A good friend of mine is taking the terrible journey through terminal cancer. He is not the first person close to me to have been attacked by this roaring lion of a disease. While some fend it off for a while, eventually, it seems, it often breaks through and attacks viciously and without mercy. Some miraculously escape, but the reality is–many do not. My mother-in-law, and my own father both died from cancer, and a nephew of mine came close (though we thank God that he was spared).
So how are we to pray for those brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering the attacks of serious illness like terminal cancer? I’m not the first to ask this question, and I certainly won’t the last. Who hasn’t struggled, as I do now, to know what to say and how to pray for my friend who is face-to-face with this ravaging disease? Sure, I email him once in a while, and give him a phone call, but even in those brief contacts, I’m usually at a significant loss for words. And to be frank, I’m not always much clearer in how to pray for him either.
I am confident from Scripture and from the stories of God’s people that God can and will sometimes heal people of their illnesses, but I’m also very aware of the reality that he often doesn’t. When God does heal, we rejoice, realizing that healing in this present age is a sign of eschatological hope of the kingdom of God to come when these sicknesses will be finally over. But when God doesn’t heal as we wish, we lament and mourn, realizing that we still live in a world groaning under sin and awaiting its final redemption. So we try to give and take comfort in the promise that those who mourn will be comforted (Matt 5:4)–even if at the present time that comfort may seem so distant.
Our pastor is continuing his series on Paul’s prayers, and this morning was preaching from the prayer found in Romans 15:5-6. Scripture there says,
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)
I had started writing this before the sermon, and though Pastor Blayne didn’t mention sickness per se, it struck me as I listened that it is precisely “endurance and encouragement” that the terminally sick brother or sister in Christ needs most. But the question is: How can we pray so that such endurance and encouragement might come?
In the first place, it is vital that Christians struggling with sickness sense in our interactions with them that our words and our actions are done in the name of Jesus Christ (Cf. Col 3:17), in whom we are spiritually unified with that person. Let’s face it: In and of ourselves, we have nothing to offer. We cannot bring healing, we cannot enter the depths of the person’s heart and drive out darkness and despair. In fact, the words that we do say often slip off our tongues sounding so empty. Ministry must therefore begin with the theological realism of our human inadequacy. So as we haltingly enter into those situations where we walk alongside and pray for those who suffer, we must do so continually asking the Spirit to reveal to both sickand well person alike the unity we have in Christ. But why is this important?
Though I cannot speak from first hand experience of having gone through the valley of the shadow of death myself, I have sensed that critically, and especially terminally, ill people are constantly enshrouded in shadows–especially shadows of loneliness and helplessness. Even if there are many people surrounding the sick person, terminal sickness tragically tends to isolate persons in their helplessness. Because neither sick person nor companion is able to “do” or “say” anything to change the situation, this helplessness may actually paradoxically result in an intensifying of the person’s loneliness and his overwhelming feeling of darkness. So even in the presence of friends and family, whose own helplessness is often palpable, the sick person can potentially end up feeling lonelier than ever. Consequently, it at such times of loneliness and darkness that the reality of the unity the brother and sister in Christ has with the sick person is so vitally important to focus upon. And though sickness may isolate, it is only as we pray for the Spirit of unity found in Christ alone that “endurance and encouragement” may come.
But if the unity in Christ is the issue at stake, then we who are left to deal with the ever increasing realization that our loved one is fighting a losing battle are probably in need of a good dose of “endurance and encouragement” ourselves. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised that sometimes we may leave the room feeling strangely encouraged by the spirit of peace mysteriously made manifest in the sick person. I saw some brief manifestations of joy in the last days of my mother-in-law’s life, and though I missed it with my Dad, my family tells me that this also happened with him in his last hours, even in the midst of his pain. And I know others have told me similar kinds of stories of saints gone home. Thus, perhaps we should not hesitate to interpret those brief moments, however fleeting, as a reminder that even in the face of death, the unity we have with the person in Christ is not broken. Death is still the final enemy to be conquered, but even death cannot rob the Christian of his or her joy. In fact, sick persons who have already come to the end of their own resources may sometimes sense in a more intense and acute way the presence of Christ more than well people ever could. In such times, though it may be us who have come to minister to the person, we may find that we have to humbly accept being ministered to. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile, sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the Triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body.” (Life Together, 20) (This highlight as well that we must remember that theologically it is never us who ministers, but Christ who ministers through us. The fact that a sick person–even a sick person barely able to communicate to us–can actually minister to us is good evidence that ministry is finally the work of Christ).
But note secondly that Paul does not pray primarily for endurance and encouragement; rather, his primary request is that God the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ might be glorified. Yes, we can pray for endurance and encouragement for the person who is sick, but in so doing, we may need to remember that these are by-products that arise as we sense and experience the unity of spirit in Christ and pray that God would be glorified. And so, though we may not be able to know what to say or do for the seriously ill, we can know how we can pray–that in the midst of sickness, whether through healing or even through death, that God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may be magnified in and through it all. After all, the final purpose of both the healed or sick Christian is one and the same: to witness to the glory to God. Whether we mourn in loss, or rejoice in the triumph of healing, it is all pointless and seriously misdirected if we do not direct both our mourning and our praise to the God of encouragement and endurance.
So my practical pastoral advice for praying with the sick is this: First, when called upon to be with those in serious sickness, by all means, do not hesitate to remind the person that you are there not just as a friend or even family member, but first and foremost as a brother and sister in Christ. It is this bond which is the most important, even more than being a relative or even a spouse. Second, pray with the person–even if it is short. Remember: Ministry is Christ’s to accomplish, not ours, and Jesus is able graciously to take our stammering tongues and to use them for his purposes. So by all means, pray that God would restore the person to health if you feel so led by the Spirit. But in praying for that, don’t neglect to ask God for the greater thing, mainly, that the sick person might have a renewed sense of her or his belonging to the body of Christ. And third and most importantly, pray with the person that in all things, whether in life or death, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ would have the glory. By praying this way, we can wait expectantly that God will come in his own way to give endurance and encouragement both to the person in his or her suffering, and to those of us praying alongside.