Does Prayer Work

When I found out that Tyler, my 12-year-old nephew, was diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, I immediately began praying for him and his family. I asked friends to pray. Many of them shared the request with others. Before long, people around the world were praying for Tyler.

Would it make a difference? Even though I didn't want to, I questioned. Too often I'd prayed for healing for people, only to watch them die. Last year I began praying for the healing of two young people, each battling cancer. I pleaded with God. I claimed Scripture. I fasted. I asked others to pray. I truly believed that God would heal them.

Both died within a few weeks of each other.

I deluged God with questions: "Does it matter if I pray? Why do You heal sometimes and not others? Why bother praying for people if it rarely seems to make any difference? Why do You answer prayers for lost keys but not lost health?"

I wanted to understand. To continue to pray, believing that it made a difference.

So I went searching for answers.

Miracles happen
The Bible is full of stories of miracles. Elijah and Elisha each healed people. Peter did too and even raised Tabitha from the dead. Paul not only raised Eutychus from the dead and healed everyone on the island of Malta, but handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched him would be brought to the sick and would heal them (see Acts 19:11, 12). Jesus healed more people than anyone else, even whole villages at a time. But these were prophets, disciples, and Jesus: we're just ordinary people. Can our prayers make a difference?

God promised that they would: "The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up" (James 5:15). "And these signs will accompany those who believe: . . . they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well" (Mark 16:17, 18). When Jesus sent out the 12 disciples, He told them to not only go out and preach the gospel but heal the sick (Matthew 10:7, 8). Healing is even listed as a spiritual gift (see 1 Corinthians 12:9).

If Jesus commissioned His disciples (us) to preach the gospel and heal, if the Spirit gives healing as a gift, and if God promises to answer our prayers, then why do we too often feel like Catherine Marshall, who said, "Persistent prayer, using all the faith I could muster, had resulted in, well, nothing?"

The truth may be that God does answer, but it doesn't look like the answer we wanted.

Too often we want miracles. Sudden healing. Life: when death seems inevitable. No scars or struggles. No pain.

Yet while the Bible is full of miracles, it is also full of stories of people who did not receive a miracle. When Jesus healed the man at the pool of Bethesda, He left behind a multitude of people still waiting for a miracle (John 5:1-15). The woman with the issue of blood was the only one in the crowd that day to receive healing others went home still wishing (Mark 5:24-34). Peter healed many, but he offered Timothy a home remedy instead of healing (1 Timothy 5:23) and Trophimus rest instead of restoration (2 Timothy 4:20). And Paul was told no to his own prayer for personal healing (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Miracles were and are, well, miracles. They are the rare exceptions to normal life. The unusual. While exciting, they stand out because they aren't typically a part of our day-to-day experience.

Wake up!
It appears that God tended to use miracles when they would enable people to recognize Him in a way that they hadn't before. The man at the pool believed that healing was hopeless; he learned that God loves the hopeless. The woman had tried everything else; she found God to be everything she needed. Peter needed more than healing: he needed to learn to trust God's grace and strength instead of his own.

Sometimes the miracle isn't healing; it's learning to trust God when healing doesn't come.

Martha and Mary prayed for their brother's healing (John 11). They sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. Jesus didn't come. He didn't heal. Instead, He said, "This sickness will not end in death" (John 11:4).

Then Lazarus died. Jesus showed up four days later. Long after all hope for miracles and healing was gone.

How did the sisters respond? Martha ran to meet Jesus. Too often when God doesn't answer the way we want, we run from Him instead of to Him. We don?t think He's coming our way. So in anger, hurt, and doubt, we avoid Him. Instead, we need to run to Him, believing that He's coming.

When Martha reached Jesus, she simply stated the truth: "Lord, . . . if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21). Jesus could have healed Lazarus but didn't. She knew that and didn't understand why.

God is big enough to handle our honesty. We have to tell Him what we're really thinking and feeling. Only then can He help us experience peace.

Martha continued, "But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask" (verse 22).

The first time I read her words to Jesus, I thought she was asking Him to raise Lazarus "even now." But that wasn't it. She never expected that. When Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled away, she suggested that they not do that because of the smell.

Instead, with those words she was telling Jesus that even though He didn't come, even though He didn't heal her loved one, even though His words appeared untrue, even though God could have, but didn't even now she believed in Him. And while it wasn't what she wanted, she trusted anyway.

Then Jesus performed His biggest miracle and raised Lazarus after four days in the tomb. Martha experienced God in a way that she never had before. But first she had to trust His love. So do we.

I believe that God wants us, like Martha, to experience Him in deeper ways every time He answers our prayers. Answers aren't about this life. God is up to something bigger. He's preparing us for eternity. So He answers our prayers for our eternal best.

Sometimes that means physical healing. Even a miracle.

Other times it means using what Satan meant to destroy us to, instead, cause us to grow stronger.

Eternal best
There are days when Tyler doesn't feel well enough to get out of bed. He's lost his hair and often loses his appetite. His parents have lost a lot of sleep. Yet they've been amazed by the number of total strangers: from across the country and around the world?who have sent notes and gifts and are praying for this freckled-face kid they've never met. They're experiencing God's love and faithfulness. Yes, healing would be a lot easier. Not battling cancer in the first place would seem even better. But God is revealing Himself. They believe that He's going to get them through this.

God tells us to pray for healing. Promises to answer. Does answer. But His answers may not always look the way we want them to. People will still die. (All of us will die until He comes.) Children will have to battle chemotherapy and radiation. Loved ones will forget who we are and the moments we've shared together. Many times it will appear so unfair: why does God answer other prayers and not this one? Why do people who live healthy and good lives get ill? We may seem to have more questions than answers.

We have to remember that we live in a sinful world in which an enemy seeks to destroy us. He'll do that through whatever means he can: illness, cancer, pain, discouragement, doubt, busyness. Yet God promises to work all things to good for His children. Like Joseph, we can say, "You meant this for evil, but God used it for good" (see Genesis 50:20).

So I continue to pray for Tyler. And I've seen a few miracles. My family has drawn closer together during this time. We're learning to push aside busyness for what's really important. For more than a year our family didn't have contact with one of my brothers. His own pain kept him from even telling us where he was living. But when he heard about Tyler, he immediately came. In the middle of a workday. Called his boss, dropped off his truck, and hitched a ride with me to the hospital. I treasure that day and the conversation we had our first in a year and a half. And he's been a part of the family ever since.

I wish Tyler didn't have to go through this. Yet he's "going along for the journey," as he says, with a sense of humor (playing practical jokes on his nurses) and with a simple faith that's a witness to us all.

God is healing. Our family. Our understanding of Him. And Tyler's body.

Tamyra Horst works for the Pennsylvania Conference as assistant to the president for communications. Her favorite roles are a wife to Tim, a mom to Josh and Zach, and a child of God, growing, stumbling, and longing to know Him more.

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