A few years back I was asked to visit a critically ill man to pray for him. When I arrived at the hospital it was clear that the man, in his late 70’s, was near death. He was unconscious and hospital staff had suggested family members come quickly to say their goodbyes. A number of them were present. In the room was also the pastor from a church of another denomination that one of the family attended. We were both invited to pray. I gave thanks for the gentleman’s life, for the love that was shared, and for the opportunity to say good farewells. Then the other pastor prayed. He laid his hands on the dying man and called on God to heal him, raise him up to full health and restore him to his family. I thought the prayer was incredibly cruel, that rather than helping the man and his family through the dying, farewelling and grieving process, it kept them stuck in denial and false hope. I am sure the other pastor thought my prayer lacked faith in the miraculous power of God. Maybe he even thought it was my lack of faith that resulted in the elderly gentleman soon passing away.
For me this rather extreme example raises an important issue. At what point do we accept suffering, pain and the process of dying and cease asking for God to miraculously heal them? Here is what I’ve come up with.
First, I don’t ever want to stop praying that God’s kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. I always want the carry the spirit captured in Dylan Thomas’ remarkable poem – “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Suffering, pain and death are intrusions into God’s universe that are the enemy of humankind and creation, and which Christ will eventually do away with.
Second, while I long for God’s kingdom to come, it has not come yet, at least not in its fullness. Suffering, pain and death are part and parcel of life and it’s no use pretending otherwise. When Jesus rose it was to an existence where he would no longer experience physical decay, suffering and death. Whatever healing or transformative work God might do in our lives now, it is not to raise us to the resurrection state – that is yet to come. It will be at best a temporary reprieve from the process of decay and dying.
Third, while suffering, pain and death are intrusions into God’s universe, they can also become tools by which we grow, experience the grace, love and support of others, and prove God’s strength for us. This has not only been my experience, but as I have touched on these issues in my blog posts I have received a number of emails from people who have experienced incredible difficulties but who say the same thing.
Fourth, I want my prayers to be an exercise in dealing with reality and not in denying it. In his letter to the Corinthian Christians the apostle Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh”, a painful physical condition, that he experienced. He mentions that three times he asked God to remove it, but that God’s answer was “no”. The way the text is written suggests that after the third knockback Paul stopped praying for the thorn to be removed and prayed rather that God’s strength might be exhibited in the way he dealt with his condition. Did he lack faith? No. He knew that the resurrection awaited him, and in the meantime he accepted that the thorn would be part and parcel of his existence. When we have prayed for healing or some other miraculous “breakthrough” and it hasn’t come surely we must reach a place where we accept that God’s intention does not appear to perform a miracle and start to pray differently. To do otherwise can leave people stuck, to fill them with hope that will not be met and that prevent them from finding the opportunity to deal with their pain and to grow through it.
So what does all this boil down to? My prayers will always include the possibility of a miraculous act of God, but the much stronger focus will be on experiencing and extending to others God’s love, grace, support and wisdom for dealing with the difficulties of life.