By Mark A. Taylor
“I have visited and prayed with many sick people,” Professor Sherwood Smith told my class at The Cincinnati Bible Seminary more than 40 years ago. “But never did I pray like I did when the patient was my wife.”
For some reason that insight has stuck with me all these years, and now it comes into sharper focus as I anticipate my own surgery Thursday this week.
“Lord, heal him,” the elders prayed in December, not long after my diagnosis of prostate cancer. “Lord, keep him in the palm of your hand,” the men in my small group have prayed since then.
I find these prayers almost embarrassing, not so much because I don’t want to be the center of attention (I’m afraid I can’t claim that), but because I don’t relish admitting my need. I have this unholy desire to control every situation, but who has control over a disease that comes without warning and progresses as it decides? Even doctors won’t say their remedies will cure this cancer. With their careful disclaimers, they unwittingly admit the limits on what they, too, can control.
I’ve been thinking not only about prayers offered for me, but for the prayer times most of us experience in many church settings. The Sunday school class and all-church prayer lists are long with notices of physical sickness. Everything from brain cancer to broken bones is listed there. And when circles of believers are asked for prayer requests, inevitably they fill the night with reports of accidents and surgeries, infections and disease.
Frankly, I’m sometimes a little negative about the tendency to spend more energy praying for the body than the soul. Why do we worry more about keeping Christians out of Heaven than about the fate of others living with no hope of getting in? And why do we retreat to talk of physical illness when spiritual maladies plague every Christian in every group?
Seldom have I sat in a prayer circle where we lifted up our greed or pride or pettiness or lust. But in Scripture, James tells us to confess our sins so we can be healed (5:16). I wonder if more confession would lead to shorter sick lists. It’s certain my spiritual health has at times been in greater question than my physical well-being, but few knew it. Maybe if I had confessed spiritual sickness, friends would have prayed about that, too
Or maybe they would have backed away in awkward retreat, unable to handle such vulnerability.
Of course, not every prayer request must be shared with every group. Some physical symptoms or malfunctions are best discussed only with doctors and a few intimates. The same is true with spiritual frailty. What a blessing to find a Christian friend who knows everything about me and loves me anyway.
But this week I’m thinking about Professor Smith’s remark and my certainty that only God can control the outcome in that surgery suite. I know I need the prayers for healing offered in my presence and promised by my friends. And I’m grateful.