Who Can Heal Like Him? About Faith Healing and the Reformed Faith
Who Can Heal Like Him? About Faith Healing and the Reformed Faith
Eileen has been suffering from a chronic illness for years. As a result of multiple sclerosis, she spends her days in a wheelchair. The doctors have declared her to be incurable. She suffers from her illness; so do her caregivers. She and her husband are members of a prayer group. The group gives her much comfort.
One evening when she was unable to attend, the group prayed intensely for her healing. The next day, one of the participants called to find out how she is and if there has been improvement. When told that there hasn’t been any improvement, the caller tells her: ‘If you are not being healed, you need to examine yourself to see if perhaps you are the cause of your illness. For Jesus is a perfect healer. He is able to heal you.’
Some months later she and her husband went on an outing with two good acquaintances. Afterwards the acquaintances asked if they could pray together. They prayed fervently for healing and suggested that Eileen press her case with God and ask him to heal her, so that she can magnify him. But again no miracle happens.
A year later yet another person gives her this urgent advice: ‘Attend a faith healing service led by someone who has been given the special gift of healing. Don’t deny yourself this experience. This man heals in Jesus’ name. For,’ he adds, ‘your husband is entitled to a healthy wife.’ But Eileen is greatly disappointed that, despite her great longing, her attendance at that service has also not led to healing.
Being ill is horrible. Suffering pain, feeling wretched, being withdrawn in your illness, the waiting, the uncertainty, the fear . . .
You yearn for recovery. And when that doesn’t happen, you can become desperate, or despondent and bitter. Especially when told that your illness is incurable and you realize, for example, that you will never see your children and grandchildren mature. Those are terrible blows.
You’d do anything to get better. Going to a faith healer or a faith healing service can seem more and more attractive. Other Christians are encouraging you to take that step. And so you are thinking about it a lot.
Perhaps you are a parent of a child who is seriously ill or physically challenged. The child is suffering pain. When that drags on, sometimes for years, you can become desperate. Parents are sometimes consumed by grief and pain when they see the suffering that their child endures and are unable to alleviate it. During his time on earth the Lord Jesus met people who experienced much grief over the suffering of their child, or even their servant.
1. What the Bible Says About Healing←⤒🔗
Who heals all your diseases . . .←↰⤒🔗
What does the Bible say about illness and healing?
The Bible contains many comforting words. So, for example, after the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we often hear the beautiful words from Psalm 103:1-4: ‘Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit . . .’.
What a promise! Your illness will be healed. You will not die, but live. Did the Lord Jesus not say that to Martha too when her brother, Lazarus, had died of an illness? ‘. . . He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25, 26). Believing that promise gives a solid foundation to whoever is ill or is dying. That has been true throughout all of church history.
We shall consider what those promises mean on the way to our final destination as determined by God.
I have wounded and I will heal . . .←↰⤒🔗
The Old Testament does not speak much about it. But the matter is foundational, for the Old Testament clearly confesses that health and sickness come from God. For example, at Mara the Lord says: ‘If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you (Exod 15:26).
We read something similar in the Song of Moses (Deut 32:39): ‘See now that I myself am He!
There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand’.
After Job became ill, he says to his wife: ‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’ (Job 2:10).
In the period of some two thousand years described in the Old Testament, more than ten miraculous cases of healing are mentioned. The following are the most well-known. On several occasions a barren woman received a child. During the history of the bronze snake (Num 21), many who were bitten by venomous snakes were healed by looking at the bronze snake. Elijah prayed and raised up the son of the widow of Zarephath, who had died (1 Kgs 17:17-24). Elisha does the same thing with the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kgs 4:18-37). He also heals Naaman the Syrian (2 Kgs 5:1-27). And when King Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death, he prayed and the Lord healed him and granted him another fifteen years of life (2 Kgs 20:1-11).
He healed them all . . .←↰⤒🔗
Things change drastically when the Son of God comes on earth. Especially at the beginning of his public ministry, he heals many people. For example, Matt 14:14 says: ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick’.
However, healing does not occur all the time and not everyone is healed. In his hometown, Nazareth, Jesus healed only a few sick persons, because people there did not believe in him (Mark 6:6, 6; Luke 4:23-27). And many sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed people lay around the pool of Bethesda. But Jesus only turned to one of the many, a man who had been ill for thirty-eight years, to heal him (John 5:1-3). The story of the man who was crippled from birth and who lay at the temple gate called Beautiful, also gives food for thought (Acts 3:1-10). Luke relates that he was carried to that gate daily to beg. Surely the Lord Jesus saw him there too? Does this story perhaps tell us something about God’s policy for the sick? Did the Lord deem the time to be right only when Peter and John passed by the man? Does the Lord sometimes postpone healing?
Marks of Jesus’ healing←↰⤒🔗
The healings performed by the Lord Jesus bear the following characteristics:
- they happen spontaneously and are not planned (e.g., Matt 9:27);
- the healing is immediate and complete;
- they are so convincing that even the Lord’s opponents are unable to dispute that they are genuine (e.g., John 11:47-49);
- Jesus could even perform distance-healing (servant of the centurion, Luke 7:10, cf. John 4:47-53; daughter of the Canaanite woman, Matt 15:28);
- they take place quietly, without any fuss or theatrics, without any show, or advertisement;
- more than once Jesus forbids the healed person to tell others about it (e.g., Matt 9:30; 12:16);
- they are characterized as signs and in that way Jesus displays what the coming kingdom will be like.
Conferral of authority←↰⤒🔗
Jesus confers the authority to heal on his disciples.
First on the 12 disciples: ‘Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons’ (Matt 10:8; cf. Mark 3:13-15, Luke 9:1-3).
Later he confers authority on another 70 disciples (Luke 10:1-24).
There were more apostles than the 12. Even before Pentecost Jesus sent out more than 80 and gave them the task, among other things, of healing the sick. Cf. also 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.
Just before his Ascension Jesus repeated his commission in the presence of the 11 apostles (Mark 16:15-20). The heart of his commission is: proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. And he promises the disciples that signs will accompany those who believe: demons will flee, linguistic boundaries will disappear, snake bites and poisonous drinks will not harm them. And, as part of all this, ‘they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well’.
But note well: that these signs will accompany those who believe does not mean that the believers or all believers will do these signs. They are not signs of believers, but signs that accompany the good news that the apostles carry into the world. When apostles and evangelists brought the good news and people believed, the Lord caused signs to accompany the preaching. That is what it says in Mark 16:20: ‘Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere [that was their task], and the Lord [!] worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it’.
Not all believers have been given general authority←↰⤒🔗
To whom did Jesus give this commission? To that little group of 11 men standing round him. And perhaps the commission continued to apply to the 70, for we do not read anywhere that their authority was withdrawn. However, it remains a valid question whether Jesus gave them a lifetime authority, or merely a temporary one for the duration of that one journey in which they were apprentices.
In Acts we read that many miracles and signs were done at the hands of the apostles (Acts 4:29-33; 5:12). In fact, Paul calls the signs and miracles he performed himself ‘the things that mark an apostle’ (2 Cor 12:12). Apparently this was a clear mark that identified the person who performed them as an apostle! Thus, signs and miracles served as proof of identity.
Hebrews 2:3, 4 harks back to that. It speaks about taking ‘such a great salvation’ seriously, the ‘salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles . . .’.
Notice the purpose of the signs: they served as confirmation and testimony of the message of Christ, who is busy conquering the world (cf. Mark 16:20). Pay attention also to the past tense that the writer of Hebrews uses. Apparently, he regards the confirmation of the message by signs and wonders as something that belonged to the time of eyewitnesses and aural witnesses, and not as something that still continues. However, the testimony of those witnesses remains striking, also for Christians of the second generation. The miracles of Jesus and of the apostles were written down purposely for later generations, so that they too ‘may believe that Jesus is the Christ . . . and that be believing [they] may have life in his name’ (cf. John 20:30, 31).
Thus, there are many instances of healing in the young Christian congregation and people from Peter to Paul were used for this purpose. That doesn’t mean that they had absolute power over illness and health. And so it is telling that Paul—note well, an apostle who was called!—was sick himself when he proclaimed the gospel. It seems to have been a repulsive illness (Gal 4:13, 14). His friend and colleague, Timothy, suffered various ailments, including stomach complaints. Paul does not send him to someone who has the gift of healing, but prescribes Timothy to drink a little wine instead (1 Tim 5:23). Paul also had to leave Trophimus behind in Miletus because of illness (2 Tim 4:20).
2. God Heals Today←⤒🔗
God does not change, but times do←↰⤒🔗
Is it permissible to regard Jesus’ command to his apostles to heal people as commands to Christians of all times? Do the promises of Mark 16 still apply to us today? You must always be careful not to make generalizations about Bible texts. Not all fishers have to abandon their boats and give up their vocations. Nor do all rich young men have to sell all their possessions. Similarly, Jesus’ promise to his apostles in Mark 16 also does not mean that, today, all believers will drive out demons, speak in new tongues, pick up venomous snakes, drink deadly poison without ill effect, or heal sick people by placing their hands on them.
But isn’t Jesus the same yesterday and today? Absolutely. He does not change. But times and circumstances do. The apostolic time of the church was different than the time in which the church expanded. The book of Acts describes in diverse places that the initial proclamation of the gospel is accompanied by signs and miracles. These served to portray the connection between Christ’s apostles on earth and their living Lord in heaven. Moreover, just as with Jesus, the signs were signs of the coming kingdom. They served as a kind of telescope to give us a preview of the world to which God is leading us.
Direct, immediate healing by God←↰⤒🔗
The Biblical data lead to the ineluctable conclusion that healing comes from God. It is thanks to him only that we are healthy. He retained power over our health. No human being can ensure that he or others will remain free of sickness. Only the Lord can do that.
This should cause us to turn to the Lord before all things for our health and healing. In addition to, indeed, before seeking medical attention, we should seek God’s help in prayer. And we should do that in full confidence that God has all power: one word on his part is sufficient! Hezekiah experienced that (2 Kgs 20:1-11; Isa 38:1-21).
Many testimonies of Christians demonstrate that the Lord has spoken such a word on more than one occasion.
Years ago, a young girl lay dying on a Sunday afternoon. In that afternoon’s service the congregation prayed for her and suddenly, in an inexplicable way, she was healed.
A brother who had a brain tumour presented a riddle to the surgeon when, at his next appointment, the tumour had totally disappeared and no longer showed up on any X-rays.
A six-months old baby had a high fever. People prayed for her and suddenly the fever abated.
Countless people pray very simply for grace and healing. And in very many cases the Lord spoke a word and a medical miracle happened.
Indirect, mediate healing by God←↰⤒🔗
In his plans for healing the Lord God often makes use of the talents and skills he has given to human beings: apostles and elders, but also medical doctors, surgeons, and therapists.
A person suffers from multiple sclerosis. Many pray intensely for her. And the hospital staff administer medicines. Contrary to all medical prognoses, the treatment proves successful; the illness is brought to a halt and does not progress further.
Someone suffers from attacks of excruciating headaches. A brother in the congregation prays with him, puts his hands on the sore spot and the headache disappear
In other words, the Lord does give the gift of healing to people.
Sometimes this is because of a natural gift, a particular inclination with which the Creator Spirit has endowed people. It can then be used, in combination with prayer, in God’s service.
Sometimes it concerns a special, ‘supernatural’ gift of the Spirit. It may be given after prayer or not. But by it the Lord uses believers in a special way for the glorification of his name and the welfare of his children.
It is important to remember one thing. In practice it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between what we have, for the sake of convenience, distinguished as natural and ‘supernatural’ gifts. The Bible also does not draw this distinction.
But there is one indispensible identifying characteristic that makes gifts spiritual gifts: they function exclusively within the framework of the edification of the congregation (see especially 1 Cor 12-14).
On the one hand we are inclined, and it seems right to think of the gift of healing of which Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:28 (cf. also Rom 12:6-8) as a special, ‘supernatural’ gift. But on the other hand, Paul mentions this gift almost in passing, in a list in which also ‘ordinary’ spiritual gifts appear, such as an ability to help others and administrative talents. Moreover, Paul also calls apostles, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers gifts of the Spirit.
This last point makes it clear that the concept, ‘gifts of the Spirit’, is a very broad term that encompasses many things. In a very general way it means: every gift that the Spirit gives to the congregation, no matter its nature. When we realize that, the term ‘spiritual gifts’ loses some of its unusual, ‘supernatural’ connotation. That realization also allows you to ask whether the Spirit perhaps no longer confers some of the gifts listed in the New Testament, or not in the same manner, or in the same measure. For example, are there still apostles?
3. Anointing of the Sick and Faith Healing Services←⤒🔗
God heals. And for that purpose he uses human beings as his servants. That is the conclusion to which God’s Word leads us. It is also able to give the sick courage and peace.
But now the question arises whether it is necessary to attend specific faith healing services. Can we recommend that? Do the sick perhaps even have the task to turn to someone who is said to have the gift of healing?
We are writing this in a time when Jan Zijlstra of Leiderdorp addresses large audiences and the work of the faith healer, T.B. Joshua from Nigeria, is attracting much attention. W.J. Ouweneel caused quite a sensation with his book, Genees de zieken! [Heal the sick!], in which he argues strongly in favour of faith healing.
All this causes lively discussion in the media. All kinds of testimonies make the rounds about faith healing services at which people are healed. The question is raised: is all this Scriptural? Is it permissible? Is it mandatory? And are those healings real and do they last?
The last question may seem the most important for a sick person, but the answer does not have to be decisive for the discussion. For even if the healings are real, it does not prove that they were realized in a manner that is justifiable before God. Which method is used and what is its source? It is not the experience of healing, but God’s Word that is standard and guideline for our faith and actions.
In what follows, we shall first discuss the phenomenon of anointing of the sick. Then we shall consider the practices and backgrounds of faith healing services and faith healers.
James 5 and the anointing of the sick←↰⤒🔗
In James 5:14-16a we read: ‘Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed’.
This clearly contains a promise: a prayer offered in faith will make the sick well.
This text forms the basis for the plea, heard more often of late, to (re)introduce the practice of anointing of the sick, also in Reformed churches. A sick person or his family can request a minister or a consistory to administer an anointing of the sick. Sometimes such a request is made by someone who is dying and wants to die in peace. Sometimes too, the person making the request expects that the sick person will be healed by the anointing and prayer.
There have been various exegeses of the above passage. The Roman Catholic tradition bases its sacrament of the anointing of the sick (formerly referred to as extreme unction, or last rites) on this passage. The Reformers broke with this ritual. It has disappeared from our tradition. But is our tradition not contrary to the Word of God?
We describe three differing views about this text below.
The first spiritualizes it entirely. It suggests that the text does not deal with physical illness, but with spiritual weakness and sin.
The second view believes that the text imposes a task on the elders and the congregation. They have a duty, also today, to visit sick members of the congregation, to speak with them about possible sins, to pray with them, and, at their request, to anoint them with oil while calling on the name of the Lord.
The third view suggests that the expression, ‘the elders of the church’, refers to a very specific group, namely the elders and the apostles of the early church, who had received a special commission and authority to anoint the sick with oil and heal them.
If so desired, the reader can skip the more detailed description of these three views below and turn to the conclusion with regard to James 5 that follows.
(a) Not sickness, but sin←↰⤒🔗
The first explanation tries to spiritualize the entire passage. ‘Is…sick’ (astheneoo) would then mean ‘is…weak’, that is, the person has insufficient strength to withstand sin. That’s why the elders have to pray over her and anoint her with oil as a sign of confirmation by the Holy Spirit. The prayer of faith will save the person who is weak from destruction and the Lord will again give her strength. And if she has sinned, she will be forgiven. That is why, immediately after verse 15, you are urged to confess your sins to each other, ‘so that you may be healed’. And that is understood to mean ‘obtain forgiveness’.
It is true that ‘sin’ and ‘forgiveness’ are sometimes described metaphorically as ‘sickness’ and ‘healing’ (e.g., in Matt 9:12). However, this explanation is unconvincing, because the text uses words that are primarily medical in meaning (being sick, anointing with oil, suffering, healing).
(b) Task for the elders←↰⤒🔗
Dr. M.J. Paul makes a plea for the use of anointing of the sick in his book, Vergeving en genezing [Forgiveness and healing]. His exegesis is that James advises the sick to call the elders to their bed. The elders means those who are appointed as such in each congregation. They must anoint the sick person.
Allowing oneself to be anointed with oil can refer to a common action of bodily care (Matt 6:17; Luke 7:46), that was also often used for medical purposes, in which the oil served as an emollient and a means of healing (cf. Isa 1:6; Luke 10:34). But it can also have a religious significance, namely, as a symbol of dedication to God and to the work of the Holy Spirit (cf., e.g., Exod 29; Lev 14 and 21; 1 Sam 16:13).
More especially the elders had to pray for the sick person. The prayer of faith will heal the sick person and God will raise him from his bed. If there are sins that have not yet been confessed (and which may possibly have contributed to the illness), they will be forgiven after confession and prayer, so that healing can follow.
This explanation leaves us with a number of questions.
In the first place, the word for anointing that is used here refers to the common, everyday use of oil, as distinguished from another word used in the Bible for ‘spiritual’ anointing.
Besides, why do we never read in the description of the tasks Paul gives to the elders in his letters that they have the calling and authority to anoint the sick and pray for them in this manner?
Moreover, the text does not promise that the sick person will be healed does it? Does healing inexorably follow forgiveness? And if healing fails to happen, does that mean that God did not forgive either?
And how does one explain that in the New Testament some sick brothers are not healed at all?
A beautiful answer to the last question is this: the meaning of ‘healing’ (sooioo) and ‘raise up’ (egeiroo) is ambivalent. The word for ‘healing’ can also mean ‘preserved, saved’. And ‘raise up’ can mean ‘grant recovery’, but also ‘raise from the dead’. James, so it is said, has used these word deliberately, to allow for the interpretation of healing on earth, or healing later in heaven after the sick person has died. In fact, that is a profound truth. God will heal all our illnesses. But he determines when and how.
(c) Elders and apostles of the early church with a special commission←↰⤒🔗
The third explanation intentionally takes into account that the epistle of James is a very early one. Perhaps it is the first letter from the time of the apostles. Dr. J. van Bruggen dates the letter in the period described in Acts 8 and 9, the time of the diaspora, in which the congregation of Jerusalem is scattered and dispersed across all of Palestine and Syria. James sends his letter to them.
Thus, the letter of James addresses the situation in the very first period of the church, in which the gospel was still being spread only among the Jews (Acts 2-9). In and around Jerusalem there was a large group of ‘elders’, who were identified and recognized as such (see, e.g., Acts 15, which speaks of the ‘apostles and elders’ in Jerusalem). The people of this early period were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ live and were therefore highly regarded and had great authority. It is likely that James, the writer of this letter, was one of them.
Who were these elders? They may have included, for example the 120 who had gathered together at Pentecost (Acts 1:15). Perhaps they also included the 500 to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, most of whom were still alive (1 Cor 15:6). They would have included the 12 apostles, but also a group of another 70 or 72 apostles (cf. 1 Cor 15:7).
We read of the 12 and later also of the 70 apostles that the Lord Jesus sent them out with the commission to proclaim the gospel. And that commission included the authority to anoint the sick with oil and to heal them (Matt 10:7, 8; Mark 6:13-15; Luke 10:1, 8, 9). Thus, before the Ascension there were already more than 80 apostles, sent by Jesus, on whom he conferred a special authority. And already before Pentecost, just before his Ascension, Jesus promises that same authority to his apostles.
Therefore, when James refers to ‘the elders of the church’ in this letter to the congregation of Jewish Christians, who have been dispersed throughout Palestine, he has in mind those elders of the first period of the Christian church. It was a special group that must be distinguished from the elders that were later appointed in all the Gentile congregations and who did not have that authority.
Thus, the exegesis of James 5 is this: the people who were then sick members of the congregation in the diaspora in Palestine could call on those elders, that is, the people on whom Jesus himself had conferred the authority to anoint with oil and to heal.
A beautiful example of this appears in Acts 9:36. When Tabitha became ill and died, the disciples in the congregation did not try to heal her with prayer and healing themselves. Instead, they called upon an elder and apostle, Peter. They send for him from Lydda. Presumably they did so because they realized that not everyone could or was allowed to heal. For that purpose you needed a commission, an authority.
The drawback of this view is that the expression ‘elders of the church’ is being applied to one particular, historic, unique group of elders.
This explanation is attractive, because it removes James 5 out of its isolated position the New Testament and places it in a clear historic framework. It also explains why these elders appeared to have an authority that you do not find elsewhere in the epistles. Moreover, the explanation does justice to the promise of healing that James does indeed make and does not require one to make any presuppositions about the lack of clarity in the fulfillment of the promise.
Conclusion with regard to James 5←↰⤒🔗
It is clear from the above overview that the meaning of James 5 is disputed, although explanation (c) stays closer to the text, the historic context, and the whole of Scripture. On the basis of his explanation, anointing the sick of which James 5 speaks, ought no longer to be done today.
Those who are not convinced by explanation (c) do need to be aware of the following:
- James does not speak of anyone who has special gifts of healing, or of a faith healer. It speaks simply of the elders (of the church).
- James also does not speak of a huge gathering, separate from one’s own congregation, to say nothing of a public show. What James is referring to must take place by the bed of the sick person, in his home, and at his request.
- The anointing is not the focus, but the prayer to the Lord God, and also the reflection about living with God and our neighbour. We must guard against a return to the superstitious use of anointing oil, to which sacramental or magical properties can easily be ascribed.
Consequently, this passage from James 5 cannot serve as foundation of and justification for the methodologies of many faith healers and faith healing services.
Faith healing services←↰⤒🔗
Now we shall shift our attention from anointing the sick to faith healing services. They can take place in a local congregation. Typically, the service is publicized and advertised. In addition, there are special faith healers who travel throughout the country. They will rent a hall, or even a conference centre and put on a kind of show that attracts may interested people.
The practice of faith healing services
One of us attended a faith healing service conducted by Jan Zijlstra. What follows is an abridged description of what took place.
Approximately 250 people were present. The service was on a Sunday evening. It began at 7:00 o’clock with a lot of singing. Many revival songs were sung and the accompaniment was good. It was striking that for several of the songs three attractive young women, dressed in tight, shining, silver-coloured ensembles danced on the podium, all the while waving flags.
The singing lasted a long time. It was more than half an hour before Jan Zijlstra’s performance began. He welcomed the audience, addressed them, read from the Bible, and delivered a sermon (illness is caused by demons; God does not want his children to be sick). All of this was punctuated with singing. After that he spoke at length about his many plans, which included organizing a tour and issuing a full colour magazine. Much money was necessary to carry out these plans. We were exhorted with great emphasis to give to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Ideally we should do that by completing automatic withdrawal forms for monthly contributions. We’d been given these forms already when we entered the hall. After the collection a foreign preacher was welcomed. He also gave an address. Then Jan Zijlstra called on people to come forward to dedicate their lives to the Lord. Some four people took part in this process. Zijlstra prayed with them, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
As time passed, many people persons wandered out and in. Some of them displayed a tense, nervous, or sick impression. I was getting tired too from sitting so long.
Meanwhile, it was already after 9:00 o’clock when the actual healing began. A video camera was used. I witnessed the treatment of four people. Zijlstra asked each person first whether she believed in Jesus Christ and had dedicated her life to the Lord. Then he inquired about her illness, touched the sick part of her body, or laid his hands on her head. When the question, ‘do you believe that God can heal you?’ was answered affirmatively, he began to pray in a loud voice and commanded the unhealthy spirit to leave the patient. He repeated the phrase, ‘in Jesus’ name’ numerous times and the audience muttered the same words. For safety’s sake, someone stood behind each patient to catch him if he should fall. Zijlstra treated a woman who suffered from a chronic intestinal ailment, and a young man who was burdened with agitation and problems with concentration. There was also a boy of about 10, who came forward with his mother. The boy could walk, but his mother related that he suffered from muscle weakness and thus had very little strength in his legs. Zijlstra prayed for the boy in a peremptory tone. Then he commanded him, ‘go, run, in Jesus’ name! Hurry up, run back and forth through the hall!’ When the boy hesitated, he gave him a push. Then the boy did indeed trot back and forth. The audience applauded and shouted ‘hallelujah’. And then, just as in the case of the earlier patients, the boy was immediately taken from the hall by one of the attendants.
I left at 9:30, so I don’t know how many other patients were healed and how much longer the service continued. I had made a trip of some duration to get to the hall and then attended a service of two-and-a-half hours, without any intermission or an opportunity to have something to drink. In my opinion this was excessive. I wondered how sick people could manage the waiting and how they could cope with the fatigue. I also did not understand why the organizers apparently did not take the presence of sick people into account. I suspect that the stamina of the sick attendees diminishes by the hour.
One hears all kinds of tales about similar faith healing services. We know of people whom Zijlstra has healed, for example, of a chronic fatigue illness, such as myalgic encephalopathy (ME). But it has also happened that persons with cancer went to Zijlstra and were not healed. Subsequently the sceptic spouse was blamed.
There have been situations in which sick adults, as well as the parents of little children who are sick have been pressured by co-workers and others to attend a faith healing service, or to hold a faith healing gathering in their home. When they do not wish to go this route and prefer to rely on the continuous prayers offered at home and in church, they may be left with the disquieting feeling that they have closed themselves off from the possibilities God gave them. Occasionally they were told that in so many words. Alternatively, the advisors’ disappointment causes that feeling of guilt. Could my illness, or the expected death of my child be my fault? Do I expect too little? Do I close myself off from the tasks the Lord gave?
Before we proceed to an evaluation of faith healing services and the methods of faith healers, we remind ourselves of the distress that can be caused by sickness. Imagine that you yourself are severely and hopelessly ill, or that you have to watch your child suffer. Out of pure desperation a person may then decide to go to a faith healing service. Who cannot sympathize with such a decision?
Objections to faith healing services←↰⤒🔗
- The sick person is thrown back on the strength of his own faith. The leader of the service places great emphasis on the need for the sick person’s faith. ‘If you believe, you will be healed’. But this places a wrong emphasis on faith as a kind of energy in yourself. This message can have a devastating effect on the trust that faith produces. It can cause fear: is my faith sufficient? Alternatively, afterwards the person can engage in self-reproach, or even be led to fundamental doubt: my faith and prayers and the faith and prayers of those who surround me are insufficient. Regardless, the danger is that the sick person is thrown back on his own resources, when he should, instead, be taught to find his refuge in Christ.
Many Christians have heard of Joni Eareckson, a well-known Christian in America. Some thirty years ago, when she was a young woman of 17, Joni dove into shallow water and broke her neck. The accident caused a spinal cord lesion. Joni attended a session of a famous faith healer. Everything depended on her faith. She herself says of this: ‘Indeed, it was a matter of my faith — working with that faith, ensuring that it is beautiful, practiced, and in its best condition. I truly believed. And yet my hands and feet did not respond. The experience disappointed her and her illness made her depressed. At a particular point, someone called her and told her that she had received a revelation from the Lord about Joni. The revelation was: ‘My daughter, your sin prevents my healing you. Your depression blocks my relationship with you’.
Joni’s comment: many adherents of faith healing services regard faith as something that we must do before God can do his work. In that way, God becomes something like our puppet. (Contribution by Joni in Richard Mayhue, The Healing Promise: Is it always God’s Will to Heal?)
- Other spiritual damage to the sick person and her surroundings. Faith healing services deprive the sick person of the rest needed to permit him to concentrate with his whole heart on the Lord God himself. The faith healer pushes himself into the relationship and inserts himself between the Lord and the sick person. This can also be caused by people who advertise faith healing services. They can cause a feeling of guilt in the people who do not accept the invitation: ‘I am not opening myself up sufficiently and so it will be my fault if I don’t recover from this illness. . .’. In addition, spiritual damage can result from the pressure that is sometimes exerted on the sick person and his surroundings. It can also be caused by the highly touted expectation of healing, the disappointment and disenchantment when healing fails to happen, the shame, the feeling of guilt, the self-reproach, and the despair that can follow, and so on. Traveling to and visiting with faith healers, deprives sick persons of the rest they need to turn to God in prayer themselves to ask for healing. And it denies them (or their family) opportunity to focus on the illness, to prepare themselves spiritually for a potentially coming death and a going to be with the Lord, and to examine this perspective in faith and to accept it.
- The misleading message. Faith healing services bring a misleading message in several respects. It begins with the unqualified exclamation that God does not want sickness. When a person does become sick, the cause is sin and probably also the power of demons. Jesus heals everyone who has faith to be healed. A person who truly believes does not ask God for healing, but lays claim to the healing God promises. ‘Demon of illness, I command you, depart from this woman, in Jesus’ name’. If a person is not healed, the causes may be unbelief, doubt, holding on to a particular sin of the sick person or of her spouse, or of another family member, and so on.
One can raise many objections to this message. It is true that the Bible makes a connection between sin and illness in some situations, such as in 1 Corinthians 11:30 and John 5:14. But it is not at all easy to determine what the connection is. However, the Lord Jesus’ answer to his disciples is very clear. When they see a man who was blind from birth, they ask, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus replied, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned’ (John 9:2, 3). When you draw a connection between sickness and a presumed sin, you commit the same sin as Job’s friends did, when they accused the most righteous man in the world, who nonetheless became seriously ill. The sin of the ‘friends’ did not consist solely in their cruelty toward Job. God’s anger ignited against them especially because they failed to speak what is right about God (Job 42:7)! Their sin was boundless pride. As tiny little people with a darkened understanding, they presumed to raise an argument about the how and why of God’s governance. They presumed to be given an explanation about the reason why the Almighty on his heavenly throne must have been moved to strike Job with sickness and misery. Today, many faith healers and their advocates are guilty of the same sin as the ‘friends’ of Job.
But can there not be a connection between sickness and sin? Certainly. Heart and vascular disease, caused by a conscious and unrestrained way of life, and of working and eating, is an example. Another is an incurable physical disability that happened in a traffic accident, caused by drunkenness. So also, tension, being eaten up inside, sleeplessness, and other signs of illness sometimes have a deeper cause, namely, embitterment, or an unconfessed sin (cf. Ps 32:3, 4). But making such a connection between sickness and sin concerns first and foremost the sick person himself and not a third person. When healing does not happen, we may therefore not draw the conclusion that there is such a connection. In practice sickness is often seen as an occasion for reflection and self-examination. Rightly so
- The focus is on the faith healers. They travel throughout the country, advertise their services, and attract large audiences. Their names and photos are prominently displayed on posters and in magazines. The spotlights and cameras are focused on them. If they really wanted to remain in the background, they would never employ such methods. The apostles did not advertise themselves. And the Lord Jesus forbade more than one healed person to make the miracle public. It is true that faith healers repeatedly state that it is not they who heal, but God. However, in practice it is their name that is prominent. Everyone knows the names of people such as Jan Zijlstra and T.B. Joshua. That is not an accident, but is what they themselves intend. The sick all have to be touched by them. Although the constant refrain is ‘in Jesus’ name’, it is the faith healers who are the central figures in the process. The message this gives is: God heals and for that purpose you’d best see an intermediary. The faith healer presents himself as a medium, an intermediary between Jesus and the sick person. With his gift, he forms an important, almost indispensible link in the chain. This is so especially because he does not let himself be guided solely by God’s Word, but also because he listens to God’s voice in his own spirit: ‘I have a message for you that you will be healed’.
But we confess that we have only one Mediator: our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we may turn for help directly. We do not need any intermediaries to go to him and to ask him for healing. Faith healers push themselves into the foreground and present themselves as facilitators, just as a minister, care giver, or medical doctor can do. In that way people can rob you of your view of Christ, who does not tolerate anyone beside him.
- The mood at faith healing services. In addition to the ‘show’ put on by the organizers, there is often also an irreverent atmosphere. The endless, loud repetition of the phrase ‘in Jesus name’, becomes a cliché, a mantra, a filler, or even a curse. The peremptory way of speaking, both to the Lord and to the patients, betrays a harsh, demanding attitude. Patients are ineluctably manipulated by it.
- The local congregation is ignored. Supposing that James 5 were to apply to faith healing as we know it today, then, at minimum, the requirements of that chapter should be taken seriously. Then the sick person could ask his own elders to visit him. Many faith healing services complete ignore the local congregation. Consequently, we should pose serious questions about the authority and supervision of the person who presents himself as a faith healer. The authoritative behaviour that they typically display, can easily lead to abuse of authority and manipulation. In this connection it is also important to question the important place that the collection of money has during the gathering. Elisha refused to accept a gift from Naaman, the Syrian. And when Jesus commissioned his apostles to heal the sick, among other things, he added ‘Freely you have received, freely give’ (Matt 10:8). Should the example of Simon the Sorcerer on this point (Acts 8:18-23) also not call for great restraint?
What is the source?←↰⤒🔗
Based on the above objections, we must raise serious questions about faith healing services. There are probably experiences and testimonies of remarkable healings that cannot be dismissed as fakes. But we must constantly test the source of these healings. The secular faith healer, Jomanda, did not attract full trains and halls on the basis of some imagined healings. Undoubtedly, something happened at those gatherings. But what?
We must strongly remind ourselves about the warnings Scripture gives on this point.
In Matthew 7:22, 23, the Lord Jesus speaks about many (!) who will once say to him: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ But Jesus will send them away: ‘I never knew you’.
Speaking about the end of the age, Jesus says that many false Christs and false prophets will appear and will perform great signs and miracles, so as to deceive even the elect, if that were possible. But, says Jesus, ‘if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. . . if anyone tells you, “There he is, out in the desert,” do not go out’ (Matt 24:23-26). In their letters, the apostles echo these warnings of Jesus (2 Thess 2:9; 2 Tim 4:3-5).
Since the Spirit has passed on these warnings to us, we do well to apply them when deliberating whether we should go and see a faith healer who advertises his services.
4. The Best Recipe←⤒🔗
What should you do when you become sick, or when you have a child who suffers greatly? The first and best recipe is: pray to the Lord Jesus, believing that for him one word is sufficient. Because that the Lord can heal is certain, also by means of what we call a medical miracle. But it is always a question whether he will heal me at that moment. You will find the most peace if you confidently place that question in God’s hand.
Pray therefore, at home and in the congregation. Make use of the gifts of healing that God gives in your surroundings. Is there someone in the congregation who has a special gift that she uses for the upbuilding of the congregation? By all means, go and see her. Prayerfully, seek medical attention too.
But above all, place your confidence in God and expect your peace from him. Ask him to give you the peace in your illness and the confidence to yield to his guidance. Ask for patience and perseverance in suffering and do so out of faith and in the confession that what God does is well done.
Jesus himself is our Mediator. He is still as much moved with our illnesses and weaknesses as he was when he was on earth. And he is not far away, for he said, ‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28:20). So you do not have to travel from city to city throughout the land to look in despair for healing. You don’t have to book a flight or take a long trip by train. Just fold you hands in faith, bend your knees in reverence, and confess your sins to the Lord. And pray: ‘Lord you are my Healer. If you will, you can make me well. One word from you, the Almighty, is sufficient’.
Questions for Discussion←⤒🔗
- Why does healing receive so much attention in our time? How do you assess that?
- How do you think and speak about people who are seriously ill, or who have a child that suffers greatly, and who, for that reason, sometimes out of desperation, attend a faith healing service?
- Discuss the difference between a faith that expects all from faith, and a faith that expects all from God.
- Are you and your fellow-congregants convinced that the Lord can truly heal all ailments?
- Discuss the longing that is raised by the signs performed by the Lord Jesus.
- Do you know of examples of what is referred to as a medical miracle? Did that miracle happen after personal prayer, by the intervention of a faith healer, or by the intervention of a secular healer, such as Jomanda? What is the difference between these?
- Do you know of healings that should probably be ascribed to the devil?
- When people in the congregation are sick, does the church pay sufficient attention to them and pray for them? Or does the church perhaps pay too much attention to them?
- J. van Bruggen, Ambten in de apostolische kerk: Een exegetisch mozaïek (Kampen, 1984)
- Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (BSIS, 1994).
- L. Floor, De gaven van de Heilige Geest in bijbels-theologisch perspectief (Heerenveen, 1999).
- Nicky Gumbel,Questions of Life (1993).
- F.J. Hoogenraad, Gebedsgenezing, pinksterbeweging (Groningen, 1975).
- John F. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Zondervan, Mass Market Paper Edition, 1993).
- Richard Mayhue, The Healing Promise: Is it always God’s Will to Heal?Featuring Joni Eareckson-Tada (Christian Focus Publications, 1997).
- W.J. Ouweneel, Genees de zieken! Over de bijbelse leer van ziekte, genezing en bevrijding (Vaassen, 2003).
- M.J. Paul, Vergeving en genezing: Ziekenzalving in the christelijke gemeente (Zoetermeer, 1997).
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