Is Your Prayer a Prayer of Faith,
or Merely a Prayer of Wishful Thinking?
Today’s topic is a difficult one for me, because there is so much about it that I do not understand. Frankly, there are many aspects about this subject that are unclear in the teachings of Scripture. The topic is that of healing and of praying for the healing of the sick.
Most teachers, when writing or speaking on this subject, will usually center it on the need for faith. And faith is important. The New Testament writer James says that “the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick. The Lord will raise him up” (James 5:15).
But having faith is not the first step in praying for healing. There is something that comes even before faith that is critical for us to understand. That important step is the topic for this post. I will come to it a little later.
There is yet another reason that praying for healing is such a difficult subject. This difficulty comes because there is so much mis-information out there in our popular culture. There are many charlatans who feed on the misfortune and desperation of those seeking healing in their lives and in the lives of family members or of friends.
These pretenders make extraordinary claims of possessing gifts of healing, and even make a business out of promises of healing. Because of these impostors of the truth, very many people have placed their hopes in what has turned out to be a lie, and thus have also lost faith in the truth of the promises of God.
Before I actually enter into a discussion of healings, I would first like to depose of imposters such as these—the ones whose livelihood is built upon their reputation of healers. I do this by giving two examples of such people in the New Testament.
The Charlatan Simon (from Acts 8)
The first is a man who was named Simon from the city of Samaria. He was one who had learned to practice “magic arts,” as what he did was called, and who for a long time had astonished the people of the city.
The people said of Simon, “This man is what is called the Great Power of God.” They thought him to be someone special—someone able to do wonderful works.
During this same period, Philip was traveling around teaching about the kingdom of God and telling the people about Jesus Christ. Many in the city of Samaria believed the message that Philip brought, and were baptized.
Perhaps surprisingly, even Simon the charlatan believed. He continued to listen to Philip’s teachings and saw some of the miracles that occurred under his ministry. The Bible does not tell us exactly what the nature of these miracles was, only that they were things that astonished the man Simon. The text says that he was “constantly amazed” by them.
Then Peter and John came to the city to teach the people not only about Jesus, but also about the Holy Spirit. Philip had only baptized them in the name of Jesus, but Peter and John taught them also about the Holy Spirit. The apostles laid their hands on those who believed, so that they also would receive the Holy Spirit.
This greatly impressed Simon. He offered Peter and John money so that he might buy this gift. He said to them, “Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”
Strong words, but they demonstrate the gravity of using commerce and personal gain as the motivation for claiming to use the gifts of God. If one enters into a ministry with the incentive of making a good living, these words spoken by Peter also are for that person.
Of course it is not wrong for someone involved with full-time Christian work to receive an income. The Apostle Paul said that “a worker deserves to receive his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18).
However, if someone chooses the ministry or other Christian work because he or she believes that they can make a comfortable life for themselves, it is the wrong motivation. There are other ways to make a living. Making claims in the name of Jesus to have the power to heal or to do other things are not some of these ways.
We do not know what eventually happened to Simon, but he answered Peter and John by saying, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.” (Acts 8:9-24)
The Pretender Sons of Sceva (from Acts 19)
Some time later with the ministry of Paul, we read of an incident where, as it is written in the text, “God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.”
At that same time, there were some Jewish exorcists, seven sons of one Sceva, who was a chief priest of the Jews. These seven sons of the priest traveled around with their own claims of healings and the power to cast out demons from people. After seeing what was happening with Paul and hearing what he said as he spoke in the name of Jesus, they also attempted to cast out the evil spirits in the name of the Lord Jesus.
They said to one of those possessed by a demon, “I adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preaches.”
The evil spirit answered and said to them, “I recognize Jesus, and I know about Paul, but who are you?”
Upon hearing this, the man, in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them and subdued all seven of them. He completely overpowered them so that they were left fleeing from house, naked and wounded (Acts 19:11-16).
One must be careful when making claims in the name of Jesus.
Praying for Healing
Despite the fact that there will always be those who misuse or misrepresent this gift of healing, we all do pray for healing. We pray both for ourselves and for others. We do this every Sunday in our church, and you perhaps do it every day in your homes. And we should do this. We are instructed to do this.
The Apostle James, whom I quoted earlier also writes, “Pray for one another so that you may be healed” (5:6).
Nevertheless, we know that not everyone that we pray for is healed in the manner that we ask. We sometimes even agonize in prayer, and yet the person is not healed. For some people who pray, this is a very troubling aspect of their faith. Some have said that they even stopped believing in God because they had prayed earnestly for someone, and that person did not recover.
These people say, “If there was a God who cared about us, this person would have been healed.”
This is an extreme response, but to some degree, it is troubling to all of us when someone is not healed. We wonder why this is so. The Bible speaks so positively about healing, and never do we read in the Bible where Jesus tried to heal someone and he could not.
The Big Picture
In viewing and speaking of sickness and disease in broad terms, we can say that these infirmities are not things that God has ever intended for us. Yet we do get sick, and we suffer in other ways. It is not as if God somehow made a mistake or has failed us, but as with every other type of difficulty in our lives, the presence of sickness and disease is something that we have brought about ourselves.
I do not mean this in any individual sense or specifically of someone who is suffering. I only mean it in the broad sense of the very pervasiveness of sickness in our experience.
I have spoken and written many times of the consequences of man’s rebellion against the authority of God. In the beginning, God chose to create us with free wills. He gave us the ability to choose to love him or not.
This is what love is, after all. Love can only be expressed from a free will. We can never impose upon someone to make them love us. It must be their choice.
Unfortunately, we as a human race, chose to not love God. We did not want to recognize him as the one who created us, and therefore, as the one who has authority over us. We instead chose to be our own gods. We retained authority for ourselves. Among the devastating consequences of this choice, sickness, disease, disabilities, and a whole host of other troubles have come to us.
This is the broad picture. Regrettably, we are still living with the consequences of that former rebellion. When viewed from a world-wide perspective, it is a present rebellion as well. Most people still want to act as their own authority and decide for themselves how they should live.
However, even those of us who have repented of our rebellion against God and have again placed him in authority over our lives, we still do live in this world that continues in rebellion. We are, as it were, living in enemy territory and we must live with some of the ramifications of being here. Even though we have been redeemed by God, for this present time, God has chosen to leave us here.
Consequences of Living in Enemy Territory
One of these ramifications of living here is that we get sick, sometimes gravely so. We also have accidents, sometimes in our cars, sometimes in our work, and also in other places. We are born with genetic weaknesses or inclination to disease, we develop cancer, we break bones, our internal organs cease to function as they should; our mind begins to become confused. We age and we die. We are living in a world and with bodies that know at least some of the consequences of living outside of the authority of God.
But then we read of the examples of healings in the Bible. We see that it is not God’s will that we should live in this way, and he offers healings to us. Nevertheless, despite these hopes of healing, it seems that it is not so simple as filling out a request form, and it is granted. None of it is as clear as that.
This disconnection between the request and the answer leads me to believe that it might be (just might be), that the healing aspect of our bodies is actually only secondary. To us it might seem like it is the most important thing, but there is something even more essential that God has in mind. The primary thing is that God wants to teach us something.
New Testament Examples
The New Testament gives us many examples and tells many stories of people who had been healed. From every one of these stories, we can learn something important. Today’s story is essential, because it speaks to the very nature of sickness and of healing.
It is here that I speak about the essential element of healing that is critical in our understanding of healing and in our faith that I mentioned in the beginning of this post.
The example comes to us from the seventh chapter of Luke. There are many other examples in Scripture as well, each with their own lessons. With today’s scripture, I will merely address one aspect of healing. Nevertheless, even though it is one aspect only, it is an important one. One might even say that it is essential to understand this. It is foundational to faith.
The example involves a Roman centurion, an officer in the Roman military of the first century. This officer had a servant that was of great value to him. By calling the servant highly valued, I do not want you to think of this in monetary terms or in terms of being “useful” to the centurion.
This servant, it turns out, became sick, and very gravely so. He actually had become paralyzed, according to the account in Matthew, and was at the point of death. The centurion heard that Jesus was nearby, so he asked some elders of the Jewish synagogue to go to Jesus and ask him to heal the servant.
Even though the centurion was a Gentile, the Jews were happy to do this because this Roman was a friend to them. He had used his own funds to build the synagogue for them. Jesus heard what the Jewish leaders said about the situation, and agreed to go with back them to the house of the centurion.
The Centurion’s Request
However, when Jesus and the others were not far from the house, the centurion saw them coming and sent some friends to Jesus with a message. His was a very interesting message and shows the depths of understanding this centurion had about the nature of sickness and disease in relationship to the sovereignty and the authority of God. The message from him was this:
Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. That is why I did not consider myself worthy to come to You. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell one to go, and he goes; and another to come, and he comes. I tell my servant to do something, and he does it. (Luke 7:6-8 BSB)
There are several insights that we can take away from this statement of the centurion—more than I will talk about here. However, notice that he speaks twice of worthiness. First he said that he did not consider himself worthy for Jesus to enter his house. Secondly, he said that he was not worthy enough for him personally to meet Jesus.
Although in many of our Bibles, both of these instances use the word “worthy” in their translations, the centurion actually used two different words in these cases. These two words have slightly different inflections of meanings.
Hikanos: sufficient, fit, reach to (attain), adequate
When the centurion said that he was not worthy for Jesus to come under his roof, he meant it in a sense that you might expect a military man to understand. The centurion is speaking as one would when speaking of rank, as they would have in the military. It is for this reason of worthiness that a buck private does not simply walk into the office of a general and ask the general to do something for him.
There is a certain decorum and procedure that is expected when you are dealing with someone of high rank and someone with much authority. This, the centurion understood well.
John the Baptist used this same word for worthiness when he spoke of himself in comparison to Jesus. John said of Jesus, “I am not worthy even to untie the thong of his sandal” (Luke 3:16). John knew that he was far beneath Jesus in terms of standing, and for him to be acting in the role of conferring a blessing on Jesus was something that he had no right to do.
The centurion felt much the same way. He felt that because he was of such low rank in comparison with Jesus, it would not be proper for Jesus to enter his house.
We can all understand this to a certain extent, although perhaps not to the same degree. If you heard that someone who was highly respected both by society and by you personally was coming to your home, although your home be a humble one, you would do your best to tidy up.
Say the king of Sweden was coming to your home to pay you a visit. There would be no dirty dishes in the sink, no cobwebs in the corner. “The king is coming and we must put our best foot forward.”
Or perhaps you would even say, as did the centurion, “Please, do not have him come here. I have a humble home, one not fit for a king to enter.”
We may feel that we are not worthy of such an honor. This is also how the centurion felt in having Jesus enter his home.
Axioō: to reckon as worthy, matching value to actual substance; worth as it corresponds to reality
The second time that the centurion uses the word “worthy,” it is in a slightly different sense. He said this, “For this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
When the centurion sent word to Jesus, he said that he did not come himself to make the request because of a failure to live to a standard that he thought that he should have. He did not consider himself worthy to appear before Jesus and speak to him. By this he meant that he did not deserve even to ask such a request of Jesus. The centurion felt timid and undeserving to do so.
We can see this same sentiment in the story that Jesus told of the prodigal son. In that story, the son knew that he had acted in a way that was not worthy of how he ought to have acted. In his case, he had despised the honor of his father and had brought shame to his name.
Because of this he said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:19, 21).
The son felt that he had brought shame to his standing and to his station in life. In this sense, he felt that he was not worthy to be included in a family of such high standing.
We cannot know precisely what the centurion was thinking about when he used this word, but in a similar sentiment, neither did he feel worthy to ask of Jesus what he was asking.
It seems that the centurion, even though he was a Roman, believed that Jesus actually was the Son of God. Nevertheless, when he made the request of Jesus, he felt that he really had no right to do so. Actually, he would not have been greatly surprised if Jesus had just ignored him and his petty request.
Understanding these things, imagine his astonishment to learn that not only had Jesus agreed to grant his request, but was also actually on his way to come to his own humble abode. It was more than the centurion could handle. All that he could say is, “I was not worthy to come to you and ask you to do something for me. I am not worthy for you to come into my home.”
“I am not worthy. I am not worthy.”
Lessons from the Roman
This is the lesson of the Roman centurion and why it is foundational in our understanding of healing. Among the many things that we can learn about the healing from God of our bodies and our minds, perhaps the greatest is this. “We are not worthy. We are not worthy.”
In the end, as requested by the centurion, Jesus did not enter his home, but Jesus marveled at this Roman’s understanding of the level of authority that Jesus possessed. This is an authority that not only was above the centurion personally, but even also over sickness and death.
Jesus turned to the crowd who followed and told them an astounding thing. He said, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.”
Notice that Jesus did not comment on the centurion’s understanding of authority, even though that was the central topic of all of the centurion’s words. Jesus did not comment on this, but rather about the centurion’s faith. This in fact is the first time the subject of faith even appears in this story. The man understood the meaning of authority—and Jesus commented about his faith.
Here is the beginning of understanding what faith is. We cannot even begin to know what faith is if we do not understand the authority of God.
Is it a Prayer of Faith, or Merely a Prayer of Wishful Thinking?
Do you say you pray in faith, even though you do not obey the authority of God in your own life? Then your prayer is not a prayer of faith, for you do not even know what faith is. It is a prayer only of wishful thinking. To know faith, you must know the authority of God.
True faith must begin with the declaration of the centurion, “I am not worthy; I am not worthy.”
You must place yourself under the authority of God for faith to have soil in which to find root.
As for the centurion’s slave, when those who had been sent to deliver the message to Jesus returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. He had been healed.