Praying Hands by Otto Greiner (1869-1916)
Today’s Question: “When you have some free time, I have an Ask Bob question. When praying for someone, whose faith affects the outcome? The faith of the one praying, or the faith of the one who is prayed for?”
My Answer: Friend, I’m so very glad you asked this question! A lot of people have suffered a lot of anguish because of some common misunderstandings about the relationship between faith and prayer.
First Things First
First, a note to other readers: you need to know that I have greatly abbreviated the question. When my friend sent me this question, it was part of a longer message. The question itself was very similar to the one I’ve written above: “When praying for someone, who’s faith affects the outcome?” It seemed to be about intercession in general. However, in the rest of the message, my friend gave some clarification, and seemed especially concerned about one particular subset of intercessory prayer: namely, prayer for someone to be healed of a physical illness.
So, I toyed with the idea of writing the question to reflect that narrower focus: “Who’s faith is required for a healing prayer to be effective – the sick person’s faith, or the faith of the one who is praying for them?”
After a day of consideration, I learned that focusing only on prayers for healing would be unnecessarily restrictive. This is because God doesn’t have a different way of responding to different kinds of human needs. His response is always consistent. God’s response is born out of his love, grace, knowledge, and plan.
So, everything that follows is applicable to any sort of intercessory prayer. Some of the Biblical examples will be concerned with healing, and some will be concerned with other matters. God doesn’t change, and his response to prayer is always consistent with who he is.
About Human Mortality
Everyone dies. I’m going to die. You’re going to die. The person you love most in all the world is going to die, if they haven’t already. Intercessory prayers, prayers for healing, magic spells, incantations, potions concocted in a steaming caldron, sacrificing a chicken, healing crystals, positive energy – in short, nothing – nothing – guarantees healing. If any religion had a perfect track record of healing, the result would be immortality, and you can pretty much bet that the whole world would adopt that religion. But it isn’t going to happen. So, the first thing we need to know is this: no matter who has the faith, and no matter how much faith they have, everyone dies. No amount of faith, by anyone, guarantees healing.
“…just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”
(Hebrews 9:27, ESV)
So, let’s clear this up once and for all: there is no religious formula, and no sort of faith – including Christian faith – that guarantees healing. Do you understand? Healing is never guaranteed. Healing is never predictable.
That means something really, really important. It means that anyone who tells you they know the reason healing didn’t happen is either presumptuous or misinformed. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re speaking about things that are beyond them. Because, my friend, no matter how much faith there is in the room, and no matter whose faith it is – everyone dies.
Whose Faith Counts?
But, for those of us who live by faith, we know that faith really does matter. Faith really does affect outcomes. We’ve seen it so many times. Our experiential knowledge of prayer – for ourselves, and for others – is that it makes a difference. God has encouraged us to ask, and we have asked. We have seen results that were against all odds, results that happened in ways we didn’t expect and couldn’t predict. We have seen God change lives, both our own and others. We have seen God change hearts, and minds, and circumstances, and – yes – bodies. And so we give thanks to him, and we give testimony to others, telling them what God has done. But – whose faith did it?
Okay, first we need to establish whether or not faith was even an integral part of the equation. Because, as we see in the Bible, sometimes it’s not…
Jesus said, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
(Matthew 5:45, ESV)
Good things can happen to people who have no faith in God at all. And sometimes, the good thing that happens is physical healing. God is good like that. It is God who designed our bodies to be, for the most part, self-maintaining and self-healing.
But, then again, there are those times when healing would not occur without prayer.
“Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.”
(James 5:14-15, ESV)
From just the brief snippet of James 5 that’s quoted above, we might conclude that the statement is ambiguous. Maybe the sick person is praying with the church elders. Maybe the sick person’s prayer was the essential ingredient, right? But a reading of the full passage in its context shows that James is talking about the faith of the elders. If it was your faith that resulted in your healing, then why call the elders at all? If we considered only this passage, we might conclude that the faith of the one who is praying is the faith that matters.
But still, there are some pesky passages we have to deal with, like this one that can be found in both Mark and Luke:
And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34, ESV, and see the parallel passage in Luke 8:48)
And the other one:
Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19, ESV)
So, let’s take a look at both of these situations.
First, the woman with the continual bleeding (Mark 5 and Luke 8): Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.” But, notice something else: in the context of our question, this passage isn’t even relevant. Why? Because no one prayed! This passage isn’t even about prayer. So, how did the woman’s faith lead to her healing? Because she reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’ robe. She had the faith to come to Jesus. Faith to come to Jesus isn’t a magic key to healing. Remember, mortality is one hundred percent certain; healing isn’t. Even though she had faith to come to Jesus – which caused Jesus to say, “Your faith has made you well” – she wasn’t healed directly as a result of her faith. She was healed by the will and power of God.
Now, it’s going to look like I’m reversing myself, but stay with me here, and this will all be consistent. I said that the story of this woman’s healing isn’t relevant to our question because it’s not a story about someone who prayed for healing. But it is a story about faith and healing, so even though it’s not about prayer, we can make it relevant by extension. I’ll try to explain. You see, you and I don’t have the luxury of walking up behind Jesus and touching the hem of his robe. But we can still come to Jesus, just as this woman did. We do this today by prayer. We can come to God in prayer and ask for healing for ourselves or others.
The person with no faith will say, “I’m not going to pray for healing. That’s pointless.”
The person with faith will say, “I’m going to pray for healing, even though I don’t know how God will answer.”
And so, by coming to God – by praying – you, or the person you prayed for, may be healed, if it’s in God’s plan.
God has no obligation. God doesn’t say, “Oh, this person prayed in faith, so I have no choice but to heal.”
Do you see? When Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” he didn’t mean, “Wow! Your faith is so powerful that I must heal!” Rather, he said, “You came to me. Well done. If you had not decided to come to me, you would never have been healed. But you came to me!”
This is the woman’s faith. It’s not faith that crosses some invisible line, faith that’s greater than some measurable threshold, faith that triggers a predictable response from our sometimes unpredictable God. No. It’s just faith to come. And still, today, the one who is willing to come to God, to ask for healing, for himself, for herself, or for someone else – this one has enough faith to heal and be healed. This one, we may say, touches the hem of Jesus’ robe. But that measure of faith – faith to come to God – is never God’s deciding factor in whether to heal or not.
Second, the ten lepers (Luke 17): these ten came to Jesus, and they did ask: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Oh. Wait. We’ve answered the question, haven’t we? This situation is really no different than the situation with the woman with the continual bleeding, is it? Jesus said the same thing to them: “Your faith has made you well.” But it was neither some measurable quantity of faith, nor any particular measure of gratitude, that caused them to be healed. They, like the woman, were healed by the will and power of God. Their faith was faith to come. Not faith of a specific weight, or volume, or mass, or purity.
Just faith to come. Just faith to ask.
Okay, let’s move on. Here are some more examples. Some of them have to do with healing, and some of them are about other kinds of intercession.
Example #1 (Old Testament)
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
(II Kings 6:15-17, ESV)
Elisha prayed for his servant, who clearly didn’t have the faith to do anything. The servant received the blessing of the prayer, even though lacking faith.
Example #2 (New Testament)
Soon afterward he [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.
(Luke 7:11-15, ESV)
The man was dead. It wasn’t about his faith at all. It didn’t even involve his mother’s faith. Remember this story, if someone ever says to you, “(S)he didn’t have enough faith to be healed.”
Example #3 (Old Testament)
In I Kings 18:41-45, you can read the story of Elijah praying for rain after a long drought. God answered his prayer. (In fact, God is the one who told Elijah when to pray for the rain to begin. There’s an entirely different lesson in this fact, but that’s for another time). Do you see? It had nothing to do with the faith of the ones who received the blessing. The rain came because of the faith of the intercessor. Remember this story, if someone ever says to you, “(S)he didn’t have enough faith.”
Example #4 (New Testament)
Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him.
(Acts 28:7-8, ESV)
This is another example where the faith that mattered was the faith of Paul – the one who prayed – and not the faith of the one who was prayed for. If you read this passage in its larger context, you’ll see that the people of the island had never heard of Jesus. They weren’t Christians. The healing happened shortly after Paul and his friends arrived on the island. Luke, who wrote about this event, gives all credit to Paul, and doesn’t indicate any faith at all on the part of Publius’ father.
A Final Passage to Consider
There is one more passage in the Bible that I must address, because faith healers refer to it so often. Many faith healers try to “save face” if healing doesn’t happen. Instead of simply saying, “Sometimes God heals, and sometimes he doesn’t,” they feel compelled to offer an explanation. (News flash: God only explains himself when he has a good reason. God does a lot of things without explaining himself). And so, in order to save face and offer some sort of explanation, faith healers frequently point to Acts 14.
Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking.
(Acts 14:8-10, ESV)
Listen to me: if a modern-day faith healer wants to use this passage to explain why some people aren’t healed, they clearly don’t know what they’re doing. Look at it. Read it. Paul saw that he had faith to be made well. If Paul hadn’t seen something, he wouldn’t have told the man to stand up. Do you understand? If the modern faith healer uses this passage – and fails to heal – then that faith healer is admitting that they can’t see faith. Then, instead of blaming themselves for being blind to when God wants them to heal and when he doesn’t, they blame the one who is crippled or sick. Instead of admitting, “I tried to heal when I wasn’t supposed to,” they say, “Oh, you weren’t healed because you don’t have enough faith.”
- No amount of faith, by anyone, guarantees healing.
- There is no measurable quantity of faith that can force God to heal.
- Everyone dies. God’s answer to prayers for healing is sometimes “No,” and it doesn’t matter how much faith anyone has.
- It is always noble to pray for someone. Always!
- Some blessings – healing or otherwise – will not occur unless someone prays.
- God may heal even if no one prays, because God is good to all and he has made our bodies to be self-healing.
- Faith for healing is faith to come to God. You may have this faith yourself, or someone may come to God in prayer on your behalf.
- The person who blames you for a lack of faith is usually just misinformed. They haven’t been taught correctly about the things of God. On rare occasions, where they seek to profit from healing, such a person may be a deceiver.
- Be brave. Be a fool for Christ. Pray for healing for others. Pray, asking God for blessings for others. Pray publicly, loudly, boldly, often. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, NIV). There are no guarantees. God is sovereign, and you are not. But pray, as Jesus encouraged you to pray, and watch as God changes your world.
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