In many ways, sickness has become something we fear more than the devil in North America. It often takes up the brunt of our prayer meeting requests and modern science even holds symposiums on “the effectiveness of prayer” in restoring health. We often respond to the physical pains of unbelievers by assuring them we will “pray for them.” That is all good and noble, but I want to think about what it is we should pray? Does the Bible give us instructions on what the will of God is in our prayers for the sick and dying?
Although there is some precedent for praying for the good health of another, the NT is surprisingly silent by the lack of prayers for the physical health of others. (I will not address the healing passages here, but even in these passages there is a recognition that the healing comes in order to free for service… not just so that people can feel better.) Based on that fact alone, we ought to be somewhat cautious before we assume that our primary supplication for the suffering should be that God would remove the sickness or make them feel better.
Notice these two key texts:
3 John 1-4 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul. For I rejoiced greatly when the brothers came and testified to your truth, as indeed you are walking in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Philippians 2:25-30 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
In both cases, the point of praying for physical health was for the continued working or outflow of spiritual health. So even where good health is prayed for, it appears that in the Apostles’ minds, the reason for it was that good works might be accomplished.
In other words, the greater issue is that the Lord would raise up Epaphroditus to health so that he might minister to the Philippians. In the case of Gaius, the same intention is present. Gaius is needed to extend hospitality to travelling fellow Christians – a task he can do much more effectively when his physical health mirrors his (more vital) spiritual health.
This is not to discount the pain and suffering of the elect. We can be quite assured of the fact that God is with those who are suffering and dying.
1 Peter 4:12-14 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.
David said “Precious in the sight of the Lord / is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).
Whether suffering from sickness or on the verge of death, there is no question that the Lord stays faithful and true to His people. But I think there are more important items to pray for besides their restoration to health and life.
How then should we pray for Christians who are sick and/or dying?
1. Pray that they might know the presence of Christ through His Spirit (1 Peter 4:14 / Romans 8:26-30)
2. Pray that God gives them mercy to endure the suffering in a way that glorifies Christ (1 Peter 2:18-25)
3. Pray that grace would outperform sin in their lives (Romans 6)
4. Pray for an experiential knowledge of the love of God in Christ (Eph 3:14-21)
5. Pray for a deep drawing toward God the Father through Christ that would keep the heart of the suffering very close to Him (James 4:8)
6. Pray that the sick might be blessed with the “sensible impression” of God with them (Romans 8:12-17)
7. Pray that the Lord would enable the suffering to use their mouth to glorify God through the suffering (Eph 3:25-32)
8. Pray the sick are able to “lay hold of Christ” as they think of His sufferings on their behalf for their sins on the cross (2 Timothy 1:1-13)
9. Pray for a strengthening of hope, so that the Lost would be forced to wonder and ask from whence it comes (1 Peter 3:13-17)
10. Pray that the sufferer experiences the liberty of that “peace that passes understanding” through the valley of the shadow of death (Philippians 4:7)
11. Pray that the mind of the sufferer would be turned to dwell on the hope of glory and future union with Jesus in heaven (Romans 8:18-25)
The great comfort for suffering Christians is that their Saviour will never leave nor forsake them. The sick and dying can take great encouragement from these precious words:
Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But that leaves a final question:
How then should we pray for people who are not yet Christians and are sick and/or dying?
1. Pray that God would use their suffering to force them to consider the sufferings of eternal hell, and that such considerations would lead them to cry out to Jesus in repentance and faith now.