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Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to Pray for the Gravely Ill

     When a loved one faces a serious illness and possibly death, how should we pray? Do we seek God’s will or our own desire? If you’ve ever asked this question, you’re in good company.

   The late C. S. Lewis once called petitionary prayer—the form of prayer in which we ask God for something—a “problem without an answer,” primarily because of parallel but seemingly contradictory prayer principles expressed in the New Testament. On the one hand, Lewis observed, we are commanded to surrender our wills to God, to say “Thy will be done.” On the other hand, we are also exhorted to pray for whatever we will, “with unwavering faith that the blessing we ask for will be given us.”

    Lewis rejects the idea that the first type of prayer must always constrain the latter. He wonders what kind of God would promise to give whatever we ask in faith, while secretly meaning he’ll grant the request only if we ask for what he wants to give us. He equates this to an earthly father who promises his son “whatever he wants” for his birthday, but when his son asks for a bicycle, gives him a math book while disclosing the secret condition he attached to his promise.

     I understand Lewis’ dilemma, and I have experienced it myself, especially in situations involving a suffering loved one. I recall one crisis from over twenty years ago, when a young man named Mike, my closest friend, was dying of cancer, less than a year after we'd each been the best man in each other's wedding.

     Mike was like a brother to me, and it broke my heart to see him and his young bride suffer (they were both in their early twenties). Yet despite the many prayers offered for his healing, he grew steadily weaker. I began to wonder about God’s will, and I struggled with how to pray. The best I could muster was something like this: “Lord, I don’t know your will, but you’re my Father, and I’m your son. And so, as a son asks his father for his heart’s desire, trusting in his father’s wisdom and goodness, I ask for Mike’s healing.” Sadly, Mike died a few weeks later.

    I remembered that crisis, and my prayer, a couple of years ago when I read Herald-Leader article about a young man named Sawyer Fouts, a Lexington Christian Academy senior (and soccer player) who had recovered from a freak and aggressive infection after nearly dying a few months before.

    Particularly compelling to me was the account of how Ken and Cheri Fouts first prayed when they realized the gravity of their son’s illness. "We went into this little room (at the UK hospital) and prayed like we've never prayed in our life," Cheri said. "What we said in our prayer was ‘We're not going to stop serving you if you take him and we're not going to stop loving you if you take him, but please, please don't take him.'"

     There are two things I love about this prayer. First of all, for the mother and father, their devotion to God was not conditional upon their son being healed. It reminds me of the three Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their words to Nebuchadnezzar when threatened with a fiery furnace: “If our God, whom we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)        

     This is a key aspect of intercessory prayer, perhaps the key; a sincere abandonment to divine providence and the sovereign will of God. It is the kind of faith, like Job, that declares, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15).

     A second beautiful thing about this prayer is their expression of heartfelt honesty and desperate dependence. They knew that God was their only hope, and while fully aware of the heavenly Father’s sovereignty, they asked for their desires without hesitation or equivocation.

     You’ll note parallels between the Fouts’ prayer and mine, though theirs reflects a higher level of maturity. As a parent, after all, unconditional surrender in the midst of seeing your own child suffer is faith of a different degree. Another difference, of course, is that their son survived and my friend died. Such is the inscrutable will of God, beyond our wisdom to explain or understand.

     So while I’m not sure how to solve C. S. Lewis’ dilemma, nor to guide the prayers of anyone watching a loved one suffer, I do think Ken and Cheri Fouts’ prayer is a model worth emulating. True prayer that pleases God is this: Honest desire crying out in need from a surrendered heart.          

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