More Faith = More Healing?
Faith, in this view, is not about believing that God can heal - everyone who believes in God believes that, surely? - but about believing that God will heal. Some people, you see, approach God with the hope that he will heal, but without the resolute conviction that he will; they may be 30% sure that he will, or perhaps 80% sure, but it is the ones who are 100% sure that see breakthrough. After all, faith is about praying without doubting, and if you’re not 100% sure, then you’re doubting, and you shouldn’t expect to get anything from God that way (James 1:5-8). So you need to make sure you’re certain God will heal before you pray.
Central to this approach is the way Jesus spoke about faith in the Gospels, particularly the remarks he (or the evangelists) made about those with little faith. Jesus, it is pointed out, was restricted from doing miracles because of the lack of faith in Capernaum (Matt 13:53-58). He told one man that everything is possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:24). Even more significantly, the story in the Gospels which most directly addresses the disciples’ inability to heal someone, namely that of the demonised epileptic boy (Matt 17:14-20; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43), puts the blame squarely on the disciples’ “little faith” (Matt 17:20). If the disciples had had more faith, Jesus clearly teaches, the boy would have been healed. How many sick people today, then, remain unwell because the Christians around them are not certain enough that God wants to heal them?
Hmmm. Despite the popularity of this idea, and its prominent place in the healing theologies of countless people who see more people healed than I do, I have some serious questions about it. Some of these are practical (how do I actually get 100% confidence that God will heal someone, if not everyone is healed? Is it a power of positive thinking thing?), some pastoral (does this not necessarily lead to blaming people for insufficient faith if someone isn’t healed? How do we exhort people to more faith if they haven’t seen much healing?) and some are to do with the grace of God (if healing is a grace-gift, then doesn’t the “you don’t have enough faith” approach put an inappropriate emphasis on our efforts?) But the main ones, at the moment, are exegetical. In fact, I can see at least three good reasons from the Gospel texts themselves that indicate this interpretation of Jesus’ words is probably wrongheaded.
The first is that the father of the demonised boy, when Jesus healed his son, was still struggling with unbelief himself: “I believe; help me in my unbelief!” If healing comes in response to a 100% certainty sort of faith, then this man is apparently not a good example. He seems, instead, to be an example of someone who believes Jesus can heal, but is fighting to overcome his doubts that it would happen in his son’s case - much like many people today, I assume. Jesus’ response to him, far from being a rebuke for insufficient certainty levels, is to stretch out his hand in grace and heal the boy anyway.
The second is that Jesus uses the words apistos (unbelieving) and oligopistos (of little faith) as rebukes interchangeably. There are websites out there which draw careful distinctions between the two words, with one understood as “without any faith at all”, and the other taken as “with some faith, but not enough” (in much the same way that people separate out the words for “love”, agapao and phileo). Yet, as with “love”, Jesus and the evangelists use these words and their associated concepts in overlapping ways. In Mark’s version of the calming of the storm, Jesus rebukes the disciples with the question, oupō echete pistin? (have you no faith?); in Matthew’s account, he calls them oligopistos (you of little faith). In the story of the demonised boy, his answer to the disciples’ question is that they were oligopistos (Matt 17:20), but three verses earlier he had shown his exasperation with them using apistos (17:17). So at these points in the story, Jesus was probably not saying that the disciples were not certain enough, as if they were 30% confident when they should have been 100%. Rather, as he so often does in the Gospels, he was saying that they were unbelieving, twisted, dull, slow of heart, foolish, and so on, and that it was because of this (and, as Mark tells us, their lack of prayer) that they could not drive out the demon. In that sense, the disciples stand as examples of those who do not believe (and many manuscripts, and some translations including the KJV, have apistos here), rather than of insufficiently certain believers.
The third, and probably the strongest, reason is that the immediately following statement about the mustard seed (Matt 17:20; cf. Luke 17:5-6) says the exact opposite of what it is often assumed to say. In Pentecostal circles, the verse is often heard to mean something like this: you didn’t heal the boy because you weren’t 100% sure that you would. If your faith had just been a bit stronger, maybe a mustard seed’s worth, you’d have been able to heal him. But you couldn’t even muster that much! Be warned, you bunch of dollops. The whole point of the mustard seed illustration, however, is to show that any amount of faith in God, no matter how small, is sufficient to do amazing things: you didn’t heal the boy because you didn’t believe. But if you do believe, even if your faith is weak and shaky at times - as small as a mustard seed, even! - you’ll see astonishing things. Be encouraged! In Luke’s account, of course, the mustard seed analogy is used right after the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith - the implication of which is that they don’t really need their faith “increased”, because even the tiniest amount of faith in God is of overwhelming power. To see the story of the demonised boy, then, as proof that we need to up our game from 30% faith to 100% faith, as is often done at a street level, is to read the story (and the teaching Jesus brings afterwards) completely upside down.
None of this is intended to minimise the importance of faith when it comes to healing. Far from it: faith is central in almost every healing story in the Gospels, as well as in the important instructions in James 5:13-18. What it is intended to do, instead, is to show that the faith in question is primarily faith-in-God, rather than faith-that-God-will-heal-so-and-so - and that all believers have this faith. It is not something that requires us to screw our eyes up tighter, speak mantras to ourselves, and do everything we can to banish the thought from our mind that it is possible the person may not be healed. It is not reserved for a few individuals who can perform astonishing feats of positive thinking, nor for a few churches where there is a special culture of faith. (Some believers have a particular gift of faith, of course, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, but this is distinguished from both the gift of miracles and the gift of healing, and should not be taken to mean that some Christians have “faith” and others don’t.) Faith, at least as presented in the Gospels, is something which characterises believers (that’s why we’re called that, right?) and involves simply trusting God our Father, believing that he is powerful and willing to heal, and asking him, as children ask their fathers.
So I’m not convinced that the quantity, or volume, of faith is the deciding factor for who gets healed and who doesn’t. Despite having held that view for some time, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with it; it seems to purchase something we want (an explanation of why some people, and some churches, see more healings than others), but at a very high cost (the implication that God the Father regards the vast majority of Christians in our churches, not to mention throughout church history, are those “of little faith”, and doesn’t heal them accordingly). It also sits uneasily with the texts most cited in its support, in my view - although, as with all my posts here, I’m open to persuasion on that!
Obviously, this does leave open the question of why some see more healings than others. The Calvinist all-but-cessationists would leave it in the sovereignty of God; the Pentecostals would often put it down to varied measures of faith. I’ve got a feeling it’s got an awful lot to do with gift, and an awful lot to do with prayer, and there’s a whole bunch of things we probably need to say, and more importantly do, if that’s the case. But then I’m a charismatic, so I would say that, wouldn’t I?
(Anyone interested in reading further on this topic should start with Phil Moore’s outstanding paper, “A Healthy Theology of Healing”, attached to this post.)