01 August 2023

Praying for the sick.

Praying for the sick is ridiculously easy.

It consists of asking God—exactly the same as we ask God for every other thing—“Father, would you please cure this sick person?” Or, if I’m the sickie, “Father, would you please cure me? I’m asking for this in Jesus’s name. Thank you. Amen.

What, you thought it was more complicated than that?

Well I get that. We humans overcomplicate everything. Especially religious stuff.

Especially because we’re asking God to show us favor, and cure people for free. Yet our karma-plagued mindset, found everywhere in our culture including Christianity, nudges us to think, “But shouldn’t we earn or merit God’s favor?—at least to some degree?” And next thing you know, we’re trying to earn it.

  • We try to get into the prayer mood, and pray as fervently as possible. As if God’s gonna see us stressing ourselves out and think, “By Me, it looks like they really mean it,” and acts faster.
  • We try to play on God’s emotions. With lots of crying, a few sad stories—“God, I’ve suffered so much”—and all the stuff which usually works on other people. Hey, sad people moved Jesus; maybe it still works.
  • We try to rope other saints into praying for our request. Which isn’t in itself a bad thing! But we do it thinking, “I’m not righteous enough for God to answer me, so I’m gonna borrow their righteousness, and if one saint is all I really need, a buttload of saints oughta do the trick.” So we start a little prayer campaign—as if God is swayed by numbers.
  • We try bargaining. “What do you need, God? I’ll give you this…”
  • Didn’t James say something about gathering the elders and anointing the sick with oil? Jm 5.14 Let’s cram the church’s board members into the hospital room and start lubing the victim up! Let’s get oily.

And people who teach on prayer, and people who lead prayer groups, will totally recommend these practices. No doubt you’ve thought of other strategies.

But are they valid techniques for getting God to cure people? Nah. If you read Jesus’s healing stories in the gospels, you know he didn’t need ’em; he simply cured people.

What Jesus did teach is that God prefers faith. By which he means faith in God. Not faith in our techniques. Not faith in getting our incantations right. Not faith in ourselves, nor our merit. Nor some “storehouse of merit,” consisting of all the faith-filled people of our church, which we can call up for prayer. He wants us to trust God.

And this includes trusting God if his answer is no. ’Cause it might be! It has been for me. I’ve prayed for other people, and myself, to be made well. Sometimes God answers yes, and that’s awesome! And sometimes he answers no; we’re gonna have to ride this illness out, and let the immune system beat it, or let the doctors remove it, or let time pass, or learn to treat it… or learn to suffer. And trust God while we’re suffering. Which sucks. But we gotta.

The part you don‘t wanna hear.

I know; you started reading this article because you thought, “I want God to answer my prayers for the sick, and maybe Leslie knows how to get him to do that.” You don’t wanna hear God’s answer might be no.

Paul didn’t either.

2 Corinthians 12.7-10 GNT
7 But to keep me from being puffed up with pride because of the many wonderful things I saw, I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan's messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud. 8 Three times I prayed to the Lord about this and asked him to take it away. 9 But his answer was: “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” I am most happy, then, to be proud of my weaknesses, in order to feel the protection of Christ's power over me. 10 I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

If God shows you a lot of cool things, like miracles and visions, it’s really easy to get a swollen sense of self from this—“Hey, look what God’s showing me, ’cause I’m important!”—but an ailment can quickly knock us back down to earth, and remind us we’re only human. That’s what Paul ultimately realized it did for him. It sucked, but he needed it. And that’s why Jesus’s answer was, “My grace is all you need.” (Nope, it doesn’t mean what the Jehovah-Jireh song makes it sound like it means.)

There are other good reasons why God might say no to such prayers. Like our potential for sharing Jesus in the hospitals where we get treated. Like learning to have compassion for other sick people, because you know precisely what they’re going through. Like the fact that sometimes our time has come; we’re not gonna survive this illness, and we need to be okay with this, because everybody dies. (And our family and friends need to be okay with this.)

Like the fact that some of us are only Christian for the blessings. We figure if we follow Jesus, we’re gonna get heaven, we’re gonna get God’s kingdom, we’re gonna have good things happen to us, and we’re only gonna have good things happen to us. We’re gonna get wealthy and healthy and prosperous. It’s nothing but blessings here on out! And when God lets such people suffer, it’s not long at all before these people quit Jesus in favor of some other religion which guarantees them material things, because that’s all they ever really wanted. Not Jesus; riches. If Jesus won’t give them riches and good health, they’re done; they’re out.

And I’ve known many a pagan and ex-Christian who look at me like I’m utterly nuts when I talk about trusting God despite him telling me no. Why on earth would I follow a God who doesn’t grant me my every wish? Bad genie! Just for that, you’re not coming out of the lamp again till you gimme what I want!

Yeah, there’s a lot of selfishness and dysfunction involved in quitting God when he won’t come through for us. Clearly we don’t trust him enough to accept his “no” answers. But trusting him regardless, is exactly the sort of faith Jesus wants to see in his followers. Do we trust that he knows what he’s doing?—or at least are we gonna try to trust that he knows what he’s doing?

But until he tells us no, keep praying!

If you remember Jesus’s Persistent Widow Story, the whole point of it was to remind us to keep praying and not lose hope. And until we get a definitive “no” answer from God, we should follow Jesus’s story and keep praying for a cure.

And even if God tells you no, he’s not gonna penalize you for trying to change his mind. He does grace, remember? Keep asking, seeking, and knocking.

Don’t give in to despair. Don’t give in to determinism, which is just another form of despair; it’s the idea God already has his mind made up, and there’s no point in changing it. But if that were so, why would the judge in the Persistent Widow Story change his mind? Why would Jesus encourage us to try to change God’s mind? Why would there even be stories in the bible of people’s prayers changing God’s mind? Why would God bother to tell us, “Ask”?

At the same time, don’t give in to false hope—don’t presume you have a yes answer when God’s not done anything. God’s yeses are followed up with action. No action means no answer yet. Yet I’ve seen way too many Christians who thought they got a yes from God and really got nothing; and when their loved ones died they were devastated and quit Jesus. There are a lot of Christians who regularly cling to false hopes, and it’s not gonna be any fun to watch those hopes get dashed. (Well, unless they’re asking for unrighteous things. Then it’s a little fun.) I know we wanna be cured, or we wanna see our loved ones cured, but we shouldn’t want it so bad we ignore or deny reality, and attempt to “name and claim” things into existence. Get a definitive answer from God. Or you got nothing.