It is eighteen hours into my duty day at the hospital, and my eyes are heavy as I enter the on-call room. Hospital beds are not comfortable when you are a patient and certainly not when you are well. I am startled by my pager. We have incoming trauma; estimated time of arrival, five minutes. I do my best to become presentable. I shake out the cobwebs in my brain. I take the stairs, hoping my mind will be fully functional before I reach the patient.
I greet the family and ask about the patient’s injury. I do my best to offer empathetic words of comfort. Silence fills the room, accompanied by tears. The doctor comes in; he looks concerned. He informs the family that there is nothing he can do for the patient. The patient is not expected to survive the next twenty-four hours. The room falls silent again. “Chaplain,” the patient’s wife says, “please . . . please pray for his healing.”
At that moment, I wrestle with questions about offering such a prayer. Sure, I could ask God to miraculously take away his disease. If God obliges, the testimony of that man’s life would be extraordinary. But too often I stand at that bedside, praying with all that is within me. Then the evening comes, the patient passes, and I am left wondering if I did something wrong.
Perhaps it is shortsighted to offer that prayer for this man. Maybe I should have listened to the diagnosis of the doctor. Am I asking for God to heal in such a way that completely disregards the situation He has permitted? What about the family — do they lose faith because my prayer simply did not work? If the patient dies, am I somehow doing a disservice to my faith, to my God, or to this family?
You see, when someone asks me to pray for divine healing, I do so fervently. Open Bible’s Statement of Faith reads, “We believe the power of God to heal the sick and afflicted is provided for in Christ’s death on the cross. God is willing to and does heal today.” I believe that statement, and I long to see God pour out healing power on those who desperately need it.
But how does that connect to these moments that I just described? What is being asked of me? What do I expect? What does God expect?
Asking for a Cure
When we enter the doors of a hospital, we are not looking for healing; we are looking for a cure. The word cure derives from the Latin verb cūrō, meaning to attend to or to take care of someone. Curing is indeed the work of physicians, to bring a remedy to your presenting symptoms, to treat your pain, to relieve that which is troubling you. The act of curing is expressed in terms of the physical body. To be cured is to remove the signs of your disease and to restore your health to what it was before you became a patient.
For the past century, to cure has been the goal of health professionals. It has become so much a part of American culture that we declare war on diseases, and we race for cures. The underlying thought process is that all disease can and should be destroyed, no matter what the cost. If restoration is not possible, the goal is to relieve the symptoms so that the disease might have less impact than it would without treatment. The cure is the fix for the physical body.
The problem with curing is simple. It is by definition doomed to failure. We all must die. No matter how hard we try, the cure is at best a temporary measure. Though we experience amazing breakthroughs in the elimination of disease, we are bound by the simple fact that all will die.
Asking for Healing
The purpose of prayer at the bedside is not to fix a physical body for a fleeting moment in the scope of eternity. We are there to do something different, something that engages the wholeness of our being, and something that supersedes a mere cure. When the book of James instructs the sick to seek out the prayers of the elders, what were they looking for? The root verb for the Greek word in James 5:16 is sōzō. This is the same verb that means to “be saved” in Romans 10:9 as we “confess with our mouth and believe with our heart.” The elders were praying for a restoration of wholeness, to bring men and women back into harmony with God, to be healed, and to be saved.
The Greek word meaning “to save” continues to appear throughout the healings of the gospels. We see it in the raising of Jairus’s daughter, the casting out of the spirits from the demoniac, and the woman made well from the flow of blood. Healing throughout the Scriptures is always tied to the idea of right relationship with the Almighty. The physical healing is merely a part of the spiritual advance that is made in a person’s life as they come to a greater understanding of God. To be healed is far more holistic than to be cured. A cure is merely temporal, but healing has eternal ramifications.
Healing also happens in community. It is right and good that we offer prayer for one another. The servant is healed because of the great faith of the centurion. Likewise, it is the faith of the friends who lowered the paralytic through the roof that Jesus commends when He instructs the man to walk again. When we stand together before God as people of faith, He allows us to participate in the process of healing together.
On some occasions, a miraculous physical intervention may be part of the healing process. In some cases, the work of the physician may extend one’s life so that God may continue to shape and form them. At other times, our loving God graciously allows someone to leave the pain of this earth. When we are asked to pray corporately, individually, or at the bedside of the sick, we should remember that our task must encompass more than asking for relief or the correction of symptoms. We must seek God for healing across the entire spectrum of body, mind, and soul.
About the Author
Doug Lumpkin is currently a chaplain in the US Air Force and held the same title in both workplace ministries and a trauma hospital. He holds a Master of Divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a Doctor of Ministry from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, and is board certified with the Association of Professional Chaplains.