11. Praying for Healing

When we are either facing our own mortality or alongside someone who is possibly close to death, our hearts cry out to God, perhaps yearning for miraculous intervention, yet so often the illness progresses before our watering eyes. This chapter addresses this dilemma, shows how ‘healing’ involves rather more than a physical cure and suggests ways of praying for and trusting in the transforming presence of Jesus.

Gareth Tuckwell

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Here are two stories about prayer for healing within one family.

Prayer for healing – a son

'It is four in the morning. The crying of our six month old goes on and on … and on. I can picture his determined red face as the crying reached that “I’m never going to stop” intensity that demands attention. I carry him downstairs

– the Christmas tree lights showing the way … then I find my balance thrown by an unseen pile of books … a cry, then quietness. Paul and I arrived at the foot of the stairs; I am shaken and bruised but he is strangely still.

'Having just set up a prayer chain across our church, I stumble out an account of the accident and Paul’s need for healing. Soon hundreds are praying for him across churches and countries. Vomiting, drowsy, blue lights; then paralysis, a limp right side. CAT scan; two-thirds of his skull is filled with blood. “Maybe a 30% chance of survival” – three hours of neurosurgery accompanied by parental numbness and prayer with anointing for healing on the ward. Anxious days of waiting.

‘Now Paul is 30 with a good degree, a job he loves, and a strong Christian faith. He is a keen tennis player, a caring and discerning young man with a prominent scar usually hidden by hair: my scar remains inside. Thank you, Father God, for the power of prayer, for your amazing healing and for the skill of the surgeon who was there for us.’

Prayer for healing – a father

'Another year, another Christmas: my father is dying, struggling to stay in control in the face of confusion from overwhelming infection, despite ongoing prayer for his physical healing. He had taken Communion a few days before, and at the time he said to his vicar that his healing had taken place and that a depression that had overwhelmed him during this illness had lifted. “I am now ready for that great adventure after death that I have always believed in,” he declared. I sit at his bedside and take his hand. My audible prayer is now not for physical healing but for the man I love to be spared indignity and further suffering; (for him, loss of control would be as painful as an open wound). A hot hand squeezes mine as if in agreement – as if my cry to God is echoing around the jangling neurones of his mind.

'What might have lasted hours or days is over; my father looks refreshed, peaceful and asleep. I pay my last respects and help the district nurse to give him a last “wash and brush up”, before tidying the bed.

‘At this moment, all the reality of life seems present – illness, death, humanity and eternal life. No more struggle. My father looks at home and secure – there is a sense that he has made it and all is well. The stillness of the room is deafening. It reminds me of the hush of excitement and exhaustion that surrounds mother and child when labour is over and a new life has begun. Somehow appropriate to Christmas and to death, so the Christian believes.’

By the time we reach middle age, most of us have cried out to God in times of life-threatening crisis, whatever our belief. For Christians there is an added dilemma. The Bible shows time and again how Jesus healed those who came to him. The Bible gives Christians a clear instruction to continue His mission and ministry, and many pray for sick people, confident that Jesus heals today. Sometimes there is remarkable recovery or a miraculous one. But often the illness takes its relentless course.

What is healing?

Our model of health is shaped by our fear of death, so  that cure of disease naturally becomes a supreme value. Resources for the prolongation of life, such as fourth-line chemotherapies for treating widespread cancer, become a headline concern, one that the tabloid press loves to pick up and run with. Our understanding of health and healing must not be captive to the fear of death, but nor must it deny it.

Perhaps health and healing are found in relationship: to God himself, to ourselves (in accepting responsibility for who we are, rather than looking in the mirror and longing to be different), to our community (our neighbours both locally and further afield) and lastly in relationship to the environment as stewards of our God-given resources. Perhaps healing is to be in body, mind, spirit, emotions and relationships as we believe God intends for us – a journey we are all on until we reach the gates of Heaven. Healing brings wellbeing and a sense of coherence. We are restored with the possibility of fulfilling the purpose for which we were created.

I have found that Moltmann’s picture of true health can be incredibly helpful at the bedside, especially in palliative care when a friend is facing their mortality and we are wondering just how to pray: ‘Our society defines health as the capacity for work and a capacity for enjoyment, but true health is something quite different. True health is the strength to live, the strength to suffer, the strength to die. Health is not a condition of my body; it is the power of my soul to cope with the varying conditions of my body.’1

So what does the Christian expect when he or she claims that Jesus heals today? We know that our bodies are remarkable at recovery. A cut finger or a broken bone will usually heal, sometimes despite the treatment! We see how healthcare professionals are key players in treatment and care; many Christians would see them as used by God, just as medication and medical advances are brought about by the intellect God has given us. We also know that death is inevitable, and the timing of that is often beyond the control of man. In Europe, widespread loss of Christian belief, partly due to the advance of scientific discovery and the distraction of materialism, has resulted in a fear of death which has drained the word ‘health’ of its truly human dimension.

How should we pray?

So perhaps prayer for healing should not be focussed so much on the performing of physical miracles but rather more on seeing the healing power and presence of Jesus transforming lives? How then should we be praying for healing? When we pray for someone we love who is sick, do we expect God to answer? Do we really listen to God for that person? Do we wonder why God seems to heal some and not others, in terms of physical cure?

‘This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…’ (Jesus' teaching on prayer in Luke 11:2-4).

A different healing

Cathy arrived at Burrswood Hospital one Saturday when I was the admitting doctor on duty. She arrived by ambulance, in a wheelchair, looking sullen, pale and withdrawn. There were three admissions and my son’s birthday party to get to, so inside I felt hurried. Cathy was 32 and some months ago she had jumped off the balcony of her home after having a row with her drunken husband. She had broken her spine and was paralysed from the waist down. Her Christian faith was not quite extinguished by the desolation of her situation. ‘What are you hoping for?’ I asked.

She put her hands on her paralysed legs and said, ‘I just want to walk again and tell people about Jesus.’ My hurried mind wondered how to pray. Being a doctor makes prayers for miracles more difficult, even when I have seen them. Then the Lord’s Prayer came to me. ‘Lord Jesus, together we pray for your Kingdom to come in Cathy’s life and for her to be open to receive all you have for her at this time.’ Cathy did receive … she left her sense of guilt and failure at the foot of the Cross, she had physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, prayer with the laying on of hands and anointing. When she left for home ten days later everyone said how different she looked. Cathy was radiant, but her legs were still paralysed. Time went by and, four years later, I was standing in the main entrance to the hospital, when Cathy turned up, still in her wheelchair. ‘I’m so happy. I trained as a Lay Pastoral Assistant and now I go around the town sharing God’s love and truth with those I meet. I’m healed … no, really I am!’ she said as she pulled her leaden legs into a better position. Why don’t we always get the answer we want when we pray? Christian faith is not always problem-solving; more often it is mystery-encountering. As some have discovered in their progressive disease and pain: ‘The trust one has to develop in God lies far deeper, in the knowledge that he will be present in the deepest waters, in the most acute pain and, in some appreciation of his will to transform things. No cheap belief in him as insurance will serve.’ (Professor Margaret Spufford, 1989, on her own experience of a lifetime of illness and that of her daughter, who died aged 22.) 2

Those of us who are Christians have to get away from believing that healing inevitably follows faith, that healing must always mean cure. If we believe in the resurrection, why do we see death as a disaster? Why do some people have an endless desire to see miracles day by day, rather than to see and know God in the nitty gritty of everyday life? Is it because we live in an instant age where there are seemingly answers to everything and if God is greater and God is love, then surely he will answer the shopping list of needs that are our heart cry! And yet we then discover how false optimism can destroy hope. Maybe magic is asking God to do our will whilst prayer is asking God to work in and through us, by His power, to do His will. We have to seek the mind of Christ, to hold our pastoral hearts and professional minds alongside the certainty that Jesus heals today. We need to see healing, above all, in the context of the prayer that Jesus taught us, that His Kingdom might come in the lives of those for whom we pray.

The late Bishop Morris Maddocks, adviser to the Archbishops on the ministry of health and healing (1983- 1995), was inspired when, in a television interview, he redefined Christian healing and took the wind out of the sails of the interviewer who was trying to pour scorn on the miraculous: ‘Christian healing,’ said Morris, ‘is Jesus Christ meeting you at the point of your need.’3

Can prayer for physical healing be unhelpful?

Hospice staff not uncommonly have to manage contrasting needs. Their patient with advanced progressive disease has just come to terms with the fact that death is not far distant, when a group of Christian friends turn up asking permission to pray at this person’s bedside and claim the healing they believe Jesus will bring. It is wise to ask the group who are praying expectantly and fervently for a return to physical health to pray in the chapel or prayer room, whatever is provided. Walls are no barrier to prayer but even prayer in the name of Jesus and prayed in love can disrupt the peaceful letting-go of a dying person. It is so hard to let go of the one we love and have cared for, and even harder to give them permission to let go of this life so they feel set free to move on to the fullness of life eternal, without any sense of having lost the battle for life on earth.

How should we pray?

Andy Drain, a young ‘just become’ cardiothoracic surgeon who was dying of leukaemia wrote in his stunning book, Code Red:4 ‘So rather than pray for the weight to be lifted from our shoulders, sometimes we should just pray for stronger shoulders.’ He was confident of God’s hand on his dying and had let go of the need to ask ‘why?’

‘I hope we will move forward to a day when death will not be regarded as a sordid end but rather as an act of dignity on the part of someone dying well. An act worthy of a person made in the image of God: an act which, it is true, ends one phase of their personhood but which ushers in a new phase for which indeed they were created, that phase when, for the Christian believer, the vision of God dimly seen here, is fulfilled in the bliss of life eternal.’ (Lord Coggan, former Archbishop of Canterbury).

Perhaps a God who heals some and not others is unacceptable to so many because it leaves us not in control. And yet, when we become like a little child who doesn’t understand everything but still trusts, then the way forward is incredibly simple. God holds all the reins and we come along for the ride, just as Cathy did!

Just as Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah’s writings in the synagogue in Jerusalem and outlined his work on earth at that time, so we are called to take up the mantle today: God has chosen you and me and sent us to bring good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to announce release to captives and freedom to those in prison. God has sent you and me to proclaim that the time has come when He will save His people.5

I conclude with a benediction:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half- truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live true to our hearts;

May God bless us with disquiet at compromise, prescrip- tive solutions, and political expediency, so that we may work with compassion for a better way, for freedom, healing and peace;

May God bless us with tears, so that we may be set free to reach out our hands to bring comfort, and our hearts, that we may share in the pain and joy of those who are vulnerable, sick and marginalised;

Finally, may God bless us with enough ‘foolishness’ to believe that prayer in the name of Jesus can make a difference in our world, so that, in His name, we can do what others claim cannot be done. Particularly, as we seek to bring the all-surpassing love of Jesus into our communities, as we look to Him to bring health and healing … and one day, a good death, to all those who cross our path, including those clinging to the bottom rung.

Questions to help us talk to others about healing

  • What are you hoping for now?
  • What do you want God to do for you?


1 Jürgen Moltmann: God in Creation, Fortress Publishing, 1993.

2 Spufford, Margaret, Celebration (Continuum International Publishing, 1996)

3 The Right Reverend Morris Maddocks, who died on January 19 aged 79, was Suffragan Bishop of Selby from 1972 to 1983, then adviser to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on the ministry of health and healing. This change of role, which involved much more than the offering of advice, was driven by a deep conviction that health of body, mind and spirit were closely related and too important to be left solely to doctors or to charismatic ‘healers’. He regarded collaboration between the healing professions as essential and believed that concern for health should be a normal part of the work of every local church.

4 Andrew J Drain, Code Red (Christian Medical Fellowship, 2010)

5 See Luke 4:19 and Isaiah 61:1.