If Death Is Gain, Should We Pray for Healing?

Last year I was diagnosed with a type of blood cancer called B-cell follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Basically, it turns lymph nodes into malignant tumors. There are several types of lymphoma, together making it the seventh most common cancer diagnosis for adults in the United States.

My wife and I were relieved, to a small degree, by the diagnosis. After three and a half months of various tests, x-rays, many needle pricks, and two CT scans, it was good to finally know why I was having such pain in my right flank, near my kidney. However, we were much more so in a state of shock over this news.

The idea that there were cells inside of my body that had gone rogue and were working in a suicidal conspiracy to kill me was unnerving, to say the least. I was in shock because I had always assumed that cancer was something that other people got. I had even told myself at times that I would never have cancer, which was foolish presumption on my part.

Our world had been rocked, and our five-year family plan upended, by what my general physician called “the c-word” — cancer. The most difficult days by far were the days of not knowing the implications of it for us, not knowing the prognosis, not knowing how serious of a case it was and how much life was probably left for me or not. There were eleven days between first hearing the word “lymphoma” and finding out which kind of lymphoma it was, what stage it was in, and whether treatment was even an option.

Darkest Valley, Coldest Shadows

The valley of those eleven days was covered by the darkest and coldest shadow of death that I’ve ever experienced. My wife and I fought for faith in God with the sword of Psalm 23 each night as we lay our heads on our pillows. That was our day-ending prayer and confession, our day-ending preaching to ourselves of the goodness of God to us in Christ.

While I spent those eleven days trying to prepare myself for the worst, for the potential “death sentence” pronouncement from the oncologist of a stage-four terminal situation — sometimes rehearsing the Scripture I planned to recite to him if that was, indeed, the prognosis (1 Corinthians 15:55–57) — I also wrestled with God over this new reality and the uncertainty of it all.

One of the dilemmas I had to wrestle through during this eleven-day-long, very dark valley was whether or not a “Christian Hedonist” like me can pray for healing. After all, we Christian Hedonists, who believe that Christ is most glorified by our being supremely satisfied in him, know that Philippians 1:21 says, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” — because “to depart and be with Christ . . . is far better” (Philippians 1:23). By praying for healing and longer life, would I be capitulating somehow to the sinful flesh or be compromising my pursuit of God’s glory? Would I be abandoning the pursuit of joy and superior satisfaction in Christ himself for the sake of an idolatrous love of the world? No. The answer was right there in Philippians 1:24–25.

To Remain on Mission

The apostle Paul, like Jesus himself, chose life for the sake of serving the Philippian church. He put their interests, their good, ahead of his own. He chose to remain living for the sake of serving their “progress and joy in the faith.”

God has graciously put that same “mind of Christ” in me (Philippians 2:5). And many brothers and sisters in the Lord — including my wife! — seem to desire my healing and ongoing presence among them as an “ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:26).

I also found this in Psalm 6:4–5: “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” Here King David models passionate petitionary prayer for remaining in this life to continue making much of God among the saints. Here is a biblical precedent for making an appeal to God’s covenant-keeping love for me (his “steadfast love”) as a ground to heal me. Of course, this text points ultimately to the new covenant deliverance, justification, and soul-healing purchased for me by the death of Christ. Yet the Davidic example implies that it is good and godly to desire remaining a part of the mission to make known God’s glorious grace in King Jesus among the yet unreached people groups of the world.

Whatever the Outcome

During treatment my wife and I were encouraged often by knowing that Christians in several parts of the world — on six continents — were praying for us. Thank God for social media! Some were brothers and sisters in Christ whom we are blessed to know well; others we don’t know at all. We found this amazing: There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one global body of Christ that cares for itself.

We felt loved by God through their care and concern. If for no other reason, it is good to be needy to experience the love of God through the need-meeting provision and prayer of his people.

We eventually received a hopeful prognosis. My kind of lymphoma was what my oncologist calls the “boring” kind. It is a slow-growing lymphoma that is relatively easy to treat. The five-year survival rate is 70%. And my case was still only late stage-one when detected. The doctor seemed confident that he could “cure” my cancer, which provided a significant degree of relief. Yet I knew the outcome was in the hands of the Lord. He would choose to make the treatment plan effective or not.

Now, after nine months of chemotherapy, capped by one more month of daily radiation, I am in remission. At this point, it seems God has chosen to heal. He used the treatments, various amazing medical technologies, and the mind-boggling expertise of so many health care practitioners, to slay the tumor. It is now benign. We thank the Lord.

The Gift of Lymphoma

Of course, what we wanted much more from God than his healing of my lymphoma was that he would sustain our trust in him through this season of suffering and uncertainty, whatever the medical outcome. Prayers to God that he would “Satisfy us [each] morning with [his] steadfast love, that we may rejoice [in him] and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14), or something to that effect, were the prayers that mattered most to us. He has done the better work. He has, in fact, proven the “genuineness” of our God-given faith through this “fiery trial.” He has “guarded” us “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3–9; 4:12).

By sustaining, and strengthening, our trust in him through the experience of having lymphoma, God has made us even more certain of his love for us, our love for him, and our love for each other. He has given us a more solid assurance of salvation and a keener sense of his divine safe-keeping of our souls.

I’ve come away from this experience with a renewed vision for ministry, to make the most of what days and strength God does supply (1 Peter 4:11), knowing that in Christ neither my suffering nor my labor is ever in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).