Gifts of Healing

The previous blog post had to do with the gift of faith as the gift of trust, which is based on relationship with the one whom one trusts. We examined this from a number of perspectives and noted that it was basic to a number of spiritual gifts; now it is time to apply it in a single area, that of the gifts of healing. As usual, I will add my caveat that I come at this as a biblical scholar, so I am looking at the various gifts from an exegetical perspective. And, yet, I am and have been also a pastor and practitioner, so it is important to know my background (in brief) to understand how I apply the biblical material.

I first encountered effective prayer for healing in Germany, first in a story from the history of the Plymouth Brethren-Baptist theological school where I taught, then in my encounters with Roland Brown and Helmut Ahlvers, and finally in my dean’s experience of healing (the last two being part of the Ruferbewegung, a German charismatic movement primarily in a Baptist context). This was the same period in which we became deeply influenced from the classic Christian spiritual tradition, starting with the desert fathers and continuing into the present. But I did not participate in healing prayer yet, or, if I did, I did so peripherally.

This non-practice changed with my ordination as an Episcopal priest in October 1979. On the Monday after that Saturday God spoke to me, pointing out that praying for the sick was part of my “job description” (Jas 5:14-15) as a presbyter. I realized that I had been avoiding praying for healing out of fear, but now I had no excuse. As a result, my first Eucharist as an Episcopal priest was a small midweek healing Eucharist at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sewickley PA. I did not experience anything special other than nervousness (it was my first time at the altar on my own as well as the first healing Eucharist I had been at) – I simply went “by the book” (Book of Common Prayerand James 5:14-15) – and the one person there who was ill was indeed healed (but would not mention the fact to me for three months). We would later learn about, and Judy would experience, healing in a Camps Farthest Out at Messiah College at which Francis and Judith MacNutt were the speakers. And still later we would have a lot of experiences with John Wimber and his associates. And, of course, there was reading, lots of reading. That is the background from which I approach the gifts of healing.

Healing, which was not unknown in the Hebrew Scriptures, was a characteristic of the ministry of Jesus, which he passed on to his official delegates (i.e. apostles) in Mark 6:13 and parallels. Both Peter and Paul in Acts parallel the healing ministry of Jesus with multiple people healed (including by strange means – Peter’s shadow and Paul’s sweat bands), and in each case at least one dead person was raised. Others participate as well, with Ananias of Antioch being of special note. In other words, while Peter and Paul were the most famous, there is no indication that healing was limited to their actions. Paul refers to multiple gifts of healing in 1 Cor 12:9, so apparently he did not know it as a single gift, but as a differential gift. And James makes it a normative function of presbyters in Jas 5:14-15:

14 Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, 15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. [1]

So, we cannot overlook this gift. Yet that still leaves questions on how it functions.

First, faith is involved in healing, but primarily the faith of the one praying. In the teaching on faith it was noted that no one other than Jesus is said to have trust or faith in 2/3 of the healings of Jesus. So, while there are situations in which the one being healed trusts in Jesus (such as the woman with a hemorrhage – although that trust seems more in the power of his clothing than in who he was), in most situations Jesus is the only one said to have faith. Trust or commitment or faith on the part of the one who is ill may be helpful, even very helpful, but it is not said to be essential. Likewise we do not find faith or trust attributed to the blind man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple or in Aeneas, or any number of others who were healed through the agency of the various Apostles. Finally, James attributes trust or faith to the presbyters, “the prayer coming from trust,” not to the person who is ill (who may be so ill that he or she is not even conscious of what is going on).

What, then, is faith or trust? It is trust in a person, namely, in Jesus and his Father. The content of this trust is determined by what one hears in the relationship. Faith is a gift, but the gift comes from contemplation or listening prayer. Since such prayer requires quiet and calmness, inner recollection is also the requirement of effective prayer for healing.

Second, what is the nature of healing? Health is the condition in which every part of the human being is in right relationship to its Creator and therefore to every other part of the person and the creation. Health is a systemic or networked condition. One can talk about spiritual health in which the whole person or group of persons are in right relationship to the Creator God, social health in which the person or group of persons are in right relationship to persons or groups of persons, emotional health in which the inner emotional components of the person are rightly related and are under rational and spiritual control, and physical health in which the various chemicals, cells, organs, and systems of the person are in right relationship and therefore functioning as designed. Health also includes freedom from the influence of dark spirits (de-demonization is closely connected with healing in both the gospels and Acts). Therefore, when it comes to healing, any one of these systems (and probably more aspects of the person than these systems) may be the root or may be God’s priority. That makes listening prayer very important, for otherwise we will not know what the Father is doing and will instead be vainly chasing down rabbit trails of our own priorities. Furthermore, there is a time to die for every person, and while we may discuss this with the Father if we discern that this is what happening, praying for physical healing will not be effective, no matter how many Scriptures we cite to God or how many people “storm heaven” (a rather offensive expression, for it suggests that human beings must overcome or manipulate God, rather than submit to him).

Some examples may illustrate the principles above and given perspective to seeing what the Father is doing. Example one: I was visiting a pastor whose wife was very ill, but before praying for her, we were talking with a person who was struggling with bereavement. As I was listening to the person, with another part of me listening to God, I heard, “Prepare [the pastor] for [the death of his wife].” The pastoral conversation went well, and I could see that the pastor was listening carefully. Later I prayed for that pastor’s wife, phrasing my prayer so it would commend her to God and lay a foundation for what was coming, without shutting out short-term healing. That was God’s healing, and God would later have me walk that pastor through two years of grief recovery, which was also his healing. Example two: I was praying at a conference and a woman I knew brought a baby to me, asking me to pray for the healing of the infant’s eyes so it would not need glasses. I knew that the baby had a deVere neurological disorder that would make it difficult to keep glasses on it. And I sensed within that the request was what the Father was doing. I prayed, and years later the person does not wear glasses. But in my reason had I not listened I would have prayed for healing for the neurological disorder, which was not what the Father was doing. Example three: during the “clinic” phase of a talk by some rather flamboyant women speakers a father came up to them and said that his seven-year-old son thought that he heard God say that God wanted to heal ears. The women responded by getting the boy up on the stage (so he could reach adult ears) and announcing that he would be praying for ears. As people in need lined up for prayer the child placed his hands on their ears and said simply, “Jesus, please heal. Jesus, please heal.” I do not think that he ever said it more than twice. In each case the person was visibly touched by the power of God, which was not the sort of thing that was going on at that workshop. I guess that in his simple trust that boy had heard what the Father was doing. Final example: I was teaching a workshop on healing prayer and other spiritual gifts. I asked people to be quiet seek God and then asked if anyone had impressions that God had given them. A woman I knew from a seminary class I taught raised her hand and said, “I see someone’s right arm. It is pink except at the elbow, where it seems to be purple, like it was throbbing.” Immediately, someone two rows in front said, “That’s me” (while using their left arm to hold up their right). There were two healings when that young woman prayed for the person with the problem elbow: the elbow was healed, and that young woman learned that pictures she had been getting all her life were God’s way of communicating with her.

This means for me that when I am in a group of people praying excitedly and often insistently for a person, claiming this and commanding that, I often step back, perhaps looking away, trying to find that quiet center in which I hear God. “Father, show me what you are doing?” And if I get an impression I think may be God, I then step back into the group and at a break quietly pray according to that impression. Otherwise I simply raise the person up to God and hold them quietly there, letting his healing light shine through them or his healing love soak into them, although I may not know what is being healed. So, keep in mind, “No my will but yours be done” and “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” and any number of other passages that make listening to God the key to effective healing prayer.

The order is: holiness (cleaning and quieting the house) – intimacy/listening – prayer

So, third, healing will be wholistic, although some parts of it may not be complete until the resurrection of the dead. The person presents their symptom, which may seem to be a great need or just a serious bother. The Father may point to a demonic influence behind the disease and its symptoms. The Father may point to an emotional issue, such as resentment, anger, or failure to forgive the person in forgiveness, and that may lie behind the physical disease or be at the root of the demonic influence. In other words, all systems are inter-related. And only the wisdom of God can see which needs to be healed in what order. Furthermore, there are interrelationships among people, people groups, and social systems. What if prayer for a certain set of symptoms in a given person is related to the social system within which they ministered for years or the environmental destruction their wider society is still engaged in? We are far too individualistic in our thinking when it comes to healing. The failure to listen and then respond is probably a major reason why a lot of prayer and healing is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Faith that I work up in myself or that is faith in what I want God to do or what I am sure on the basis of this verse or that verse that God must do if I claim that verse is not the faith of James.

James also speaks of anointing with oil, which Mark says is what the Twelve also did. This tells us that healing prayer can be sacramental, but this sacramental prayer is only mentioned in connection with the original Twelve and presbyters, who in the New Testament are appointed by an apostle or an apostolic delegate. It seems to be as if the oil is a liquid line back to Jesus and as if the physical act is something like laying the hands of Jesus on the person and thus is done “in the name of” or “on behalf of” “the Lord.” Whereas laying on hands may be an act of solidarity, a physical expression of love, the oil seems to be more a connection to Jesus himself, done at his command. I personally use oil often, but always within the liturgical form. Yet I do it with confidence, for I am “following the book,” i.e. doing what I was taught by James and also doing what I am authorized to do through ordination by a bishop in line with the apostles. I anoint “in persona Christi capitis.” That, of course, does not mean that other means of healing prayer will not be effective, but that this form is the form that presbyters are taught by James to use.

Finally, note that for whatever reason certain people effective in praying for certain issues. It may be that they have a particular sympathy for such people. It may be that the Spirit can flow through them most easily in that way. It may be that they have a particular gift of trusting for healing in that area. It is important to be aware of this, for knowing that some have one gift of healing and others have another helps bind the body together and we get the right person of prayer with the right person with disease. We often like to claim the verse (out of context), “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” as if we did not need others or were Superman/Superwoman (without the tights). That is not how God usually works. In fact, he works most frequently through weakness.

How, then, are gifts of healing received? Through intimacy with God and caring for others. Go about one’s business of seeking intimacy with God, living a life of prayer, and doing good to all. When one encounters someone with physical need, gently retreat to one’s inner room and ask the Father to show you what he is doing. If you have no clear impression, hold the person up to the Father’s healing light and let his loving care soak in. Or, if one is a presbyter, use the anointing oil and trust that Christ’s touch will in fact be effective. If you have an impression, whether a vague impression on the heart, an inner word, or a visual picture, follow that guidance, but do so with humility and gentleness. You may indeed receive a gift of healing for this instance. Or you may find that in many such instances God gives you that gift. Or it may be a more general gift. Whatever you experience, do not go beyond the pace of grace, the level of trust you have, the revelation that you are being given, but do not be afraid to ask for more. Know that whatever God does, he does out of love, out of seeking the good of the person and the wider group. And we are simply weak and ignorant agents, children before the Father, who get to work with him, but who often do not understand the wider picture that he sees.

[1]Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and United States Catholic Conference. Administrative Board, The New American Bible: Translated from the Original Languages with Critical Use of All the Ancient Sources and the Revised New Testament(Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1996), Jas 5:14–15.

About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years, writer, and editor). My present appointment is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas. I am also a priest available to parishes and communities in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am married and so am a husband and also a father, and a grandfather.
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2 Responses to Gifts of Healing

  1. Hi Peter,
    Sometimes over the years I „google“ the name of my father ‚Pastor Helmut Ahlvers‘. Today I have found his name in this interesting article about healing. It was a pleasure to see that he and Roland Brown in the context of the ‚Rufer‘ have influenced you. I like your calm and sober reflection about this topic and can learn from that. I fully agree!
    FYI – my father Helmut passed away in 2002. I‘m a member of our church board in Hannover Bemerode, Germany. (
    My best personal regards,
    Siegmar Ahlvers

    • Es gibt evangelische Heilige so wie die Heilige von den Kirchen von den Osten und von den Romish Katholischen Kirchen, Menschen, die Helden den Glauben waren (und noch sind, obwohl jetzt mit Gott): für mich wäre unter diesem Helmut Ahlvers, Arnim Riemenschneider, und Roland Brown. Und auch Georg Müller (George Mueller in England). Ich freue mich, dass wir uns noch wieder treffen, auch wenn nicht in diesem Zeitalter.

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