One of the key principles of effective prayer is that specific prayers get specific answers, while vague prayers get vague answers. If I ask for the Lord to provide a specific thing—a change in employment, a restored relationship, or financial help—then I can attend to the Lord’s specific answer. He might say Yes, or He might say No, but either way, the answer will be as clear to discern as was the request. However, if I pray for something vague, like asking God to “make me a better person,” then the results will be far harder to discern. In fact, the very process by which He answers that prayer—most often through pain—might cause me to pray, much more specifically, “God, take away this pain!” The more specific I am in a request, the more clearly will I be able to hear God’s voice when He answers; the more vague I am, the more difficult will it be to discern His voice. And this principle is no less true when we pray for the healing of the sick.
But this brings us to a challenge, because not all prayers for healing are of the same kind. While it is a relatively straightforward and specific thing to pray for healing when someone has cancer, or was in a car accident, or has contracted the flu, it is a far more uncertain thing to pray for someone who is experiencing historic or inherited pain. And yet I believe the obligation to pray for the sick extends to the emotionally sick—the wounded—as much as it does to the physically sick. And so we pray in faith for healing from depression, healing from memories, healing from anorexia, healing from abuse, and so forth. The answers to these prayers, however, are rarely as clear as those when someone physically sick has been made well. The simple reason for this—and this is something that was crystallized for me just a short time ago while praying with a young woman for her personal healing—is that prayer for the physically sick is typically prayer for release from pain, while prayer for the emotionally sick is typically prayer for the embrace of pain. The effective prayer for healing for the emotionally sick individual—the specific prayer which can return a specific answer—is the prayer for that person to embrace and acknowledge their own pain.
This is a highly counter-intuitive move to make. For the depressed person, for the person with a history of experienced abuse, the very last thing he or she wishes to do is to walk steadily into the source and origin of their pain. And yet it is the avoidance of pain which so often results in all the unhappy symptoms and experiences which affect such individuals. Avoidance of pain always produces impoverished love, resulting in crippled relationships, inhibited intimacy, and harmful proxy behaviours (those poor attempts to anesthetize the pain-filled heart through drugs, sex, spending, and so forth). Until an individual is willing to step face first into his or her historic and ongoing pain, that individual can rarely find the healing which he or she so desperately seeks. Therefore, effective prayer for the healing of the emotionally sick is not necessarily prayer for the removal of pain—for depression to go away, for bad behaviours to stop, for new intimacy in relationships—but rather a specific prayer for the increase of self-knowledge, acceptance, and acknowledgment of the ongoing history of pain.
I find, when I discuss this with individuals, that it helps them to draw a distinction between healing and wholeness. Healing is the process we might reserve for those issues of physical pain—the car accident, the broken limb, kidney disease, cancer, and so forth. In those circumstances, God’s power when it operates for the healing of the sick involves the complete removal of pain and full restoration of the person to health. But this is never the case with deeper wounds. When God heals those wounds He does not take them away, but fills them, transcends them, operates within them to make His power perfect in our weaknesses. God’s healing power for our deep emotional wounds is not a power that removes the wounds, but one that fills them with God’s transforming presence. This process is what I call wholeness. Again, I find that many people who are under the burden of personal pain from historic wounds pray in despair that such things would never have happened to them, pray for the pain to simply go away, pray, in a very real way, for a kind of oblivion. But God does not answer those prayers in that way. Instead, the individual who truly wishes to be made well must strive less for the healing and more for the presence of the Healer. It is only in dependence on Him, and in step with His unwavering walk towards the center of our pain, that we will discover the ironic healing where God fills our wounds with His glory. This, most certainly, is part of the process of taking up our cross and following Christ.
There is a further irony. This is rarely a prayer that one person can pray for another by proxy. I can pray for the beginning of the process—for your growth in knowledge of the truth, for the increase in your knowledge of the self, for your willingness to embrace the un-making pain of being made whole—and yet true healing only comes when you pray this for yourself. It is only when the hurt individual personally surrenders his or her broken and wound-corrupted will to the pain-inducing hand of God that he or she will truly begin to experience healing of the inner man. Such a prayer, I believe, is rare, and comes at great personal cost. I would hesitate to encourage any to pray it who did not also have a strong community to pray it in and with. We never require the support of the Church more than when we seek the activity of God in our innermost person. Such vulnerability necessitates friends in faith.
In all this I am reminded of the time that Jesus healed the paralyzed man who was lowered by ropes from a hole in the roof. Before he healed him, he forgave his sins, much to the great consternation of many present. Who has authority to forgive sins but God alone? But Jesus, both to prove his authority and glorify the Father, healed the man’s paralysis as a way to witness to the deeper healing of his soul. It is a startling picture of the two kinds of healing in action, and it is made more explicit when Jesus teaches about the wine and wineskin shortly thereafter. No one puts new wine in an old wineskin because the action of the wine—releasing gas—will burst the old skin. And no one puts a new patch on an old garment because the washing process, which makes patches shrink, will tear and destroy the old garment. In the same way, what is the benefit of giving the man a new, healed body, if the old sinful nature will once again become active and tear the body to shreds? No, we humans require healing of the inner and outer man alike, and this to me says that the ministry of healing which does not account for the inner man will do a regular disservice to the wholeness to which the human person is designed to live. Therefore when we pray for healing we ought to pray specifically, knowledgeably, and with a constant eye for the wholeness of the human person.