On Praying for Arms to Regrow
Prayer by its nature acknowledges the supernatural dimension of creation. There is a God who transcends and upholds the universe, yet is also so immanent as to hear the cries of creation. Prayer presupposes that the transcendent God is not only capable of controlling and altering the mechanics of the universe, but actually does providentially intervene in response to prayer. This is why God’s people can, in confidence, petition him to heal those who are sick. We understand that even if the normal means of healing are ineffective, he can still act and provide restoration to the broken.
But we do not pray for severed arms to regrow. Why not? At first glance this case seems similar to other medical conditions, like terminal cancer: there is an aspect of creation, someone’s body, that is broken and in need of healing, and the available medical resources are inadequate to repair the damage. God can intervene and heal, right? But we don’t pray for the regeneration of a lost limb, and tend to scoff at those who do as acting in futility. It is here that atheists reject prayer as a foolish superstition. It cannot seem to follow its own rules when it matters most and falls into special pleading.
Charismatic Christians also struggle here, since in the Bible God heals in stupendous ways in response to prayer. I am sure that many charismatics do pray for this kind of healing. I have a blind friend who was once stopped by an earnest Pentecostal who wanted to pray for restoration of my friend’s sight. The Pentecostal believer was sorely disappointed when my friend remained blind. While charismatics do claim that God often supernaturally heals, I do not know of any who have claimed that God has regrown a missing limb in response to prayer. And this is the source of their struggle: either they have inadequate faith and so God declines to hear them, or God is not acting in the way he appears to have promised.
The ministries of Jesus and the apostles included many spectacular healings of obvious and apparent disabilities and injuries: restoring sight to the blind, mobility to the lame, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead, and so on. Similar miracles occurred in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. But all of these particular ministerial manifestations served unique, era-specific purposes. Elijah and Elisha were prefigurements of the coming Christ, the apostles were validating their work as the foundation of the church, and Jesus was demonstrating that he is Lord of the Sabbath, the one who is reconciling and restoring all creation. None of these contain promises that God will respond to prayer for healing in a similar fashion now.
So what is prayer, and why are we comfortable praying for some forms healing but not others? How is this not a glaring inconsistency or deficiency?
Prayer is a creaturely, sonly dependence upon our creator Father. It is an expression of the Christian’s dependence and trust upon God and the ways in which he enacts his will. The most obvious negative example of this is that we are not pray for sinful things (James 4:3). When we pray, we are acknowledging God’s sovereignty and petitioning him to act according to his will (Matthew 6:9-10, 26:39; 1 John 5:14).
Prayer is a confession that God is transcendent and sovereign, and that in his sovereignty he determines how to enact his will. The Bible teaches that God enacts his will in two ways – the works of creation and providence. The works of creation are the normal, natural ways in which God organizes and upholds the universe (Genesis 8:22; Psalm 135:6; Proverbs 16:4; Isaiah 55:10-11; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 11:3, etc…). God created the world to operate in a certain manner, and these operations are the normal ways he executes his will within creation.
Sin effects a disruption and twisting of these normal operations. Christ’s mediatorial work is therefore not just a redemption of sinners, but a reconciliation and restoration of the broken creation (Colossians 1:20). The healing ministry of Jesus is a preview of what this reconciliation will look like upon the consummation of his kingdom. Physical healing categorically is then a restoration, in some measure, of the God-ordained normality of creation. When a doctor successfully heals a patient using medical resources there is a restoration of the natural world by the tools present in the natural world. This is God executing his will through the work of creation.
Medical healing is a restoration of the normal, by the normal. This can appear to render prayer unnecessary; if God uses the normal work of creation to accomplish his will, then why bother praying if that process is going to occur either way? The answer lies in the horror of sin. Sin has broken creation to the point that it does not function as God intended. Prayer is the necessary Christian practice of petitioning our Father to restore creation. What is broken must be healed, and what is corrupted must be made right. To pray to God for healing is to pray for him to providentially restore the work of creation to its intended estate. God does respond to prayer by making the normal function as it should: medically trained doctors having the knowledge and skill to heal properly, causing bone marrow to replenish blood counts, providing physical endurance in the face of chemotherapy, and so on. Of course, sin leaves the normal work of creation inadequate for true and complete restoration. That must come through the person and work of Christ.
This is part of why healing was such an important aspect of Christ’s ministry. He was restoring creation to its intended condition, and demonstrating why he alone is able to give full expression to the coming of the kingdom. God’s will being done finds its consummation in the coming of the Christ-kingdom. This coming is already at work, but not yet total. The only time that healing is mentioned as a spiritual gift is by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. There he is emphasizing that the church is Christ’s Spirit-indwelt body, given gifts by Christ through his Spirit for the building up of the church. Healing is included alongside not just the working of miracles, but the more mundane gifts of helping and administration. Through the gifts of the Spirit the church is giving expression to Christ’s mission of creation renewal. And this expression via healing comes through the normal means by which God works in creation, just as a skilled administrator relies on natural training and knowledge. This normal approach is not spiritually tepid, but vivified; the Son with the Father sends the Spirit to equip God’s people for kingdom work, including by the use and restoration of the work of creation. And this ordinary work of the church now highlights all the more the extraordinary restoration of creation by Jesus at his second coming, when death and all suffering are finally defeated. The ordinary work of creation now requires the extraordinary intervention of providence later.
And this gets to why we do not pray for arms to regrow. Arms regrowing is not part of the normal way creation works, nor would the restoration of natural functions (e.g. defective bone marrow miraculously producing the necessary amount of blood) include humans regrowing limbs (whereas it is natural for salamanders to regenerate lost limbs). It takes the extraordinary, providential restoration of creation in Christ’s return for that kind of loss to be restored. Analogous to this is death: death was beaten back by Christ in his earthly ministry as a glimpse of the ultimate resurrection work he will complete upon his return, but the use of creation at this redemptive stage is inadequate to reverse death.
Prayer, in petitioning God to act according to his will, is then a request that he would act through the means he has established to achieve his will. The means of creation does not include (at least in our scientific understanding at this point) regeneration of lost limbs. God’s sovereign will is the foundation of prayer, which is our submission to his will; prayer should always be done in the spirit of ‘not my will, but God’s will be done’. Making explicit this understanding of God’s will, which for most Christians is already subsidiary, helps make sense of why we are comfortable for certain kinds of healing but not others. It helps avoid either the charismatic or atheistic pitfalls. For the charismatic, we see that God is not operating inconsistently from scriptural testimony. For the atheist, we better see that prayer is not about requisitioning results from God, and then rewriting the rules we do not like we get. Prayer is about submitting to our heavenly Father’s will and trusting that all his promises of restoration and healing are yes and amen in Christ.