When Your Prayer Doesn’t Heal Me (and how you should react)

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Tanya Marlow -Healing Prayer3

It’s an ordinary day in the run-up to Christmas and we’re out in town to look for presents. Then, on High Street, we see people with bright clothes and a sign advertising healing prayer, scanning the crowd and looking despondent.

Their eyes alight on me, and immediately they brighten. From their scattered positions, they all move towards me as one, their smiles preceding them.

They all want to be the one who offers prayer and perhaps witnesses a miracle. For now they have spotted, in the wild, a Person Who Definitely Needs Healing.

Like always, I chide myself for looking so obviously ill. Then again, it’s hard to disguise a wheelchair.

***

Why do I feel that sink of dread when I see strangers offering healing?

I don’t want to be ill with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, nor do I want to need a wheelchair. I would love to be healed, and I’m a Christian who believes that God sometimes answers prayers for miraculous healing. I have, in fact, welcomed such prayers from loving and sensitive friends who know me well. But I am also wary of being prayed for by strangers.

Why?

The mystery of healing and unanswered prayer is the elephant in the room I drag around with me everywhere I go.

The trouble with healing prayer at a conference or by strangers is the pressure of performance. Like most people, sometimes I’m deeply moved by others’ prayers; other times I just appreciate their words without having a spiritual connection.

But in a conference or ministry situation, unless it’s handled very carefully, the person becomes a project, and your healing prayer is the performance.

I feel your need for results, and when you ask the question at the end, “How do you feel?” I don’t know how to tell you, “No different.” I can already see the disappointment in your eyes.

That’s the moment I dread. Why? When the healing doesn’t happen we want someone to blame.

We don’t blame God. (How can we blame God, who is perfect?)

Sometimes we blame ourselves–our prayer wasn’t good enough, or long enough, or in tune enough with the Spirit. Sometimes we blame the devil, and there’s a danger of attempting to cast demons out of people who don’t have them. But most times, we just blame the sick person.

“Is there any sin in your life that you haven’t confessed?”
Answer: Nope. Not a thing. I live all my life perfectly, and whenever I feel even the slightest bit of pride for my perfect life, I confess it immediately so I never get so much as a winter cold.

“Do you want to get well?”
Answer: Aha! You’ve got me! I just love having to ask people to open doors for me all the time. Who wants to be able to shower whenever they feel like it? Not me! I absolutely adore being cut off from friends and rarely going outside. I revel in pain–it’s like a hobby. The dream job I was doing before? –Secretly hated it at a deep and very subconscious level! Thanks for that question–I never ever wake up each day with exhaustion, thinking that I’d love to be better and this is literally the first time I’ve considered it.

“Do you truly have faith that Jesus will heal you?”
Answer: Ah. I see. I asked for prayer for Jesus to heal me, which indicates a belief in and love for Christ, and a confidence that Jesus is able to heal in some circumstances–but I didn’t realise that wasn’t called faith. How should I be performing my Christianity differently?

“Do you think you should try walking, just to see if God’s healed you? The lame man got up and walked.”
Answer: I would love for you to witness me collapsing in front of you just to prove to you that God hasn’t healed me on this occasion. That sounds really fun and not at all humiliating.

Even as I write this, I recognise I’m resorting to angry sarcasm because it’s a deep wound, and I’m in defence-mode.

I know these questions come from the best of motives and draw from the Bible. The truth is, these are the questions I ask myself continuously. I would love to be better. I once pitied the poor, ignorant, medieval folk who self-flagellated to get God’s approval or healing. I now better understand their desperation.

I don’t know any chronically ill person who hasn’t walked through these painful questions over and over again. The emotional effect of this is exhausting and dispiriting.

***

Church, we have got to stop blaming sick people for their suffering.

It’s hard when confronted with a mystery. It feels foolish to say, “I don’t know” when asked why God doesn’t heal everyone. It’s so tempting—even for the sick person—to want something concrete to blame it on. I don’t deny the existence of the devil or evil spirits, nor that faith and prayer have a mysterious impact on healing. But when we’re looking at an individual, we must beware of blaming them.

This is why I told Jon to take a quick detour that day into a random alley. I didn’t have the courage to put myself in a situation where I must discern whether someone’s theology is nuanced enough to hold the mysteries of suffering before I submit myself to potential questioning about my faith and worth.

***

So, church, we must offer prayer for all—after all, it’s conversation with our loving heavenly Parent—but let’s look carefully at our attitudes as we do so.

Let’s not view prayer as a performance that results in us blaming ourselves or the recipient if it doesn’t get the answer we want. God is not a slot machine where you pay your prayer and get your prize.

Let’s remember that when we pray for strangers, they are offering a vulnerable part of themselves to us, which is a great privilege and to be handled with the greatest care. Let’s remember that miracles are miracles–which means they don’t happen very often.

And let’s remember that God is bigger than us, and, this side of heaven, there are some things we just won’t know.

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Tanya Marlow
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She loves singing opera arias, eating dark chocolate and laughing at her own jokes. (Not at the same time). She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and  get her book for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow