Praying for miracles

In Sing Me to Heaven, Margaret Kim Peterson quotes David Steinmetz regarding the difference between conventional Protestant prayers and the Psalms: “The Protestant prays, ‘Oh Lord, we’re not worth much. We have these people we want you to heal. We don’t think you’ll do it. Thy will be done. Amen.’ The psalmist prays, ‘O Lord, remember the deuteronomic law code? It says you will vindicate the righteous. Well, I’m righteous, and I’m a little short in the vindication department. Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there?’” (p. 132).

I recognize the sheepish halfheartedness of my own prayers for healing for people I love. I believe that God can perform miracles. But, to be completely honest, I don’t really expect him to do so in any given case. Because he usually doesn’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t ask, but my asking is couched in hedges and hesitations that, even to my own ears, sound pretty faithless.

Then I feel guilty and wonder whether my charismatic brothers and sisters are right who insist that the faith with which a request is made plays a part in whether the request is granted. They’ve got biblical warrant for this position: Jesus himself, repeatedly, tells people that the healing they experience was due to their faith. And I hear anecdotes even in our modern world about healing coming through prayers offered in faith. (When the prayers offered in faith do not produce healing, you don’t hear about them so much.)

But then, I believe that the proper object of our faith is God, and God’s character expressed in God’s promises. And God hasn’t actually promised the specific medical miracles for which we are praying. He has promised to vindicate the righteous, and to work all things together for the good of his children, but he hasn’t promised what vindication, what that good, is going to look like. It’s not honest to myself, or to God, to attempt to pray “in faith” for a desired outcome, if “faith” here means convincing myself that God is going to do something that Godself has not promised.

Besides, faith itself is a gift from God, not something I can gin up by sheer force of will. I trust that God knows that better than I do, and is not going to say to himself, “Well, I was going to heal this person, but since I can tell that Rachel who is praying for him doesn’t really expect me to do it, I guess I won’t.” All I can do is pray my own hurt and confusion and sadness and desperate wishes for things to be otherwise, and let God, who is faithful even when I am not, sort out the details of how to answer.

 The medical miracle for which we fervently plead to God when faced with the prospect of losing someone much too soon is (1) not guaranteed and (2) at best, only a stay of execution. As long as the Lord tarries, everyone dies eventually. The complete miraculous remission of a lethal disease could buy someone additional years or even decades of life, but then: they will die. It’s what people do.

This is not to say that a premature death is not a heartbreaking tragedy – it is – or that we should not pray to God for healing when faced with the prospect of such a death – God invites his children to make our petitions known to him. It is to say, however, that healing from a temporal illness, even of the most severe sort, is not the best thing that God has to offer our loved ones. Even while we pray for a temporary miracle that will allow our loved one to stay with us a little longer (because, face it, even another 50 years is only “a little longer” in the grand scheme of things), we can also pray in absolute confidence for the greater miracle, the miracle that God has in fact promised, indeed has already accomplished:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.... the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.... then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:20, 52-55) 
This is the good news: God Never Runs Out of Time. A terrifying prognosis carries with it fear of not enough time: not enough time to do the things we had hoped to accomplish, not enough time to spend with those we love, not enough time to see our children grow up, not enough time for God to come through with a healing miracle. But our deadlines are not God’s. And God not only can, he will heal his own, even if they die first. I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.

I am praying for miracles, in my feeble, uncertain way. Sometimes I feel pressure to pray these prayers in a more assertive way, and perhaps even to forgo the accompanying prayers for comfort, for mercy in the process of physical decline, for the skill and compassion of medical professionals, for the family coming to terms with the seismic changes in their world – for anything, in short, that suggests that I am anything less than fully convinced that God will answer the big prayer request in the way that we want him to.

But I can't honestly pray that way.  The prayers that I can pray with confidence are of a different sort: Recognize, merciful Savior, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Comfort us with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection; with the knowledge that, in life and in death, we are not our own, but belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. Preserve us from the fear of evil, for you are with us. And, yes, Not my will, but yours be done. If I could not pray these prayers, rooted in the conviction that Jesus is Lord, then I don't think I could pray the other kind of prayer at all.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts - this was very helpful.

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