Growing In Hope: When God Doesn’t Heal – Dr Winnie Chen

Learning that man cannot fully comprehend God


From Luke’s Journal 2021 | Dying & Palliative Care | Vol.26 No.2

It was five years ago, and I was about to board the Ghan for a three-day train ride home. Mum called to tell me the results of her scan. She had rhabdomyosarcoma – a rare and aggressive cancer. The metastatic lesions were widespread, and she had been given a prognosis of several months to live.

We were shocked because she had been fit and well up to that point. My younger sister was only 11 at the time. Mum remained relatively stable on palliative chemo and radiotherapy until late the following year, when her metastatic lesions began to grow and spread rapidly. She was admitted for spinal cord compressions and passed away – two days after we celebrated her 54th birthday in palliative care.

Angry at God

“When the hoped-for, prayed-for miracle doesn’t come, when we are not delivered, when there is no miracle, this is the question that hounds us, making sleepless nights endless. Why?”
Ron Dunn, When Heaven is Silent

How can a good God allow suffering? This age-old question has been asked since the beginning of time. Atheists frame the argument as this: “If there is a God, either He is not good, or He is not sovereign.”

In the Bible, Job questions why God is allowing him to suffer. The questions about suffering are not new, but my teenage sister puts it like this: “When we personally face suffering, it is still a new experience for us as an individual.” 

When we personally face suffering, it is still a new experience for us as an individual.” 

When mum’s treatment did not work despite our daily prayers, I questioned whether the God of the Bible was true and living; I questioned whether He was good. I had been a Christian for many years but felt that the foundations of my faith had been shaken. Prayer was difficult because God neither seemed to exist, nor did He seem to hear or care about our prayers. 

Angry at people

We are thankful for the brothers and sisters who walked with us through those years. Yet, at the same time, we often felt disappointed with fellow believers. Sometimes Christians are eager to say something “spiritual” or “positive”, rather than stopping to listen and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). Sometimes people avoided talking at all because they did not know what to say. C.S. Lewis writes about his isolating experience after the death of his beloved wife:

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their mind whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not… Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.”
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Sometimes Christians are eager to jump to a diagnosis for the problem. ”You have cancer because you sinned.” “Your cancer isn’t getting better because you are eating this or that.” “You will be cured if you try this specialist overseas.” “You need to pray with more faith, then God will heal you.” Undoubtedly the words of advice were said with good intentions, but they were unhelpful.

“Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.” – Job 6:21

Our desire to explain cause and effect in the face of fear is again nothing new. Job’s three friends attributed his suffering to unconfessed sins, but they were rebuked by God himself for not speaking the truth about God (Job 42:7-9). Jesus warned people against attributing the Galileans’ suffering under Pilate to specific sins (Luke 13:1-5).

When God doesn’t heal

In our corporate prayer as a church, we pray for healing. At our end-of-year thanksgiving prayer nights, we give thanks for God’s protection on our health, finances, and families. Rightly so, for we are urged to pray and give thanks in every situation (Philippians 4:6). 

While God is able to heal, we Christians need to acknowledge the reality that God in His sovereignty does not always heal. We see this painful reality clearly in our work in healthcare – where many patients (Christian or not) are neither healed through medical intervention, nor healed via supernatural means. Even Jesus’ followers in the Bible are not always saved from death. Paul escaped shipwrecks, snake bites and more (Acts 28) and an angel led Peter out of prison (Acts 12). But Jesus did not intervene in the beheading of his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 14); neither was Stephen miraculously saved from stoning and death (Acts 7). 

David McDonald is a pastor and a cancer patient. In the first few months of mum’s diagnosis, she attended his talk at a church in Melbourne. We found this event and his book a great encouragement. He urges Christians to put their hope not in a cure, but first and foremost in the death of Jesus for our sins; and the resurrection of Jesus as a demonstration of God’s victory over death (1 Corinthians 15). 

How wonderful is the news that the cancer is gone, that a person has been made well! This is a reason for celebration and rejoicing. But where will we set our hope when the inevitable day arrives and death knocks on the door? God calls us to set our hope on the things to come; he calls us to hope beyond a cure, to hope beyond death. He urges us to take hold of eternal hope by putting our trust in Jesus Christ.”
– David McDonald, Hope Beyond Cure

Conclusion: growing in hope

If our hope is in Jesus – did he live? Did he die? Was there an empty tomb? How reliable are the gospels? The long process of reading, reflecting, praying, and revisiting the basics of Christianity has been helpful in rebuilding my faith. The Christian faith is historical and robust enough to be examined intellectually. In times of doubt, I was also humbled and comforted to see that faith is not what we manufacture, but is in itself a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus, not ourselves, is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

I don’t know why God did not answer our prayers for healing. No book and no person – try as they may – can provide a complete and satisfactory answer. In the book of Job, God does not explain why calamities happened to Job and his household but brings Job to a deeper understanding of himself. Through this journey, I am also learning to acknowledge that man cannot fully comprehend God (Job 36:26, Job 42:3). Nevertheless, with the help of the Spirit, we can strive to grow each day in our knowledge of him and the hope we have in Jesus. 

“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he called you …”
Ephesians 1:17-18

See Hope Beyond Cure Book Review.

Dr Winnie Chen 
Dr Winnie Chen is a GP in Darwin, previously spending 5 years on the Luke’s Journal team bringing it online from the print version.

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