The Praying Elder and the Visit to the Sick
The Bible about Prayer and Visitation of the Sick
Does it make sense that elders pray with a sick person? They pray with him or her for healing. But how often does it happen that there is healing? It seems that prayer is not all that effective. When the prayer for healing is not “heard”, a danger is present: for the elder and for the patient. They can begin to doubt the power of prayer. They may doubt the power of God. They may wonder whether God really is a hearer of prayers. Or was it a situation where perhaps their faith was not strong enough in their prayer?
This last scenario is indeed claimed by some people. Some are of the opinion that if there is no healing in answer to prayer that this is a sign of unbelief or weak faith. They base this claim on the Bible. Did Jesus not say, when he sent his disciples into the world to proclaim the good news, that specific signs would follow the believers? They cite Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
An elder may start to wonder why he is not able by laying on of hands and prayer to achieve the healing of the sickness.
Such questions can cause office-bearers to become downhearted.
Sure, the elders know that the time of special signs is past, but still...! There are so many revival movements that suggest unbelief or a small faith when office-bearers show that they are not prayer healers.
Elders should not allow themselves to become discouraged by people who regard the healing of the sick as the mark of what it takes to be a Christian. This has never been the characteristic of a Christian, also not in the time of the apostles. Elders are not missing the mark when the signs that were mentioned in Mark 16 no longer follow them.
People who are of the opinion that the healing of the sick is still possible find two clues or leads in Mark 16:17-18. Jesus proclaims there that the driving out of evil spirits will be one of the signs that will follow the Christians. At a most profound level, for example according to Pentecostal movements, healing of a sick person means that evil spirits are being prayed away.
In addition there is another sign: they will lay their hands on the sick, and as a result the sick will receive healing.
With this kind of use of Mark 16 there are certainly some comments to be made.
- When the casting out of evil spirits and the healing of the sick is characteristic for the believers, then why not drink poison without dying? In Pentecostal circles there is certainly evidence of a random selection of the signs that Jesus mentions
- In Mark 16:17-18 it is not said that these signs and miracles are characteristic for later believers in the instituted church. It does not appear anywhere from this text that Christ gives in these verses a general, valid promise for believers of all ages.
In addition, it does not say that believers of all times will do such signs, but that these signs will follow or will accompany the believers.
From the context it appears to happen there where the gospel finds faith. This becomes apparent from verse 20. There we read that the apostles went out to preach the gospel, and the signs that follow then confirm this preaching. This means that the signs support the preaching of the apostles, to whom the task is assigned to preach the gospel in the first place. The miraculous signs take place in the environment of people who say “Amen” to the proclamation of the Word. Pentecostal movements read more into the words of Mark 16:17-18 than what is stated there. They act as if the Lord is saying that the believers of those days and nowadays will perform those signs. In any case, the word “perform” is lacking in these verses.
We do not claim that these mentioned signs could no longer be an accompanying phenomenon with the preaching today. But if so, then at most in a situation that is analogous to the situation in which Jesus spoke these words. In today’s terms this would mean a mission situation: about the preaching of the gospel in a Gentile world.
- It is possible that someone will say that with demonstrations of prayer-healing miraculous healings do take place. Is this not proof that such signs accompany the believers, also today in a non-mission situation?
No. We direct here to what the Lord Jesus says in Matthew 24:24, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
It appears from these words that signs and miracles can also be propaganda material used by false prophets. That is why miraculous healings in themselves do not mean anything.
This is confirmed by 2 Thessalonians 2:9. The apostle Paul notes there that Christ’s coming is accompanied “by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception...”
Also in Revelation 13:13-14 we hear of the beast rising from the earth (the false prophecy), performing great signs, and “by the signs...it deceives those who dwell on earth, telling them to make an image for the beast.”
Still it is possible that elders remain discouraged when they see on the one hand that their prayer for healing has no effect, while the prayer of faith healers sometimes does yield results.
Elders can also point to James 5:14 where it is stated that the elders have the gift of healing through prayer. In James 5:14 it does not speak of apostles who have to proclaim the gospel unto the world, but about elders who have been appointed in a young congregation. Of these elders James says that they need to pray with a sick person and to anoint him with oil. This will give the patient health. This does not deal with a special situation, does it? If Mark 16:17-18 is determined by its time (which is different from “time-bound”), that does not hold true of James 5:14? Or does it?
The question is whether James is indeed speaking of people who are suffering from a physical illness. In this text the word “sick” is not used for someone who is physically sick. In the context of these words he is dealing with suffering on account of faith. That is the theme also in verses 14 and 15.
In verse 13 the apostle has said what you should be doing when you are burdened due to suffering for your faith and when you are not. In verse 14 he says what you should do when you feel weak spiritually; the term “sick” can indicate spiritual weakness. It is possible that someone, in a situation where he is suffering on account of his faith, begins to notice that he cannot keep it up any longer; the danger threatens that he would fall into the sin of breaking his oath (see v. 12).
In a situation like that, what does someone need to do? He needs to call the elders of the church. The “sick” person himself does this. He himself is, as it were, no longer able to pray. He calls the elder so that the weaker person prays through the mouth of the elder.
The elder who has been called must pray. Besides, he has to anoint the sick person with oil. This aspect, however, is subordinate—based on the context. This “anointing” is also not meant as a medical feat; it is a sign by which the strength of the Holy Spirit is symbolized.
The sign has been abolished. The matter it signified has remained.
When we think of the weak person who is being anointed, the meaning is clear: the strength of the Holy Spirit is prayed for him, by which he will receive new impulses to (continue) to go in the way of Jesus Christ.
What the apostle James is saying is therefore what the office-bearers can and must do in such a situation of weakness in faith: to pray. (Such weakness can also result from other causes than suffering for one’s faith).
The result is then that the person suffering is made well again. It points here to spiritual healing: the weak one in faith can go forward again. The Lord will “raise him up” (v. 15). The term, “the one who is sick” can also indicate the one who is suffering spiritually; someone who is spiritually spent (in Hebrews 12:3 the same word is used; there it is translated as “weary”.) The Lord will raise him up. That means: the Lord will again place him in the battle and equip him to fight and to remain standing.
It will be clear that James 5:14-15 is not a proof text for faith healing in the sense as practiced by various Pentecostal groups. James shows in these verses the significance of pastoral care in a situation where Christians have become despondent. How great it is to have the gift of office-bearers and that they are equipped and armed with the weapon of prayer.
Prayer with Problems of Faith
In their ministry as office-bearers the elders may more than once encounter brothers or sisters who have a hard time accepting God’s promises and living by the strength of those promises. Multiple things can cause such difficulty: through setbacks; by people outside of the church who sow doubt.
Often this difficulty of accepting God’s promises is a consequence of sickness of one’s spirit. People who are psychologically or mentally ill often are no longer able to cope with life. They feel no longer connected to the things of this world. They feel no longer involved with everyday things. Sometimes they have no desire for contact with their husband, their wife, children or friends.
In their mind they no longer feel any connection with God. Faith does not mean much to them anymore, or perhaps nothing at all. They hardly pray: it does not help anyway and God is far away. They no longer sense any relationship with the God in whose name they were baptized.
To such members of the congregation, those who can no longer pray, James says that they need to call the elders in their situation. The person concerned will call the elder himself. Then the elders need to be prepared as well. Especially in such circumstances it is of vital importance that elders provide direct help as office-bearers. Note well: with “direct” we do not imply that this needs to happen right at the same moment that the phone call is made by the psychologically ill person, but we do stress that it may not be delayed for several weeks after the call. When a district elder does not have the opportunity to make a visit himself then he needs to discuss with the person who he or she would like to see for a visit.
We assume for now that the district elder himself will visit. During the conversation the mentally ill person may say things that may frighten or shock the elder. It happens several times that someone who is terribly depressed will say that he no longer believes in God; it may happen that the person asks that his name be removed from the registers of the church.
An elder needs to react cautiously to such remarks; sometimes it may be better not to get into things at all, without leaving the impression to the other that the elder is not taking him or her seriously, because the person means it quite seriously at that moment.
In any case, in reacting the elder should not contradict the person too much. Neither should he come up with various Bible texts that show that you actually cannot believe without the church community; or texts that show that God has given such tremendous promises and that the sick person cannot just simply reject those promises.
The psychologically ill person knows quite well that this is all mentioned in the Bible. But in this way the elder bypasses his or her problem. The problem is that these promises of God do not represent flesh and blood in their life. Yes, even stronger: often people are convinced that God’s promises are not real. In any case, they want to have nothing to do with them. God’s promises? They are hollow phrases that do not mean a thing in actual life.
Elders should watch not to react immediately with “preaching”. Although it will be very challenging, they must try to gauge the problem of the psychologically ill person. The elder can speak some encouraging words, with care. No Bible texts. That would be experienced as something “from another world”. No, they should be words of which the concerned person knows and feels that they come straight from the heart. Evidently these are words that come from a believing heart, even if the elder does not overemphasize that.
Praying with Those who are Mentally Ill
It will be good when at the end of the visit, which was brought at the request of the psychologically ill person, the elder proposes to pray together. When the concerned person reacts positively to this, the elder will direct his prayer according to the situation. Especially now it needs to be clear that this prayer will not deal with all sorts of important matters in the church and in the world.
The elder dedicates the person to the Lord. His or her difficulties to own the promises of God are put into words. The Lord is asked to provide help in the present struggle: to break the power of Satan who is keen to make God’s children fail. Satan knows very well how to abuse someone’s situation. The elder prays the Lord to lift up the sick person; he prays for new strength so he or she can fulfill their task. God’s blessing on the therapy and potential medication is prayed for. Also patience is requested, because the treatment for complete recovery may take quite some time.
Depending on the conversation and depending on the content of the encouraging words the elder will also—with restraints—address some words of gratitude to God. Depending on what was discussed in the conversation, as we noted. For when the elder has not said anything in the discussion, or has not been able to say something about God’s goodness and his mercy, or about the faithfulness of God’s promises, then he should not accentuate this in prayer either.
That is a great danger for the elders. Sometimes elders may have a feeling that in prayer they can mention things that they could not mention earlier in the conversation. That is not right. Prayer should always connect with what was said.
If during the conversation the faithfulness of the covenant God could be highlighted, the elder needs to give heartfelt thanks to the Lord that he cares for his children and that he will never leave them alone; not even in situations where people may feel to be left out or rejected by God and the neighbour.
A mentally ill person can also react in an indifferent, laconic way to the elder’s proposal to conclude with prayer — in the sense of, “You don’t have to do it for me, but if you want to...” Elders should not get into this. Of course they could speak admonishing words and say many valuable things about the meaning of prayer, but they should not do so. After such a laconic remark they should seize the opportunity to pray with the person. A central place in this prayer will be to ask for strength and help of the Lord, for body and spirit. Especially when it concerns a first visit the final prayer — if tolerated by the mentally ill person — should be brief.
When the ill person refuses straight out that the elder will pray with him or her, this refusal should be respected in the sense that a prayer will not be forced. At that moment, do not speak negatively about this refusal. Perhaps at a subsequent visit there is the possibility for prayer.
Praying for Mentally Ill People
It will happen more often that people with mental difficulties will not call the elder. Purposely they keep the elder at bay. As far as they are concerned they do not need an elder visit. What good will it do? After all, they no longer believe...?
What should elders do in such scenarios? Of course in one way or another they hear about the situation: that someone in their district has mental issues, or that perhaps he has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital — but the person concerned has not informed the elder about this.
In this case the elders should try to establish contact. This can happen by making a phone call: by sending a card or by writing a short note. Do not simply go there and confront the person with your presence. That is often counterproductive. Via a card or something like it the elders can indicate that they would like to drop by for a visit. Obviously the elders do not reproach them for not informing them that they were ill.
In the initial stage the elders will make it dependent on the reaction of the person concerned whether they will come for a visit. Perhaps the ill person will react to the note after a while. Perhaps he or she will indicate — on the phone — that he or she is not really eager to have an elder visit, but if he wants to come, all right then...
So the elder goes there. In advance he needs to take into account that it will not be easy to have a conversation. He will also need to realize that in such a case there will almost always be a negative reaction to a proposal to conclude the visit with prayer. In most of these cases it will become clear during the conversation that at this time praying together is not (yet) possible: the person reacts very negatively to all things. Elders should not even propose to finish the visit with prayer.
However it is extremely important that the elder who is not given the opportunity to pray with the sick person, will say at the farewell that he will be praying for him or her in his personal prayer. Sometimes those small remarks have a surprising effect, and they may latch on somewhere in their mind. At the moment such a remark may cause them to shrug it off, but later on they quite often remember what the elder said.
When elders are confronted with a refusal to pray together, the elder may have a feeling that the visit was a failure. They have not been able to do anything for the psychologically ill patient. They left him or her in the same situation as they found him or her.
And yet the visit is not a failure. For the attention of the office-bearers, which of course may not be limited to this one occurrence, will ultimately prove to be of great significance to the mentally ill person.
Sickness and Prayer
Healing Through Prayer
We have already indicated earlier that elders should not become discouraged when it becomes apparent that physically ill people do not receive healing in answer to prayer.
It is known that particularly in Pentecostal circles a strong emphasis is placed on the charisma of healing through prayer. In itself there is no objection to the notion of healing through prayer. However we need to distinguish things carefully.
There are a number of reasons why Pentecostal groups get the idea that healing through prayer is also possible for Christians in the present.
In the first place they do not know how to cope with a sickness as such. Vicariously, Christ has taken our illnesses upon himself. Sickness therefore should no longer have a place in the life of believers. Otherwise Christ’s suffering would have no effect. People therefore think also that sickness comes from the devil. Every sick person is regarded as someone who is possessed by the devil. For that reason the idea seems obvious that through a prayer of faith the sickness will disappear: after all, prayer chases the devil away.
The notion that sickness is a form of devilish possession is grounded, among other things, on Luke 13:10ff. There we are told of a woman who has a disabling spirit for eighteen years and who was bent over. Many commentators think that with “spirit” is meant: a demon, an evil spirit. The context shows that this meaning fits the situation. After all, verse 16 states that Satan had bound the woman — a daughter of Abraham — for eighteen years. Indirectly, her sickness is called the work of Satan.
We read the same in 2 Corinthians 12:7ff. The apostle Paul experiences a thorn in his flesh. According to his own insight, this thorn harasses him in the execution of his work as an office-bearer, through which it impeded the progress of God’s work. Therefore the apostle has prayed to God to deliver him from this thorn. Paul characterizes it as “a messenger of Satan”. Therefore he describes his sickness not in medical but in theological terms.
With these two examples it is clearly said that the sickness is connected to Satan. But it does not say that the sickness originated with Satan. On the contrary, in 2 Corinthians 12:8 Paul says in fact that his sickness is from God. What reason would Satan have to hit Paul with a sickness, such that he would no longer be able to raise himself? In addition, even if both texts would indicate that sickness is identical to demon possession even then it would not be proof that all illnesses originate with the devil. It is not correct to draw a generalizing conclusion from just two texts in the Bible; that certainly holds true when the Bible also speaks of sickness without making the connection to Satan.
Pentecostals think mistakenly that illnesses come from the devil. Such a thought is a denial of God’s power; a disavowal of God as the one to whom all power belongs; the power to give sickness as well as the power to free or not to free from sickness.
In the second place Pentecostals assume that God does not want sickness. It can be blamed always on the patient’s unbelief.
God does not want sickness. That is correct, in the sense that God has not created sickness. In the perfect world of Paradise before the fall into sin there was no illness. But it is there in the world that departed from God. God also uses this sickness. It is not without reason that Paul has a thorn in his flesh. People do not come to faith because Paul is such a great and impressive person. They come to faith on account of his message. Therefore God’s power reveals itself in human weakness — particularly through this thorn in the flesh.
Sickness is indeed a consequence of the fall into sin. But sickness is not the consequence of unbelief. Many believers are sick. There are those who, humanly speaking, will not get well again. They die as Christians. In the opinion of Pentecostal groups real believers would not be able to die on account of a sickness.
We confess that God makes use of illness to give people a share in the life with Christ in heavenly joy and glory. When we want to explain a sickness away from this dispensation we are acting as if we are Christians who are already now living on the new earth and in the new heaven.
A well-known faith healer, T.L. Osborn, wrote a short book with the title, “Seven steps to receive healing from Christ”. He indicates which steps Christians need to undertake to obtain healing from sickness. Not a single step to the doctor is mentioned. According to prayer healers God works without means, i.e., immediately.
What are the steps that Osborn identifies for people? I will put these in a list with an occasional comment.
- A patient must know that the days of miracles are not past yet; also in the present physical healing is part of the ministry of Christ.
Comment: the days of miracles are past in certain regards; in an age where the church has the complete Word of God we no longer need to pray for miracles, which go contrary to God’s “natural laws” (see below).
- A sick person must know God’s promises of healing in the Bible, and also believe that those promises are valid for him or her.
- A sick person needs to know that God wants you well; only Satan wants you sick and tormented.
Comment: what we may term as “evil” can be “good” in the eyes of God. Paul also thought that the thorn was “evil” but God calls it “good”. Besides, God promises that he works all things to the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28).
- A sick person needs to know that divine healing is part of one’s salvation.
Comment: this step can be very depressing for believing patients; it implies that if there is no healing upon prayer, there is no salvation.
- A patient must pray for healing and believe that God does hear his prayer.
Comment: God has indeed promised to hear our prayers. But we do not read anywhere that he hears prayer according to our timetable. He hears prayer in this or in the future life. In addition, all our prayers must be based on faith (James 5:15). This implies that we always pray for God’s will to be done. God hears such prayers, even if it means that not all desires are fulfilled in this life.
- When a patient prays he must believe that he has already received what he asked for. Osborn calls this the sixth step of faith.
- A sick person must praise God and thank him for God’s response to prayer.
Comment: it is clear that we have to thank God for his blessings. But we need to learn also to thank God when he does not give us immediately what we ask of him. God always responds.
It is clear that people who are of the opinion that God works immediately will not send the sick to the doctor but to God. However, this should never be a contrast. Here too it holds true: “ora et labora” — pray and work.
When people experience trouble with their appendix, they need to see a doctor; subsequently there often will be surgery. That causes healing. The surgery needs to be accompanied with prayers.
For physical sicknesses we do not need faith- or prayer-healers, but people who proclaim to them the gospel; people who will point the sick person to the power of prayer and God’s blessing on medications. When a believer then finally is restored to health after a lengthy illness, via medication and/or medical intervention, then that is profoundly healing as an answer to prayer. Yes — but not without the doctor.
The elders have a task to pray in relation to those who are sick. But the fulfillment of that task does not guarantee the healing of the sick in this life. In that knowledge elders make their visits to the sick.
Elders may have brothers or sisters in their district who because of a chronic illness — sometimes as a result of old age — are no longer able to attend church. Often such people are tied to their home. Elders will bring regular visits to this category of sick people. With their visits (sick visits) they may keep in mind that these people are often able to follow the sermons on Sundays, via different means of communication. For this reason it is no longer necessary in this time, as it used to happen in the past that a visit was geared to telling them about the sermon of the past Sunday.
The elders should guide the conversation with the sick person in such a way that it is prevented that the sick person will always talk about his disease. Take note: here I am talking about people with a chronic illness. The elders need to try to get them out of their isolation of the smaller circle where they may end up because of their illness. They can do so by discussing all kinds of events in ecclesiastical life.
When the visit comes to an end it will be closed with prayer. This prayer will be directed at the situation, but at the same time it will have a greater reach. After all, the elder visits the chronically ill patient with certain regularity and therefore the prayer will not relate only to the chronic illness every time. Sure, each time the Lord is asked to provide strength, potentially also to lessen the pain where it is present. Each time the Lord is thanked for the strength he has provided.
But beside this attention will be given to matters that arose during the conversation. Also through prayer this brother or sister is taken from their narrow circle to the width and perspective of the church and society, where he or she has their place.
We realize that here we deviate from our plea for directed, focused prayer in all situations. Yet this is not a matter of a deviation, because now too the elders pray with direction: toward the one who is being visited. This person has replaced a place such as this, as a chronically ill person, in the congregation and in society.
We also realize that the prayers in cases of sickness, as they are printed in the back of our Church psalters, are strongly oriented to the concrete situation of the sick person. But that is because these prayers are connected primarily to the sick who are burdened by a particular (sometimes temporary) illness. These were not written in the first place for the chronically ill who receive regular visits from their elders. I am not saying that the elders may never use one of these formal prayers, but — let me put it this way — such prayers are not meant primarily for the sick that are still in some ways connected to church life.
Elders often meet brothers and/or sisters in their district who have suddenly become ill. The sickness is — as it appears — of a temporary nature. These sick people are visited by the elders who speak to them and pray with them. It is made clear to them that their personal prayers and the prayers by the office-bearers do not mean that the doctor is now redundant. Yet it is also made clear that the visit to the doctor does not make prayer into a senseless affair.
It is good when an elder knows two prayers (from the back of the Church psalter). I do not mean this in the sense that he has to express that prayer verbally, but that he knows the structure of these prayers. This will prevent him from praying wrongly. We are not going to discuss these prayers here.
In his prayer the elder will pray for God’s blessing on the medications and for a potential surgery. Surgeons cannot perform an operation without prayer.
In the prayer with and for the sick humility has to be heard, for ultimately the decision belongs to the Lord. God will bless the medicines and the surgical procedure not only when people are healed from a sickness. He has blessed the means also when people through sickness yet end up at death’s door. God’s blessing does not always run parallel to our wishes. An elder may make known the wish of the patient that the Lord would give recuperation, but always with the acknowledgement that his will alone be done. Besides, in all things it centers on the glory of God’s name. Therefore an elder may not suffice to simply pass on the desires of the sick person to the Lord. In prayer, we should look primarily to God: “Lord, we pray that you will heal this brother or sister if you are honoured by their recuperation. But if you receive greater honour through her remaining sickness, then do not give restoration.”
Elders should also urge the sick to continuous prayer. The sick person must himself go the Lord, for the Lord desires that his children persevere in prayer in all situations of life. Obviously the personal prayer of the sick may not be self-centered either.
It often becomes apparent that sick people will have difficulties with it when elders pray for the sickness to remain if God’s name receives greater honour on account of it. The difficulty in such situations is that they cannot understand how God would be honoured more by remaining sickness of the mother of a large family; or of the father who actually cannot be missed in his business.
In those cases elders need to instruct. They may acknowledge that they themselves do not understand either. Elders too do not know how God honours himself. They too do not understand how God would receive greater glory when the sickness remains than with healing of this sickness. No one can fathom God. Ultimately it is a matter of faith.
When the sick person recuperates, the Lord has heard the desire that has been made known to God in prayer. That requires thanksgiving, also through the office-bearer. When the elders have prayed with the patient for restoration, and it comes about, then they will thank the Lord, together with the person who was healed. For the elders this means that they will visit the brother or sister who received surgery and who now may go home from the hospital, at least once more at home. Elders should not forget this, for in this regard they serve as an example. For how do things often turn out with Christians? In the time of sickness there has been prayer, ten times or more, for recuperation and for God’s keeping during a surgery, and after this there is just one prayer of thanksgiving for the healing and God’s protection. Giving thanks is not difficult; to keep on thanking is. The elders must not forget to give thanks — for what God has given in hearing the expressed wishes.
Elders also get to experience that there are members of the church who get the news that they have an incurable sickness, speaking now in human terms.
When someone has just learned about this, the elder will be rather reserved during his first visit. After all, the person concerned has to process something that for him or her seems as yet so unreal. He or she may want to talk about it, perhaps in great detail. The elder does not need to do much more than simply to listen. He will conclude the first visit with a (brief) prayer. In this prayer it needs to be heard that everyone is silenced; that everything is as yet so difficult to understand. The elder may also give thanks — very carefully — for the fact that God has given great and powerful promises. In this situation it may as yet not be fitting to pray for the miracle of restoration. Through it the affected person may get the idea that the elder has not gauged the seriousness of the illness. At a later stage they may and can pray for a miracle, after everything has been sorted out in all honesty, and the person himself can reflect quietly on the situation.
After some time acceptance sets in. Not only for the person who has the illness but also with those who are near to him or her. They conform to the Lord’s leading and direction in their lives. During this period the elder will especially thank the Lord, for through his Holy Spirit he has worked this acceptance and rest. In this period there may also be prayer for the miracle of healing. For the Lord is able to work miracles. The elder prays whether the Lord will bless the treatment and bring healing as a result of the radiation. At the same time the intercession will go up to the God of all grace for grace in dying if there will be no restoration.
Yet also in the time before dying there is a certain aspect of “dying” in the sense of letting go of things. As the sickness continues and regresses further, there will be a change with the person affected in regard to his or her environment. The ties with this present life are getting looser. In some small way this is already an element of “dying”. The elder may pray also for strength in that kind of dying. The loosening of the bonds with the environment is after all in preparation for the moment when dying will be definite: when the last breath is breathed out.
The prayer for grace in death will become stronger when — medically speaking — all hope for recuperation is gone. The prayer for healing will finally disappear.
Therefore elders do not have to pray until the final end for someone’s healing. We believe that prayer has boundaries. After all, the Lord provided “natural laws” that he created himself and also respects.
When it is now determined according to the “natural law” of the medical science that it is irreversibly true that someone cannot be healed anymore, and the patient notices also more and more that the end of life is nearing, then prayer for healing can start to resemble that God is being tested. I am not saying that praying for healing in such a situation is the same as tempting God, but it can look like it.
In such circumstances elders must ask themselves at what point in their prayer as office-bearers the accent should be moved. In the first stage of the illness the request for healing will receive a stronger emphasis than the prayer for grace in dying. In a subsequent phase the prayer for grace in dying will receive greater emphasis, while in the last phase the prayer for healing will no longer be there.
Elders should talk about this with the person concerned. Very often the incurably ill person will indicate that the elder should no longer pray for healing. He or she feels in the body — it is God who gives that feeling — that the last phase of life has been entered into.
With this we are saying that there are boundaries to prayer.
Excursion: “Natural Laws”
A few times now I have mentioned the phrase “natural law”. I am strongly convinced that the prayer of God’s children is hedged in by ‘natural laws’. God himself created these laws. Certainly, we confess that God is not a prisoner of the natural laws. But does this confession mean that therefore we may pray for miracles? With “miracles” we understand events that go against the laws of nature.
Are we allowed to pray today for things that cannot happen according the natural science? With “natural science” we understand the systematical research of nature as the observable part of creation, which has at its aim to gain knowledge about nature.
In science, the experiment is decisive. The results of an experiment must be repeatable. From this we conclude that much knowledge of nature does not belong to natural science. Biblical data about the creation and the curse of the earth after the fall into sin do not constitute natural science because such knowledge does not rest on repeatable exercises and because such tests cannot be conducted.
Of course this does not mean that those biblical data are incorrect; on the contrary.
On the basis of experiments science arrives at the formulation of natural laws. These are not always eternal and unchangeable laws. However they do make it possible for humans to predict events with a greater or lesser degree of probability. Many scientists warn for the conclusion that everything in the world can be traced to one big chain of cause and effect.
However this may be, there are natural laws according to which processes in nature take their course with probability bordering on certainty.
God created the natural laws and he maintains these as well (see Ps. 104:19; 119:90, 91; 148:3-6).
Natural laws are signs of God’s faithfulness to his covenant (see Jer. 31:35-36; 33:20-21; 33:25-26).
God is not bound by natural laws. But as Creator he does bind himself to his own order. Processes take their course in nature with an iron necessity. In fact, that is possibly not expressing it strongly enough.
In the time of the Bible many natural laws that we know today, were not known yet. But even if those were known at that time, the Bible is not a book of natural laws. The Bible describes the history of salvation. In this revelation the central point is that God is a God of miracles (Ex. 34:10). In the Bible there is no question of a closed world or of iron laws that need to be broken. When God performs a miracle, this miracle is revealed to us as an act of God.
But does this mean that we, with our present knowledge of nature, are not allowed to say that a miracle in the Bible is indeed a miracle because it goes against the natural laws? We believe that we may say so, without compromising the fact that the Bible indeed reveals to us such a miracle as an act of God, and makes it known to us.
We believe that the miracles in the Bible go against the natural laws as we now know them, and that is why these are miracles. At the same time we believe that through a miracle God does not suspend the natural laws. At most it can be said that a natural law at the moment that the miracle is occurring, is not valid for the object or the person for whom the miracle is performed. In this connection we can think of the history of the three men in the burning furnace (Daniel 3) and of the floating axe (2 Kings 6:1-7).
In addition, the purpose of the miracles in the Bible is to show that God’s plan of salvation makes progress. In the Old Testament God wants to show through these miracles his power to the Gentiles (think of the period of drought in the days of Elijah).
In the time of the New Testament the miracles, performed by Jesus and the apostles, form an accompaniment and a sign to reinforce the spoken gospel.
When John the Baptist lets it be asked whether Jesus is the promised Saviour, then Jesus is busy doing some signs and he replies to the questioners that they have to tell John what they have seen (Luke 7:18-23). Based on this John will know who Jesus is because the prophets have foretold about him (Isa. 29:18; 35:5; 42:7).
Our conclusion is that the miracles, which were performed in the time of the apostles, were needed to confirm the divinity of Christ. Therefore these miracles are determined by that time.
Nowadays therefore we should no longer count on miracles as events that go against the natural laws. I am not saying that miracles can no longer happen, but if we were to regard miracles as the mark of the New Testament church we fall short of the progress of the history of salvation, and it would mean that we turn the clock back to the apostolic period.
With this we do not mean to say that God is bound to our scientific approach to reality, but that God binds himself to his own order in a time where it is no longer necessary to break through this order on account of the gift of the written Word.
Neither are we saying that God is not the God of miracles. But then we understand a miracle to be something else than an event that goes against the natural laws. Each day there is amazement about the miracle that we may live in communion with God, and that God has created the order in nature in such a wonderfully beautiful way, and that he also maintains it.
On the one hand then, the prayer of God’s children may reach further than science will ever reach. Prayer may extend itself to that miracle. Prayer may also reach out to a miracle as an event that goes against all natural laws when through it the coming of God’s kingdom is promoted.
On the other hand our prayers are also limited by God’s created natural laws.
When we state it like this it does not mean that we have fallen prey to a theology about a powerless God or to an unchristian kind of science, but with it we respect the God-given order in nature and in the progression of the history of salvation.
Very concretely this means that after someone has died we will no longer pray for his return to life, even though we know that God is able to raise people from the dead. David too stops praying for healing for his child the moment he learns that the child has died (2 Sam. 2:15-23).
It also implies that we do not pray for healing of someone who according to natural law will die, with an appeal to the fact that in the apostolic time the sick were healed in miraculous ways. This evidently does not mean that we are not allowed to pray for a “natural” recuperation in the sense that God provides means to effectively fight a sickness.
It implies that here in the Netherlands we do not pray for summer when it is December, because God has created the seasons (Gen. 8:22). Neither does it imply that we pray the Lord to pull up a man who is falling from a high tower and is halfway during his fall, with an appeal to the ascension of Christ. God himself made the law of gravity.
The martyrs of the church did not pray whether God would save them at the stake, with an appeal to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, but they prayed to be able to die as witnesses of their faith and of God’s grace.
We may tell God about our desires (Phil. 4:6) but we must subject ourselves to God’s will and his order. At the same time we may make an appeal to the God of miracles, if by that miracle the coming of his kingdom is promoted. The greatest miracle however is that God maintains the order in nature through our prayer so that his kingdom is coming.
When the elders visit the sick in the hospital they would be wise to visit outside of the regular visiting hours. That will not always be possible. It will be difficult to realize for those elders who are occupied during the day with their regular daily work.
When elders are forced by circumstances to visit the sick during regular visiting hours, as a rule they will not read the Bible or pray. Often there are more patients in the room who are also receiving a visit. That often prevents an opportunity to have a quiet prayer. Sometimes there are also more visitors with the patient. It can be disturbing when the elder concludes his visit with prayer.
The situation is different when the concerned brother or sister has a private room, or is the only person in a room. It depends on the circumstances whether the elder will pray with the sick person. Again, perhaps there are more visitors. This may be the brother’s employer, or the sister’s neighbour. They provide a service of love by visiting the sick person during visiting hours. We believe that in such a case an elder cannot claim more rights than to be a visitor like the other visitors.
If it is at all possible, the rule should be that an elder makes a visit outside of those hours. He does not make it into a lengthy visit. Often the sick person has a need to talk himself. That often holds true when there has been surgery. The elders should give him or her the opportunity to talk about their experience with the operation. The short conversation will primarily be focused on the sickness. The patient often has no need to hear about what is taking place in the local church or the community. His thoughts are focused on his own circumstances. As the healing process proceeds there will again be attention for other things.
The elder will conclude the visit with Scripture reading and prayer. If this is possible he should also involve the other patients in the room. Of course he will have to ask beforehand whether the other patients have any objection to Scripture reading and prayer. In order to prevent any objections in advance, when he enters the room the elder should introduce himself and shake the hand of the other patients. He may possibly have a short conversation with them, and in doing so he creates some sympathy with people, which can be favourable for what he wants to do at the end of his visit.
When no one objects the elder will pray with and for all the patients. In this case the prayer may not be focused especially on the brother or sister he has come to visit.
In prayer he dedicates the patients in the room to the Lord. When he has briefly acquainted himself with these patients he can pay attention to the various circumstances in which these patients find themselves.
In any case the Lord will be asked for his blessing on medications and treatments; strength is prayed for when there will be surgery; there will be prayer for thankful hearts when the Lord has preserved life in a surgery.
The elder will also pay attention in his prayer to those who are at home: husband, wife and children. It is very important to remember them, because the thoughts of the patients will often be focused on those who are at home.
Finally, it is good when the elder is praying also for the personnel of the hospital. The Lord is asked for wisdom, strength and joy for the work that is done in the service of the sick.
It may happen that someone in the room will object to public reading of Scripture and prayer. In that case the elder would do well not to get into a discussion with this person. Neither will he allow himself to be guided by the fact that only a small minority in the room has an objection. In such circumstances he needs to decide to refrain from a public prayer. He concludes his visit with prayer together with the brother or sister he came to visit. Such a prayer will be brief. It includes all the elements that were mentioned earlier, but will be and can be focused more on the situation of the brother or sister.
It may happen that the situation in the room would not allow closing with a public prayer. Nurses may be busy in the room; perhaps they are occupied with one of the patients. Doctors who are visiting one of their patients may come into the room. Under such circumstances it is not fitting to conduct a public prayer.
It will still be possible that the elder prays with the visited brother or sister. This depends especially on the person concerned. The elder will consult with him or her whether he shall close with prayer. For prayer is a serious matter. You converse with God, and to do so you need a hearty concentration. Such focus is often difficult when someone is working or talking in the room. When the sick brother or sister indicates that the situation does not permit prayer the elder will leave without having prayed. He must remember though that his visit is not successful only when he can conclude with prayer.