The Problem With “The Problem’s Never At God’s End”
Firstly, it assumes that somebody not being healed this side of the resurrection is always a “problem”. So every time someone is prayed for and remains unwell, we have a problem. Every time someone dies, we have a problem. Not just a tragedy, or a loss, or another painful reminder that the world we live in is still broken, but a problem, with someone to blame. Given that it’s a problem, it’s obvious that it must be at our end or at God’s end. And who wants to attribute “problems” to God?
But this obviously begs the question. How do we know it’s a problem when somebody isn’t healed, especially in the light of the characters we encounter in the gospels (all but one of the “multitude” at the pool called Bethesda) and the epistles (Epaphroditus, Trophimus, Timothy, Paul himself), who weren’t immediately healed? Would we say the same of all suffering - “if someone is still facing persecution, then the problem is not at God’s end” - and if not, why say it of sickness? Would we say it of those who have not been raised from the dead? To assume that these things are “problems”, such that either God or a particular human being is somehow to blame for them, is itself a problem.
Secondly, the extremely pithy nature of the statement - and this is true of almost all bumper-sticker theology - oversimplifies something that is actually quite complex, and collapses a variety of biblical explanations into one all-encompassing überexplanation. Biblically speaking, some people are sick because the people praying for them have insufficient faith (Matt 17:19-20). Some people are sick because the people praying for them need to pray [and fast?] (Mark 9:29). Some people are sick because there’s something going on behind the scenes that we know nothing about (Job 1-2). Some people are sick because the glory of God is going to be revealed through them in the future (John 11:4). Some people are sick because God created them that way (Exod 4:11). Some people are sick as a result of divine discipline (1 Cor 11:27-32; cf. Heb 12:3-11). Some people are sick because they need to change their lifestyle in some way (1 Tim 5:23). Some people are sick because they have not yet approached the elders for prayer (James 5:14-15) or perhaps because healing is a charismatic gift that not all possess (1 Cor 12:27-31). Paul may have been sick because God wanted to bring him to Galatia to preach the gospel (Gal 4:13) or because God wanted to crush his pride and teach him to rely on divine strength (2 Cor 12:7-10). And with some sicknesses, of course, there is no explanation; we just do not know why Trophimus was ill (2 Tim 4:20), and we shouldn’t talk as if we do. The biblical reality is that sometimes, the reason people aren’t healed is to do with us; sometimes, it’s to do with God; sometimes, it’s to do with both; and sometimes we don’t know.
Practically, of course, we should live and act on the basis that God wills to heal - which the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels demonstrates unequivocally that he does - and make sure that we have done, and are doing, all of the things God has called us to do to see that happen (prayer, obedience, faith, using gifts, and so on). If our starting assumption is “God has ordained my sickness,” rather than, say, “this daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for eighteen years” (Luke 13:16), the chances are that we will never have faith to pray for anyone to be healed. We should also bear in mind the obvious fact that people who believe God always wills to heal, as many Pentecostals and Charismatics do, pray for far more healings, and see far more healings, than people who don’t. But taken simply as a reflection of biblical teaching, the claim that God is never responsible for human sickness simply cannot be sustained. (For what it may be worth, I still regard P-J Smyth’s message on this subject at Together on a Mission, just after his recovery from cancer, as the best I have ever heard).
Thirdly, it creates grave pastoral problems (or strange theological inconsistencies) when it comes to conditions that, as far as we know, are never healed. To my knowledge, there is no credible record of anyone in history being healed of Down’s syndrome, and nor have I ever heard anyone claim that there is. (Admittedly, the fact that my wife and I are the parents of two severely autistic children, and therefore interact with more children who have special needs than most of us do, makes me unusually aware of this problem - but I don’t think that means it isn’t a significant one). I can’t speak for all parents of Down’s syndrome children, but I imagine the phrase “the problem is not at God’s end” does not usually produce faith that God will heal their child, but guilt that they have not done what is needed to unlock God’s power. In itself, of course, the fact that someone might be hurt by a theological statement does not make the statement untrue. But there is an empirical as well as a pastoral problem here: it is very hard to believe, based on the history of the church, that God wills to heal all people everywhere, and yet in the case of Down’s syndrome, as well as various other sorts of congenital and chromosomal conditions, nobody has ever had sufficient faith, or prayerfulness, or whatever it is, to see breakthrough.
(Several of us discussed this particular issue at a recent theology forum meeting, and I was encouraged to hear some of those with a more Pentecostal perspective on healing, including my friend Phil Moore who has written a superb paper on the subject, say that the Pentecostal answer - namely, congenital and chromosomal conditions don’t need to be healed because they are part of the way the person was created - was a bit of a fudge. After all, as some others pointed out, many infirmities are congenital, including cancer and several conditions mentioned in the Gospels, but that doesn’t stop God from being willing and able to heal them. There won’t be any congenital or chromosomal disorders in the new creation, will there?)
Anyway: that’s three reasons why I think “the problem is not at God’s end”, when applied to healing, is both misleading and potentially harmful. I’m aware I’ve stated this strongly, and that I have friends who both use that phrase and defend it, so I’d be interested to hear from those who feel I’ve been too firm. I’d also be interested to hear from those who feel I haven’t been firm enough! Let me know what you think, on any or all of the above.