Throughout the Baptist Convention in which we work I have been told that the use of oil for prayer is prohibited for several pretty good reasons. The first is its connection with traditional practises, which the church does not wish to encourage. The second is the presence of hucksters and false prophet who make a practise of cheating people by selling them oil, which they claim has all kind of magical properties. The abuse of anything good is really only restricted by the imagination of the turkey willing to abuse it.
In my own practise, however, both in Africa and back in Canada, I have made the decision to use oil when I pray for healing for a few reasons. First, it is scriptural – we are told to do it (see James 5.14-15) – and no amount of abuse ought to make us throw a good baby out along with dirty bathwater.
Second, I have found that the process of anointing with oil underscores for me and those with me the seriousness of what we are doing when we pray for healing. It is possible for prayer for healing (or anything else) to be a kind of ‘throw-away’ event, something of which we may not expect anything to come. But if we really believe in our God, that he is not only kind and compassionate, but also strong and powerful, then we should be expecting him to act each time we come to him with a petition. The act of anointing with oil, for me, helps to pray with a higher level of expectation.
I fully understand our Baptist Convention’s reticence in this area, though. I have seen and heard the frauds sell their holy water and oils, along with the outrageous claims that go with them (e.g., “bury this under your threshold and when you go out you will not contract AIDs, or any other STD; you will get that job, that woman; you will be healed of that cancer,” and so on). So I have stopped carrying my own oil but always use some that is lying around the compound where we are. And I always instruct my translator (lately, my friend Suleimanu) to explain to the people that what we are doing is in obedience to the word of God, and that there is no magic in either the oil or the one paying, but there is power in God to heal.
The third reason I use oil is that it tends to heighten the expectations/faith of the people around me that God will do something through this process. Sometimes I feel that I do not “step out of the boat” enough to really see God at work. In praying for healing, anointing with oil, and offering the explanation that we do, we are putting God’s reputation on the line. Since he is the one who does the actual healing, if nothing happens it will be his business, not mine. This again heightens my expectation that God will work on our behalf – but it must begin with me doing what it is my part to do.
These days the people for whom we pray are very often very poor, with limited access to medical facilities and resources – by which I mean, the resources are often around but at a distance, both economically and geographically (which, again, means at an economic distance). After praying we will also often give some small funds to help people be transported to clinics, or to purchase the drugs needed and so on. We do not pray to the exclusion of giving other kinds of medical aid.
One final thing I will say is that we have seen times when no healing has been forthcoming in response to prayer (I have in mind one young girl up north who is suffering from some sort of psychological disorder or possession), much like Paul speaks of Trophimus (see 2 Tim 4.20). On the other hand, we have also seen God do some wondrous things which, as my old youth pastor used to say, we would not have seen had we not prayed.