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

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
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
  • I deplore writing in all caps, but today I have to: THANK YOU for writing this post. Our questions about why God heals sometimes and not others, our discomfort with the presence of suffering on this planet, and our attempts at apologizing for God or trying to explain Him in this difficult topic are definitely an elephant in the room. Sitting with faith in our chair of unknowing can be more powerful than 500 pages of “explanation.”

    • Thanks for your capital thank you! Yes – definitely agree about the unknowing, and admitting ignorance. Thanks so much for stopping by

  • My husband grew up in a faith tradition that put heaaaavy emphasis on miraculous healing, and he saw how much damage it can inflict when people aren’t healed, and it’s assumed they are doing something wrong. Your words here are powerful and important and I’m so grateful to have read them. Thank you.

    • Hi Beth – really lovely to connect with you. And wow – this really is the danger of making faith contingent on being healed and perfect in this life – it sends the message that if you have something physically wrong with you, you’re excluded from the church or a lesser Christian. Thank you for taking the time to comment

  • Tricia Whittle

    Thank you for your honesty and for summing up the guilt I feel when I’m not healed after prayer. Like you, I’ve been healed in the past when I could have died so I believe that God can heal but chooses not to at this time. One day we will understand but not today.
    https://youtu.be/HqOkZiOb9u0 This helps me not to keep feeling too sorry for myself.

    • yes! the guilt! Why is there the guilt??
      I love your wisdom and approach.

  • Laesa Kim

    I can’t thank you enough for this post. I am not the one thats been prayed for for healing, its been my baby girl. So I can’t relate to many of those questions being asked, certainly no one has asked my 16 month old daughter if she has enough faith or undelt with sin. But the premise of prayer to heal someone, to make them “whole” and well, has been a battle in mine and my husbands minds since our journey with our “sick” girl started. There is such frustration when it doesn’t “work”, when nothing changes. And then when we have grown to accept her diagnosis’ and others still want to pray for wholeness, when her body will never be whole (she lives with half a functioning heart), it leaves me feeling beat down all over again. Perhaps I am doing something wrong? And I just wish people would accept all of her, all the defects and anomolies, as whole, and move on from it. Anyways, your thoughts have touched me this morning. Thank your for bringing this topic to light.

    • Oh Laesa – I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through with your gorgeous girl. I recently recorded a video interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGht1qQpfUg&feature=youtu.be where I talked about the difficulty of living in hope. It sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it, that living in hope would not be a good thing? But sometimes other people’s hope is emotionally exhausting. Every time you pray for healing, you hope – and that means you have to acknowledge that all is not good right now, and you want things to change. Then, if the healing doesn’t come, you have to sit there with that feeling that all is not well, things are really hard, and that change will not come. It’s a fresh grief all over again. Whenever we experience loss of any kind, we all go through some kind of grief cycle – and what people don’t realise is that unanswered prayer initiates that cycle all over again.

      In the end I have got to the place where I say – i appreciate your hope, and thank you for sharing it with me. But I have to live in a place of acceptance for my own sanity. It means I receive their hope as love, but often have to ask for them to pray by themselves and not with me – and that’s how I keep my heart safe.

      Other people seem to be able to weather the prayer requests better than me, but my instinct is that the longer you have that experiecne or illness, the harder it is to live in the hope that it will be healed – because that is asking of you to live your life in a parallel universe, waiting to be healed. Sometimes what God calls us to do is to live well in the mess. Actually, that’s usually what God calls us to do – the healings are the unusual event.

      I was chatting with a friend who said that they asked for healing for their CP baby girl in the early days, but then they accepted that it wasn’t going to change. Of course, they loved her just as she was. That means that, now she’s an adult, it’s much harder to hear people offering to pray, because sometimes the message behind the offer is, ‘it’s not worth her living life like that, her only hope is healing’ – which dehumanises her and denies her own testimony of living life well on a different path.

      I’m sending you a whole lotta love – thanks for sharing your story with me – I feel privileged.

      • Laesa Kim

        Thank you for your response Tanya. I feel my spirit nodding yes, yes, yes with every word you have written here. Much love to you xo

  • Rebecka

    Amen, amen, amen!
    Also, “Who wants to be able to shower whenever they feel like it? Not me!” Too funny! x

    • 🙂
      Ha! Glad you saw the humour there.
      Thanks for the solidarity, my friend.

  • Sue Hay

    Thanks so much for risking your truth here. My mum lived some of her years from a wheelchair and you have captured exactly the spiritual dynamics of the prayer without full healing mystery. We do need to sit well with a theology of suffering.

    • Thank you so much – both for acknowledging the risk, and for sharing your own experience. We really do need that theology of suffering. Thanks

  • Pingback: When Your Prayer Doesn't Heal Me (She Loves) | Tanya Marlow - Thorns and Gold()

  • Janice Griswell

    I am 60 but much too ‘young’ for the rheumatoid arthritis which has interrupted my life and caused me to reevaluate so much. I definitely echo what you’ve shared here… We work in Latin America and here it’s taught that every illness has a sin or spiritual cause, so people assume my arthritis reflects a bitter, unforgiving spirit. Thanks for putting it out there.
    When Jesus heals the woman with the 12-yr issue of blood, which a doctor has explained as much more horrible even than it sounds, He does 2 things which I think are relevant to what you shared.
    First, He calls her out in front of the crowd… to further humiliate her? (Why not just let her slip away, since she received her physical healing?) NO! Rather He tenderly restores her in the eyes of her community and even in the eyes of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue from which she’s been excluded all this time!
    The second thing is that, in contrast to previous Luke healings, He does not say, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Because she had no sins? No. But He knows she’s been told her sins were the cause of her illness and she’s been self-analyzing and agonizing for 12 years!
    Responding to others’ discomfort with chronic, autoimmune disease requires both patience and grace which are not natural to me. I think we can only do so when bathed in and believing in God’s love. God IS teaching us thru our illness (or that of someone in our care); it’s just not always what others think we must need to be learning!

  • Yes! Thank you for putting these experiences into words. Very well put. (I did chuckle at your sarcasm. It got the point across very effectively. I’m sure we’ve all thought those things at some point, even if we don’t say them!)

  • Joe Byrne

    Thanks Tanya – that’s really helpful. My understanding is that there’s a huge difference between having faith that God can heal and having faith that God will heal … and all too often that difference is forgotten. As far as I’m aware, God never promises to always remove suffering and never guarantees that he will heal us in this life – but he always promises to be with us through suffering.

    To blame someone for not being healed seems extremely odd and to have misunderstood – it seems to assume that “God should have healed you, so if he didn’t, you must be doing something wrong” – I’m just not convinced that people can make that assumption. There were plenty of times where Jesus did not heal the people brought to him, so people should never assume that “God should have healed you.”

    Though the parable of the persistent widow tells us that we should not give up praying (Luke 18).

    Take care!

  • “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.” Amen and Amen. As one who has endured chronic pain for almost 20 years, I have to refrain from rolling my eyes and clenching my teeth in these situations. Thank you for this piece.

  • Stephanie

    As always, Tanya, thank you for speaking on these difficult topics. So often you put words to what I feel and experience, but can’t articulate.

  • Tanya, as the daughter of a terminally ill mother who died, all of this is so familiar to me. So many well-meaning people approached my mother this way, and approached me this way when I spoke about her illness. My aunt is also living with a terminal illness and people speak to her this way all the time. Thank you for being so frank about how hurtful this is, and for being vulnerable with the SheLoves community. We’re so grateful for your voice, and for leading us to a better theology of suffering and survival. Much love.

  • pastordt

    Oh, amen, friend. AMEN. Thank you for that sarcasm — sometimes it’s the tool that opens windows and doors, you know??

  • Jo Inglis

    Thanks so very much for this post (& also the post at Mudroom on Cure V Healing). I’ve always had a very scratchy itch when it comes to testimony services that are solely about miracles & the urge to shout out “what about when that doesn’t happen”.
    At the session when your video was played at New Wine, after the talk, was an invitation from the speaker for people to pray for each other for healing & to clap 5 times if there was an improvement. It was a weird dichotomy after your video – the fact that the speaker’s subject was not related to healing, it really did feel like a performance bolt-on at the end to try and go out on a high.
    Do people frequently overlook the greatest miracle that is Jesus’ incarnation & miss out?

    So grateful that you and your words over the years have taught me a more gracious & loving way. Here’s to sitting in the mystery xx