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Healing prayers - do they work? Why do we pray for the sick?

Mark 1.40-41

A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’

This is one of many wonderful healing stories in the gospels, and it is both encouraging and puzzling.

It’s encouraging because of how Jesus felt and how he responded to the plea for help. ‘Moved with pity’ is a rather feeble way of saying that Jesus felt deep in his very being (in his bowels, literally) such compassion for this man, such deep empathy. He identified completely with the man’s sickness and social isolation and fear and desperate need. That encourages us as we know that Jesus feels with us whatever our own particular struggle may be. Moreover Jesus was not just empathising, he cured the leper at once.

But it’s also puzzling. This leper was cured, and some others that we read about, but not all the lepers of the time were cured. Many others were cured of many types of illness and disability, but by no means all. Even when Jesus was here physically among us as a human being, he did not cure everyone. Inevitably we ask ‘why?’ and when we pray for the sick today and they do not get better, we may feel discouraged or disillusioned. After all, Jesus chose to cure this man. Why him and not others?

I am afraid there is no easy answer to this, but there are a few pointers.

There is a difference between healing and cure. A cure means the end of a disease or illness, the person gets better. We are cured when we get over a virus. Mostly our bodies manage this, with the help of rest and good nutrition; self-cure is built into the system, is God-given if you like, within creation. Sometimes we are cured with the help of medical treatment, which also comes to us by the grace of God, who gave us brains to use, and to use for the benefit of others. Sometimes prayer helps in this process; but prayer is not a magic button or switch. We do not control God through our prayers.

On the other hand, healing means something which can happen even while a person remains sick, and even when they may be dying. Healing is about wholeness, peace of heart, coping, even growing through suffering. Adversity is one of the main ways in which we grow as people; if life was always ‘hunky dory’ we would remain rather immature. We pray for grace and strength and courage and hope when we are sick, so that we can cope, and so that the experience of ill health will have a long term positive effect on us, on the person I am, rather than a negative one. Maybe you have seen the difference between a person who has suffered long, but who glows with a sense of faith and trust in God, who is concerned for others, who is calm and at peace; compared to another sick person who sadly is embittered by their suffering, or trapped within it and unable to see beyond it or give a thought to anyone else, or who blames God and is filled with anger.

When we pray for the sick we are primarily praying for healing in this sense, although of course we would love them all to get better and be restored to full physical health. Often they do; but also sadly often they don’t, and we wonder if our prayers have been heard, have had any effect. Actually what I have described as ‘healing’ is more far reaching and long lasting than a cure. Those who are cured will probably get sick again, and of course we all eventually will die. Those who are healed will meet every future kind of suffering with inner strength and their faith will grow each time; and when they come to the point of death, they will be ready for that last step into the presence of God; it will be an easy and gentle pathway.

As an example of all this, I think of Lourdes, the place of pilgrimage in the Pyrenees, and the thousands of pilgrims who flock there every year, praying for a cure and for healing. It has been a place of pilgrimage since 1858 when Bernadette Soubirous age 14 saw visions of the Virgin Mary 18 times, and discovered a spring of healing water. The Catholic Church are very careful indeed about declaring that a miraculous cure has taken place; there are stringent criteria (which you can read about on the Lourdes website: http://en.lourdes-france.org/) Since 1858 until now, the number of miraculous cures which have been officially recognised by the church is 69. Just 69 people in all that time. It does happen; but it’s rare. But of course, of the many thousands praying there, very large numbers will come home talking about being healed. Their relationship with God has been deepened, they have been inspired, they have felt close to Christ and to Mary, they may see themselves and their condition quite differently now. They have received grace which has healed them deep within.

When Bernadette grew sick and prayed, she was not cured. She suffered asthma which gave her frail health and she died at the age of 35. In a way this is helpful to all who long for a cure but do not receive it; even Bernadette who has since been declared a saint, was not cured herself. It is not for us to know why this person and not that person. The important thing is that all of us can experience healing as I have described it.