Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Substance of Things Hoped For

Is there anything more gut-wrenching than having prayed for a healing miracle that never comes? God's promises are right there in the Bible, and yet he failed to come through. It's easy enough for people who have never seen their young child severely damaged by seizures or who have never known a young parent taken too soon, to dismiss prayer for healing. But before my brother-in-law Richard died of cancer at thirty-eight, hundreds of people prayed for him. We were non-denominational evangelicals, mainline Protestants, New Agers, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pentecostals, and even unbelievers. We all agreed that he was too young to die, and we all wanted--needed--to believe in miracles.

Yet there's something potentially destructive about that kind of prayer as well. We come before God with the rawest of emotions. Can we talk about the fear and doubt, or would that be admitting defeat? And then there's the possible carnage at the end, when everybody leaves the battle scene in silence, coping with it in their own way.

I remember when Ingrid was an infant and spent three months in the hospital while doctors tried to stop her seizures. I prayed and read the Bible all the time. My mind was completely made up that she would be healed, and no doubt could possibly seep through my defenses. But when she wasn't healed, the first thought that entered my mind was, "I knew it." The doubt was there, held back by sheer will-power.

Whatever faith is, I didn't have it. But why should it matter? Does God require it like a currency? Is he like the Egyptian task masters who forced the Israelites to produce just as many bricks after their masters took away the straw? If I don't have enough faith despite my very best efforts, what hope is there?

God has never let me abandon that question. Because it really, really matters. Faith matters. And it matters more than the healing. Healing may be a matter of life and death, but faith has eternal significance. "By faith our ancestors won approval." (Hebrews 11:2)

So what is faith? First, let's talk about what it's not. It is not looking at a promise in the Bible and saying, for example, "God's word says, 'By his stripes we are healed,' so therefore my loved one will be healed.'" We may be convinced of God's power and willingness to heal, and still not have faith. It is not intellectual acquiescence, logical deduction, or mental gymnastics.

What is it then? Hebrews 11:1 gives us the definition: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (KJV) The word "substance" is very important here, so I chose the King James Version rather than the New American Standard, which uses the word "assurance." The Greek word hypostasis means "reality, essence, or substantial nature." Later in the definition we get the word "assurance," but by itself that translation might be misleading. (I can almost feel your eyes glazing over, so I'll stop talking about Greek words!)

Faith is not just a state of mind. It's not synonymous with positive thinking. It is our measure of an objective spiritual reality, and it doesn't change depending on our moods. Jesus wept before raising Lazarus from the dead, but that didn't undermine his power to resurrect him.

What is that objective reality? It is Jesus Christ and everything he accomplished on the cross. When he died, he won a complete victory over sin and death. He defeated Satan decisively, and paid for all our sins. The curtain keeping us out of the Holy of Holies was split in two, so every person may enter into God's holy presence without guilt. Sin no longer has any power over us. And "by his stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5) All of that is an objective historical and spiritual fact. Jesus is the rock of our salvation.

So what does that mean for each individual? Faith is what links us to that objective reality. Some people have great faith, others have little faith, and many have none. Faith is our ability to receive everything Jesus purchased with his blood on that cross. So a Christian who is indistinguishable from an unbeliever and stays that way is an oxymoron. He or she by definition does not have what Jesus offers. Faith is so important because it's about having what Jesus came to give. And he came to give us himself--his Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives will have a profound impact on everything. We can't just decide to take the healing but pass on the sanctification.

Although God cares deeply about our suffering (again, Jesus wept when Lazarus died), he knows that our bodies are temporary, but our souls are eternal. So he may have to allow illness and loss in order to heal our souls. He wants to give us an eternal treasure but can't if we're not paying attention, and we tend to pay attention to him when something goes wrong. Paradoxically, our faith often grows through suffering. After many disappointments (but also many amazing answers to prayer), my faith is much stronger now than before Ingrid had her first seizure. That is because hardship has forced me to rely on God, which is the only way I can share in his victory. In "The Needle's Eye," I talk about how God blessed me spiritually right after my disappointment of Ingrid not being healed. (Just in case this post isn't long enough for you. ;)

And the prayers for Richard were not in vain. With all the people lifting him up in prayer, he was empowered to live in ways that were possible only through the cross. In spite of his pain, he talked often about God's love. It was very real to him, and he wanted others to experience it, too. His only concern about dying was how it would impact other people, especially his wife Karen and daughter Amelia. A couple of weeks before he died, when his strength and ability to focus were almost gone, he wrote the following: "Do not fail to seize the love of God, which is available to you in the all-embracing sacrifice of Jesus Christ."


3 Blessings said...

I love reading your posts. Your thoughts are always right on is okay if they are long because they are good!

Anette Acker said...

Thank you, Amy! You are so sweet. :)

Becky said...

Thanks for writing that. You have a good perspective. I understand the struggle that's involved when wrestling with things like healing and faith. Even now, whilst i am proclaiming the fact that i believe i have been healed, both my parents are still suffering with different permenant illnesses... and despite masses of prayer, we haven't seen them healed yet. My Church and hundreds of people prayed fervently for a close friend of mine, a couple of years ago, he was only 24, but he still died of cancer - it was heartbreaking.... But at the same time another lady in my Church was healed from cancer - and i stayed the same. There seemed little logic - one was healed, one died, one stayed the same - But i guess God understands why and when He chooses to heal people - even though sometimes it's not until the final day when they stand before him. Anyway, what i was going to say is, that i realised when i was physically ill, that God actually used it to work some emotional/spiritual healing in me - and i considered that to have been more important than the actual physical healing. Like you said, i guess our souls are more important than our temporary body. Anyway, i still don't really understand this whole area.... but there we go!! Sorry if i have rambled a little and this doesn't make much sense! Becky

Anette Acker said...

That makes a lot of sense, Becky. Thank you for sharing it! Rick and I have experienced the same thing through Ingrid's disabilities. God has changed us a lot! And I've come to see that what we are on the inside is more important than circumstances. But I've never felt that God is telling me to stop praying for healing. There's also spiritual growth in that wrestling in prayer.

Becky said...

Yeah that's true. It's good to be persistant.... and although i had nearly given up myself, God did then still heal me..... So i pray you see the fruit of your prayers too.... sooner rather than later as well! I admire your persistance.... i only went through this for almost 5 years, but i gather it must have been a lot longer than that for you now...

Anette Acker said...

It's been sixteen years. Sometimes I'm persistent--much of the time I'm complacent. But it helps to blog, so I can shake myself out of my complacency. :) Thanks for your prayers!

Cindy said...

I just found this blog,, and it moved me to tears. Seeing Richard living out his faith every day of his illness strengthened and deepened my own faith enormously. It wasn't what we were praying for, but it has been a great gift.

Anette Acker said...

Cindy, I can tell it really strengthened your faith. I remember him saying that his big fear about dying was how that would impact all the people who prayed for him--especially the kids. That was really hard, because they prayed with such conviction.

But Richard really did glorify God. What he wrote at the very end was amazing!