Does Healing Prayer Work?

by Francis MacNutt
Sep/Oct 2007

I don’t want to write this article, but I think I have to. You see, one of my favorite authors – someone I read all the time – has written in his most recent book that he believes it is a mistake to encourage Christians to pray for physical healing. As you know, the main mission of CHM is dedicated to the goal of restoring belief in Jesus’ healing ministry, so this author’s belief goes counter to our life’s work. If it was just an abstract belief, we could simply let it go, but I believe that lives are lost because Christians have lost their faith in healing prayer.  To us, it is a matter of life and death! For example, here are just three testimonies from our May international conference:

•    “I have been transformed, renewed and born again this week! I have been healed.”
•    “I loved everything about it. It was over the top! I learned a lot. I was healed. I loved the people.”
•    “I was inundated with miracles. I was crushed by miracles. I was reborn by miracles. I will never be the same again!”

The respected author to whom I refer is Philip Yancey, and his recent book is titled Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Zondervan, 2006). Yancey devotes one chapter to prayer for physical healing, and in it he discourages praying for bodily illness because he has seen so many sick patients devastated by Christians who tried to heal them through prayer.  Their last state was worse than the first! Yancey points to piles of letters on his desk, all complaining of the same problem: they were misled by the false hope that they could be healed if only they prayed with faith.

So what can we say?

First, I do not doubt that he has mounds of evidence that many Christians have held high hopes for being healed, but then were severely disappointed. As a consequence, they then blame God or their church – or worse yet, themselves – for their lack of faith. We could send him some more letters to add to his stack of evidence,Yet, now we must try to deal with his problem as openly and honestly as we can. The beginning of solving the question is to admit that some people are physically healed and some are not. We hope and believe that everyone to whom we minister is blessed and drawn closer to God by our prayers. The difficulties are created by well-meaning Christians who have absorbed false teachings: “If you have faith you are going to be healed tonight when we pray. If we just agree on it, you will be healed. Do you have faith for this?” I have dealt with these questions at length in Healing1 and The Power to Heal.2

For years we have struggled to do two things:

1.    Restore what we regard as Jesus’ clear teaching to pray for the sick with faith;
2.    Avoid the legalistic understanding that everyone we pray for will be unfailingly healed.

Most Christians, in our experience, tip the scales in one way or the other, either by ignoring healing prayer altogether or by claiming that healing always takes place if only people would have “faith.”

Having said that, we also have stacks of letters over on the other side: the witness of hundreds of people who testify to having been healed. I am well aware of the power of suggestion and the “placebo effect,” so we have always tried to gather as much objective evidence as possible over the years. It seems that we have always been somewhere in the middle: on one side, trying to encourage people to pray for healing while, on the other, trying to guard against extremism. It does seem strange, though, that the group we are trying to encourage the most are the evangelicals, whose strong suit is a belief in Scripture, asking them to believe in the overwhelming scriptural evidence that Jesus advocated prayer for healing. Of all groups, they should be the strongest proponents of healing prayer (Yancey is an evangelical), but they tend to follow John Calvin, who believed that Jesus himself healed the sick but denied that it took place after the death of the last apostle. Historically, this is simply not true. For 350 years the early church boasted of its healing powers3 and the ordinary Christian people have always retained their belief in healing, as witness those famous healing shrines, such as Lourdes.

Even if the scriptural evidence does not convince someone to try prayer when they are sick, the scientific evidence is also strong. To convince physicians in the reality of prayer as a method of healing, we at CHM took part in a study with Dr. Dale Matthews (in conjunction with a Pain and Arthritis Clinic, directed by Sally Marlowe, N.P.) in which we prayed for 40 patients who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.  We chose this disease because it is medically incurable (at least at this point in history).  This was a scientific study and its results were published in the Southern Medical Journal (December 2000). Most of the patients were improved, and it seems that four were completely cured (we conducted a year’s followup). According to Dr. Matthews, the chances of the healings occurring by chance were only .0001, and anything better than .04 is statistically significant! One physician, Dr. Larry Dossey, claims that studies have shown that prayer works and asks, “Will we reach a point where physicians who ignore prayer will be judged guilty of malpractice?”4 How about Christians who ignore prayer?

Our own experience, gleaned by praying with thousands of individuals (and not just at large healing services) is that some physical improvements happen for most people we pray with, and a significant minority are totally healed. (We try to be honest and avoid exaggerated claims.)

Another inconsistency: no one suggests that we should not consult physicians for treatment for cancer because many patients die after their hopes for a cancer cure have been raised. Such a reaction to physicians is, on the face of it, ridiculous. Nobody would raise it, unless they believed that chemo or radiation were useless. If a cancer cure only worked 10% of the time, patients would go for the possible cure and not blame the physician. Furthermore, prayer has none of the harmful effects of chemo. It means that the critics simply do not believe that Jesus works healing through prayer.

Another additional factor not often mentioned is that, if the one who prays has been baptized in the Spirit, it seems to help. Before Pentecost, the disciples were already born-again believers who knew Christ intimately, yet they were not ready.  Jesus told them to go to Jerusalem and wait until the Holy Spirit came down on them and they were “endued with power from on high.” Perhaps that is the reason why charismatic and Pentecostal Christians give testimony to seeing so much healing. Peter and the other disciples were transformed at Pentecost, but it did not happen until then, even though they were already Christian believers who were sold out to Christ.


I have written this with a little more passion than usual because I would hate to see people die because they do not receive the help they need. It is not just physical death we are talking about: it is all the other devastating ailments from which Jesus came to free us. For instance, do we as Christians believe that Iraq war veterans can be cured of post-traumatic stress syndrome? Can so many suffering from alcoholism and other addictions be freed through prayer? Can the victims of sexual and physical abuse be cured? Our answer to all this is, “Yes! It can happen. This is the Good News of the Gospel.”

We cannot just let these cautious statements ride on by without a challenge.  We know that the skepticism about prayer for healing comes from a loving caution, but to us, it denies an essential part of the Gospel and allows the inert mass of Christians to remain in their pain and weakness. As Paul cries out, “Who will rescue me from this body doomed to death?” (Rom. 7:24).

And the answer is Jesus (Rom. 7:25).

1 Chapter 8, The Faith to be Healed.
2 Chapter 10, What is God’s Will? and Appendix One:  Faith or Presumption and A Husband’s Perplexity.
3 My recent book, The Healing Reawakening (Chosen Books, 2005), deals with the historical question of how we lost our faith in healing.
4 Prayer is Good Medicine (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), 66.

Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Sep/Oct 2007 Issue