Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (2 Kings 20) transports me to my seminary dorm room in Whitsitt Hall, where my first year roommate and I regularly found amusement calling up Pat Robertson’s 700 Club telethon and asking the phone bank person some deep theological question that had emerged from professor Frank Tupper’s class that day. I remember one of his questions: Is God capricious? While I didn’t expect a satisfactory answer from the 700 Club, the question was a good one; the lecture and dialogue in class that day had resonated deeply with me. The subject matter was on the providence of God. Dr. Tupper had lost his wife to cancer a couple of years earlier, and her long suffering had rocked his faith to the core and caused him to deeply ponder the implications of divine providence. I had lost my mom to cancer at around the same time, and her long battle raised many similar questions of faith for me. I was fourteen when she was first diagnosed and admitted to the hospital; the doctors told us then that there was no hope, that she was not likely to come home and should get her affairs in order. We had many altars of fervant prayer at Gashes Creek for her, weeping with anxious sorrow even as we trusted her to God’s care and believed in the healing power of the great physician. To the dismay of my mom’s physicians, she did get well enough to go home. I remember one of the doctors, maybe it was her surgeon, who shared his faith with us from the outset. He even led us in prayer before she went into surgery. When she defied the odds, that doctor told my dad that my mom had received the blessing of Hezekiah, an extension of life.
Hezekiah was in the fourteenth year of his reign when he was struck with a fatal illness. The prophet Isaiah gave him no hope of survival, and instructed the king to get his affairs in order. Hezekiah immediately turned to prayer, weeping and imploring God to remember his faithful servant. Before Isaiah had even gotten out of the palace, the word of the Lord came to him, and told him that the king’s prayers had been answered, and that his life would be extended for fifteen years. Hezekiah could hardly believe the news, needing a sign to prove its trustworthiness. The prophet granted him his wish, praying for God to turn the clock back ten degrees on the sundial, and that was enough for the king to allow hope into his life. We might expect that God had a good reason to intervene and bring healing to the king, but here comes the kicker of the story. What was the first thing the miraculously healed king did? He allowed messengers from the rival king of Babylon into the palace, and basically showed them everything that was in the storehouse and treasury. In other words, he acted the complete fool. It seems God healed Hezekiah just so the king could demonstrate failed leadership and set the people up for tremendous suffering in captivity.
There is all sorts of anecdotal evidence for the healing power of intercessory prayer; there’s an equal amount of evidence demonstrating times that it hasn’t worked, except for the final healing that we trust heaven to offer. A Mayo Clinic research study a few years ago on the effects of prayer showed interesting results. People undergoing heart surgery were divided into three groups. One group involved people whose names were given to three different congregations who had intercessory prayer ministries, and these patients were told about the prayers going up on their behalf. The second group was also prayed for, but weren’t told about it. The third group did not receive the intercessory prayer from those churches. The findings showed no difference in outcome between groups two and three. But for group one, the group that knew they were being prayed for, the intercession had a counter-productive effect; they fared worse. The researchers speculate that the knowledge of being prayed for created some kind of extra anxiety for the patients. Who knows. Here’s the anecdotal evidence I have from my mom’s experience: She received enough healing power to allow her to come home, and live for six more years. But she was not healed of the cancer. The entirety of that extended life involved a rotation of two weeks on powerful chemotherapy, and two weeks off. For two weeks she would suffer greatly from deathly nausea, and would recover to enjoy the next two weeks. I wouldn’t trade having her for those six years for anything, but suffice it to say the whole ordeal, including the regularly scheduled suffering, raised serious questions for me about the nature of prayer and God’s providence, why some people’s suffering is alleviated while others is not. Deferring to the mystery of God’s wisdom doesn’t work for me; if God has the power to ameliorate agony but only does it part-time, well, then I’m primed and ready to ask Frank Tupper’s question. Is God capricious? I still remember the answer I got from the phone bank man. He fumbled around for a moment; I thought at first he was looking capricious up in the dictionary. I surmised, though, that he was looking through his notebook of stock responses to find one that might fit. Here’s what he told me: Brother, don’t ever let a hypocrite get between you and God. You know why? Because then he’ll be closer to God than you. How random is that? But it makes me think now, that I haven’t let my questions get between me and God. I still intercede for the sick and the dying, hoping that making my hopes and intentions known will somehow make a difference, even as I also hope that the Holy healer of the universe brings whatever healing touch is available and possible to every situation of suffering, and isn’t making random decisions for some higher purpose to touch some and withhold the touch from others.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, ec.