I’ve been thinking a lot about faith in this situation. How exactly do you go about having faith when faced with a terminal illness? I am a great believer in both religion and modern medicine, but in this case there is some clashing between the two narratives.
I believe in a religion where miracles can and do happen. I want to be open to that possibility. However, I also believe that usually what the doctors say is what happens.
How then can I exercise faith while still dealing with the medical facts. There are two approaches that I see people use, and both have advantages and drawbacks.
The first approach might be what I would call the “Gattaca approach.” Gattaca is a cool sci-fi movie where genetic engineering of humans is the norm. The main character (Vincent) was not engineered, but his brother (Anton) was.
*spoiler alert* (although really, the movie is like fifteen years old. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler.)
The brothers compete constantly but the younger Anton always wins. Years later they meet up as adults and try to swim across this big body of water that they used to swim in. In this final competition, Anton gives up before Vincent and has to be rescued. Anton asks Vincent how he did it and Vincent says, “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”
I think for some people this is the kind of faith that they use. Or maybe I should say that this is the way they approach faith. It’s an all or nothing proposition. This would mean that I would have to believe that the doctors are all wrong because God is going to intercede and heal Bonnie miraculously. This would be fantastic if it happened, and there are lots of examples where this kind of belief payed off for people. When that happens, it can be a tremendous source of strength and inspiration. I think this is the kind of faith that let some of the prophets experience the kind of rejection that they went through and still remain faithful.
Unfortunately it can cause all sorts of distress. Sometimes even with all the faith you can muster, the thing you want doesn’t happen. What happens to your faith then? By single-mindedly focusing on one outcome, you’ve left yourself without a safety net, and you’re unprepared for the result. At it’s worst this kind of faith smacks of pride because you’re dictating to God what the outcome should be; nothing else is acceptable.
On the other side of things, there’s the more academic approach. I think these people believe in the idea of miracles, but they don’t believe or expect that miracles happen for them. Or they tend to intellectualize things too much and say that “if people had all the facts, then it wouldn’t even seem like a miracle. We would have predicted it.” These people tend to latch on to the idea that miracles operate by natural laws, even if we don’t understand all the laws yet.
This approach is appealing because it allows you to prepare yourself for the worst outcomes. Mentally taking the time to process and plan for the future is essential. It is also a good approach because most of the time the miraculous healing doesn’t happen. If it did, it wouldn’t be miraculous.
However, I’m not totally comfortable with this approach because of the way that it glorifies human intellect at the expense of God’s power. It doesn’t seem to leave any room at all for the miraculous. If you’ve decided that death is the foregone conclusion, then why would God step in and change that? Miracles work by faith, I don’t see how this approach exercises any.
As I thought about this issue, I remember one of the best conference talks that I’ve ever heard. It’s a talk called “But if not…” by Dennis E. Simmons from the April 2004 conference.
In the talk he tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. They refuse to worship an idol, and for this they are about to be thrown into a fiery furnace. In response to the king’s taunt about their God, they reply, “If it be so [if you cast us into the furnace], our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand. But if not, … we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
I think the “but if not” statement is the thing that combines these two approaches. There is a wholehearted trust that God can perform miracles, that he can intervene and save us. But perhaps more importantly there is a wholehearted determination to serve the Lord. That’s the attitude that I need to develop.
I think the last two paragraphs of the talk express this the best:
“Our God will deliver us from ridicule and persecution, but if not. … Our God will deliver us from sickness and disease, but if not … . He will deliver us from loneliness, depression, or fear, but if not. … Our God will deliver us from threats, accusations, and insecurity, but if not. … He will deliver us from death or impairment of loved ones, but if not, … we will trust in the Lord.
“Our God will see that we receive justice and fairness, but if not. … He will make sure that we are loved and recognized, but if not. … We will receive a perfect companion and righteous and obedient children, but if not, … we will have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that if we do all we can do, we will, in His time and in His way, be delivered and receive all that He has.”
I couldn’t say it better myself. I know that God will deliver Bonnie from her cancer, but if not I’ll still serve Him.