Perhaps it was the presence of our houseguest at our small group meeting a few days before the Christmas party that encouraged the discussion to take the direction it did. We were still getting together with the same people from our church, and we were now hosting the group. Priscilla explained that our friend was a seminary graduate who was doing a doctorate in New Testament and Early Christianity, and this meant that there were two people (counting me as well) with that extent of theological training who were available as resources to the group that night. “So ask anything you want!” she said.
The discussion topic quickly became, “Why couldn’t God just heal Priscilla?”
This, as you can imagine, was a question we’d pondered long and hard. It wasn’t that we didn’t believe God still healed today. Our understanding of the Bible and theology saw no problem with this, and in fact we’d witnessed our share of what we could only explain as divine healings. So from both belief and experience, we had no problem with the idea that God might heal.
Why, then, weren’t we asking everyone to pray that God would heal Priscilla? Here’s how we explained it that night to our small group (with our friend helpfully providing valuable supporting insights). These were understandings we’d arrived at over the years from our own meditations and reflections on the Bible and theology in light of pastoral experiences that had included deaths as well as healings. Our understandings had been honed more recently in long, impassioned discussions with other people who loved Priscilla and just wanted God to heal her.
The first thing we said was that while divine healing of the sick is a vital aspect of the proclamation of the kingdom, caring for the sick is a vital aspect of the work of the kingdom. Jesus did send out his disciples saying, “Proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy.” But in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, the king (who represents Jesus himself) doesn’t say to the righteous, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was . . . sick and you healed me.” He says, “I was sick and you took care of me.”
When Jesus heard that his friend Lazarus was sick, he said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.” This suggests that there is a “sickness unto death” (that is, one from which a person will not recover, so they will need to be cared for) as well as a “sickness unto the glory of God.” People in that latter situation may be divinely healed as a proclamation of how God’s kingdom is breaking into our world.
It follows—and this was our second point—that prayer for healing must be understood as the first step in a process of seeking guidance. It’s an appropriate and necessary first step; we told our group that we ourselves, whenever we heard someone was sick, would always pray first for their healing. But then we would be watching and listening to discern what God might show us about the purposes He wanted to accomplish through the illness. (We never believed that God actively caused someone to be sick or injured, but rather that God was always looking for a way to advance His own purposes in the face of these unfortunate realities of our broken world.) Particularly if what we discern suggests that a person may indeed be going to die, we need to help them die well. That means being lovingly cared for, in a way that allows them to say goodbye and leave a legacy.
But ultimately this all comes down to the faith God gives us to respond to a situation. Prayers for the recovery of a friend who appears to be going to die may be offered in audacious defiance of what seems to be happening. So praying about and responding to a sickness as if it were “unto death” or “unto the glory of God” is not a matter of conforming to the circumstances, but rather of following guidance actively received from God.
One of God’s greatest mercies was to show both of us, from a very early point, that what Priscilla had was a “sickness unto death.” This kept us from operating at cross purposes, with one of us wanting to prepare well for her death and the other wanting to pursue treatment and cure up to the very last moment. We were unified in facing an implacable foe, and that enabled us to put up the best possible fight together.
Explaining all of this was very helpful to the friends in our small group. They’d wanted to pray for Priscilla to be healed, but they’d gotten the impression we didn’t want them to, and they needed to know why. They all still wished to pray for her healing, which we said was fine with us, but we explained that we’d also need much prayer for, and help with, many other things unless and until divine healing might happen. They understood this and were already being very supportive in countless practical ways. They added another a few weeks later. When Priscilla signed her Do Not Resuscitate order, two of our small group members served as her legal witnesses.
For the record, Priscilla never refused or declined prayer for healing. About a year earlier, after one evening service at our previous church (ironically, because its official stance was that God didn’t heal miraculously any more), a man we’d met earlier that day at a Grad IV event and then unexpectedly saw again there asked if he could pray for her. Right in the lobby he laid hands on her shoulders, “took authority” over the disease, and commanded it to depart. Priscilla was a willing participant in all of this, full of faith and expectancy. We agreed afterwards that if any prayer could heal her, this one certainly would. But it did not. God had a different purpose in her situation.
A woman who became a dear friend during Priscilla’s illness said this in her eulogy for her: “We often hear about having faith for healing. Priscilla has shown me that it takes even more faith for suffering—to keep letting Jesus carry the yoke, to keep praising him as strength and ability fade. Priscilla has shown me that suffering is not a failure of faith, but a triumph of faith.”