This week I had the honour of officiating a funeral for one of our members who is now enjoying the presence of God in a way that I can’t fully comprehend and my words could never fully convey.
When you attend a funeral, you find yourself confronted by deep, probing and perhaps uncomfortable questions. Depending on your belief system, thinking about your own mortality is either a very morbid or a very reassuring exercise.
I’ve attended and officiated many funerals. Teenagers. Infants. Elderly people who lived full lives. Tragic accidents involving young adults. Or as in Janet’s case, a lovely lady in our church who died this past week who battled valiantly against disease for years.
Perhaps you are reading this and you aren’t a person of faith and you wonder why us Christians bother praying at all, when in the end, everyone faces death. That is an excellent question and I’ll do my best to briefly address why Christians pray.
Perhaps you are reading this and you are a Christian who’s in a crisis of faith because you were told that if you have enough faith, God’s will is always healing and after much praying for a loved one, their death devastated you, leaving you confused about God’s nature or even His very existence.
The scriptures reveal that the primary reason we are given the gift prayer is not to get things, but to get God.
The Psalms is the inspired prayer book of the bible. Christ Himself prayed from the Psalms and was comforted by them as they spoke prophetically of His life, death and resurrection.
While there are different genres of Psalms, they all circle around two large themes:
- A desire for increased communion with God
- A desire for the kingdom of God to come
The pattern of prayers in the Psalms gives us the purpose for our prayers today: the place where we desire increased communion with God and desire to see His kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven.
Christians live their lives in a state of “already and not yet” so to speak.
The promise of total restoration is already ours because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
The fulfillment of that restoration is not yet ours because that comes with Christ’s return and not before.
Our lives are filled with both joy and pain, blessing and suffering, the miracle of life and the tragedy of death. This world is a paradox of beautiful generosity and self serving greed, it is home to both admirable self sacrifice and unfathomable violence and oppression.
For life in the ‘already but not yet’, we need God’s empowering grace. He lifts our heads and rescues our hearts from our darkest tragedies.
So we pray. Not primarily to get things – but to get God.
“…we can always be thankful when we go to prayer, not because we can assume to know what God’s will is, but because in His infinite wisdom and love, His answer to that prayer is precisely what we would have asked for if we knew everything He knew.” ~ Timothy Keller, Prayer
If you compare the apostle Paul’s prayers for the church in Ephesians 1, Philippians 1, Colossians 1 and later in Ephesians 3, you’ll see a clear, consistent emphasis in how he prayed for the church.
Amazingly, he does not pray for a change in their circumstances, though the churches faced grave circumstances. Instead, he consistently prayed that they would know God more deeply and find rest in His grace for their circumstances.
Make no mistake about it, the scriptures invite us to ask God for things, and sometimes our prayers are answered in the same manner we ask them. In 1 Timothy 2 for example, Paul directs his readers to pray for a host of things. The scriptures invite us to petition God in prayer and this is clear in the model that Christ gives us for prayer.
The insight we receive from reading all of Paul’s prayers is that what he prayed for the church most often is what he believed the church most needed.
What the early church needed most was not more favourable circumstances, but a deep assurance that God was with them, strengthen them and saving them through their circumstances.
The early church suffered from economic burdens, sickness and disease, political oppression, cultural isolation and persecution. Globally speaking, so does the church today.
Paul’s primary concern for the church was that their hearts would grasp what they had already received in Christ. He wanted them to find rest in the implications that the gospel had on their suffering.
To explore the magnitude of the gospel promise, let’s revisit the gospel’s redemptive story arc that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation in 4 great ‘acts’ …
Act 1: God created perfection
No pain, no suffering, no violence, no abuse, no sorrow, no poverty, no disease, no death. Everything was very good.
Act 2: Man’s sin brought damnation
Adam’s sin means humanity is not born innocent, but guilty. Our sinful condition has alienated us from God and we are in need of His saving grace. We are aliened from nature, from each other and even from ourselves. The wages of sin is death – thus men die.
Act 3: God’s grace offers redemption
God is perfection. He requires perfection from us because He is holy, therefore He provided perfection for us because He is gracious. Christ lived the perfect life we need to live, but can’t. Christ went to the cross and received the judgement we deserve, but won’t get. Christ rose from death giving us the assurance that united to Him, we will be raised as He was.
Act 4 – God promises total restoration
Everything broken by our sin will be restored by God’s grace. Every injustice will be brought to ultimate, divine justice. Yet, for those of us united to Christ by faith, we will not receive the judgement we actually deserve. This is the great scandal of grace. Christ knew God’s wrath so that we will know God’s mercy. In the end, we will receive everything Christ deserves for everything Christ did. The world God created in the beginning will be restored and just as Christ rose, we will rise. As the scriptures say,
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then He said, “Write this down, for these words are faithful and true.”
ISN’T OUR PHYSICAL HEALING ALWAYS GOD’S WILL?
This false, presumptuous teaching burdens those in our congregations who suffer from sickness and disease.
Instead of inviting families to rest in the gospel promise, this idea burdens families to feel like second-class Christians who wouldn’t be suffering if they had enough faith to heal themselves or their loved ones.
God has done miracles throughout history. He did them in the 1st century church and can still do miracles today – sovereignly.
However, the idea that God’s will is always healing for those who have enough faith is a 20th century, American televangelist invention. Their false claims made them a lot of money because by buying their books, attending their conferences and ‘sowing seeds’ into their ministries, you could learn how to unlock the physical healing that was supposedly waiting for every Christian.
Worst of all, the false teaching presents God as a cosmic ogre, leaving the vulnerable church confused. The Creator of the universe has your healing right at His fingertips but because you didn’t exact enough spiritual discipline or give enough money, your faith was insufficient to get Him to release your healing? The teaching is tragic.
“There’s nothing wrong with God and there’s nothing wrong with His word. Confess and believe and God will heal you according to your faith. Look it says right here – by His stripes you are healed.” I was taught that, and I am guilty of teaching that in the past. Christ have mercy.
DOESN’T THE BIBLE SAY ‘BY HIS STRIPES WE ARE HEALED’?
Thank God, it does. But the healing mentioned in Isaiah 53 is infinitely greater than the way the faith healers present it.
“Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.”
This passage is often referred to as the “fifth gospel” because even though these words were written 700 years before Christ, they give us two gospel truths in prophetic detail:
- That Christ would be crucified
- Why Christ would be crucified
Notice that in the passage, God is not making a promise that you secure with faithful action. This is a promise He has secured for you, by Christ’s faithful action.
Christ is the one doing all the action.
You receive from Christ’s perfect, gracious action.
The most obvious problem with insisting that this passage is talking about physical healing for all Christians is the inevitable death of all Christians.
This passage says we need to be healed from sickness, transgression and iniquity. The impact of our sickness is further described as grief, being stricken, smitten and afflicted.
That kind of language is language is very common in Leviticus, Numbers, Kings & Chronicles – the books that contain Israel’s history. Those terms consistently describe people who were under God’s judgement. Many of the passages that talk about people who are afflicted, stricken or smitten have leprosy. Leprosy was a death sentence unless God supernaturally intervened, which in some cases He did.
Basically, Isaiah 53 paints a prophetic gospel picture using language that the original audience would recognize from their own history.
Our sickness is our sin, which has made us all like lepers who have a death sentence over us. Unless God intervenes, sin has guaranteed our death and eternal separation from Him.
This passage foreshadows the great gospel promise: God is going to intervene.
Christ bore our “sickness” (sin) on Him. He took our death sentence.
This same healing language is found throughout the Psalms. David cried out for God to heal him on numerous occasions, such as Psalm 41.
As you’ll recall, David was quite healthy when he stole Uriah’s wife, slept with her, got her pregnant and then had Uriah killed in battle. The healing David needed wasn’t for his body, but for his heart. He cried out for healing in numerous Psalms. He needed to be healed of the impending death that was coming to him because of his sin.
I assure you that saying ‘sickness’ means ‘sin’ isn’t my interpretation. That’s how the apostles interpreted it.
In Peter’s 1st letter, he interprets Isaiah 53 this way. If you read his entire 1st letter for context, you’ll find that his interpretation of what Christ healed us from is crystal clear …
“He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” ~ I Peter 2:22-24
Healed of what?
Our sins that Christ bore on the tree, in His grace.
So that we would die to sin and live to righteousness, by His grace.
Our problem is not sickness and disease that leads to premature death. Our problem is death. Christ did not come to lessen our symptoms but remedy our problem.
All men die because of sin.
Grace in Christ is the remedy for sin.
If we downplay the mission of the Saviour, we lose the wonder of the Saviour.
There are people in our churches who grieve the loss of loved ones, are battling persistent health issues or their loved ones are. Those who wrestle daily in these tiring battles can feel shame, guilt and inadequacy if this passage is handed to them as if it is a promise that they must secure for themselves as opposed a promise that Christ has already secured for them.
We do not have a stingy God who surveys His church, healing this one but not that one on the basis of their strong faith.
We have a gracious God who has already given this promise to everyone in Christ – even those of us with little faith.
In Christ, God has already healed us all.
Good News: the strong in faith and the weak in faith get the same, strong, Christ.
While the scriptures do not promise that God keeps us from suffering, they promise He is with us in suffering, saves us through suffering and in the end, will eradicate all our suffering.
Rest in God’s grace, church.
We gather on Sundays to rest and remember that our lives are in the hands of a death-proof Saviour who, by His stripes, has already healed us from the finality of death itself.