Death is our mortal enemy — an enemy that Jesus defanged (Hebrews 2:14–15), and one day will utterly destroy (Revelation 21:4). He revealed his omnipotent power over death by raising people from the dead (Mark 5:41–42; Luke 7:11–17; John 11:33–34). Through his own resurrection, he revealed that all authority in heaven and earth is his (Matthew 28:16). D-Day over death for all who believe has arrived (2 Timothy 1:10), and V-Day’s future has been secured (1 Corinthians 15:25–26).
How then should we pray for God to heal our dying loved ones? On the one hand, until Jesus returns, death is an inescapable reality for everyone (Hebrews 9:27). So praying for healing isn’t always God’s will. In the case of a dying great-grandmother, for example, we may be more in line with God’s will not by praying for healing, but by praying for her to finish well (Philippians 1:23), trusting that because her Savior has conquered death for her, she will never see it, not even for a second (John 8:51).
On the other hand, because Jesus robbed death of its life-stealing power by bearing the full wrath of God for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21), we sometimes should pray that he would snatch our loved ones from the grasp of death. We can pray for miracles, asking him to spare us the sorrow upon sorrow that comes from seemingly untimely deaths (Philippians 2:27), even as we trust him for his answer, whatever it might be.
‘She Can’t Breathe’
In a recent article, I shared how God humbled me and taught me to trust him through my daughter’s battle with cancer when she was 8 years old. Despite our prayers for God to spare her life, she drifted closer and closer to death’s door. The new “promising” experimental treatment we authorized further robbed us of hope when it gave her a life-threatening side effect called VOD of the liver.
The worst part was how she was laboring to breathe. That’s the final line to cross before death, isn’t it — no longer being able to breathe the breath of life (Genesis 2:7; 3:19)? Our doctor told us that if she continued to struggle, they would have to put her on a ventilator. They would sedate her and strap her down before intubation so that she could not pull out the ventilator. Taking that step could mean that my wife and I would never speak with our daughter again.
Then it happened. It was two o’clock in the morning when the pediatrics ICU doctor woke me up. “We have to put your daughter on a ventilator right now. She can’t breathe, and her carbon-dioxide level is past the emergency benchmark.” Everyone had been dreading this moment, but here it was. Desperate, I called my wife so she could rush to the hospital, perhaps in time to speak one last time with her baby, but she didn’t pick up the phone. My daughter was dying, and the person she loved more than anyone on earth wouldn’t be there to hold her and say goodbye. I was broken.
Waiting and Praying
Then, like the voice of an angel, the nurse whispered to me, “Dad, if you are not comfortable, they can’t make you do this.” And so, when our doctor returned with the ventilator, I told her I wanted to wait and pray. The doctor’s countenance morphed. Her voice steeled. She said that if they didn’t intubate my daughter right then, she could go into cardiac arrest. The doctor warned me repeatedly, but each time I firmly told her I wanted to pray and wait. I’m no doctor, and as a rule, I hear and receive doctors’ recommendations. But in this moment, I couldn’t shake the sense that God wanted me to pray and wait.
“God calls us to pray, believing that there is nothing too difficult for him.”
Eventually, everyone left the room, and I dropped to my knees. “God, you said if we ask you for a fish, you won’t give us a serpent. If we ask you for bread, you won’t give us a stone. God, I am asking you to give me my daughter’s life.” I prayed through the night. Each hour I prayed, my daughter’s carbon-dioxide levels dramatically improved, and her breathing grew stronger. In the morning, her doctor came into the room and removed the order for the ventilator, and the following week, he let her come home for a weeklong visit before her second round of chemotherapy.
Our daughter, who had been at death’s door only a few days before, was home with no detectable cancer to be found in her body. God and God alone did that.
My daughter was cancer-free, but she was far from being out of danger. Because the first round of chemotherapy had almost killed her, her bone-marrow specialist wanted her to skip the final two rounds and go straight to receiving a bone-marrow transplant. Our oncologist disagreed and told us he believed bone-marrow transplants work best when even the imperceptible levels of cancer are reduced by the final rounds of chemotherapy.
Because they couldn’t agree, they left the decision with us, giving us the weekend to decide whether to continue with two more rounds of chemo or go straight to a transplant. So my wife and I went away for a night to pray and seek wisdom from a multitude of counselors. We called friends with medical backgrounds, although we hadn’t spoken to some of them in over twenty years. And how God providentially answered our prayers seemed even more amazing than how he miraculously strengthened my daughter’s breathing.
We called Judy, who used to attend a UCLA Bible study with me. I had heard that she worked as an oncology nurse at a children’s hospital in Los Angeles. She told me that the doctor who trained our oncologist was actually at her hospital. Then she said, “You won’t believe this, but the doctor who wrote the national experimental protocol that your daughter is on just walked past me, and I’ll check with her!” Both doctors agreed that under our circumstances, we could go straight to the bone-marrow transplant and skip the final two rounds of chemotherapy.
Then my wife, who years ago had spent a year in medical school, called a former classmate, Larry, who suggested that we reach out to the UCLA bone-marrow transplant department. When we pulled up their webpage, my wife recognized a high-school classmate, LaVette, and I recognized one of the doctors, Ted Moore, with whom I had attended a UCLA Bible study. We called the number listed, and my wife’s high-school friend picked up. She said she had never answered that phone but had just so happened to be walking past it when it rang. Dr. Moore was in a meeting, but she would have him call us back as soon as he was free. Within the hour, I answered the phone to “Hey, Bobby. It’s Ted.” The unassuming UCLA student I knew from sixteen years ago had become Dr. Theodore Moore, a renowned expert in bone-marrow transplants. With complete confidence, he counseled us to go straight to the transplant.
Finally, we called Dr. John Vierling, a liver specialist. My wife and I had met him years ago when her cousin asked my wife to sing at the funeral for Dr. Vierling’s son. Our concern was whether having a history of VOD would make the risk of undergoing a bone-marrow transplant too great for our daughter, because a major risk from these transplants is contracting VOD. As God would have it, Dr. Vierling was an expert on VOD, and he counseled us that we could safely proceed with the transplant.
Through the unveiling of his amazing providence, God had answered our prayer. We authorized our daughter to undergo a bone-marrow transplant at City of Hope eighteen years ago. Eighteen years later, she is a walking cancer-free miracle of God.
He Holds Every Breath
I know my daughter’s story is just one among many stories that end so differently. We journeyed through our trial with four other families — three children my daughter’s age and one adult, all of whom had similar types of cancer. We prayed for each of them, but none of them survived. God does not answer every prayer for healing. So, how might he have us pray when our loved ones need a miracle?
“Our primary prayer is always that God would prepare the hearts of our dying loved ones to see Jesus.”
First, armed with the trust that God sovereignly ordains our prayers as a means to accomplish his ends, we freely pray for miracles, as Elijah did (James 5:17–18). Honestly, before God healed my daughter, I would pray for God to heal others, but I didn’t necessarily expect to see a miracle. For that, I repent. God calls us to pray, believing that there is nothing too difficult for him, including healing our loved ones on their deathbeds.
At the same time, however, we pray with the kind of faith that does not rest on God saying yes to our prayers (2 Corinthians 12:8–9). By his grace, we can accept his answer when it’s no, as David did (2 Samuel 12:16–23), and we can submit to his will and worship him when we can’t understand his answer, as Job did (Job 1:21; 42:1–3).
Christians also embrace the reality that, until Jesus returns, everyone we love will die, and our lives are but a vapor in light of eternity, whether we die at age 10 or 100. So our primary prayer is always that God would prepare the hearts of our dying loved ones to see Jesus, and that he would grant our unbelieving loved ones repentance and faith toward Jesus. Our first prayer for our daughter was for her soul’s salvation.
A wise friend reminded me, when we were enduring our trial, that God holds the pen that is writing our story. Everything God writes is good: in the end, we will see his story as good, and in the present, we believe it to be for our good. So yes, pray for a miracle, and trust that God holds your loved one’s next and last breaths.