With reference to James 5:13-18, we will attempt to answer the question of why some people are healed in response to prayer and some are not. In order to fully accomplish answering this question we must understand a few key concepts with regard to God’s activity in the creation on a daily basis, the difference between divine providence and miracle and the benefits of physical healing versus spiritual healing.
Let's begin by dealing with the key concepts.
Jack Cottrell in his book The Faith Once for All gives us an easy to understand description of how God interacts with His creation,
"God has something to do with everything. But He does not have everything to do with everything." (Cottrell, kindle 2937)
God is not a puppet master. Because He desired man to have free will so that man could live in close relationship with his Creator by choice it was necessary for God to design His creation with what is known as Relative Independence.
Man was created with free will which means that man has the ability to make independent decisions. In the exercising of this free will man always has the option of obedience or disobedience, good or evil, self-gratification or self-denial, love or hate and so on.
Let's look for a minute at the Creation Mandate God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28.
God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (nasb)
Adam and Eve were given charge over creation to take care of it for God but they were not told specifically how to accomplish this task. Man was given the option of deciding the best course of action to accomplish the purpose God had created them for. God very easily could have instilled in His creation a complete dependence upon Him so that everything always was as it should be. He could have set every order without variance or openness to influence. But that would mean that free will would not exist. A computer has no free will. It cannot decide on its own when to turn on or shut down. It does not decide when to update, run a word processor or edit a video. A computer is completely dependent upon its programming. It makes no independent decisions based on its own set of logic and reason.
This is not how God created things. In order for there to be choice their must necessarily be free will; the ability to choose something other than the desired choice of the Creator. In order to allow man to have free will He must permit choices other than His desires to be made by man. He permits creation to act on its own through natural laws that have been put into place and the free will activities of man. Even though God’s desire is not always chosen by man He still keeps His presence in the world with man. In this continual presence in the creation God participates in everything in the created world. Because He is interested in all that happens He observes all that happens.
Man is not a computer. Man is a living being with free will living in a world governed by natural law as ordained by God.
But God also does not leave His creation completely independent from Him. Why? There are two reasons for this. First, God desires to interact with His creation out of love and a desire for relationship. Second, because of the issue of the fall of man and sin's effect on creation God knew that redemption of the fallen creation would be necessary or it would have to be left to utter destruction and separation from Him. Once again, God loves His creation so He could not bear this reality out as long as there was something that could be done. He knew from the beginning that free will would mean that man could choose to not live in relationship with Him and as a result would be permanently separated from Him if not for redemption. For this reason God decided to put the plan of redemption in place before the creation was ever spoken into existence. We see proof of this in 1 Peter 1:20, 2 Timothy 1:9, and Ephesians 1:4-5.
Now that's love. But I am getting off topic. Let’s get back to the key concepts.
Relative independence is a fancy way of stating that while free will exists in the creation God is not totally separate or un-involved with it.
From the beginning God created things to work in a certain order. This order is what we can call the "laws of nature." Now please don't get nailed down to all of man's definitions of the laws of nature. Science is about discovering the laws of nature not mandating them. Since man's knowledge is limited and ever increasing it stands to reason that our understanding of the laws of nature should be constantly changing and growing. This does not mean that the laws of nature change in accordance with man's knowledge. The laws of nature are set to work in a certain way as ordained by God but man's understanding of those laws is constantly growing which to the limited mind of man gives the appearance of change. Looks can be deceiving.
So at this point we understand that as ordained by God there are two forces in creation that have the ability to cause change in that creation independent from God’s direct action apart from His creating those forces to begin with. These are natural law and free will.
Remember we stated previously that God has something to do with everything but not everything to do with everything. God causes some things and permits others. So then, what is the difference between causing and permitting? Simply stated when God intervenes in a situation through Divine Providence, Miracle or Spiritual Events it can be said that he is causing something to happen. When God chooses not to intervene in these ways and instead allows natural laws and the effects of free will to run their course it can be said that He is permitting something to happen. It is important to keep in mind that due to the fall both man’s free will and the laws of nature have been devastatingly affected by sin. There are times that God will intervene in His created order and break the laws of nature in order to accomplish His plan of Redemption. This is referred to as a Miracle. The term Miracle has been grossly misinterpreted in today's Christian understanding. We call things Miracles that are actually either the result of natural laws working on their own or Divine Providence, but as of yet we have not defined this thing called Divine Providence.
Through Divine Providence God can intervene in the created world and in the life of man to direct His desired purposes. While it is the act of God intervening in the life of man and creation for His own purpose He accomplishes this direction of outcomes by working with natural law and man’s free will not negating them. Through Divine Providence God directs His purposes by influencing the decisions made by man in relation to his free will. God doesn’t disregard man’s free will He instead uses natural law to influence man’s decisions.
One way God does this is through removing His hand of protection from the human body and allowing the effects of this sinful fallen world to run their course. God can permit bacteria to grow, the immune system to fail or the brain to develop chemical imbalances. He does these things in order to influence man to make the decisions that will further His plan of redemption.
Divine Providence means that while God set the natural laws of His creation and free will in place to work on their own He can and will direct that free will or bend those natural laws in order to accomplish His purposes of the Redemption of Creation as necessary. This is not the same as natural laws or free will being broken. The natural laws and free will are still intact they are just directed in the moment or situation toward a specific purpose or goal.
Another way which God intervenes in the created order to accomplish His divine purposes is through the use of miracles. Now to address the key concept of the miraculous, I would like to discuss how many things today are mistakenly named as Miracles. It is not a Miracle that you found your keys or your Amazon order came on the exact day you needed it instead of when it was slated to arrive which would have been late because you forgot to make your order on time in relation to your deadline.
These events are either the result of someone exercising their free will of doing good for another through returning a set of keys to a rightful owner or keeping them safe until the rightful owner claims them or the result of an individual exercising a God honoring work ethic through doing more than what is expected or using their time and efforts to the ultimate efficiency resulting in their getting their work accomplished ahead of schedule. This of course means you get your order ahead of time. These are not miraculous events. Free will and the laws of nature were not broken.
They may have been directed or influenced by God but they were not broken. He may have pricked the heart of the person who found your keys to remember a time when they had lost something of necessity or significance and they remembered how they felt and then used their free will to choose to make sure another person didn't suffer the same as they did in their loss. He may have influenced the worker by creating an opportunity for the fulfillment of their desire to get ahead in their company through promotion or respect so that they would be more diligent in their work efforts. But in each case free will and natural law were completely intact.
A Miracle by definition must in fact include the breaking of Natural Law. In fact there are three characteristics that an event must possess if it is to be considered a Miracle. (Cottrell, kindle 3215)
1. The event must be visible; observable by the natural senses of man.
2. The event must be contrary to natural law; not just the breaking of natural laws but actions in complete contrast to those laws.
3. The event must be for a sign; they must point to a revealed truth of God that has accompanied the situation or event. They create wonder in the observer which points them toward the supernatural.
God uses miracles as a sign to point people unmistakably to Himself.
There is yet another way in which God interacts with His creation in order to accomplish his purposes. That way is through the supernatural or spiritual events. These are un-observable or hidden to the human senses unless God has enabled the observer to see what is normally unseen. For the purposes of this blog post we will not delve deeper into this particular subject.
Now that we have explained the key concepts of the created order and how God interacts with His creation let’s look at the topic of why some people receive healing in response to prayer while others do not by focusing on Divine Providence in contrast to Miracles.
Before we can answer this we must first address the difference between physical illness and spiritual illness. We must also evaluate whether God is more concerned with physical healing or spiritual healing.
Physical Healing deals with illness and disease connected with the physical body, emotions, or mind while Spiritual Healing deals with the disease of sin that affects the spiritual health of a person. God is more concerned with our spiritual health first and foremost and secondary to that is our physical health. Mark 8:36 tells us that there is no benefit for a man if he has the whole world but still loses his soul.
So in order to answer the question of why some people are healed as a result of prayer and others are not we must discern which of God’s purposes are being fulfilled in the healing or denial of it.
A person may be suffering from a disease or illness because God is using Divine Providence to influence their free will so that they make the decision He desires them to make in order to fulfill His plan of redemption either in their life, the life of another or in the grand scheme of human history. In such cases, if the illness is a necessary means of influencing that person’s free will choices or the choices of others in relation to that person then God will not answer the prayer for healing by removing the physical illness as this would result in spiritual illness.
On the other hand, if a person’s healing will benefit God’s redemptive mission then He will of course grant physical healing. But God can do all of this through His Divine Providence alone without the aid of Miracles.
So then what is the purpose of miraculous healing through prayer? If healing takes place apart from Divine Providence through the prayer of the elders then it may be said that this was a miraculous healing. Since we discussed previously that Miracles are for a sign what kind of sign could a miraculous healing through prayer give?
The sign can be the approval or commissioning of a person by God for the direct accomplishing of His divine purpose. The sign could also be for the person who was healed because healing by divine providence alone would not have gotten the attention of the person being healed in such a way as to accomplish God’s plan in their lives and in redemption. Lastly, the sign could be for those looking on in the miraculous healing process. Individuals who do not follow God may be drawn to Him through witnessing the healing of another in a miraculous way through prayer when they would have explained away healing through divine providence.
So, while there are different ways that healing takes place it can safely be said that divine miraculous healing through prayer as stated in James 5:13-18 serves a greater purpose than that of just healing a person physically. It can also safely be said that some definitely do receive healing through prayer while others may not but the ultimate reason why some do and some don’t receive healing is because the healing or lack of it accomplishes the greater purpose that God desires. This seems at first blush like a no brainer of a conclusion yet it seems to escape us often.
God’s first desire is that men would come to know Him. Secondly, God desires His children to live a life on earth that entices others to come to know Him. He desires His children to live abundant lives for His glory; both abundant in suffering and in comfort as stated in 2 Corinthians 1:5 all for His glory.
Note: While this author has found valuable information in Jack Cottrell's books I feel it is important to state that this author does not agree with and most of Cottrell's opinions and views.
Cottrell, Jack. The Faith Once for All: Bible doctrine for today. United States of America: College Press Publishing Company, 2002.
New American Standard Bible. LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation., 1995: Update.