My husband’s sister died of breast cancer when she was just thirty-six. I was pragmatic about her diagnosis at first. I was a nursing student back then, and I knew the statistics: most people do survive cancer. At first, it seemed my sister-in-law would be a survivor. The cancer was treated and wiped out. But it came back, and then it metastasized.
The blow of this was long and crushing, and it seemed to come out of nowhere: she was young, and there was no family history, no risk factors.
As the end became increasingly inevitable, the family wept and prayed and parsed the Bible for answers. Didn’t Jesus heal people all the time? When he did, he told them, “Your faith has made you whole.” So we questioned our own faith and tried to drum up more of it—any at all, whatever might be necessary to work the needed miracle. But in the end, my sister-in-law died, leaving us all to ask why the Bible promises healing that God so often does not deliver.
As a nurse, I watch people grapple with sicknesses that are painful and humiliating, demoralizing and tragic. A child suffers; a spouse dies too young; a chronic illness knocks us to our knees day after tedious day. In our most honest moments, we are left to wonder: Is God willing to heal but not able? Is he able but not willing? And which alternative is worse?
Each of us, if we live long enough, will lose someone or will ourselves be struck terminal. Eventually these are questions we will have to face.
I have my own painful chronic illness that God has chosen not to heal. It has helped me to consider it this way: When the Bible says that our faith will heal us, it’s like saying that one plus one equals two. There is truth in it, but those who never learn the deeper truths about math can only understand the world in a limited way. God’s answer of no to our prayers for healing is a step out of kindergarten addition and into spiritual Calculus 101. It is an invitation to understand him in a more complete and true and beautiful way.
Here are four ways I have found to respond to that invitation when healing doesn’t happen:
1. Trust in God’s great love.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love,” God says to his people. “I have drawn you with unfailing kindness” (Jeremiah 31:3).
Nothing ever happens to us that is not first passed through the filter of that love and kindness. Remember that God calls us his children. Our own children don’t always understand why we ask hard things of them—they may plead and kick and rant because they can’t see that those things are for their own good. Try to believe the same thing about your heavenly Father as well: that though you can’t see his reasons for saying no to your prayers, he does have reasons, and good ones at that. Somehow this loss is an expression of his love for you.
2. Look through the lens of eternity.
There is a cosmic story being written in which every life plays a vital part. The years we spend on earth are only one short chapter of it. The people we love and lose are eternal beings who, as C. S. Lewis describes it, have just stepped out of the room for a while. And while the separation may be wrenchingly difficult, may tear a great hole in the lives of those left behind, the good-byes in Christ are temporary ones. Those people’s lives continue parallel to ours, though unseen, and will one day merge with ours again. This is the great hope of the gospel.
3. Lean into suffering.
Modern Western culture aims to avoid suffering, but much of the world has a different philosophy: that suffering is necessary for the shaping of our souls. When a silversmith wants to purify silver, he does not warm it gently over a low flame. He subjects it to intense, prolonged heat that completely changes the shape of it. This brings out the impurities, making the silver more valuable. Steel, in order to be made stronger and less brittle, must be passed through fire first. The pain of chronic illness or of losing someone we love can do this same work in our hearts. Suffering, rightly faced, makes us God-shaped in ways that obvious blessings never can.
4. Turn your eyes outward.
Suffering teaches us compassion. When we lose a loved one, we don’t turn to those whose lives seem happy and carefree. Instinctively, we turn to those who can understand what we are going through because they have been through it themselves. If you let God do the work he wants to do through your grief, then you will one day be that comforter for another person.
God does not waste our pain.
Whatever he allows is done out of his great love, for eternal purposes with our highest and best good at their core. Suffering both softens and strengthens us into tools God uses to work eternal healing in a world that is suffering all around us.
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