The Great Courses

The Cancer Prayer

Jan 9, 2016 at 9:15 AM
2 years ago

I was sent a Facebook meme from a page called, "Stop Cancer. Start Praying."  

The page is filled with hopeful (yet sadly vacuous) platitudes like, "Sorry cancer, GOD is bigger than you!"  "Dear God, Heal all those fighting cancer.  Amen!"  And this one:

cancer prayer

Holding up a hand of doubt or challenge in these difficult scenarios is front-loaded to make the challenger sound like an asshole.  After all, who could ever say an untoward thing about prayer when so many desperate and grieving people are leaning upon it in their darkest hours?  What kind of heartless, wicked person would trod upon the pleas of the heartbroken?

But these prayers happen in desperate, difficult times.  Must we only explore the validity of our words and actions in the best of days?  Does struggle and desperation license us to ignore the hard questions and isolate ourselves inside potential falsehoods for comfort's sake?  Are we only concerned about truth when we're conflict-free?

In my mind, I've determined that I'd rather know a hard truth than a happy fantasy, and we've all heard the stories of those who have eschewed real-world solutions for supernatural ones and often paid with their lives.  They cancel the chemo and claim divine favor.  They toss their medications at the church altar.  They embrace the promises of charlatans with an offering plate.  And, at times, tragically, they're so busy looking at the empty sky that they miss opportunities right in front of them.

Even those pursuing science-based solutions are often huddled in the prayer circles between doctor consultations, and exploring the sense and effectiveness of those prayers has merit.

I responded to the post, and I'm sure I'll be the target of indignation by those who consider "God is bigger than cancer!" a suitable treatment program.  But perhaps it will provide a rallying point for productive discussion on the merits of asking for our physical ailments to be healed by a divine and magic wand.


Prayer. It's understandable why so many reach out (and up) in times of desperation. And if some wish to pray as they navigate through their treatments, I certainly wouldn't begrudge them that. But if we are to look at the scenario with an objective eye, we have to ask some uncomfortable yet important questions about prayer. 

Let's say this particular scenario involves a young boy with leukemia. 

1) God sees all...past, present and future, correct? So in that context, God saw the cancer cells in the child's body before they ever formed. Before he was ever born. Before the creation of the world, he saw these lethal cells and their deadly outcome. God did not prevent them from forming.

2) God didn't speak into the boy's ear (or his parents') to warn him about the cancer. No tap on the shoulder. No heads-up from On High. Instead, the boy starts to experience fever. Chills. Infections. Weight loss. Bleeding. Pain down to his bones. And it is a physician that has to discover and deliver the news.

3) A treatment plan begins, almost always at a huge emotional and financial expense, devastating many families who resort to asking friend and stranger alike for donations. God allows this to happen, despite the fact that he ultimately owns everything and could immediately remove the financial portion of this burden. Oddly, his healing hand also remains still as the doctors and medical staff work in earnest, and the chemotherapy poisons the very young body it is also working to help.

4) Prayers continue. Weekly. Daily. Hourly. The family, desperate not to lose a precious, innocent life, petitions God for healing. For solutions. For the Answer. The instant miracle does not occur, but instead, God is given credit for the incremental successes of treatment administered in his absence by trained, human physicians. "The Lord is Good." For the bad days, God is given a pass. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."

5) The system is designed so that, regardless of the outcome, God remains the hero. If the child survives (after the gauntlet of expensive and torturous treatments), God is given the glory for producing a miracle. If the child dies, God has simply called him home to a perfect, pain-free rendezvous point, where he will one day be reunited with those he left behind. And no matter what happens, God will be given the glory.

child iv

I take no joy in this conversation amidst the prayers and pain experienced by so many good people, but we should...we must...look at these prayers honestly to determine what they really mean.

* God holds the global cure for cancer. He does not use it.

* God holds the individual cure for cancer. He does not use it. Or if he does, he cleverly disguises it as a human construct.

* Even if healing prayers worked, it would mean that God was holding the cure hostage until he felt the adequate number of petitions had been offered up. He's content to watch a baby suffer with cancer, because it's more important that he hear the parents beg.

* God's Will is unmovable, unchangeable, a foregone conclusion, which means that he must wish that the boy have cancer, and that all petitions and prayers are being heard by someone who has already made up his mind about what his will shall be. Essentially, humans are asking God to alter his predetermined plan.

God, in this context, isn't a hero. If he exists in the all-powerful, truly god-like sense, and if he sits silently while a precious, innocent child suffers in an arena where suffering is declared self-imposed ("We're all born sinners." "It's a fallen world." "Pain in this life, bliss in the next." Etc), this isn't a "loving Father" I'd want anything to do with.  I disagree with the nonsensical notion that, the less we see and hear, the more God is doing.

the less we hear, the more god is doing

Beyond the warm feelings we feed into ourselves through prayer, there's no evidence (beyond anecdotal claims) that patients prayed for die any less horribly or frequently that those not prayed for. Prayer has simply become something we do - against reason - for comfort in desperate times. It's the balm we self-administer. It's the happy ending we, ourselves, construct. 

But if we're willing to pledge allegiance and adoration to a God that would let cancer and its human opponents do all of the talking, all of the doing, all of the coping, and all of the suffering and dying, we should perhaps reevaluate who we're praying to...and why.

The difference between you, me and the idea of an all-powerful God? If you and I had the power to prevent cancer...we, immediately and without being asked, would.

-  Seth Andrews

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