The bottom line is my conviction that I wouldn’t be alive today if not for the prayers and the petitions of many good people—both known and unknown to me—specific to my cancer. As good as much of my medical care has been, it’s not the sole reason I’m still around. I have asked God to preserve my life, as I know others have as well, and for reasons that remain a mystery, he has seen fit to do so. As expressed in the vernacular, my prayers have been answered. Against the odds, I am alive today. I have been graced with the gift of time.
In a world that constantly calls religious faith into question, prayer becomes a subversive act. Maybe that’s why I love it so much. Specific to my situation, it challenges the claims of modern medicine and its comprehensive understanding of how the body works, which leaves little room for the supernatural. I’ve learned to see prayer not as my way of establishing God’s presence in my life, but as my way of responding to God’s presence that is a fact whether or not I can detect it. He is present at all times. When prayer becomes difficult or impossible, as it has been at times this winter, I am still the recipient of his blessings. He prays through me when I can’t muster the energy.
For most of us, much of the time, prayer brings no certain confirmation that we have been heard. We pray in faith that our words somehow cross a bridge between visible and invisible worlds, penetrating a reality of which we have no proof. We enter God’s milieu, the realm of spirit.
I will never understand this side of heaven why prayers offered on my behalf have been mostly answered while those of, say, a 12-year-old with bone cancer have not been, and he or she dies a sudden, inexplicable death. We hear about earnest believers whose prayers go unanswered all the time. The great Christian thinker C.S. Lewis has written about this haunting suspicion we feel at times that prayer is absurd and can have no objective results. Some of us might go so far as to agree with George Buttrick’s fear that prayer is nothing more than a spasm of words lost in a cosmic indifference. Lewis counters in “Miracles” that the impossibility of empirical proof that prayer “works” is a spiritual necessity.
“A man who knew empirically that an event had been caused by his prayers would feel like a magician. His head would turn and his heart would be corrupted. The Christian is not to ask whether this or that event happened because of a prayer. He is rather to believe that all events without exception are answers to prayer in the sense that whether they are grantings or refusals the prayers of all concerned and their needs have all been taken into account. All prayers are heard though not all prayers are granted.”
Karl Barth, the 20th century theologian who pounded home the theme of God’s sovereignty, nevertheless saw no contradiction in a God who chooses to be affected by prayers. “He is not deaf, he listens; more than that, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action.”
I trust that he does, which is why I have often sought out the prayers of people I know believe in its power. The gift of prayer is not distributed equally among believers. My Hispanic friends have a particular aptitude for prayer and enter into it naturally and fervently; my Anglo friends not so much. I also know people who are not Christian who I believe communicate with God, as they understand him to be and who gladly receives their thoughts. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic of the last century, has written that prayer is an expression of who we are. “We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” Prayer helps to fill us up.
All of this leaves me to struggle with the dilemma of prayer and physical healing. A stream of books and articles have been written about physical healings that hold out extravagant hope. If you’re an ardent consumer of news as I am, hardly a week goes by when you don’t watch or read a story about someone who “beats” cancer or some other dread disease. Prayer sometimes figures into these stories, but not typically. At the other extreme, pastors and counselors can tell you endless stories of believers whose prayers for healing go unanswered. These are the narratives that you most definitely will not see on the evening news or in the pages of The New York Times. Hope sells; despair and despondency not so much.
Like many people who face serious illness, I have learned to adapt my prayers to natural laws. I don’t believe this is unfaithful, but in fact sustains faith in light of how God has created the world. Philip Yancey, who has written a marvelous book I recommend titled “Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?,” has written that “The greater the apparent constancy in nature the less the power of petitionary prayer; we cannot change the tides by praying. The great the variability and flexibility, the most instant our prayers: we shall continue to pray about the weather and about physical health.”
Jesus did not come to earth to reverse the laws of nature. In terms of physical health, you could say that the power of prayer has limits. No prayer will reverse the aging process, banish death or eliminate the need for basic nourishment. If you abuse your body long enough, you will die. God has set certain rules in motion for human life, but within those rules there is great potential for physical healing.
There are also the occasional miraculous exceptions; i.e. people with cancer who will experience spontaneous remissions apparently unrelated to treatment. We can pray for that if we wish, although I haven’t. My miracle is just knowing that my T-cells have been fired up by treatment and by the innate ability of my immune system and are actively, and I pray successfully, killing stray melanoma cells in my body. I believe that knowing something about the cellular biology of melanoma makes my prayers for healing potentially more successful. Having a scientific world view can also be considered a gift from God.
When I fall sick or learn of the physical suffering of a friend or family member, I bring that request to God, who the Bible describes as the Father of compassion and the source of all comfort. Yancey writes: “Sickness, not health, is the abnormality that Jesus came to expose. While not solving all the problems on earth, Jesus’ miracles gave a clear sign of how the world should be, and someday will be. His acts of healing restored to specific individuals what had been spoiled on the planet as a whole.”
The Bible gives plenty of examples of prayers answered and unanswered, of illnesses healed and unhealed. I have experienced both—cancer persists in my body, but I have also been healed repeatedly of its physical manifestations. My prayers for healing have—from adrenal gland insufficiency, for example—been answered, but I have not been “cured” of melanoma. I am at peace with that knowledge because I know that there will be no cancer or suffering of any kind some day when I’m with God in heaven. Until then, I will continue to speak with God through prayer confident that he hears me and that it makes a difference in how he chooses to dispense with the days he has granted me in this world.