This is a complicated and tender question. Right now I'm praying for a close family friend who was diagnosed with terminal cancer five years ago. Two years later, he was "healed" (if you talked to his Christian friends), or in an "unexpected remission" (if you talked to his doctors). Today his cancer has returned and is unrelenting. He probably has two months to live. His Christian friends are confused, and his physicians are recommending hospice care.
Based on our own experience, there's so much we don't know about healing and prayer. Here's what we do know based on Scripture.
We're instructed to pray, but healing isn't guaranteed.James 5:14-15 tells us to respond in prayer when someone is sick; "the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well." But we also know from Scripture this isn't a guarantee. In 2 Samuel 12, it says King David fasted and prayed for seven days for God to spare his dying child. In verse 22, David said, "Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live." When that wasn't the case, David got up and worshiped God anyway.
Healing miracles are relatively rare. In the Bible, healing miracles seem like they occur on every page. But when you consider the Bible covers more than 2,000 years of history, that's a relatively small amount of people who experienced direct physical healing. During his three and a half years of ministry, Jesus healed perhaps hundreds of deaf, blind, lame, and leprous people, but there were many more he didn't heal.
Also, biblical miracles tended to occur in clusters—during the Exodus from Egypt, in the times of the prophets, during Jesus' ministry, and with the start of the church. Author Brian Jones writes that we sometimes have a "distorted impression. God didn't deliver miracles every day like the morning newspaper. Most followers of God went their whole lives without witnessing a supernatural intervention on the part of heaven."
Healing miracles happen for reasons we don't always understand. Jesus healed the paralytic on the mat when he saw the faith of the man's friends; he healed the Roman centurion's daughter based on that man's statements about Jesus (Matthew 8, 9). On the other hand, he healed the crippled woman on the Sabbath without her ever asking for help (Luke 13).
Comparing answers to prayer—or a seeming lack of them—is unwise. In John 21, the apostle Peter and Jesus are taking a post-resurrection walk on the beach. At one point in the conversation, Jesus tells Peter about the kind of death Peter will experience, and it's not good news. Peter immediately turns behind him to look at the apostle John and says to Jesus, "What about him?" Jesus' reply is rather terse: "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Why one person is healed or spared suffering and another isn't, is often not ours to know.
My 62-year-old father was diagnosed with terminal cancer when my children were 4, 2, and newborn. After 18 months of fervent prayers to God for my dad's healing, I stood at his bedside, stroked his head, whispered into his ear, and watched him leave this world.
Lazarus was healed. He was even raised from the dead. But then, 10 or 20 years later, he died again.
In this fallen, broken world, death is inevitable. In the meantime, we pray. We pray and plead, and with open and upturned hands, we join with David in saying, "Who knows?"
Nancy Ortberg is a church leadership consultant and popular speaker. Formerly a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, she now lives in California with her husband, John. The couple has three children, Laura, Mallory, and John.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.