If you’ve ever been to a church service or listened to a Christian radio station, you may have heard a testimony like the following: “Our child was seriously ill, and the doctors gave us an extremely negative prognosis, but we did not give up. We prayed and prayed, and everyone we knew prayed for a healing, and God answered our prayers. Our child recovered and is healthy and strong today. God is good. Praise God!”
I, too, have heard similar versions of this story on numerous occasions. As a result, I have faith in God, and I praise Him for His healing powers and His answers to prayers. About two years ago, however, I experienced this story with a distinctly different outcome.
On her 30th birthday (December 21), our older daughter, Maria, complained of a terrible headache, what she imagined to be a migraine, though she had never experienced migraines before. She visited her doctor, but her pain persisted. Days later, we brought her to an emergency facility; again, the treatment offered did not help. On Christmas Day, she lost her vision in one eye, so we called an ambulance and brought her to the hospital. Within 30 days, Maria was gone.
Initially, the hospital doctors were puzzled by Maria’s problems, and they described her as a “diagnostic dilemma.” After numerous tests and procedures, they finally figured out that she had breast cancer and that it had spread to her brain. By then, however, the damage had been done, and they could do nothing to save her. Maria is now in heaven.
But wait. That can’t be true. We prayed for her healing. Everyone prayed for her recovery. Yet Maria did not survive. So did God not answer our prayers? This is the question I ponder today.
In John 15:7, Jesus said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”
Earlier, in John 14:14, Jesus also said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Thus, I have to admit I am puzzled by the outcome in Maria’s case.
In my quest to understand, I recall other similar stories of loss in the Bible. David, described as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), also endured a difficult situation with his child. The son that David had as a result of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba became seriously sick. Naturally, David “pleaded with God for the child” (2 Samuel 12:16). Unfortunately, the boy died, and the prophet Nathan explained that the boy’s death was a punishment for David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12: 11:19).
The book of Job chronicles another tragic loss of life. Regarding Job, God says: “there is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). The text also says that Job often prayed for his seven sons and three daughters. Yet, in that same chapter, we read that all of Job’s children died in the midst of a terrible storm. In this case, though, Job was not being punished for his sin. Instead, God allowed Satan to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away his children and his possessions (Job 1:9–19).
Finally, in the New Testament, I recall the story of Lazarus. When this friend of Jesus became sick, his two sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus regarding the situation. Instead of rushing to see Lazarus or healing him from afar, however, Jesus stayed where He was for two more days, and Lazarus died. At that point, Jesus said to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (John 11:14–15). Obviously, Jesus knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, but Lazarus had to die first for that to happen. In a similar way, Jesus Himself offered His life on the cross to prove His power over death through His Resurrection. So the death of Lazarus and the death of Jesus both serve a greater purpose, a purpose that is not initially understood by those who were close to the one who died.
So what happened in Maria’s case? Am I being punished, like David, for my sins? That’s a possibility since I have sinned often. Or is God testing me, and others who loved Maria, just as he tested Job? Again, that’s a possibility, and we are all dealing with broken hearts and pondering our loss. Or is Maria’s passing, like the passing of Lazarus, serving a greater purpose, one well beyond our earthly understanding? This possibility, too, exists, and we may not learn the answer until we ourselves pass into eternity.
So what have I learned from all of these stories and others like them? I have realized that God doesn’t have the same earthly plan, a one-size-fits-all plan, for everyone. Just because God often answers prayers and heals some people doesn’t necessarily mean He’s going to treat all others in the same way? Rather, God answers our prayers in numerous ways, and He has a unique plan for each of us: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Yes, we lost Maria, just as David lost his son, just as Job lost his children, and just as Mary and Martha lost their brother for a short time before God brought him back to life. Rather than look at Maria’s passing from a purely earthly perspective, however, I must take the eternal view. I must trust that God has plans to give me “hope and a future,” a heavenly future that will include Maria and an eternal future that will not end in death.
So does God answer our prayers? Of course He does — In His time and in His way. And for that, I am grateful.