But what do we make of a verse like "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven"? Obviously God isn't a blessing soda machine, where we insert our prayer and He automatically dispenses a blessing. (Incidentally, a verse that has been added to "The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock" that says "The blessings come down as the prayers go up" rubs me the wrong way.) But given that plenty of sick people that faithful people have prayed for have died, we look for a deeper interpretation such a passage. Back in March I wrote a blog about this very same scripture and suggested that given some of the surrounding verses, James seems more concerned about spiritual healing. Perhaps James is, in fact, saying just that, but are we looking for a deeper interpretation because our gut tells us that James is wrong? The interpretation that James is stressing spiritual healing usually rests on "If he has sinned, he will be forgiven." Is it not possible that James is saying that faithful prayers will heal a sick person and that if the person's illness was a result of sin, then his sins will be forgiven, too?
I don't keep tallies on how many sick people we (whatever church or churches pray for a given person) pray for wind up being healed, but it seems the healings are few and far between to the point where the cynical side of me wonders if they may not just be chocked up to coincidence. (I'm just speaking from my own experience.) Now, of course, you have to consider the fact that all people die, so obviously at some point God will choose not to heal someone. Well, the inevitability of death is an easier thing to accept when we're praying for an elderly person to be healed. If the person is healed, we feel our prayers have been answered. If not, we can say, "Well, it was his time" or "He lived a full life." But what do we make of everyone else? A few years ago in Austin, a man in his late 30's at our church was diagnosed with cancer. He and his wife had a toddler and an infant. We prayed earnestly for his healing, but after several months, he died. Yes, God is sovereign, but where is His love and mercy in that situation? Where?
In May I learned that a friend of mine from college was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer that had spread to several places in his body, including his brain. As if facing life-threatening cancer wasn't bad enough, he and his wife had just had their first child. Of course, many people (myself included) have been ardently petitioning God for his healing since then. As is the case with nearly all cancer treatment, it's been up and down for him. The first "check up" a few months ago yielded mixed results. He's set for another check-up in November. His wife provides updates on his health on their family blog, and the past few updates have broken my heart. To hear that he's discouraged at God's lack of intervention to this point has caused me to pause and reflect a lot on God the past few days. For those of us praying for him, we know that God certainly has the power to heal anyone of anything. Yet, when I think about all the times God has not healed the sick person, I realize that there's also a very real chance that he will die. Again, how would that show God's love and mercy? How could a loving and merciful God not heal a 30-year-old husband and father?
Pondering those questions is what has brought me to this point of angst. Three years ago (around this time of year, in fact), I reached the emotional nadir of my life to that point. Not "feeling" God was present, not having any emotional connection to Him, I attempted to rationalize my faith. Now, I believe there's plenty of logical reasons to conclude God exists, but ultimately I reached the limitations of reason I had known I'd reach in the first place. No one can prove God. And that's when I began to wrestle with some disturbing thoughts: "What if God is make believe? What if we believe in God just because it makes us feel better, because we want life to have meaning, because we're simply afraid of death?" Morbid perhaps, but they are questions I think most believers skirt. Thanks to some thoughtful counsel from some older Christians and an eventual recapturing of "feeling" God to some degree, I rose from my mire of doubt.
Unfortunately, I've been nearly right back at that nadir the past few days. The problem with the aforementioned disturbing questions is that they can't be answered from the believer's standpoint or the non-believer's standpoint with absolute certainty. Low points like this, though, make non-believers' claims seem a bit more credible. Nonetheless, faith can never be proof. Of course, that statement forces me to wrestle with the certainty expressed by the writer of Hebrews in 11:1. If Paul wrote Hebrews, how could he not be sure--seeing Christ on the road to Damascus, as well as his vision of heaven. That then begs the question as to why God doesn't give us much more overt "signs" than He does. Alas.
I wrote this blog out of a desire to vent and out of a hope that some readers may have found themselves in a similar place at one time or another. To me, one of the most poignant moments in the gospels is in Mark when a man brings his demon-possessed son to Christ to be healed, and he says to Christ, "I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief."
May the man's words be a prayer for us all.