About a month or so ago, a distant acquaintance of mine died of cancer.
I didn't know Peter personally, but a few of my good friends had known him for years via a Christian message board that I used to frequent. For the past three years, Peter had fought cancer -- cheering when doctors saw improvement, grappling with his future when things took turns for the worse. For those years, he kept the other posters on the board updated on how things were going, what he was up to, and how he was handling living with cancer. The small community on that message board rallied around him, prayed for him, encouraged him, and shared in his pain when things were tough. They're working on collecting his posts as an eBook now that he's died, to honor his memory.
I didn't participate much in these conversations, mostly because I wasn't a close friend of Peter's. I thought that his "live your life as you always have" approach was inspiring, and I had a great deal of respect for his work as a local journalist, but I couldn't bring myself to participate in the "I believe God will heal you" conversations that inevitably bubble up to the surface. That seemed to be the genuinely tragic aspect of his battle with cancer, at least to me. The focus on every positive turn as a miraculous gift from God, and every setback as a challenge from Satan, seemed to make faith a slave to statistics.
Quite a few years back, writer and former preacher Gordon Atkinson talked about this when recounting his experiences as a young minister:
I started noticing something. When the doctors said someone was going to die, they did. When they said 10% chance of survival, about 9 out of 10 died. The odds ran pretty much as predicted by the doctors. I mean, is this praying doing ANYTHING?
He goes on to tell the story of Jenny, a young single mother diagnosed with breast cancer. She knew she was dying, but her prayer was simple: she wanted to live long enough to finish a needlepoint for her young daughter. An heirloom, a keepsake, a concrete reminder of a mother's love. Gordon and Jenny prayed, interceded, petitioned Heaven -- whatever you want to call it. Jenny died days later, the needlepoint unfinished.
How we face death says a lot about us. I understand that the obsession with miraculous healing isn't universal inside of Christendom, but I'm struck by how rapidly someone's death changes the spirit of discussion inside of the faith-circles I knew. People who had previously been expressing absolute, joyous certainty that God would heal the suffering person whipsaw to solemn admiration of the person's strength and bravery in the face of suffering. To me, at least, the former cheapens the latter. Is a person's strength and bravery, their decision to steer into the wind and face their own mortality with strength and dignity, worthy of admiration? Celebrate that, rather than mapping the hopes and dreams of divine intervention onto the statistical blips of an illness's progression.