By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
I was fourteen. My father was gravely ill, hospitalized with a disease that was killing him. And the advice I heard over and over again from trusted adults in my life was this: “If you pray hard enough, God will heal your dad.”
It wasn’t spoken as an assurance or an encouragement; it was a guarantee, and I took it at face value. I prayed my little heart out during those weeks. So did hundreds of others — relatives, friends, church members. I only needed the faith of a mustard seed, I knew, and I had way more faith than that.
My father was not healed. He passed away only three months after he first entered the hospital. For many years I carried the shame of my unanswered prayers, like they were a reflection of something gone wrong in his life or mine. Was there a reason why God didn’t want to heal my dad? Had I angered God somehow? Or had I simply not prayed hard enough?
During that terrible time, I lost both my father and any belief that God provides physical healing. I felt abandoned and forgotten; I wondered why I had fallen out of favor with God and how I could earn back his love. It was years before I could even attempt to pray for someone else’s healing. And when I did, I could never do it with the same fullness of heart that I had when I was fourteen.
In the twenty years since my father’s passing, I have returned to the belief that God can heal when all other medical interventions fail. After all, the scriptures, especially the gospels, are full of examples of physical healing through faith, and I know a few people who have experienced this directly.
But these days it seems like God often chooses not to intervene in our health in ways that we would consider miraculous. I have to believe there are reasons why. Perhaps that would belie the definition of miracle, or perhaps there are other things that God has in store for us when we experience suffering and loss.
This past winter, I was forced to come face-to-face with my beliefs about God as physician. For several months I had one health issue after another — viruses, infections, injuries — that prevented me from thinking clearly and doing everything I needed to do. Most recently I sprained my lower back, a debilitating injury that made even the smallest physical activity agonizing.
I rested, stretched, took pain medications, saw a chiropractor, saw a doctor, used cold packs and heat packs—and still my back did not improve. In quiet moments I would sometimes ask God for healing, but my faith was not even close to that of a mustard seed. After a month of constant pain I became so desperate that I asked others to pray for my healing, even while I doubted whether it would do any good. A couple times, well-meaning individuals at church prayed with great fervor on my behalf. “How does it feel? Any better?” they asked me afterwards. The truth was no, absolutely not. But wanting to hide my cynicism, I only gave a small smile and said, “Maybe a little. Thank you.”
Then someone at church referred me to a chiropractor who turned out to be one of the smartest doctors I have ever met. He immediately knew what was going on with my back — as well as chronic issues I have had with my neck, my hip, and even an old ankle injury from high school. Within forty-eight hours of seeing him, most of my back pain had disappeared. Now, a few weeks later, I am nearly fully recovered. Under this doctor’s care, it’s even possible that I will end up healthier than I was before I injured my back.
The doubter in me wants to use this as more evidence that God did not heal me; a person did. But the truth is that I am only better because I took the risk to ask for help from God and others. And that only happened because I got to the point where I could no longer take care of myself. God met me, not through a miracle, but through kind people and good medical care.
Does God really heal in miraculous, body-zapping ways today? In the end, I still have trouble making rhyme or reason out of when he does or does not intervene. But what I can say with confidence is this: God saw my need and provided for me, and for now, that’s enough to water that mustard seed.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor whose personal essays and short stories have been published in Hong Kong, the UK, and the US. She is particularly passionate about telling true stories of the messiness and beauty of human connections, of sustainable social change, and of the surprising, sometimes humorous ways in which God works in our lives. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and young son. Visit her at www.chengtozun.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.