When Prayers for Healing Do Not Seem to Work: A Pauline Perspective
A few years ago we prayed fervently for a beloved colleague that was diagnosed with cancer. Her journey was long, painful, and accompanied by the prayers of her church and work colleagues. Eventually we gathered together at her funeral. Many of us felt sad and deflated that God had not answered our prayers for physical recovery.
Certain New Testament texts give the impression that God heals diseased and broken people based on a criteria involving the quality or the measure of the faith of those who turn to him.
- In Mark 5 a woman is healed because of her faith while a synagogue leader with a dying daughter is encouraged to have faith.
- In Mark 9 a father, pleading for his son, states that he has some faith but asks for help to overcome his unbelief.
- In Mark 6 Jesus’ healing power is limited in Nazareth because of the lack of faith of people in his hometown.
Christians who pray for physical healing and see no positive results may be inclined to blame themselves for deficiencies of faith. Some may attempt to purge, refine, or expand their belief in God’s power to heal in order to reach the threshold required for a miracle.
The story of St. Paul’s struggle with a chronic illness provides a helpful correction to an exaggerated interpretation of the Biblical texts associated with the “name it and claim it” tendency current in some quarters.
St. Paul and the Thorn in the Flesh
God’s power to heal the sick was clearly evident through the apostolic witness of Paul. He makes reference to signs, wonders, and mighty works that accompanied the Christian proclamation (Rom. 15.18-19; 2 Cor. 12.12). It is important to notice that Paul is reticent about describing this aspect of his mission. No descriptions are provided. He prefers to draw attention to the message of the gospel with particular reference to the cross and resurrection. A reading of Romans 1-8 should convince any reader of Paul’s motivation to communicate the content of his message rather than to promote himself as a healer or wonder-worker.
When we turn to the letter called 2 Corinthians, we recognize the context of contested leadership. Paul was challenged by a group of detractors that he called the “super-apostles” (2 Cor. 11.5). Taking advantage of Paul’s absence, these critics publicly dismissed him as deficient in speech, unimpressive in personal presence, lacking in “spiritual” experiences, and wanting in demonstrations of power. There is not space to canvas the full nature of Paul’s defence. In this blog I want to draw attention to 2 Corinthians 12.1-10.
Paul begins by speaking of a mystical experience of faith that he had fourteen years previously. He was conducted into the very presence of God around the time of his conversion. His desire not to use the visionary event for personal boasting or prestige is evident in the way he attributes this occurrence to an unidentified man. Paul then shifts the theme by stating that he deliberately chooses to speak of his weaknesses. The thorn in the flesh kept him grounded in humility and seemed to almost accompany the out-of-body experience and has been used to keep him grounded in humility.
There has been robust debate about the metaphorical expression “a thorn in my flesh.” The secondary description “a messenger of Satan” suggests that it was an obstacle and impediment to his missionary vocation. I agree with Ernest Best (1987) that the condition appears to have been chronic and episodic. Audrey Dawson (2008) is a New Testament specialist and a medical doctor. She proposes that Paul suffered from malaria, chronic brucellosis, or epilepsy. During relapses, he was weak and dependent on other people. In social settings that valued honor, Paul could be treated with contempt or scorn (Gal. 4.14).
The description of praying three times for healing and release probably means repeated prayer for a period. I appreciate how Best describes the answer from God. Paul was not told that it was noble to suffer. He was not told that he would discover a silver lining in the dark clouds. He was not told that he should learn to be content with his good days in order to deal with the bad. He was told that God’s grace would give him the resources to deal with the condition and its consequences. Through his illness, Paul would find that God’s power was perfected in weakness.
I agree with Dawson that people afflicted by a chronic illness are profoundly influenced by their pain and the reactions of others around them. The psycho-social impact of the thorn in the flesh has not received the kind of attention it merits. Paul may have developed skills as a writer of letters because the chronic illness restricted his movements at certain times. The misery and embarrassment drew him nearer to the suffering of Jesus (Phil. 3.10). In fact, Paul was convinced that his own sufferings, related to his calling and his health, were a way of completing the suffering of Christ for the church (Col. 1.24; 2 Cor. 4.10). Even though his body could be described as wasting away, he experienced a form of renewal that came from God (2 Cor. 4.16). The triumphant words of Romans 8 would be untested theory if not written by a man who had experienced hardships in his body and his vocation. One wonders if his understanding of the cross was made more profound through the years of living with an unpredictable chronic health condition.