Bad health—that is, bodily malfunctioning and pain, until lowered efficiency, tending towards death—has been a fact of life since the Fall. Had there been no sin, there would have been no sickness. As it is, however, both are universal, the latter being a penal result of the former. So, at least, implies Scripture. So, too, did yesterday’s Christians view the matter, and therefore they did not find bad health and chronic discomforts an obstacle to faith in God’s goodness. Rather, they expected illness, and they endured it as they looked forward to the health of heaven.

But today, dazzled by the marvels of modern medicine, the Western world dreams of abolishing ill health entirely, here and now. We have grown health conscious in a way that is itself rather sick, and certainly has no precedent—not even in ancient Sparta.

Why do we diet and jog and do all the other health-raising and health-sustaining things so passionately? Why are we so absorbed in pursuing bodily health? We are chasing a dream, the dream of never having to be ill. We are coming to regard a pain-free, disability-free existence as one of man’s natural rights.

It is no wonder, then, that Christians nowadays are so interested in divine healing. As Christians, they long for the touch of God, as direct and powerful as possible, on their lives (and so they should). As modern men, they are preoccupied with physical health, to which they feel they have a right. (How much there is of worldliness in this preoccupation is a question worth asking, but it is not one with which we will deal here.) With these two concerns meeting in Christian minds, it was predictable that today many would arise to claim that all sick believers may find bodily healing through faith, whether through doctors or apart from them. And exactly that has happened. A cynic would say the wish has been father to the thought.

But is that fair? That it was natural for this teaching to emerge in our times does not make it either true or false. It presents itself as a rediscovery of what the church once knew, and never should have forgotten, about the power of faith to channel the power of Christ. It claims to be biblical, and we must take that claim seriously.

To support itself from Scripture, this teaching uses three main arguments.

First, Jesus Christ, who healed so abundantly in the days of his flesh, has not changed. He has not lost his power; whatever he did then he can do now.

Second, salvation in Scripture is a wholistic reality, embracing both soul and body. Thoughts of salvation for the soul only without, or apart from, the body are unbiblical.

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Third, blessing is missed where faith is lacking, and where God’s gifts are not sought and expected. “You do not have, because you do not ask,” says James. “Ask and it will be given you,” says Jesus. But, Matthew tells us, in Nazareth, where Jesus was brought up, he could not do many mighty works because of their unbelief.

All of this is true. So, then, does Jesus still heal miraculously? Yes, I think that on occasion he does. I hold no brief for blanket denials of healing miracles today. I believe I have known one such case—not more than one, but equally, not less. There is much contemporary evidence of healing events in faith contexts that have baffled the doctors. B. B. Warfield, whose wife was an invalid throughout their marriage, testily denied that supernatural healing ever occurs today. But I think he was wrong.

What is being claimed, however, is that healing through prayer, plus perhaps the ministrations of someone with a healing gift, is always available for all sick believers, and that if Christian invalids fail to find it, something is thereby shown to be lacking in their faith.

It is here that I gently but firmly demur. This reasoning is wrong—cruelly and destructively wrong—as anyone who has sought miraculous healing on this basis and failed to find it, or who has been called on to pick up the pieces in the lives of others who have had such an experience, knows all too well. To be told that longed-for healing was denied you because of some defect in your faith when you had labored and strained every way you knew to devote yourself to God and to “believe for blessing,” is to be pitchforked into distress, despair, and a sense of abandonment by God. That is as bitter a feeling as any this side of hell—particularly if, like most invalids, your sensitivity is already up and your spirits down. Nor does Scripture ever require or permit us to break anyone in pieces with words (Job’s phrase: it fits) in this way.

What, then, of those three arguments? Look at them again; there is more to be said about each one.

It is true: Christ’s power is still what it was. However, we must remember that the healings he performed when he was on earth had a special significance. Besides being works of mercy, they were signs of his messianic identity. This comes out in the message he sent to John the Baptist: “Go and tell John what you hear and see … blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” In other words, let John match up my miracles with what God promised for the day of salvation (see Isa. 35:5ff.). He should be left in no doubt that I am the Messiah, whatever there is about me that he does not yet understand.

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Anyone today who asks for miracles as an aid to faith should be referred to this passage (Matt. 11:2–6) and told that if he will not believe in face of the miracles recorded in the Gospels, then he would not believe if he saw a miracle in his own back yard. Jesus’ miracles are decisive evidence for all time of who he is and what power he has.

But in that case, supernatural healings in equal abundance to those worked in the days of Jesus’ flesh may not be his will today. The question concerns not his power but his purpose. We cannot guarantee that, because he was pleased to heal all the sick brought to him then, he will act in the same way now.

Again it is true: salvation embraces both body and soul. And there is indeed, as some put it, healing for the body in the Atonement. But, we must observe that perfect physical health is promised, not for this life, but for heaven, as part of the resurrection glory that awaits us in the day when Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Full bodily well-being is set forth as a future blessing of salvation rather than a present one. What God has promised, and when he will give it, are separate questions.

Further, it is true that blessing is missed where faith is lacking. But, even in New Testament times, among leaders who cannot be accused of lacking faith, healing was never universal. We know from Acts that the apostle Paul was sometimes Christ’s agent in miraculous healing, and he was himself once miraculously healed of snakebite. Yet he advises Timothy to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments,” and informs him that he left Trophimus “ill at Miletus.” He also tells the Philippians how their messanger Epaphroditus was so sick that he “nearly died for the work of Christ,” and how grieved Paul himself had been at the prospect of losing him. Plainly, had Paul, or anyone else, sought power to heal these cases miraculously, he would have been disappointed.

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Moreover, Paul himself lived with “a thorn in the flesh” that went unhealed. In 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, he tells us that in three solemn seasons of prayer he had asked Christ, the Lord and the Healer, to make it go away. But the hoped-for healing did not occur. The passage merits close attention.

“Thorn” pictures a source of pain, and “flesh” locates it in Paul’s physical or psychological system, thus ruling out the idea that he might be referring to an awkward colleague. But beyond this, Paul is unspecific, and probably deliberately. Guesses about his thorn range from recurring painful illnesses, such as inflamed eyes (see Gal. 4:13–15), migraine, or malaria, to chronic shameful temptation. The former view seems more natural, but nobody can be sure. All we can say is that it was a distressing disability from which, had Christ so willed, he could have delivered Paul on the spot.

So Paul lived with pain. And the thorn, given him under God’s providence, operated as “a messenger of Satan, to harass me,” because it tempted him to think hard thoughts about the God who let him suffer, and in resentment to cut back his ministry. How could he be expected to go on traveling, preaching, working day and night, praying, caring, weeping over folk with this pain constantly dragging him down? He had to contend with such “flaming darts of the evil one” all the time, for the thorn remained unhealed.

Some Christians today live with epilepsy, homosexual cravings, ulcers, and cyclical depressions that plunge them into no less deep waters. Indeed, Philip Hughes is surely correct when he writes: “Is there a single servant of Christ who cannot point to some ‘thorn in the flesh,’ visible or private, physical or psychological, from which he has prayed to be released, but which has been given him by God to keep him humble, and therefore fruitful?… Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ is, by its very lack of definition, a type of every Christian’s ‘thorn in the flesh.’ ”

Paul perceived, however, that the thorn was given him, not for punishment, but for protection. Physical weakness guarded him against spiritual sickness. The worst diseases are those of the spirit; pride, conceit, arrogance, bitterness, self-confidence are far worse, and they damage us far more than any malfunctioning of our bodies. The thorn was a prophylactic against pride, says Paul, “to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations.” Seeing that was so, he could accept it as a wise provision on the part of his Lord.

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It was not for want of prayer, then, that the thorn went unhealed. Paul tells the Corinthians what came through from Christ as he prayed about it. “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ ” It was as if to say, I can use my power better than by making your trouble go. It is better for you, Paul, and for my glory in your life, that I do something else instead: that I show my strength by keeping you going though the thorn remains.

So Paul embraced his continuing disability as a kind of privilege. “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” The Corinthians, in typical Greek fashion, already despised him as a weakling. They did not consider him an elegant speaker or an impressive personality. I am weaker than you thought, says Paul, for I live with my thorn in the flesh. But I have learned to glory in my weakness, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Now you Corinthians learn to praise God for my weakness, too!

One virtuous commentary doubts whether the thorn can have been illness in view of Paul’s “extraordinary stamina” throughout his ministry. How obtuse! Extraordinary stamina was precisely what Paul was promised. Similarly obtuse was the reviewer who described Joni Eareckson’s books as a testimony to “human courage.” The age of miraculous blessing is not past, thank God, though such blessing does not always take the form of healing. But then, neither did it in Paul’s day.

Three conclusions issue from what we have seen.

The first concerns miraculous healing. Christ and the apostles only healed miraculously when they were specifically prompted to do so, so that they knew that to attempt to heal was the Father’s will. That is why all the attempted healings recorded in the New Testament succeeded. As we noted, miraculous healing for Christians was not universal even then, so there is no warrant for maintaining that it should be so now.

The second conclusion concerns sanctifying providence. God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other sorts of affliction, as his chisel for sculpting our souls. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your complaint uncomplainingly, being kept sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel less than good, is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace in your life.

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The third conclusion concerns behavior when ill. We should certainly go to the doctor, and use medication, and thank God for both. But equally certainly we should go to the Lord (Doctor Jesus, as some call him) and ask what message of challenge, rebuke, or encouragement he might have for us regarding our sickness. Maybe we shall receive healing in the form in which Paul asked for it. Maybe, however, we shall receive it in the form in which Paul was given it. We have to be open to either.

I thank God that I have known almost 40 years of excellent health, and I feel well as I write this. But it will not always be that way. My body is wearing out; Ecclesiastes 12, if nothing worse, awaits me. May I be given grace to recall, and apply to myself, the things I have written here when my own day of felt weakness comes, whether in the form of pain, paralysis, prostration, or whatever. And may the same blessing be yours in your hour of need, too—“under the Protection,” as Charles Williams used to say.

British theologian and author J. I. Packer is professor of systematic and historical theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Among his many writings is the well-known Knowing God (IVP, 1973).


you can jab,
and point,
and thrust
your sword at me
(you do it so expertly!)
but I do not fear.

you can prick
and pierce

and lunge
your sword through me
(you know you can make me bleed)
but I do not fear.

And then, Stinger,
you can dance
and gloat
and lift
your sword in glee
when I succumb to your weaponry, but I still do not fear.

Because Stinger,
I am the living
and the living don’t feel
the sting of your sword
the living go free.
Only the dead
know your devilry.

Stinger, you are stung by our victory.


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