It is not always God’s will to heal a person physically. A person may sincerely pray and truly have faith that God can heal, but if it is not God’s will to provide the healing at that time, then no healing will come (see 1 John 5:14). Sometimes God’s blessings come in other ways besides physical healing.
If it were always God’s will for people to be healed, then everyone would be healed every time he or she became ill. If good health were always God’s will, then Christians should never die. We can’t blame someone’s malady on a lack of faith, for we know, biblically, that God sometimes uses illness to accomplish His will. Also, it’s not just wayward believers who get sick. Paul “left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20), and Paul himself had a physical ailment that the Lord declined to heal (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).
Often, Christians have an over-simplified idea of healing. They think that, if they are sick, they have only to ask God to heal them and, because God loves them, He will heal them straightaway. Healing is seen as proof of a person’s faith and of God’s love. This idea persists in some circles in spite of the truth that every mother knows: a parent does not give her child everything he asks for every time, no matter how much she loves him.
Joni Eareckson Tada struggled with this issue for a long time. As she recounts in her book Joni, she sought physical healing of her quadriplegia. She prayed and fully believed that God would heal her. In her words, “I certainly believed. I was calling up my girlfriends saying, ‘Next time you see me I’m going to be running up your sidewalk. God’s going to heal me’” (quoted in an interview with Marvin Olasky, January 17, 2013). Yet Joni is still in a wheelchair today. Forty-five years after the accident that left her paralyzed, God has still not healed her. Her perspective is one of great faith: “God may remove your suffering, and that will be great cause for praise. But if not, He will use it, He will use anything and everything that stands in the way of His fellowship with you. So let God mold you and make you, transform you from glory to glory. That’s the deeper healing” (quoted on Grace to You, October 16, 2013). Some feel that God will never heal anyone miraculously today. Others feel that God will always heal a person if he or she has enough faith. But God will not be put into either box.
We need to understand that healings, even in the Bible, are very rare indeed. For the first 2,500 years of biblical history, there is no mention of any healings whatsoever. Then during the life of Abraham we have a possible healing, although it is only implied (Genesis 12:17–20). Then we have to wait until the life of Moses, who performs a number of signs to authenticate his authority as God’s leader. However, the only healing associated with Moses is Miriam’s cleansing from leprosy (Numbers 12:13–15).
In the covenant God gave to Israel, there were a number of provisions to regulate their lives, and there is an emphasis on physicality and material things in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 28, God promises to reward Israel’s faithfulness with freedom from disease. This is the clue to the meaning of miracles in the Bible. God promised Israel health, long life, children, flocks, corn, grapes, etc.—and victory over their enemies—if they stayed faithful to the Lord. At the same time, God threatened them with sickness, barrenness, disease, drought, famine, the loss of livestock, and enemy occupation if they forsook the Lord. This is the context of Israel’s relationship with sickness and healing. The promise to be kept “free from every disease” in Deuteronomy 7:15 was specifically part of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel under the theocracy; such a promise is not given to the church.
With the coming of Christ, we have the fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant (Matthew 5:17) and a reversal of the effects of Israel’s spiritual backslidings. Wherever Christ went, He healed the sick, but this was not just because of kindness on His part; His healings were always a sign from heaven of Christ’s authority as Messiah (John 7:31). He was giving Israel a taste of the kingdom of God (Luke 11:20). Those who refused His authority were often left sick (Matthew 13:58). At the pool of Bethsaida, for example, Jesus healed only one in a huge multitude (John 5).
The apostles were also given the specific power to heal the sick, and for thirty-seven years they went everywhere healing those who heard their message. Again, their miracles, including healing, were confirmation of the truth of the gospel the apostles proclaimed.
The twelve apostles did not heal everyone, either. Often, there were Christians left unwell in spite of the apostolic power. Paul says to Timothy, “Use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). Why didn’t Paul just lay hands on Timothy and heal him? It wasn’t because Timothy didn’t have enough faith; it was because it was not God’s will to heal Timothy that way. The healing ministry was not for anyone’s personal convenience; rather, it was a sign from God—to the Jews of the Old Covenant primarily—of the validity of the apostles’ message.
We are not living in the apostolic days today. Of course, God can and does heal today when He wants to. The question we need to ask in any given situation is, what does God want? Does He desire to heal the individual in this life, or does He have another plan to show His glory through weakness? Someday, all sickness and death will be eradicated (see Revelation 21:4). Joni Eareckson Tada will walk again. Until then, there is a greater healing, the cleansing of sinful hearts, that God performs every day.