The Prayer of Faith Will Heal the Sick: A Failed Promise?

This post is part of a larger discussion with Leighton Taylor regarding reason, faith, and the existence God. Specifically, this post is in response to this comment. For more posts related to our discussion, please click here.

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]orgive me if this response is a bit lengthy, but I believe your problem is reasonable and legitimate, and therefore I want to address it in a reasonable manner.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that I am indeed prone to doubt. There have been times that I have doubted my faith. There have been times I have doubted whether it is possible to know anything at all. There have been times when I have doubted whether existence is not simply a dream. But ultimately, I have doubted my doubts, and found that to think in a rational way one must believe. Faith is a matter of existence, and of thinking at all.

Simply put, skepticism is not a system of thought, nor can it ever be. It is not possible in any way to build a rational framework on a negative principle. To argue, to think in an orderly way, one must believe a certain number of first principles as true, and you will find that inevitably these first principles are matters of faith. I am hoping to develop this idea further (if I can ever finish the post), but it is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say that, yes, I do doubt, but doubt is never enough.

As for the passage in James, on which this discussion has come to focus, I have thought about it extensively, and questioned whether or not it is a promise which has been left unfulfilled. After further analysis, however, I see no way in which this is a failed promise. Let me further elaborate my position as I feel I was hasty in my first reply and left many aspects of this question unanswered.

Definitions

Before we can conclude whether or not this passage contains an unfulfilled promise, we need to precisely define what the passage actually says. To do this, it is necessary to return to the language in which the passage was originally written, Greek. It is obvious that the keywords in this particular verse are “heal” and “sick,” so it is on these words that I will concentrate. In Greek, the words for these are “sozo” and “kamno” respectively. For the sake of precision, here are the meanings of these words:

Sozo

    • To save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
    • To save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health
    • To preserve one who is in danger of destruction, to save or rescue
    • To save in the technical biblical sense
    • To deliver from the penalties of the Messianic judgment
    • To save from the evils which obstruct the reception of the Messianic deliverance

From here.

Kamno

  • To grow weary, be weary
  • To be sick
From here.

Regarding the first word, Sozo, the primary sense of the word is “salvation,” or being made “whole” (notice that this is the root of the word “salve”). But being saved from physical sickness is only one possible meaning, and it is not even the primary meaning at that. The great majority of the times this word is used in the New Testament, it is used in a spiritual context, of spiritual wholeness and wellness (I have linked to verses in Matthew, but the same holds true through the rest of the New Testament where this word appears). So could this word mean “heal” in the sense of making physically healthy again? It is possible, but it is only one possibility.

Regarding the second word, Kamno, does this word necessarily mean physically ill? Again, it is possible, but the primary sense is “to be weary” or “to faint,” and it is in this sense that the word is translated in the other places in which it appears in the New Testament.

Taking these definitions into account, it is entirely reasonable to render this verse in the sense that the prayer of faith shall strengthen, or make whole, those who are weary and faint—either spiritually or physically. In fact, Young’s Literal Translation renders it in this way:

“And the prayer of the faith shall save the distressed one, and the Lord shall raise him up, and if sins he may have committed, they shall be forgiven to him.”

Failed Promise?

Now that we have established what the verse actually says, I will address what the passage means and whether or not the statement made in this passage is unfulfilled.

As I have already pointed out, this passage is prescribing a path to wholeness—which is synonymous with salvation—either physically or spiritually. Indeed, we cannot neglect the spiritual implications of this passage, or forget that the human person has a spiritual as well as a physical nature. Of course to an atheist, this isn’t true, but the passage was not written by an atheist. At any rate, spiritual connotations are clearly present here, as verse 15 ends, “and if sins he may have committed, they shall be forgiven to him.” I notice that you did not include this in the verse as quoted on your blog, but it is nevertheless an essential part of the verse.

Therefore, it can be said that this passage carries with it both a physical and a spiritual dimension. And this is how the Church has historically understood it.

But does this mean we should always expect physical healing? If we look at the whole of the Bible, and not just this verse, it is clear that physical healing is not inevitable. This is not due to God’s inability to heal, but rather to the priority of the salvation, or healing and wholeness, of our souls, which is often accomplished through suffering. Redemptive suffering, or suffering as an instrument of salvation, is a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Here are just a few verses to that effect:

“Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Romans 8:17

“For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.” 1 Corinthians 1:5-6

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” James 1:2-8

“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” Philippians 3:10

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:11

“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” 1 Peter 4:13

In short, the Bible presents suffering as a medicine for sin and salvation.  If we participate in and are united to the sufferings of Christ, we will also be participants in and united to his resurrection and glorification. Like a painful surgery or physical exercise, suffering always hurts at the time, but it leads to health and wholeness spiritually.

So what does this theology of suffering have to do with this passage? It has everything to do with it. In the Bible, Christ is presented as the healer of our bodies, but also of our souls. As a spiritual physician, he may use temporal and physical suffering to “cure” us spiritually. And sickness is a form of suffering. If physical suffering can lead to our spiritual healing, God may choose not to heal us.

Now before you dismiss this idea, there is an exact example of this concept in the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul relates to the Corinthians that he asked Jesus directly three times to relieve him of his severe physical suffering—many believe this was related to a chronic eye condition. If Jesus was concerned only about our physical well being, it would be reasonable to expect this request to be answered instantaneously, especially for someone of the spiritual stature of the Apostle Paul. Each time, however, Jesus responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, Christ was more concerned with Paul’s spiritual purification and wholeness (salvation) than he was about his physical salvation from sickness.

This is not to say God doesn’t heal physically. I have already stated that he does and he has. But in this age of the world, our physical redemption does not carry the weight or priority of our spiritual redemption. Our bodies will die. This is inevitable. But as Christians, we believe in the eventual redemption, restoration, and salvation of our bodies which will take place at the resurrection and consummation of the age. Our souls, however, will not die, nor will they be resurrected. So spiritual wholeness takes precedent for now.

Again, I apologize for the great length of this, but I believe it was important to show that this verse, at least from a Christian perspective, is in no way inconsistent with the whole of the Christian message of redemption of both our souls and bodies. Christian theology is an interconnected whole, and one part should never be separated from the others—the theology of healing cannot be separated from the theology of suffering, which cannot be separated from the theologies of sin and salvation. In short, this is not a failed promise, it is very much being fulfilled as we daily die and yet live.

3 thoughts on “The Prayer of Faith Will Heal the Sick: A Failed Promise?

  1. Thanks for your thorough response to my post.

    I understand your interpretation of this passage, and I think it’s valid within the Christian worldview.

    However, ANY promise can be claimed to have been fulfilled if we spiritualize it. Upon the failure of his prophecy of the return of Christ, Harold Camping said that the Rapture did in fact happen on May 21, 2011, but only in a spiritual sense. (http://wapo.st/l3c6se).

    This makes scriptural promises or prophecies unfalsifiable, because one can always claim that it was fulfilled in some invisible way. The plainest reading of James 5 says that the sick will be made well. “Fainting” and being “weary” refer to physical weakness in their commonly used sense.

    I know that what I’m about to say gets away from the main point of this post, which was a response to my thoughts on James 5, but allow me to remind you of the Mark 11 passage, which I discussed in the same post. These verses promise power over nature–that a person with faith can command mountains to be cast into the sea, and it will be done. Jesus demonstrated the literal, physical, visible, tangible fulfillment of this promise by withering a fig tree with his words. Even if we accept the claim that some saints have demonstrated this kind of power, the vast majority of faithful Christians do not have this power, and so we are forced to move the promise into some spiritual, invisible realm where it can never be falsified.

  2. Hi Leighton,

    Again, I don’t believe this is “spiritualizing” the promise as much as it is looking at in light of the rest of the Bible—such as the passage I mentioned about Paul and other scriptural references related to the purpose of suffering in the life of the Christian. You said you understood my interpretation, so hopefully you will understand why I don’t believe this “spiritualizing” this passage unnecessarily.

    As for Mark 11, who did Jesus give this promise to? All Christians? He clearly gave this authority to his apostles, and we see them exercising it in Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament. However, it was not as though he gave this promise to an audience of thousands or in a sense in which it would apply to every believer. It was to a select few and for the specific purpose of confirming the apostolic mission and message.

    As for saints, I do believe some saints have achieved a level of communion with God in which they have been granted such power to accomplish the work they have been given. However, I don’t believe it is inconsistent with the passage in Mark 11 to recognize this was not a promise given to each Christian, but to a limited number and for a limited purpose.

    As for Harold Camping and Christians of his ilk, they aren’t so much spiritualizing actual promises in the Bible as they are spiritualizing their failed predictions.

    Anyway, let’s assume the Bible were the product of charlatans, or perhaps that Jesus was a fraud. Why would one choose to make promises which he knew would be unfulfilled? It would be much safer for the preservation of the “cause” to simply not make any promises at all, or promises which would be sure to be fulfilled. If Jesus was who he said he was, making promises that he knew would fail would also be just as ludicrous.

    At any rate, I believe every promise in the Bible needs to be carefully examined and understood in light of its context, its purpose, and its audience (in the sense that some promises are general, and some are particular), as well as in light of the whole of the Bible and its message. I do not say this only in regards to you. I see many Christians, especially charismatics, making passages of Scripture say things they were never intended to say. The Prayer of Jabez fad is one that comes to mind. It sure enlarged someone’s borders as it was used to sell millions of books, but it was a complete abuse of that passage.

    Sam

  3. I thought your god was suppose to be “all powerful”. If jesus was all powerful than there should be no reason that he couldn’t heal both the spiritual AND THE PHYSICAL. I think your STRETCHING things in this area. I personally have no reason to think jesus was anything more than a “man” therefore unable to heal anyone.

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