Theologians John Piper and Al Mohler have weighed in on why God answers certain prayers for healing in this life, but not all, and the role faith plays in the outcome.
On an episode of his DesiringGod podcast, Piper responded to a reader who asked if greater faith would have saved his father from dying of a brain tumor.
“[My] answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know,” Piper said. “What I do know is that I would go insane if I had to figure that out every time I preached — that when I preach, I’ve got to know what would have happened if I’d done things differently. And when I preach, it’s not just what’s at stake here on Earth; it’s what’s at stake eternally. Eternal lives are at stake when I preach, not just my dad’s few years of life on the planet. I cannot bear the burden — I can’t bear it — of having to answer the question, What if? What if? What if?
“So it is with our prayers for those we love, whether physical healing or spiritual salvation. Would more faith heal? Would more faith save? Maybe, but maybe not,” he continued.
There are several instances in Scripture where Jesus healed when there was no faith, Piper contended.
“He healed in response to little faith; He healed in response to great faith; He withheld healing for lack of faith,” the pastor said. “I think the way forward is to seek to grow in faith and to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus, according to 2 Peter 3:18. Never, never, never be content with what you already possess in faith. Always want more of all that God has to give. But realize that faith is a gift, and you can never presume that God owes it to you.”
Piper further explained that God decides who lives and who dies, and He decides when, adding: “Our main job is to trust His promise. And His promise is not to heal everyone we want healed. His promise is to do good to those who trust Him (Romans 8:28), and to conform us to Christ (Romans 8:29), and to give us the grace we need to persevere in love and holiness to the end (2 Corinthians 12:9).”
Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, also weighed in on the issue of healing on a recent episode of the Gospel Coalition podcast.
The theologian suggests that it is always right to pray for healing, adding that the entire biblical worldview is that we will be ultimately healed in eternity.
“It’s always right to pray, it’s the right thing for the Church to do,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with praying that God will heal me ... the entire biblical worldview is that, by the power of the Gospel and the promise of Christ, we will be healed, we will be perfect.”
Mohler referred to the hymn O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing by Charles Wesley, which says, “And leap, ye lame, for joy,” pointing to the truth that one day, every tear will be wiped away.
“It’s one of those reminders of the fact that one day that will be so,” he said. “Until then, we have to back up for a moment and remember that God is not absent from our sickness and God is not absent from our suffering. It’s not as if we’re living a secular life and we just need a supernatural God to intervene. If we actually believe in God, we believe He has been sovereign over all of this.”
Mohler also noted what Jesus says in John 9:3 about the blind man who is healed, that it was neither mother or father who sinned, but that the works of God may be shown. According to Mohler, Jesus was indicating that every moment of the blind man’s life was meaningful because God had a perfect plan.
“I have been sick, I have been at the point of death, and the Lord has rescued me,” he explained. “At times I was unconscious and could not pray for myself and others prayed for me. That gives me a renewed sense that God has a purpose in that for me, which points to the earthly future. But I also have to know theologically and biblically, my soul is to be secure in the fact that God’s purposes are going to be made perfect in me, even if my earthly horizon is brief.”
Bryan Chapell, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, added that when God rescues, that brings God glory. Additionally, when there is faith through a time of no earthly rescue but confidence in the eternal rescue, that gives God glory as well.
“God always answers prayers for healing, He simply may not answer in the timing that we may be asking,” Chapell said. “God may heal in this life imperfectly, but He will always heal the Christian perfectly when we are with Him.”
A 2016 study from the Barna group found that the majority of American adults (66%) believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God.
Evangelicals are the most likely of any group to believe people can be physically healed supernaturally by God — almost nine in 10 (87%) agree strongly. Practicing Christians follow suit: six in 10 (61%) agree strongly.
When discussing why God heals some individuals and not others, the nature of God's goodness is often called into question, Bill Johnson, senior leader of Bethel Church in Redding, California, said, in a 2016 interview with The Christian Post.
"The conflict [in the church] is over the goodness of God," he said. "That spirit of accusation is welcomed in many circles as the voice of reason, the voice of discernment. My prayer is that through an arresting revival in the nations, we will see another Great Awakening that dismantles the tsunami of the demonic that thrives on our self-righteous theology and corresponding division it creates."
When people pray for things that don't come to pass, particularly for supernatural things like healing or miracles, the tendency for some is to jump to the conclusion that it was not God's desire to do it. And that's a grave mistake, he said.
"It's easier for people to say, 'God just doesn't do that anymore' than for them to set aside their life and pursue that kind of breakthrough," Johnson said.