If a Christian prays for someone to be healed, and the person isn’t healed, whose faith is it that’s lacking?

D. A. Carson wrote about two Jewish men talking on the night of the first Passover. This is a paraphrase: One man said, “I know that you are trusting completely in what Moses said, that God commanded us to put the blood of a lamb on our doorposts so the destroying angel would pass over our households tonight and spare our first-born sons, but you have several sons. I have only one. I’m afraid.” The other man replied, “God will do as He has said. Do not worry.” Carson asked, “Which father’s son lived that night?” Carson answered, “Both. It was not the quality of their faith that saved them. It was the quality of the sacrifice.”

In a related way, believers often wonder if it’s the poor quality of their faith when people aren’t healed when they pray. True, sometimes, people are healed. Most of the time, however, they are not. This mystifying quandary has led to some strange considerations and supposed solutions. Let’s review a few.

Laurie and I met some Christians in Mexico who thought they had to sort out which sins they were committing, unknown to them, so they could be healed of their dental issues. I think this idea must originate from James: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:15–16a).1 Clearly, confessing one’s sins is a good, biblical idea. However, if a believer clears all that up with the Lord and others and isn’t healed, what then?

Sometimes Christians think that they must somehow become “holy” or “spiritual” enough so God can work through them. However, Galatians 3:3 challenges that supposition. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” When Christians think this way, they are in danger of falling from grace and giving in to legalism. What must you do to be spiritual enough so God will do His glorious work through you? More prayer? More Bible reading? Less sinful thoughts? And when will that happen?

The answer: Never. A Christian is as holy, through the cleansing blood of Jesus—it’s the quality of the sacrifice—as he or she will ever be, as far as God is concerned, for Him to glorify Himself through you. Yes, you are to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, but as far as your sinlessness, you will never be “perfected by the flesh” enough through your own thoughts, earnest endeavors, and actions.

Most common, however, in our attempt to explain why people aren’t healed when we pray, is the belief that the person praying possesses insufficient faith, based solely, I think, upon these words of Jesus when the disciples asked Him why they couldn’t cast out a demon: “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

I don’t know how little faith the disciples had, but Jesus made it clear that it didn’t require much—that of a tiny mustard seed—something that might get stuck between your teeth.

However, blaming the lack of healing on the faith of those who are praying—well, it isn’t as black and white as that. Most of us may be aware that Jesus could not do many mighty works in Nazareth because the people there just didn’t believe He could (Mark 6). Clearly, it wasn’t the amount of faith of the Person praying that was the issue there.

So, it must be about the faith of the recipient of the prayer of faith, then. In the above-mentioned Nazareth, it was the lack of the inhabitants’ faith that squelched God’s healing power. We have many examples of the importance of the needy one’s faith. Here is just one, the woman who had a discharge of blood, who simply reached out to touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment: “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well” (Matthew 9:22).

However, when the centurion’s servant was healed, it was the centurion’s faith, not the servant’s, that Jesus praised (Matthew 8:5-13). The servant wasn’t even present or aware of what was happening. When Peter sliced off a soldier’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus just put it back on and healed the man (Luke 22:49-51), with no faith being exercised at all. In addition, most us also know that Jesus raised the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and Lazarus (John 11:38-44) from the dead, and dead people don’t have faith. It’s clear in the accounts that no one in these families were asking Jesus to bring someone back from the dead.

So. Are people not healed because of the quality of the faith of the person praying? Sometimes, apparently. Are people not healed because of the quality of the faith of the people being prayed for? Sometimes, apparently. Are people sometimes healed without human faith being operative at all? Sometimes, apparently. However, it is never, never, Jesus’ ability that is in question.

What conclusion, practically, can we make from this?

Faith must have an object. When we pray, we are not praying with faith in healing. We are praying with faith in Jesus, the incomparable God who heals. We pray “in His name,” in His character, nature, and reputation. Therefore, we must know Him. We must know His character—His love, His compassion—and His prodigious spiritual power to do absolutely anything and everything and more than we can ask or think.

However, everyone we pray for will not be healed. Why? We do not know with certainty. But we do know the One who knows everything with certainty—and we trust in the quality of the surpassing ability of the God to whom we pray—not in our own

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.