An anonymous man who listens to the podcast, but who does not give us his age, writes in: “Hello, Pastor John. Blessings to you! I have a faith question. My dad recently died of a brain tumor.” We are very sorry to hear this. “I prayed with all the faith I could muster to ask God that he not die. But he did. I wonder: If I had more faith, would my dad be alive today? In the Bible I always see Jesus healing people who had faith, even healing them because of their faith (Matthew 9:22; 15:28). Jesus refused to heal people in his own hometown ‘because of their unbelief’ (Matthew 13:58). And he even connects the probability of seeing miracles to the size of one’s own faith (Matthew 17:20). So could my lack of faith be a factor in my dad’s death? Or was it simply the will of God for him to die? I’m sure this is a question for many people who, like me, get attacked often by guilt.”
I’m going to take my cue from that last sentence: “I’m sure this is a question for many people who, like me, get attacked often by guilt.” So, our friend is saying he is often attacked by guilt. In this case, it’s guilt for the death of his father, because of the possibility he raises that if he had more faith, his father may not have died. And so, he is attacked by guilt that he may not have had enough faith.
What Matters Most
Where I want to start is this: Suppose I said, “Yes, your father would be alive today if you had more faith.” And suppose I was right. It’s just two big suppositions. I’m just saying to try it out. Suppose I was right, and suppose you believed me. What would you do?
“Seek to grow in faith and to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus.”
Now, I think the answer to that question is more important than the question of whether your father would have died if you had more faith. Because my question has to do with your eternal standing in God and how you live in it. But your question has to do only with the length of life on this earth of your dad, and the relative quality of your faith. So, what would you do if I said, “Yes, your father would be alive today if you had more faith”? I hope you would say this:
I would get down on my knees, and I would tell God how sorry I was for being so weak in faith. I would grieve over my lack of faith, and I would grieve over the loss of my father. I would cry out to Jesus, who loved me and gave himself for me. I would tell him that I trust him, and I would receive from him afresh his forgiveness. I would ask him to heal my memories, protect me from the destructive, paralyzing accusations of guilt and the evil one that I feel so often and get tangled up in. And I would resolve in a fresh way to put my faith in the promises of God’s daily help, which I so need now to walk in as I move forward.
Now, if that’s the way you would respond to my telling you that your father would be alive if you had more faith, then you’re in a very, very good position — whatever the answer is to your question. In other words, the question about your faith in regard to your father’s healing is not nearly as important as your faith in regard to your standing in the grace of Christ. This means that you can rest deeply and soundly in Christ, whatever else I have to say. I’m going to say more. So, here we go.
Little Faith and Great Faith
You ask, “If I had more faith, would my dad be alive today?” Here’s my answer: I don’t know. The reason I can say that, and still believe in the sovereign will of God working all things according to his infinite wisdom, including life and death, is that James said we have not because we ask not (James 4:2). We have not because we ask not.
In other words, when certain secondary causes — like praying or asking, in this case — are not in place, then certain effects of those missing causes don’t come about. And since God rules over the causes as well as the effects, this is not a contradiction of his sovereign rule.
Here’s an analogy. I’m with you now in this kind of question. These are my questions, but they’re like your question: Would more people have been converted to Christ when I preached, if I had prayed more in preparation? If I had preached with greater earnestness and tears? If I had prepared a better sermon, and not given people so many distractions in the way I stumbled around? If I had looked people in the eye and communicated greater personal compassion? If I had put my sin of pride and self-consciousness to death more effectively? If I too had had more faith, would more people have been converted?
“Faith is a gift, and you can never presume that God owes it to you.”
And my answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know. What I do know is that I would go insane if I had to figure that out every time I preached — that when I preach, I’ve got to know what would have happened if I’d done things differently. And when I preach, it’s not just what’s at stake here on earth; it’s what’s at stake eternally. Eternal lives are at stake when I preach, not just my dad’s few years of life on the planet. I cannot bear the burden — I can’t bear it — of having to answer the question, What if? What if? What if?
So it is with our prayers for those we love, whether physical healing or spiritual salvation. Would more faith heal? Would more faith save? Maybe, but maybe not. Jesus healed when there was no faith, like the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:12–17), and the man in John 9 who didn’t even know who Jesus was after he was healed (John 9:24–25). He healed in response to little faith; he healed in response to great faith; he withheld healing for lack of faith. Paul called faith a gift (Ephesians 2:8–9), and he said you can have faith to remove mountains, but not have love, and it would amount to a big spiritual zero (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Trust God’s Promise
So, I think the way forward is to seek to grow in faith and to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus, according to 2 Peter 3:18. Never, never, never be content with what you already possess in faith. Always want more of all that God has to give. But realize that faith is a gift, and you can never presume that God owes it to you.
James teaches us to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15). God decides who lives and who dies, and he decides when. Our main job is to trust his promise. And his promise is not to heal everyone we want healed. His promise is to do good to those who trust him (Romans 8:28), and to conform us to Christ (Romans 8:29), and to give us the grace we need to persevere in love and holiness to the end (2 Corinthians 12:9).