Missionary doctor Paul Brand related the following story in the November 25, 1983 issue of Christianity Today:
David Gilmore told about an illness of his 15-month-old son, Dustin Graham Gilmore, that began in April of 1978. At first the child came down with flu-like symptoms. The Gilmores took him to their church and the pastor prayed for him. Members of the church believed that faith alone heals any disease and that to look elsewhere for help—for example, to medical doctors—demonstrates a lack of faith in God. Gilmore and his wife followed the church’s advice and simply prayed for their son. Over the next weeks they prayed faithfully as his temperature climbed, prayed when they noticed he no longer responded to sounds, and prayed harder when he went blind.
On the morning of May 15, 1978, the day after the pastor preached an especially rousing sermon about faith, the Gilmores went into their son’s room and found his body a blue color, and still. He was dead. Again they prayed, for their church also believed the power of prayer can raise the dead. But Dustin Graham Gilmore stayed dead. An autopsy revealed the infant died from a form of meningitis that could have been treated easily.
Sadly, similar stories occur too often in churches around the country. The case above could fit any number of modern scenarios, including the recent death of Faith Shalom Pursely in Wells, Texas (see related post here), and that of Madeline “Kara” Neumann in Wisconsin (see related post here).
Hear me: God commands his people to pray for the sick. He desires us to pray with an expectation that he can heal even the most hopeless diseases. But when churches isolate one scripture and use it to withhold modern medicine from sick children, something is seriously wrong.
Let me explain five errors I believe church leaders can make in regard to faith-healing which can lead to deadly consequences:
1.) Confusing the prayer of faith with a formula. The Bible teaches that God wants his church to intercede on behalf of the ill: “pray for the sick, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” (James 5:15). What could be simpler? A sincere church leader might think. If I pray, the person will be healed. God promises it. That settles it. Yet what appears at first glance to be a 1:1-formula must be balanced by other scriptures which talk about God’s will and the use of medical professionals.
2.) Focusing on ourselves instead of on God. In his helpful book, Authority to Heal, Ken Blue describes the erroneous “faith formula” approach: “If you fulfill God’s conditions by believing enough, God will heal. If you do not fulfill his conditions by believing enough, he will not.” The result is to take the focus off of God and to put it onto the effort of people, i.e., to muster up enough faith to “earn” a healing. It is a subtle distinction. In this mindset, healing is conditioned not on the will of God but rather on the amount of faith exercised by people. Human faith is used to try to leverage God to produce the miracle. This is a human-based system of works.
3.) Confusing the want of God with the will of God. Christians must understand that God wants all people to be healed, but it is not his will to heal everyone. Thus, the prayer of faith cannot be used as a guarantee of healing. For example, Jesus avoided going to certain towns to perform miracles, since it was not God’s will for him to heal everybody (cf. Matt 15:24). Jesus himself was allowed to suffer and die because it was God’s will for him to serve an even greater purpose (Isa 53:10; Matt 26:42). There is no guarantee that healing will occur just because God tells his people to pray for the sick. God’s power is not a talisman or magic spell which can be wielded at a human’s beck and call. Instead, healing occurs according to God’s will.
As another example of God not choosing to heal a believer, the Apostle Paul suffered from various infirmities which were not miraculously healed: his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7-10); and the illness which laid him up (Galatians 4:13-14). Paul also left Trophimus sick
at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). It is clear from these passages that healing by God was by no means guaranteed, even by the prayers of an apostle. Could anyone say that Paul lacked faith in these matters for miraculous healing? It was simply not God’s will to heal.
4.) Ignoring the biblical support for medicine and medical professionals. Churches which believe in faith-healing for every ailment—even if it can be treated easily by doctors—point to the many examples of miracles of healing in the New Testament. Unfortunately, they ignore numerous positive references to physicians and doctors in the Bible. In reality, Jesus and the apostles healed the sick (particularly those with untreatable illnesses) to bring glory to God, while also advocating the use of the medical field to cure treatable illnesses. Let me explain.
- Untreatable illnesses: It is likely that most of the miraculous healings that took place by Jesus and the apostles involved maladies which 1st century medicine could not otherwise cure. Examples include the woman with bleeding who had surely tried every cure imaginable for twelve years (Matt 9:20-21); the woman who had been bound with a demon for eighteen years (Lk 13:10-17); as well as lepers, the blind, the lame, the mute, and the dead. 1st century medicine could do nothing to help these people. For Jesus to heal them proved that the kingdom of God had come. In the 21st century, the list of untreatable illnesses is smaller than in the 1st century. Today, surgery, pharmaceuticals, and various procedures allow medical professionals to treat a wide variety of formerly untreatable ailments. Cancer, cataracts, and Caesarean sections come to mind.
- Treatable illnesses: Jesus incarnated himself in a culture which had certain medical treatments available. Nowhere does Jesus deride physicians or tell people to ignore viable medical options. Instead, Jesus says that it is not those who are well who need a physician, but the sick (Luke 5:31). Catch that. Jesus said that the sick need a
physician. Jesus healed the medically untreatable and the hopeless, thus bringing glory to God. But he also recognized that sick people who were treatable by contemporary medicine needed a doctor.
Paul also sometimes utilized contemporary medical treatments to cure illnesses. He urged Timothy to take some wine for his stomach issues (1 Tim 5:23), and after one of his own beatings, he was treated by a jailer who bandaged his wounds (Acts 16:33). Indeed, Paul brought the physician Luke with him on several of his journeys (cf. Acts 16:10ff). We can surmise that Luke’s skills were often put into service.
5.) Misunderstanding Jesus’ coming into culture. Jesus entered the world in a particular time and place: namely, the 1st century in the Middle East. The New Testament thus describes his life in the social and cultural milieu of a 1st century Jew. He wore robes. We do not. He walked everywhere. We take the bus or drive a car. He ate bread and drank wine. We eat Chick Fil-A and drink Starbucks.
Are we wrong to live as 21st century Americans? No more than Jesus was wrong to live as a 1st century Jew.
Indeed, God expects us to live within our culture, as Paul reminds us in the book of Acts,
“God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitations” (17:26).
Since God has placed us in a particular culture and age with advanced medical technology, it is proper for us to use it. As James says in his epistle, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).
Modern medicine is a good gift from God, not something to be avoided or feared. We pray for healing, but we also see a doctor when our condition is treatable. By understanding the whole counsel of God’s word, we can avoid a narrow approach to faith-healing and the destruction that a simplistic approach can cause.
Destruction such as the deaths of Dustin Gilmore and Faith Pursely.
Rich Nathan, pastor of the Vineyard Church in Columbus, Ohio, has a clear message summarizing different aspects of faith-healing. I recommend it. You can find it here.
Update, 5/12/14: Here’s a good article by M. Dolon Hickman on a sect which practices faith healing and has consequently had many young children and infants die.