Question: "What does the Bible say about prayer for the sick?"
Answer: The Old Testament has very few examples of people being healed after praying directly to God for healing. Usually the request for healing is mediated through a prophet who then may pray for the healing or be a channel for God’s power to perform a miracle of healing or even resurrection. David prayed that his infant son would be healed, but God did not grant his request (2 Samuel 12:16–17). When Hezekiah was told by the prophet Isaiah that he would die, he prayed for more time, and God granted him fifteen more years of life (2 Kings 20).
If the inability to have children is considered an illness, then the instances of prayer for “healing” and God subsequently granting the request are more numerous.
In the Gospels, Jesus healed a great many people who asked Him to. In Acts, a number of people are healed after asking the apostles to heal them, similar to the Old Testament pattern of seeking healing from a prophet of God. None of these instances seem to have direct application for us today.
In Philippians 1, Paul says that Epaphroditus was ill, even close to death, but that God had mercy on him and healed him (verses 25–29). We may assume that Paul prayed for Epaphroditus’s healing, but that is not explicitly stated. In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul mentions that Timothy has a recurring illness that seems to be stomach-related, and he recommends drinking a little wine. He does not tell Timothy to ask for healing. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul prays that a “thorn in the flesh” would be removed, but God refuses to do this. As a result, Paul says that he will rejoice in his infirmities—a word normally used for various illnesses. In this case, Paul did pray for healing, but his request was denied. Rather than extend healing, the Lord told Paul to rely on His grace (verse 9).
The only explicit biblical instruction related to prayer for healing is found in James 5:13–16: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
James gives specific instructions. The person who is sick is supposed to initiate the encounter and ask for healing prayer from the elders. The elders anoint the sick person with oil and offer a prayer of faith, and God promises to “raise them up.” However, since the immediate context has to do with confession of sin and forgiveness, it may be that the sickness in view is the result of a specific sin. Regardless, this procedure is a group effort involving the leadership of the church. Furthermore, it is the elders who are called to exercise faith in their prayer. This would seem to dispense with the claim that some “healers” cannot heal because the sick person does not have enough faith.
At first, James 5:13–16 would seem to guarantee healing every time, but we must consult the whole of Scripture. There are other passages about prayer that, when taken in isolation, also seem to offer a “blank check” from God:
Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Matthew 21:22: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
John 14:13: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
John 15:7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
John 16:23: “Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.”
These verses need to be understood in the larger context of always praying in God’s will, as 1 John 5:14 says: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (emphasis added). The condition of praying according to God’s will is akin to the instruction to pray “in Jesus’ name.” Praying in Jesus’ name is praying for things that will honor and glorify Jesus. Desiring things apart from God’s will do not honor Jesus.
Jesus provides an example of praying in God’s will. In Gethsemane, He prayed that “this cup” (the crucifixion) could be avoided, but “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus did not avoid the cross, for it was God’s will that He suffer through it.
Taking all the teaching on healing and prayer together, it is appropriate to pray for healing or any other thing that we feel that we need or desire. However, we always need to consciously acknowledge that we defer to God’s judgment to give us what is best, and often we do not know what is best for us or what fits into His larger plan. Praying “not my will, but Your will be done” is not due to a lack of faith as some teach; rather, it is the ultimate statement of faith in God’s goodness and His plan and purposes. There is no evidence in Scripture that it is always God’s will to heal. In fact, we have plenty of examples in Scripture of God not healing people. Sometimes it is His will to have us suffer through hardship or illness so that we will have a higher level of spiritual health than we could otherwise attain.