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Faith, Unanswered Prayer and God’s Will
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer---Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
We don't "get over" the deepest pains o f life, nor should we. "Are you over it?" is a question that cannot be asked by someone who has been through "it," whatever "it" is. It is an anxious question, an asking for reassurance that cannot be given.
TAMMY WAS FORTY-TWO years old and dying of cancer in the liver and pancreas. Her husband, Michael, and their teenage daughter were at her bedside around the clock in one of our palliative care units. The nursing staff indicated to me that they thought the husband would appreciate a visit, since his wife had not been responsive for the last two days. They also indicated that he was very much in denial of the late stage of her disease.
I entered the room and was warmly received by Michael, who was holding his wife's hand. The jaundiced skin on her face was a certain indication of the rapid spread of the disease. After I had introduced myself, Michael quickly volunteered that he was a "born-again" Christian who was a practicing Catholic. His conversation was very positive as he shared with me the journey of his wife's illness. As I listened to him, I understood what the staff meant when they said that he was in denial. He said to me, with conviction and confidence, "My wife is going to walk out of this unit. I believe God is going to heal her."
I affirmed that it would be a wonderful miracle, but then I asked, "What if God doesn't permit that miracle to happen? Have you thought of that?"
Michael nodded his head, but he quickly replied, "But God's going to do it. I've been praying that this would be God's will for a long time, and I've even asked God for a sign of a white dove."
He continued to tell me how hopeful he was, and I continued to try to interject the reality of his wife's disease without robbing him of his great faith. After praying with Michael, each of us holding a hand of his wife, I left.
After this encounter, I had mixed feelings. I knew the reality of Tammy's disease, and yet I believed the Scriptures that Michael had quoted to me about "faith that can move mountains" (Matt. 17:20). I marveled at his boldness to ask God for a sign of a white dove. It was so specific. Was he perhaps being specific so that he could be more accepting when she died without his receiving the sign?
Since I am on call only on weekends and Tammy was very ill, I felt that it would be unlikely that I would see Michael again. But the following Sunday when I arrived at the unit, before I could even check the board to see the names of the patients, one of the nurses asked me if I had heard about Michael. I told her I hadn't, and she told me that the day before, as he was sitting at his wife's bedside, a white dove flew down and perched on the back of the bench outside the window. I'm sure my mouth dropped open and my eyes widened with great interest. The nurse went on to tell me how the dove had sat there for the longest time, even when children walked by and someone went out to fill the bird feeder. It just quietly stayed there, and when it flew away, no one saw it leave. She added that prior to that day none of the nurses ever remembered seeing a white dove in that courtyard by that feeder.
I went to Tammy's room, and when I entered, I was warmly greeted by Michael and his teenage daughter, Melissa. I could see by his smile that Michael was eager to share his experience with me, and he did. He sincerely believed that the sign was from God and that his wife was going to be healed. I again affirmed how wonderful that would be, but I was careful to recognize the progress of the disease. As we talked, I asked Michael, "What if she dies but you've seen the white dove?"
He thought for a moment, shaking his head from side to side without saying a word. Finally, he said, "I've always prayed that she would be heated, but as I told you last week, I also always pray, 'Thy will be done.' I know that whatever happens, it will be God's will." The three of us stood by the bedside and shared a closing prayer together.
When I arrived at the unit the following weekend, Tammy had died. I have unfinished thoughts about how Michael and his daughter were able to accept Tammy's death. I cannot help but wonder about the white dove and what it meant. Was it an answer to Michael's prayer for healing---not the healing of a physical body, but of that wholeness that comes when our very beings are released from earthly pain and suffering? Since the white dove is the symbol of our hospice organization, could it have been an affirmation that bringing Tammy into our hospice care was exactly the right decision?
One thing I'm sure of is this: Every time Michael and Melissa see a white dove, it brings a smile to their lips and joy to their hearts. I believe it reminds them that, however their prayers were answered, God was with them.
Lessons for Caregivers
Michael's strong faith was expressed in his bold request for a specific sign that his wife would be healed. It was an expression of his personal struggle with end-of-life issues as they related to his faith. He believed both in "the will of God" and in following the biblical teaching to be specific in praying: "For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened" (Luke 11:10). Michael wasn't willing to accept the diagnosis of death, but he was willing to accept the will of God.
Caregivers need to understand Michael's kind of faith-based confidence as having less to do with denial and more to do with preparation for living in the future. Accepting the will of God is preparation for living in the future when there is no miracle. A supportive caregiver will hear the hope of healing and will pray with the patient and family to that end, all the while knowing that the family has not based their hope on a single text, but on the wider teaching of Scripture. The family very likely understands that God's will may not be their own. This does not mean they cannot pray in faith. Such prayer is like Jacob's wrestling with the angel on the ladder from heaven (Gen. 32:24-29). It is prayer that will not let go unless a blessing is also provided. Sometimes---indeed often---the prayer is not answered in the way we would like. But this does not diminish the faith of the Christian whose hope is shaped by a confidence in the will of God.[34-37]
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