Many readers are aware of several scientific studies in recent years that have sought to quantify the effect of prayer on patients’ health in medical settings. The studies have been variously conceived. Some have researched the effect on patients who know they are being prayer for, others on patients who don’t know they’re being prayed for; some studies involved prayers and patients who know each other, others involved prayers who are strangers to the patient. When positive effects were found, were they due to the Placebo Effect, the Hawthorne Effect, or actual divine intervention? The findings have been mixed. This does not surprise me since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to reduce all dimensions of religious faith and prayer to variables that are quantifiable and thus subject to scientific research. Overzealous attempts to do so will probably prove to be disadvantageous to both religious faith and science.
Though I find these studies interesting and sometimes insightful, my interest in this writing lay elsewhere. I wish to reflect biblically on the experiences of those who have prayed for the health of loved ones and, perhaps, have met disappointment instead.
Even in Jesus’s day, people seeking healing from the Lord often left empty-handed. In fact, on more than one occasion Jesus himself walked away from a crowd of people in need of healing.
Mark 1:29-39 is a case in point. At Peter’s house in Capernaum Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law who was ill with a debilitating fever. By evening, after word spread like wildfire throughout the small fishing village, “the whole city was gathered together at the door.” Jesus “healed many who were sick of various diseases, and cast out many demons.” The next morning, a great crowd of the infirm had already started to form. Everyone was hopeful. All morning they waited. Morning passed into noon, and noon into evening. As time passed, they grew restless, then desperate, then defeated. Jesus never came. Unbeknownst to them, Jesus had slipped away even earlier in the morning, while it was still dark, to find a desolate place in which to pray. When his disciples found him, they told him, “Everyone is looking for you.” But Jesus said it was time to move on to the next towns, “that I may preach there also.” His departure from Capernaum left many seekers of healing disappointed and frustrated.
The disappointments of the Capernaum crowd which sought healing—but received none—are not unique. They are universal. We have all prayed for healing that did not come, as well as for healing that did—let us not forget that! We have prayed for others even more fervently that we have ever prayed for ourselves. Some for whom we have prayed the hardest we lost anyway. Does this mean we should doubt – if not His power, then His love, His goodness? Does this mean we should give up on prayer? Does this mean we should cynically think what is going to happen will happen; that nothing, no one—not even God—can change what inevitably is going to happen?
Martha does not think so. In John 11 Martha sends Jesus word that her brother is seriously ill. Jesus stays put until Lazarus has died, explaining to his disciples (and to the reader) that He intends to raise Lazarus from the dead. He gives Martha no explanation. In John 11.20-27, Martha meets Jesus on the outskirts of Bethany. Her first words are: “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” Jesus, before raising her brother, or even hinting that He would, asks her if she still believes: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this.”
Her response is quick and sure: “Yes Lord, I believe completely that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who comes into the world.” Though Martha has questions and even doubt, her faith is sure. She believes with her head and her heart. Her faith is not disappointed. Such faith never is. Jesus has not come to Bethany to cure an illness, but to defeat death.
We must remember this. We have walked in the shoes of the crowd in Capernaum, our hearts filled with disappointment. We know the pain of our own diseases, as well as the pain of watching loved ones struggle with theirs. We know the disappointment of being told that there is no cure for our condition, but only partial management of the worst symptoms. We know the disappointment of having less energy and facing new limitations, of not being able to do things we once took for granted. We know the disappointment of watching our healthy friends and family carry on as usual while we feel we are being left farther and farther behind. We know the disappointment of our own body becoming our enemy rather than our friend. We know the disappointment of crying out to God, only to be met by deafening silence.
We must remember that questions and disappointments need not destroy faith. We must remember that faith involves a relationship with God who has proved his faithfulness to his people over and over and over again. Yes, the journey of faith is often from Mt. Sinai through the wilderness until we reach the Promised Land, but God is always with his people every step of the way. Not just at Mt. Sinai and in the Promised Land, but in the wilderness also!
We must remember that faith involves walking faithfully with Jesus. He also walked the way of pain, suffering, disappointment and rejection. He cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But even in that moment of feeling real suffering and real forsakenness, his heart was drawn to the Father and to the Father’s love. And in that moment of heart-to-heart love, he knew that the Father had not and would not abandon him. That his heavenly Father was where he always is when his people suffer. God is there in their midst. Nowhere is that more evident than the cross. It was not simply the man Jesus who suffered on the cross, but it was God-in-the-flesh, God incarnate in Jesus, who suffered on the cross. That day, God’s love was written in red.
That love makes us able to believe like Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And I believe you will turn my sorrow into joy. I believe you will turn all my disappointments into hope. I believe your love will never fail. I believe that in good times and bad, in health and sickness, in victories and defeats, in life and death, you will walk with me every step of the way. Amen.