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What do we as Christians believe about prayer as it relates to God's healing? What about laying on of hands?

I have been meditating on James 5:13-18 for some time. Do we as Christians believe that God will heal the sick? Do we believe that if we pray, God will simply help us come to terms with the outcome, or do we believe that if we pray fervently, God will reach His hand into our world and change something?

I am not foolish enough to think that God heals an illness simply because I ask, but if it is within God’s will, then He may. If He may heal an illness, then am I being faithless by not laying hands upon the sick and praying for healing?

An Artist's Answer
Scripture and Word Study
Books
Web Search
Commentaries
“Clergy Survey”
My Conclusions, For What They Are Worth

I have to admit to considerable astonishment at how difficult it has been to find information on the question of laying on of hands for healing of the sick, which was the main point of this reader’s email. I started out by trying my usual approaches to research:

An Artist's Answer

Random Walk in a Gallery of Religious Art, Step 63: Matthew 9:27-36, Healing the Sick Child, by Gabriel Max (8/26/15)

One thing I like about Healing the Sick Child, by Gabriel Max, is the contrast between it and the scriptures about miracles. Max shows us a little vignette of an event that isn’t recorded – but which must have happened many times ! – namely, Jesus healing someone when no one else is around. Of course we know about the miracles that took places in crowds; lots of people were there to talk about it. Of course we know about the miracles Jesus did when his disciples were present; they recorded some of them in the Gospels and often said, “and he did a lot of other miracles like this one.” But nowhere is it recorded that Jesus just happened to be passing by all by himself, and he healed somebody: no crowd was there to be impressed, and no disciple was there to make a record. This woman hasn’t followed the crowd to Jesus or brought her child to him; she’s just sitting there. My favorite part of this picture is the way Jesus almost casually reaches out and touches the child. How often has Jesus casually reached out to you and me and healed us when no one else was around?

Previous Step. Next Step.
Christ Healing the Sick Child. Click to enlarge. See below for provenance.
"Healing the Sick Child" by Gabriel Max,
from the Gamble family bible,
now in the private collection of Regina Hunter.

Scripture and Word Study

Some examples of hands-on/hands-off healing. I think scripture makes it absolutely clear that laying on of hands is a useful but optional accompaniment to healing prayer. I’m going to give you some sample references, but you’ll have to look them up. Otherwise this supplement will be 20 pages long. What kind of prayer is an instrument of God’s healing? First, the prayer must be energoumene. Various forms of this word are used 32 times in the New Testament. As it is variously translated, there is usually some connotation of work that produces something: effectual working, work, operation, strong, be mighty in, do, show forth one’s self, work effectually in, effectual fervent, effectual, and powerful. I translated this word hard-working above.

Second, the prayer must be tes pisteos, of faith. Forms of pisteo are used about 290 times in the NT; most are translated faith or faithful; however, enough are translated believe, trust, commit one’s trust to, assurance, be assured, fidelity, sure, and true to show that the Bible is talking about something that has a lot of confidence. I used of believing faith.

Finally, of course, the prayer must be offered dikaiou, by a righteous person. Righteous never means either “sinless” or “thinking oneself righteous.” It is often translated justified. The idea is “in a right relationship with God.”

What will the prayer accomplish? The prayer is going to egeirei raise (the sick person) up, that is, get him up and on his way. Egeiro is most commonly used of people who are sleeping or sick getting up out of bed, and also used of getting up from a chair, or even of raising an object up. Note especially that this particular passage is not talking about “resurrection.” Although egeiro is also used of Jesus after the resurrection (often in the context of his walking around alive on earth) and of the dead to be raised on the last day, another word is also available for “resurrected.”

Sodzo has two meanings that for us seem really different, but that are actually very closely related in both the Greek Old Testament and in the New Testament: save one’s physical life and save one’s eternal soul. Often it’s a little hard to decide which of these is meant, because the Bible doesn’t distinguish clearly between physical life and the soul – they are the same, because you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. However, it is more often than not clear that what is meant is one’s physical life. I checked both the Greek and a grammar text, and the form of the verb is just the plain old future tense. There is no “may,” “might,” “could,” or “should” about it. So in this context, I think we are just about forced to translate will make well.

English only has a verb form for the second-person imperative. “Go!” means “You go!” Greek also has a third-person imperative, “He or she go!” This is normally translated as “Let him or her go,” but there is no suggestion that the person is allowed to go, rather, the person is directed to go. “Let him call the elders” and “let them pray over him” are instructions about how it’s supposed to happen, not options for how it may happen.

Books

I looked at the following books on prayer to see what they had to say on this topic. Not much. Out of the nine books on prayer that I looked at, one had a section on the laying on of hands. Richard J. Foster (Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home, 1964) devotes an entire chapter to the subject of healing prayer and includes a section on the laying on of hands. He apparently does this fairly routinely, although certainly not lightly. On several occasions the people he prayed for were immediately cured. Other times people were healed over a longer period. Foster emphasizes the importance of starting small in prayers for healing (i.e., earaches, not cancer), of working with doctors, and of four steps:
  1. listening to people and to God to discern what prayer is appropriate,
  2. asking God for healing,
  3. believing that God will heal, and
  4. expressing gratitude for the healing that is about to occur.
Foster says, “The laying on of hands in itself does not heal the sick – it is Christ who heals the sick. The laying on of hands is a simple act of obedience that quickens our faith and gives God the opportunity to impart healing.” He says that prayers of the sort, “We place this person in your hands; there is nothing else we can do,” or “Help this person to get well, if it be thy will,” do not express belief that the person will recover, and thus “hinder faith.”

Web Search

Surprisingly, various web searches using combinations of the words “doctrine,” “laying on of hands,” “healing,” “prayer,” and just “laying” and “hands” also turned up just about nothing from church websites. I also visited some specific denominational websites, also without success. (Most discussed laying on of hands for baptism or ordination, but I didn’t count that.) There may be information out there of the type we are looking for, but it was reasonably well hidden (when I wrote this in 2009).

I did a little more investigation on the UMC than on other denominations. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church indexes the laying on of hands only in connection with ordination of clergy. The UMC website makes it clear that laying on of hands is customary during baptism and that it is allowed for both clergy and laity for healing, with optional anointing. If you want my honest take on it, however, the website seems to be kind of equivocal on whether the process is actually going to do any good when used for healing. It says, among other things, This “atmosphere in which healing can happen,” in which we don't actually claim to be “doing something for the sick” seems to me to be a far cry from the position of James or of even John Wesley, who said unequivocally “ ‘And the prayer offered in faith shall save the sick’ – From his sickness; and if any sin be the occasion of his sickness, it shall be forgiven him.”

Now, it is entirely possible that the church websites discuss laying on of hands for healing, and I didn’t find the right pages. It’s also possible that they support laying on of hands, but they don’t want to put it on their websites for some reason, e.g., maybe they don’t want to be confused with “faith healers” (see also below).

Commentaries

I examined three commentaries on the book of James.

Charles R. Erdman calls this passage “difficult but helpful.” He points out that it has been much debated, so he doesn’t want to be too dogmatic about it. Although he mentions the possibility that healing is a gift that no longer exists, on the whole he seems to encourage healing prayer. He takes the use of oil (a standard medicine among the ancients) for anointing the sick person as suggesting that prayer and medical treatment should be used together. He distances healing prayer from “Christian Science,” “Mental Healing,” and “Faith Healing,” all of which he puts in quotation marks. He concludes that “‘The prayer of faith’ is offered in the assurance that God can work with or without means known to man, but in the belief that all wise remedies should be employed, while the trust is in God, and while the will is submissive to the will of God. The faith is not in the means, but in God who works through the means.”

William Barclay’s comments on this passage give examples of healing in the early church – in the second and third centuries. He concludes, “The Church has always cared for her sick; and in the Church there has always resided the gift of healing.” Nevertheless, he gives no modern examples and no guidance for modern usage, so he doesn’t convince me that he believes that this is an active gift today.

My favorite commentary on the book of James is by Zane C. Hodges, who say, “There is no real problem with this text so long as we allow it to mean what it says – and neither more nor less than it says.” He makes the following points: *For example – and this is my example, not Hodges’s, what if an elderly person with terminal and painful cancer contracts an additional disease, such as pneumonia, that could provide a rapid release from suffering? Are we justified in praying that the pneumonia be cured?

“Clergy Survey”

In a totally non-random survey, I went to four pastors whom I know and asked, “Have you ever laid hands on someone and prayed for healing?” This is where I struck gold.

The first pastor said, “Yes, absolutely!” The second said, “Oh, yes, and we’ve had services of healing here” (at his church).

The third pastor has had hands laid on him for healing and also reported that he once laid hands on a man for deliverance from demon possession. He added, “For most part, American church is a bit dead for demons to worry about us. So, I hear of much more miraculous healings, etc., in Asian countries where there is a much deeper commitment to the spiritual realities.”

The fourth pastor, who is now retired, said he had. He added, “I came to believe that my presence in a hospital room and my prayers for people were very beneficial.” He made it clear that he didn’t consider what he did to be “faith healing” and also said that no one had ever taught him in seminary what to do, which is roughly in line with the lack of comment on church websites. As an afterthought, he noted that he had observed that visits by some individuals usually made a sick person worse, which agrees with what Foster says about the importance of belief on the part of the pray-er.

These four pastors belong to three different denominations. The answers they gave me suggest that a large percentage of clergy do believe that God will heal the sick and do follow the teaching of James 5:13-18, whatever it is that the denominations and seminaries may or may not teach.

My Conclusions, For What They Are Worth

  1. Hard-working prayer by a righteous person is a effective conduit for God’s healing power, with or without the laying on of hands. This is as true today as it was in the time of James.
  2. There is nothing magical about laying on of hands or anointing with oil. I suspect that they act to focus the attention of both the pray-er and the sick person on God’s healing power and thus contribute to belief and to hard work.
  3. If a conscious sick person (or some person with “spiritual power of attorney” like a parent) does not request the laying on of hands, it probably is not appropriate. Other intercessory prayer is always appropriate. A discerning elder may be moved to offer, but the elder must be guided by the wishes of the sick person.
  4. Sometimes the spiritual power of attorney rests with the pray-er who is present (as for an accident or stroke victim, where the sick person is unconscious or unable to speak).
  5. Sometimes people die. A righteous elder may discern that prayers for healing are not appropriate, but rather that prayers for physical comfort, mental endurance in trials, and spiritual well-being are called for.

Copyright 2009, 2011, 2015, 2016 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved. This page has been prepared for the web site by Deanna Rains.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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