by taking her to heaven.” Exactly

     Further, it is true that blessing is missed where faith is lacking. But even in New Testament times, among leaders who cannot be accused of lacking faith, healing was not universal. We know from Acts that the apostle Paul was sometimes Christ’s agent in miraculous healing, and he was himself once miraculously healed of snakebite. Yet he advises Timothy to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23 RSV) and informs him that he left Trophimus “ill at Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20 NIV). He also tells the Philippians that their messenger Epaphroditus was so sick that he “nearly died for the work of Christ” and we see how grieved Paul himself had been at the prospect of losing him (Philippians 2:25-27 NIV). Plainly, had Paul or anyone else sought power to heal these cases miraculously, he would have been disappointed.

     Moreover, Paul himself lived with “a thorn in the flesh” that went unhealed. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, he tells us that in three solemn seasons of prayer he had asked Christ, the Lord and the Healer, to take it from him. But the hoped-for healing did not occur. The passage merits close attention.

     “Thorn” pictures a source of pain, and “flesh” locates it in Paul’s physical or psychological system, thus ruling out the idea, suggested by some, that he might be referring to a difficult colleague. But beyond this, Paul is unspecific, probably deliberately. Guesses about his thorn range from recurring painful illnesses, such as inflamed eyes (see Galatians 4:13-15 NIV), migraine, or malaria, to chronic temptation. The former view seems more natural, but nobody can be sure. All we can say is that it was a distressing disability from which Paul could have been delivered on the spot, had Christ so willed.

     So Paul lived with pain. And the thorn, given him under God’s providence, operated as “a messenger of Satan, to harass me” (2 Corinthians 12:7 RSV) because it tempted him to think hard thoughts about the God who let him suffer and in resentment to cut back his ministry How could he be expected to go on traveling, preaching, working day and night, praying, caring, weeping over folk with this pain constantly dragging him down? Such thoughts were “flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16 RSV) with which he had to contend constantly, for the thorn remained unhealed.

     Some Christians today live with epilepsy, homosexual cravings, ulcers, and cyclical depressions that plunge them into deep waters of this kind. Philip Hughes is surely correct when, commenting on this passage, he writes: “Is there a single servant of Christ who cannot point to some ‘thorn in the flesh,’ visible or private, physical or psychological, from which he has prayed to be released, but that has been given him by God to keep him humble, and therefore fruitful?. . .Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ is, by its very lack of definition, a type of every Christian’s ‘thorn in the flesh.”1

     Paul perceived, however, that the thorn was given him not for punishment but for protection. Physical weakness guarded him against spiritual sickness. The worst diseases are those of the spirit— pride, conceit, arrogance, bitterness, self-seeking. They are far more damaging than physical malfunctioning. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul described the thorn as a sort of prophylactic against pride when he said it was “to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations” (v. 7 RSV). He could accept it as a wise provision on the part of his lord. It was not for want of prayer that the thorn went unhealed. Paul explained to the Corinthians what Christ’s response was as he prayed about it. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9). It was as if the Savior was saying, “I can demonstrate my power better by not eliminating your problem. It is better for you, Paul, and for my glory in your life that I show my strength by keeping you going though the thorn remains.”

     So Paul embraced his continuing disability as a kind of privilege. “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9). The Corinthians, in typical Greek fashion, despised him as a weakling. They did not consider him an elegant speaker or an impressive personality Paul went even further, telling them that he was weaker than they thought, for he lived with his thorn in the flesh. But Paul learned to glory in his weakness, “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10). And he wanted the Corinthians to learn to praise God for his weakness, too!

     One virtuous commentary doubts whether the thorn could be illness in view of Paul’s “extraordinary stamina” throughout his ministry. How obtuse! Extraordinary stamina was precisely what Paul was promised. Similarly obtuse was the reviewer who described Joni Eareckson Tada’s books as a testimony to “human courage.” Courage, yes—but very much more than human! The age of miraculous blessing is not past, thank God, though such blessing does not always take the form of healing. But then neither did it do so in Paul’s day

     Three conclusions issue from what we have seen.

     The first concerns miraculous healing. Christ and the apostles only healed miraculously when they were specifically prompted to do so—when, in other words, they knew that to do so was the Father’s will. That is why their attempts at healing succeeded. Still, miraculous healing for Christians was not universal then, so there is no warrant for maintaining that it should be so now.

     The second conclusion concerns sanctifying providence. God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your “thorn” uncomplainingly, sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel weak, is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace. The healing of your sinful person thus goes forward even though the healing of your mortal body does not. And the healing of persons is the name of the game so far as God is concerned.

     The third conclusion concerns behavior when ill. We should certainly go to the doctor, use medication, and thank God for both. But it is equally certain that we should go the Lord (Doctor Jesus, as some call him) and ask what challenge, rebuke, or encouragement he might have for us regarding our sickness. Maybe we shall receive healing in the form in which Paul asked for it. Maybe, however, we shall receive it in the form in which Paul received it. We have to be open to both.

     I thank God that I have known more than forty years of excellent health, and I feel well as I write this. But it will not always be that way My body is wearing out. Ecclesiastes 12, if nothing worse, awaits me. May I be given grace to recall and apply to myself the things I have written here when my own day of physical weakness comes, whether in the form of pain, paralysis, prostration, or whatever. And may the same blessing be yours also in your hour of need. (149-155)


1. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), ad loc.

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