There had been no symptoms. My wife’s routine physical examination disclosed cancer that was followed by surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. We entered a valley that led to her death 22 months later. We prayed for life. We got death. Did our prayers make any difference?
We believed God’s “prayer promises.” We believed Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). We believed James: “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” because “the prayer of a righteous person is effective” (James 5:15-16). But pray as hard and as often as we did, she only continued her unrelenting slide toward death. We believed the promises. Why did we not receive when we asked, nor find when we sought?
Popular wisdom tries to span the apparent gap between promise and experience.
“Prayer changes things,” according to popular wisdom, “it changes us.” And that’s true. Or again, “God has three answers to prayer: yes, no, and wait.” For most of those 22 months, God seemed to be saying “wait.” Toward the end it became obvious that God was saying “no.” And at the very end God said a gracious “yes” to our final prayers that she would move gently from life here to life there. But we needed more than popular wisdom to satisfy our hunger to find comfort in those promises. This is what helped us.
Most of God’s promises are attached to a condition. God promises to forgive our sins, but we have to confess them (1 John 1:8-9). Scripture promises that we will be saved, but we have to believe (Acts 16:30-31). If we were to receive, find, and the door opened, we would have to ask, and seek, and knock. And we did. But there was no evidence of healing. We needed more.
It happened when we were engaged in our normal pattern of evening prayer: praying together out loud. A petition that God’s will be done had been a regular part of our praying. But for some reason that night we added the words of Jesus in Gethsemane, “not my will.” The impact of those words startled us. We said them again slowly, “not our wills.” We finished the prayer, looked at each other, and said, “It’s OK. If God wants you to live, wonderful! But if he wants you to die—well, it’s OK.”
This prayer gave us a remarkable sense of peace. We still prayed hard for the cancer to go into remission, but always added those powerful words: “Not our will.” We felt obedient when we prayed “your will be done.” We found peace when we prayed “not our will.”
Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26 became the pattern of ours: “Father in heaven, let the cup of this cancer pass from us. Nevertheless, not our wills, but yours be done.” An angel came to sustain Jesus (Luke 22:43). By his Spirit, God came to sustain us.
We did not want death. I do not want grief. But the peace that comes on the wings of God’s grace enabled us to pray in the valley with confidence in God, who assures us that he has a plan to give us hope and a future (Jer. 29:11). Our hope then—and my hope now—lies in God’s unfolding plan, even when it hurts. The plan, after all, has to be a good plan, because it is the plan of our good God.