Is there such a thing as the Spiritual Gift of Healing?2
No. There is no such thing as the spiritual gift of healing. There never has been and never will be. Obviously, this calls for some explanation. Many Christians, perhaps even most, think of healing in much the same way they do the spiritual gifts of teaching or mercy or evangelism or encouragement. That is to say, they envision a person with the gift of healing as being able to heal all diseases at any time, whenever they will. A person with the gift of teaching can teach at the drop of a hat. So too with gifts such as mercy and serving, just to mention two. They are gifts that are in our possession and under our control. This is the single most serious mistake when it comes to understanding the spiritual gift of healing.
On numerous occasions I’ve heard people say, “Well, if the spiritual gift of healing is still valid and operative in our day, we should visit the nearest cancer ward and empty it of its patients.” This betrays a fundamental misconception of how this spiritual gift is described and how it actually functions in the NT.
Let’s begin with the way Paul refers to this gift in 1 Corinthians 12:9 and again in 12:28 and 12:30. These are the only three places where the gift of healing is mentioned. Note well. I didn’t say they are the only three texts where healing is mentioned. Healing is found pervasively in the four gospels and in the book of Acts. But the “gift” or charisma of healing is spoken of in only three texts, and in all three instances it is the same terminology: “gifts of healings.” Virtually all English translations render this as, “gifts of healing” (singular). But Paul quite explicitly employs the plural of both nouns: “gifts [plural] of healings [plural]” (charismata iamaton). This can’t be insignificant or merely stylistic. Furthermore, of the nine gifts listed in this paragraph, only healing is mentioned in conjunction with the word “gift(s)”. What could this imply?
Evidently Paul does not envision an individual being endowed with one healing gift operative at all times for all diseases. His language suggests either many different gifts or powers of healing, each appropriate to and effective for its related illness, or each occurrence of healing constituting a distinct gift in its own right.
I’ve had the opportunity on numerous occasions to meet people who have what appears to be a healing anointing for one particular affliction. Some are able to pray more effectively for those with back problems while others see more success when praying for migraine headaches. This may be what Paul had in mind when he spoke of multiple or a plurality of “gifts” of “healings”.
As I said above, one of the principal obstacles to a proper understanding of healing is the erroneous assumption that if anyone could ever heal, he could always heal. But in view of the lingering illness of Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30), Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23), Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and perhaps Paul himself (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Gal. 4:13), it is better to view this gift as subject to the will of God, not the will of people. Therefore, a person may be gifted to heal many people, but not all. Another may be gifted to heal only one person at one particular time of one particular disease. When asked to pray for the sick, people are often heard to respond: “I can't. I don't have the gift of healing.” But if my reading of Paul is correct, there is no such thing as the gift of healing, if by that one means the God-given ability to heal everyone of every disease on every occasion. Rather, the Spirit sovereignly distributes a charisma of healing for a particular occasion, even though previous prayers for physical restoration under similar circumstances may not have been answered, and even though subsequent prayers for the same affliction may not be answered. In sum: “gifts of healings” are occasional and subject to the sovereign purposes of God.
Few doubt that Paul had a “gift” for healing. But his prayers for Epaphroditus weren’t answered, at least not at first (see Phil. 2:25-30). Clearly, Paul could not heal at will. Aside from Jesus, no one else could either! And there is doubt if even Jesus could (read John 5:19; Mark 6:5-6). Some would conclude from Paul's failure to heal his friend that the so-called “gift of healing” was “dying out” at this juncture in the life of the church (in spite of the fact that late in his ministry, in Acts 28:9, Paul apparently healed everyone on the island of Malta who came to him). It seems better to conclude that healing, whenever and wherever it occurred, was subject, not to the will of man, but to the will of God. No one, not even Paul, could always heal all diseases. If Paul was distressed that Epaphroditus was ill, almost unto death, and that initially his prayers for him were ineffective, I doubt seriously if the apostle would have drawn the same conclusions that modern cessationists do. Paul understood the occasional or circumstantial nature of gifts of healings.
The fact that healing is an expression of divine “mercy” (Phil. 2:27) means that it should never be viewed as a “right” or as something the Christian can claim. There is no place in the life of the believer or the local church for the presumptuous approach to healing that is found in advocates of the health and wealth gospel or in the Word of Faith movement. Healing is not the payment of a debt. God does not owe us healing. We don't deserve healing. I believe we should have faith for healing. But there is a vast difference between faith in divine mercy and presumption based on an alleged right. God had “mercy” on Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:27), the same word used in the gospels to describe why Jesus healed people while he was on the earth. God's motive for healing hasn't changed! The primary reason God healed through Jesus prior to Pentecost was because he is a merciful, compassionate God. And the primary reason God continues to heal after Pentecost is because he is a merciful, compassionate God. God is no less merciful, no less compassionate, no less caring when it comes to the physical condition of his people after Pentecost than he was before Pentecost.
There may well be a close connection between gifts of healings and the gift of faith which immediately precedes in Paul's list of the charismata. The spiritual gift of faith is a unique and extraordinary capacity to believe that God is going to do something quite remarkable for which we don’t have an explicit biblical promise.
A personal example will help illustrate what I'm saying. One Sunday a couple came to me before the service and asked that the Elders of our church anoint their infant son and pray for his healing. After the service we gathered in my office and I anointed him with oil. I don't recall the precise medical name for his condition, but at six months of age he had a serious liver disorder that would require immediate surgery, possibly even a transplant, if something did not change. As we prayed, something very unusual happened. As we laid hands on this young child and prayed, I found myself suddenly filled with an overwhelming and inescapable confidence that he would be healed. It was altogether unexpected. I recall actually trying to doubt, but couldn't. I prayed confidently, filled with a faith unshakeable and undeniable. I said to myself, “Lord, you really are going to heal him.” Although the family left the room unsure, I was absolutely certain God had healed him. The next morning the doctor agreed. He was totally healed and is a healthy, happy young man in his late twenties today.
Perhaps, then, “the prayer of faith” to which James (5:15) refers is not just any prayer that may be prayed at will, but a uniquely and divinely motivated prayer prompted by the Spirit-wrought conviction that God intends to heal the one for whom prayer is being offered. The faith necessary for healing is itself a gift of God, sovereignly bestowed when he wills. When God chooses to heal, he produces in the hearts of those praying the faith or confidence that such is precisely his intent. The particular kind of faith to which James refers, in response to which God heals, is not the kind that we may exercise at our will. It is the kind of faith that we exercise only when God wills. Thus, there is no reason to think that had I prayed for another afflicted infant boy that day he would necessarily have been healed. The fact that I received a gift for healing on this one occasion is no guarantee that I may pray with equal success on some other occasion.
Many in the church today say they believe that God still heals, but they live as functional deists who rarely if ever actually lay hands on the sick and pray with any degree of expectancy. Jesus laid his hands on the sick (Lk. 4:40), as did the early church (Acts 9:17; 28:7-8; cf. Mark 16:18). And so should we.
People often confuse praying expectantly with praying presumptuously. Prayer is presumptuous when the person claims healing without revelatory warrant, or on the unbiblical assumption that God always wills to heal. This then requires them to account for the absence of healing by an appeal either to moral failure or deficiency of faith (usually in the one for whom prayer is offered). People pray expectantly when they humbly petition a merciful God for something they don't deserve but that he delights to give (Luke 11:9-13; cf. Matt. 9:27-31; 20:29-34; Lk. 17:13-14). Expectant prayer flows from the recognition that Jesus healed people because he loved them and felt compassion for them (Matt. 14:13-14; 20:34; Mk. 1:41-42; Lk. 7:11-17), a disposition that nothing in Scripture indicates has changed.