The prayer of faith. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 September 2019

James 5.13-18.

There’s a blog I follow. A few weeks ago the author wrote about how he no longer believes in prayer: He no longer believes it heals people.

’Cause he’s tried to heal people. He’s a pastor; he’s been in thousands of situations where he’s prayed for the sick and dying, or been asked to pray for them. He’s led prayer vigils and prayer chains, and begged God over and over and over again to cure people or let ’em live. He hasn’t got the results he wanted: Either God didn’t cure them (or didn’t cure them enough), or didn’t let them live.

So he’s figuring prayer must not work that way: It’s not about making our petitions known to God, on the grounds God might intervene in human history and do us a miracle. It’s only about being God-mindful, and letting that personally transform us and our attitudes.

He’s not the first Christian to claim this. I grew up in cessationist churches, and heard it all the time from Christians who don’t believe God intervenes; that praying for the sick to become well is a nice idea, but it’s the act of desperate people who can’t accept reality. You just need to accept reality, accept that God’s allowing this to happen, and just slog it out. Hey, suffering builds character.

I might be inclined to believe this too… if I never read James.

James 5.13-18 KWL
13 Do any of you suffer? Pray!
Is anyone cheerful? Make music!
14 Are any of you unwell? Summon the church’s elders.
Have them pray over you, anointing you with oil in the Master’s name.
15 The believer’s intercession will save the sick person; the Master will lift you up.
And if you committed sins, they’ll be forgiven you.
16 So confess sins to one another, intercede for one another, so you can be cured!
A right-minded person’s request is much more powerful.
17 Elijah was a person like us, prayed a prayer for no rain,
and it didn’t rain on the ground three years and six months!
18 Elijah prayed again, and the skies gave rain,
and the ground sprouted its fruit.

Apparently James bar Joseph believed if mature believing Christians pray, sick people get cured. Based on what? Duh; based on personal experience. Read Acts. In his day, Christians prayed for one another and for strangers, and got straight-up cured. Cured like when Jesus cured the sick, ’cause it’s the same Holy Spirit who’s empowering the curing. This wasn’t for “back in bible times”—this wasn’t stuff which happened in Elijah’s day, but no longer. This was for now. It’s still for now.

I’ve had this same personal experience. I’ve seen sick people get cured, right in front of me. Prayed for them, and the Holy Spirit cured them. They prayed for me, and the Holy Spirit cured me. No I didn’t psyche myself into thinking the Spirit cured me; I was honestly skeptical he’d do anything, but he graciously cured me anyway. Wasn’t my faith that cured me; it was the person praying for me. That’s all the Spirit wants to see.

So why do I have experiences which jibe with the bible, and this blogger doesn’t?

First of all, let’s be gracious.

I could presume some things. To be honest, that’s my knee-jerk reaction: Rant about why I think God’s not answering his prayers the way he wants.

But that’d be arrogant and ungenerous of me. Because part of that knee-jerk reaction (which is the main reason why we Christians need to learn gentleness, and control these knee-jerk reactions) is the presumption he’s the problem. He’s defective; he lacks righteousness; he lacks faith; he’s in some way sinning so God’s turned his back.

These reactions, y’notice, are all based on karmic thinking. Not on how God actually works or thinks. God’s all about grace. Karma’s all about trying to earn or deserve God’s attention and blessings, and if prayer actually worked that way, nobody’d get anything from God, because we’re all fallen way short of his glory. God wouldn’t even answer prayers for salvation.

But prayer isn’t a rewards system. It’s a loving Father who wants to give his kids stuff… if we’d only ask.

And yeah, part of the knee-jerk reaction is to presume the blogger didn’t ask correctly. In reality I have no idea; I only read this guy’s blog, and don’t know him personally, so I haven’t a clue how he asks for what he wants. What I do know is God is generous, and that we might ask him for stuff in the most pathetic, worst way, much like the wayward son in the Prodigal Son Story… Lk 15.20-24 and God does us one better. If we think we’ve gotta follow some prayer formula in order to get God to say yes, that’s not Christianity; that’s how magic is meant to work. We’re not unlocking some sort of key to God (or the universe); we’re asking Daddy for help, and Daddy doesn’t care if we fumble our words or we’re covered in mud.

So let’s get away from these ridiculous ideas that we’ve gotta first achieve some level of divine power and favor, or that we’ve gotta get the words right, or get our attitudes right, or any other such thing. Jesus teaches us God wants to give us stuff—

Matthew 7.7-11 KWL
7 “Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
8 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.
9 Same as any of you people. Your child will ask you for bread; you won’t give them a cobblestone.
10 Or they’ll ask you for fish; you won’t give them a snake.
11 So if you’re evil, yet knew to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him?”

—and either we believe Jesus or we don’t.

The faith factor.

But here’s where the discussion now turns to faith, and I don’t wanna make the other knee-jerk response of saying, “Well, the reason you don’t get what you want is because you lack faith.” Yes, Jesus said as much too—

Matthew 21.21 KWL
In reply Jesus told them, “Amen, I promise you:
When you have faith and don’t waver, not only will you do the miracle of the fig tree:
If you tell this hill, ‘Be raised and thrown into the sea,’ it’ll happen.”

—but I don’t know how much faith this blogger had when he previously prayed for the sick. I only know he doesn’t have any faith now.

It’s entirely possible he did have faith back then… although I don’t precisely know how he defines “faith,” so maybe he didn’t.

  • Maybe he knew for certain God would cure the sick. Except that’s not actually faith. Faith isn’t knowing such things for certain. If we were certain, we wouldn’t have to practice any faith!—we’d know our prayers would cure people. We’d actually be horrified if they didn’t work—’cause we knew they’d cure people. If they didn’t, it’d mean something went terribly wrong!
  • Maybe he believed really hard God would cure the sick. Except that’s not faith either. Blind optimism isn’t “the solid basis of hope,” He 11.1 because there’s nothing solid about it at all. Prayer isn’t wishing stuff into being, and we’re not gonna move God’s hand by tensing our abdominal muscles as if to squeeze out a hard little turd of “faith.”

What he did do, is pray for the sick like his congregation expected him to. And he didn’t get results. And he grew to expect not getting results. He got used to the idea of a God who’s not interactive… yet of going through all the motions of prayer requests, as if God might, just this one time, do something. But suspecting, maybe even “knowing,” God probably wouldn’t.

Y’might call that faith, but I call it dead faith.

Again, I don’t know the blogger. I have no idea if this describes what was going on in his head. I have seen this behavior in other Christians… and myself, when I was a kid. It felt like “faith” to me, because at least I was going through the motions, and wouldn’t unbelief mean I wouldn’t even bother to go through the motions? But unbelief takes a lot of different forms, and religious-looking hypocrisy is actually more common than apathy. And we’re more likely to psyche ourselves into calling it faith, than recognizing it for what it isn’t, and recognizing the absence of our own faith.

When you ditch the hypocrisy, and proclaim, “That’s it; I’m not gonna say those empty prayers anymore; I’m just gonna confess I don’t believe God cures the sick, and all my prayers from now on are gonna express this,” you haven’t really lost faith. Your unbelief has simply swapped forms. On the upside, your unbelieving prayers are now gonna be honest unbelieving prayers. Still powerless and unidirectional, but they won’t be phony… and they won’t con believing Christians into thinking you’re one of the people they really oughta call upon for prayer.

Elijah-like faith.

When Elijah turned off the rain, did he know for certain it’d stop raining? No. From what we know of ancient Hebrew history, Elijah hadn’t performed such a miracle before; nobody had performed such a miracle before. He had no track record to point to. This was a new thing, and either the LORD would back him up on this… or not.

Now the scriptures don’t tell us whether the LORD ordered Elijah to pray off the rain, or Elijah did it on his own initiative and the LORD just went along. Either way, Elijah didn’t know for certain whether his declaration would work. That’s where faith comes in: You know God can, so you act, and see whether God will.

Wasn’t wishful thinking either. If the LORD didn’t go along with Elijah’s declaration, there’d still be rain, Elijah would be dismissed as some hairy lunatic, and the nation’s Baalism would continue unchecked. Wishing Baalism away, praying super hard for Baalism to go away, wasn’t gonna happen. Something drastic had to take place, so Elijah steeled himself, stood before the king, and said the rain stops till he said otherwise. 1Ki 17.1 And like James said, it didn’t rain for 42 months.

When we pray for the sick to be cured, we need to take Elijah’s tack. Not wish and hope and contort ourselves so that something might happen. Nor take the opposite extreme of blind certainty, declare the person well even though they’re clearly not well, and try to tug crutches out from under them, yank them out of bed, pull them out of the caskets, or some of the other crazy stunts we’ve seen faith-healers try. We’re asking God to cure people, and we oughta do that humbly, not arrogantly.

Praying for the sick can’t be passively saying some words, then telling the sick person, “Hope you get better,” or “Hope that makes you feel better.” Forget the platitudes. Get a group of mature Christians, get some olive oil, and tell God you want this person to get better.

But praying for the sick, like every prayer, requires a conversation between us and God, ’cause we wanna know what he’s up to. If he’s not gonna cure them—’cause sometimes he’s not!—maybe tell us why, or let us in on what he’s thinking or planning. Maybe we’re to promote the search for a medical solution, so more than just one person can be treated or cured at a time. Maybe we’re to make them comfortable, and serve them better than we have been. Or maybe it’s legitimately their time to die, and we need to be okay with that.

God knows best, so ask him what he knows! Don’t just passively say, “Well I’m gonna guess he doesn’t work like that.” Jesus tells us he does so work like that. Don’t go rejecting what Jesus taught us, yet claim you still follow him. Actually follow him.