How (Not) to Pray for Healing

A lot of people in Charismatic churches can be incredibly well meaning when they offer to pray for healing, but, as a chronically unwell person, I’ve had some pretty damaging experiences and I know a lot of my disabled friends can say the same.

A key issue is that people who are well do not understand the power-dynamic that takes place when they pray for the sick, and they often forget that the person in front of them is in an extremely vulnerable position and has a lot of shame and disappointment to deal with long after your moment of prayer has passed.

I’m not here to say that healings do or don’t happen. I know a guy who was miraculously healed of stage 4 leukaemia in a crazy way that could only be God, and in the last seven years it has not returned. But I can also say for myself that I have prayed for healing many times and I am still sick to a point where it is disabling and restricting on a regular basis. God heals some and not others, and, this side of eternity, we don’t exactly know why.

So, if you are a Charismatic/Pentecostal sort and you would like to pray for healing for someone, here is a sick person’s plea to do it well and be considerate of their needs!

1. Don’t make it about you

People who have successfully prayed for healing in the past can sometimes be tempted to feel powerful and let it get to their heads a little. This is deeply sinful and needs to be addressed properly in charismatic churches. Remember that character and heart posture are more important to God than supernatural magic tricks. If you are offering prayer for healing as a way of showing off or proving to someone that your theology is “right”, consider whether you should do this at all and perhaps invite someone else in the congregation to pray instead.

Bear in mind that the Holy Spirit might want to do something that you weren’t expecting or doesn’t fit into your denominational script. My old vicar in London used to say that when you pray for someone, first invite the Holy Spirit, and then let your mind wonder off and go make a cup of tea. You are still physically present with that person, but mentally you have let go of control over the situation and have allowed the Holy Spirit to do whatever he wants to do.

Also bear in mind that the sick or disable person you are praying for might not feel comfortable with what you had in mind when you offered to pray or might not want you to pray at all. Having prayed for myself many times, I have sensed the Holy Spirit speak to me out of 2 Corinthians 12. We know that Paul spent some time being severely unwell (possibly with an eye disease that was common in the Mediterranean in that period), and when he begged God three times to heal his affliction, God said no. The reason Paul gives is so that he can learn to depend more on God through physical weakness. It’s easy to say “I depend on the Lord” when my life is going well, but if I’m physically incapacitated, then I have to rely on his Spirit to keep my mental health afloat and his body – the church – to keep my physical needs met. Having come to a place of accepting that God has chosen to allow my illness to continue in order to teach me to lean on him more, it can feel quite jarring when people insist on praying for healing when God has already said no.  

My advice is to always ask permission before praying and don’t barge your way into their situation without their consent. In some instances, consider inviting the person to pray for themselves first, and note what they say, which should give you pointers in what to pray when it’s your turn to speak.

2. Understand the power dynamics that come with praying for a vulnerable person

This is the essence of safeguarding. If you are a healthy person and you are offering hope for healing to a sick person, this puts you in a psychologically powerful position.

If they have consented to being prayed for then it means they have put their trust in you and have some sort of hopeful or tentative expectation for what is about to happen. Do not take their trust for granted and do not under any circumstances be flippant about the value of their trust.

3. Understand the stronghold of shame

Our Western society has made a radical shift from being a guilt-based culture to a shame-based culture, and millennials and Gen Z in particular are especially primed to feel deep shame when they accidentally go off script from what is allowed to be said in social situations. When somebody was praying with me and I asked God to help me accept my limitations and depend on him more, this person cut me off mid-sentence and shouted in my face, “You’re not supposed to pray for that, you’re supposed to pray for healing!” This caused me deep psychological distress and tempted me to further isolate myself from my Christian community. Telling a sick person that their heart-cry before God is “wrong” implies that they have to sort themselves out before presenting themselves before God and the church, rather than coming as they are in their vulnerable state.

It is also common to feel shame from lack of achievement. In our post-industrial capitalist world, it is very easy for people to believe that their sense of self-worth is tied with their achievements or their productivity. This is true up and down the class spectrum. Therefore, when someone is physically restricted and therefore cannot work or be productive, their self-worth can already be severely crippled, and they can be primed to feel ashamed of their lack of contribution in a church community, their family, or even society as a whole. There is a deep sense that they will never be able to give as much as they receive, as well as an awareness of being a burden to others. Comments about how it’s “so annoying having to keep praying for this” or “it’s so exhausting having to live with/help out a sick person” can be especially harmful and can lead to thoughts of suicide.

The tenancy of some churches to bring a sick person to the front to publicly pray for healing is also problematic on many fronts. First, it can imply that there is something inherently wrong with them, and second, parading them before the entire congregation can add to their sense of shame by disrespecting their need for privacy and dignity.

Always keep these prayers as private as reasonably possible in order to respect the person’s dignity. Always affirm and validate the prayers and feelings of the person you are praying for. Consider reminding this person that they are loved by God no matter whether they are healed or not, and only contend for healing if the Holy Spirit explicitly instructs you to do so or the person has specifically requested it.

4. Avoid aggressive and declarative rhetoric

Jesus came into this world as a tiny baby and a vulnerable refugee. Later in his ministry, he said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Bear in mind that you don’t need to get hyped up when Jesus himself had a gentle ministry.

Moreover, it is common in Pentecostal circles to “declare” that someone is healed before there is any evidence that they actually are healed. This is problematic for two reasons:

  1. Telling a vulnerable person that something is true when it isn’t is a form of psychological abuse called gaslighting. It can be extremely harmful because it distorts their perception of reality, which can lead to further mental health problems, emotional distress, and can cause them to leave the faith altogether.
  2. When the person then discovers that they are in fact not healed (usually after you’ve walked away and gone off to enjoy your non-disabled life), they can often feel like their illness’ prevalence is their fault. The logic goes that if they were healed during the moment of prayer but are sick again after the prayer-warrior walks away, then a common conclusion is that it’s their fault for not having enough faith. They can also then feel like they’re not supposed to tell anyone that they are still sick because they had already been “declared” healed, and this can lead to further exclusion and isolation.

Remember that you are Christ’s ambassador and therefore do not need to assert your dominance because Christ is already risen and has done the hard yards for you. Consider approaching in a calm manner and avoid aggressive or violent language. Do not state something to be true when it clearly isn’t.

5. Learn the difference between Real Hope and false hope

People who are chronically unwell or permanently disabled are told by doctors and nurses that there is nothing they can do. However, words like “incurable” and “permanent” are hard to process, which can lead to denial of reality and searches for quick fixes, and unfortunately, the internet has a lot of these on offer.

Hope in a quick fix is not Real Godly Hope, and the church must be careful to discern the difference between what God does promise and what he doesn’t:

  1. The Real Hope that God promises is that all believers will be raised to life with new heavenly bodies that will not be susceptible to sickness or suffering. This is something we can all look forward to.
  2. Our tentative hope is that in some instances, while we are still in our broken and fallen world, Christ chooses to display his kingdom by healing the sick. He does not do this all the time, but he has definitely done it through each generation since his accession into heaven and will continue to do so while we await his return. This might happen for the person you are praying for, but it also might not.
  3. False hope and quick fixes are what the world offers, usually through quack doctors peddling miracle cures, who can be surprisingly persuasive to even the more rational minded when they are in severe pain every day. Bear in mind that people with incurable diseases and disabilities are already bombarded day after day on social media and Google with advertisements for “miracle cures” that can actually cause more harm than good. It is vitally important that the Body of Christ walks in the opposite spirit of the world and refuses to come into agreement with lies that the world has to offer.

Never ever under any circumstances promise that you can definitely heal the person you are praying for, but do promise that they will have a heavenly body in the new creation.

6. Acknowledge disappointment and be sensitive to it

When you’re praying with someone who has been disabled or sick for a long time, they might not want to be prayed for at all due to past disappointments. There have been many times in church when I have not wanted to be prayed for but people have insisted on it anyway, and I have had to endure the whole process for the sake of their ego, which can be physically draining (they always ask me to stand up) and mentally exhausting.

In the instances where you do pray for healing but the person does not get healed, it is common for that person to feel like a failure. This is extremely dangerous and can lead to poor mental health and suicidal thoughts if not addressed properly. If you feel embarrassed by the lack of healing and simply move on with the day without acknowledging what didn’t happen, then that leaves the person alone with their thoughts which can sometimes go to dark places if they already feel shame and disappointment.

A more helpful approach is to acknowledge the disappointment, affirm the person’s identity in Christ, and then assure them that no matter how broken their body or mind becomes, their worth and value in the eyes of God and the church will never change. This is more important than whether they get healed or not because it cuts to the heart of their fundamental value as an image-bearer of God.

7. When they do get healed

Celebrate! This is wonderful news and all glory must be given to God.

However, do bear in mind that there may be other people in the congregation who have not been healed, and it is important to be sensitive to their needs and to acknowledge that God loves them just as much as he loves the person who was healed.

To conclude,

I really like the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abegnego in Daniel 3:16 when they are being threatened with a fiery furnace if they do not bow to the golden image of Nebaucadnezzar. They say to the king, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand O king. But, even if he doesn’t, let be it known to you O king that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up.”

In the same way, when we pray for healing, we can say something like, “Our God is able to heal you from all diseases and disabilities and we believe that he wants to heal you today. But, even if he doesn’t, we will refuse to give into despair because we know that you are a child of God who is dearly loved and valued, and no matter how sick or incapacitated you get you are still a valued member of our community and the Kingdom of God.”

Let’s be a community who prays for healing because we actually care about the sick and disabled people in front of us, rather than as a power-trip to stroke our egos. Let’s love people well and learn to care for those in our communities who are more vulnerable than we are.

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