Recently I was asked some hard questions about faith and prayer. A woman to whom I minister has been praying for two hard situations. One was that her unsaved and estranged husband would be saved and the other was that a friend’s baby would be healed of an aggressive and 100% fatal cancer. Both were hard situations. She has graciously allowed me to share her questions here so that others might also benefit from her spiritual struggles.
Her questions are as follows:
“The first question has to do with the fact that I have been praying for my marriage. That is no secret. I have been praying for my husband to be exposed to folks that bring him the Word of God and for him to choose to come to God. I have come to learn something: I can pray in faith, and still none of it will happen if my husband does not choose to let it happen. How does MY faith play a role in that situation, where the answer is based on another human being making a CHOICE? I KNOW God can do what needs to happen, but I DON’T know that my husband will ever make that choice.”
“The second question has to do with the child of some friends of mine. He is very young and has a very rare cancer for which there is no treatment. They have just found out that it is on his lung, in his bloodstream, in his lymph nodes, and is just growing. Chemotherapy and radiation and surgery are useless on this cancer. They say he is dying and that there is nothing my friends can do for their little boy. I know these things happen. I KNOW that God isn't mean and doesn't listen to our prayers and heal people miraculously, but in a situation like this, a situation where it is not my child to stand in for, what do I pray? I have been praying for healing since Day One. I have been believing that he is healed. Each time bad news comes I continue to pray in faith and continue to believe. I KNOW God can heal him - I know that because He tells us He can, but again, in a situation like this, how does MY faith play a role?”
“I am just really confused on these two things. I know they are two, but the ONE issue to me is where faith fits into situations like this. I mean, when we stand praying, we are to believe and God says when we do that it will come to pass. WELL???? Not everything - right? I am confused on this because I believe He can do it and does do it and HAS done it, but what about the times when the answer is “No”? What happened to the faith? It doesn't mean it is weak or anything, does it?”
Those are some good but difficult questions, aren’t they? It’s been my experience that they aren’t rare questions among our brethren. I took all night to meditate on her questions and to pray...waking a few times to do so.
To begin we have to really understand what “faith” is.
Faith is the Greek word “pistis” and it expresses the central point from which an action proceeds. In essence faith is a decision to have “total reliance upon; total trust in” someone or something and to live that decision out. For us this means we have total reliance upon and total trust in Jesus and that total reliance upon and trust in Jesus is the central point from which our entire lives are to proceed.
The truth is that none of us have “total” trust in Him; we’re people and are, therefore, imperfect. We are all in some stage of learning to trust Him more and more.
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
Our faith is being “tested” - which means “refined.”
Our faith is in a Person. Often, though, we have been taught to express faith in terms of something happening that we want to happen. In the examples my friend gave the things she wants to see happen are noble ones: the restoration of a marriage and the healing of a child. They are made even more emotional issues because they are HER marriage and a child that SHE knows. It is right and good for her to hope for, crave for and pray for these things to happen.
However, I don’t think that an outcome is something in which we should put our faith. I mean, think about it. Prayer is a matter of asking God, basically, for a “Yes” or a “No”. If my faith is in a “Yes” outcome we have given God an opportunity to build or to destroy our faith. Would God destroy our faith? Of course He wouldn’t do that.
Our faith MUST be in Him....to do what He sees fit.
That means that we totally rely and totally trust that what HE does is best. It means that every time we pray for something we reassert our commitment that whatever He decides we will still be loyal to Him - even if what He does...is a “No” concerning our request.
It’s also good to remember that sometimes the answer is “Not now” or, even a season will pass when seemingly nothing is happening. This may mean that He is still working with someone or something in the situation and a solid yes or no cannot be given yet.
Now, in her two noble prayer topics...there is a fundamental difference. Concerning the marriage, God’s decision is to give her husband (like He has for you and me) free will - the freedom to resist Him. God will not MAKE her husband obey Him and be saved, however, we know that God would like that man to be a Christian.
“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
God desires that the woman’s husband come to repentance but He won’t make him become a Christian or a better man. And, really, she doesn’t want that to happen either, even if forcing him to do it would give her better “behavior” in him to experience.
What she and God both REALLY want in her husband is a man that would WANT to be a Christian and a better man and THAT is the logic, I believe, behind God not violating human wills. He wants us to want Him and to want what He wants for us.
Concerning the child with cancer, this is purely a matter of God deciding what He thinks is best for His kingdom, for the child, his parents, other loved ones and people that don’t even know them. The disease attacking that child is a result of the Fall of Man and represents the chaos that was released through one man's sin as it lands on one defenseless child. God can heal him and will heal him if He thinks it is best.
I write that and we read it and we think, “How could it NOT be best for that child to be healed and freed of cancer?!?!?!”
I don't know.
I just know that the death of an innocent has often drawn many to the Lord. Heck, my own mom was not innocent and not a child but her death is part of the reason I am a Christian now. There are millions of other reasons God might heal or not heal this child and the fact is that we don’t know those reasons.
The point is, though, that we are committed to God through Jesus. Our faith is in Him....not in circumstances we would like to see come to pass...even desperate ones like the healing of one’s marriage or the healing of an innocent child. I think we all have to decide that no matter what happens, we WILL still love Him and honor Him and worship Him and trust Him - even trusting Him enough to pray to Him the next time something hard like that child’s challenge comes up.
My wife, Laurie, and I had our own trial in this regard. As a baby our 18 year old son Colin was 18 months old and had double pneumonia. The doctors “gave him” a 40% chance of not surviving the illness. I went off into a stairwell and knelt down. My prayer went like this:
“Father, thank You for giving Colin to me and Laurie to raise for You. Please heal him. I want him to live and not die. I want us to be old men together some day. But if YOU decide that it would be best for him to die, I promise that I will stay loyal to You, love You and serve You the rest of my life. But....please hear this....I want him to live and not die.”
It was a hard prayer to pray but I got a lot of relief out of praying it and I'll explain why in a minute. I’m writing this part of this piece to address the question about how to pray in tough circumstances and what I see as an implied question we often have about why we even bother to pray in these situations.
First, I would like to share something about the “mechanism”, if you will of how prayers work. Revelations 5:8 speaks about how in heaven “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
I don’t know how it works, exactly but I believe that our prayers are in those bowls. In my mind, when we pray for someone those bowls are poured out onto the object of our prayers and God addresses them as the bowls are presented to the Lamb. This is symbolic language that I don’t completely understand but the imagery helps me in my faith toward Christ in my praying.
My prayer in that stairwell that day followed a pattern I had learned from Philippians 4.
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
I prayed to Him, I told Him my requests, (I clarified them), I gave them to Him in supplication...as a sacrificial petition to my King...the One in Who I have faith (trust and in Whom I depend). He gave me His peace in return. Obviously, He also allowed Colin to be healed. We are most thankful for that.
Prayer is most about an intimate interaction between a person and his God. It is how we practice the fellowship that goes with our relationship with Him. It is really more about this than it is about the things about which we actually pray.
Prayer is an encounter between a Christian who straddles heaven and earth...and an all-powerful and all-knowing God so that what He has....will flow to us. In this case, it is His peace. To be sure, when we pray, our desires are made known to Him and that matters to Him and He does respond to them. When He does respond, His response is whatever would be best.
My faith…my trust in Jesus…is about that, concerning prayer. I can trust Him to do what is best, despite what the earthly outcome seems to be. He sees further than I can so He sees all the outcomes of whatever it is He decides to do about whatever we pray.
To answer my friend’s third question, if God sees fit to say “No” to my prayer it says nothing about my faith. My faith has to do with my interaction with Him in praying to Him, not with His sovereign decision to answer my prayers the way I want Him to answer them.
Finally, how should we pray? We should “make our requests be known to Him.”
This means that my friend should continue to pray that her husband will someday soon choose to be saved and become a better man, dad and husband. God will do His part to optimize the chance that the man will decide that....perhaps even bringing trials into his life to prove his need of the Lord.
She should continue to pray that the little child be healed of what seems to be a hopelessly fatal cancer. God will intervene in that situation as He sees fit. Her place is to fellowship with her Heavenly Father in prayer.
I’ll close with a short story and an encouragement to depend upon the Lord.
Many years ago I was on staff with an institutional church congregation in Houston. The son-in-law of a fellow staff minister named Jim Rushing was dying of cancer; all the chemotherapy and radiation therapy had been done and he was still dying. He had a wife and a young son, both of whom adored him.
We were all praying that the Lord would heal Jim and would drop by their home at all hours of the day and night to do so. The Lord had told him that he would stop breathing seven times and would be revived six times but that the seventh time he stopped breathing he would die.
One Saturday morning I was impelled to call my friend Mark Williamson to come with me to go to Jim’s house to pray. He was doing the same thing and without a ring on either of our phones we were connected. I hurried over to pick Mark up and we rushed to Jim’s house only to see an ambulance leaving his subdivision without its lights or siren being used.
When we got to Jim’s house we were greeted by friends and relatives that had also been summoned there by the Lord. They told us that he had stopped breathing. It was the seventh time. So, we all caravanned to the hospital where the crowd of people that loved Jim swelled to over 50.
We were all praying in one accord: that God would raise Jim from the dead. The hospital moved Jim’s body into a large empty room that would accommodate the crowd and we all took turns anointing him with oil, laying hands on him, praying that God would raise him from the dead. This went on for over an hour and then there was a shift in the Spirit. Suddenly all of us changed our prayers from “Please raise Jim from the dead” to “We commend Jim to You, Father – thank You for allowing him to be with us for a while.”
It was a holy time and I will never forget it and I am sure the hospital staff never will forget it either. While it stretched the theology of some who were there praying and some who were observing us and, even, perhaps the theology of some who will read this piece, we all prayed for him to be raised from the dead because we all felt called by God to do so. We didn’t consult one another about what to pray; rather, we prayed what was put on our hearts to pray and discovered as we did so that the other 50 people were praying the same thing!
Our faith was not that a seemingly improbable thing would happen (although I believe God’s power still DOES heal people and raise some from the dead to this day). Our faith was in Jesus – to do what He lead us to do and to trust Him for the results.
As we shifted our prayers from resurrection from the dead to thanking the Lord for allowing us to know Jim, our faith remained the same. In other words, we trusted Jesus that it was He Who allowed that relationship.
I encourage you to pursue real faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Seek to be able to trust Him more and more completely; seek to depend upon Him more and more instinctively. As you do, you will experience a peace and a confidence….in Him…that is delicious.
“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)