What Happens to Suffering When We Pray

This week, my daughter, Lydia, broke one of her arms for the fourth time in six years. There’s never a great time to break a bone, but in my opinion, the start of the summer is the worst time. As I scurried down to church camp to pick her up the day after dropping her off, I ran through the list of every single thing that will have to be canceled or amended because of her broken wrist: golf, vacation, amusement parks, swimming, golf, bike riding, skateboarding, golf. Also, golf. 

We checked in at the urgent care, got x-rays, and headed home to wait for our appointment with the orthopedic surgeon. Two days later, I gave one final quick shout-out to Jesus, “Lord, please don’t let Lydia need surgery,” as we walked toward the front door of the orthopedic surgeon’s office. Neither of us were particularly hopeful—she had to have surgery on this same wrist a couple of years back. 

For as often as we’ve been to this office, we might as well be on a first-name basis with the doc. He reviewed her x-rays and then came in to move her wrist around in ways that Lydia found slightly uncomfortable (okay, she flinched, but she has a high pain tolerance).

He finished his assessment and then said, “I don’t think it’s broken.”

“Really?” I was shocked.

“The radiologist thought it was broken, and I can see why in the x-ray, but when we compare it to the last x-ray of the last break,” he flipped between x-ray screens, “I don’t see anything different. We can either splint it for two weeks and get you back for another x-ray then to make sure, or we can do a CT scan for confirmation. One of these things will cost you or someone else $500.”

“We’ll take the option that doesn’t cost $500,” Lydia said.

So, Lydia’s wrist is not broken. After the appointment, I drove her back to camp so she could be with her pals the rest of the week. And that appears to be the end of that!

I believe in the power of prayer. When our son, Elvis, was born, the nurses and doctors were sure he had respiratory distress syndrome and pulmonary hypertension (a baby heart attack), but the next day, they found no sign of the hypertension. Must’ve been a misdiagnosis. Or maybe it was God? 

I’ve prayed for healing for family and friends with cancer, people in serious accidents, my own health. To my knowledge, no one I’ve prayed for has experienced a miraculous healing. Does that mean God does not heal?

I believe in the power of prayer to heal, but I think healing according to God often looks different, bigger, and more complex than what we want. We want physical healing. We want the pain and suffering we are in to be taken away. We want the nature of our circumstances to change. That’s what we’re asking for from God, that’s what we plead: just make my life a little bit easier, would you, O Great Lord of the Universe?

Even Jesus prayed for his own suffering to be taken from him.

Even Jesus prayed for his own suffering to be taken from him. 

As much as we wish it, God is not in the wave a magic wand, genie in the lamp business. When I prayed for Lydia’s wrist, I didn’t expect physical healing. I really don’t believe that God miraculously healed Lydia’s wrist—it probably was a misread by a radiologist unfamiliar with her history of broken wrists. With that knowledge, I could have been irritated that the radiologist made a mistake reading the x-ray and as a result, Lydia was stuck moping at home, discouraged about her ruined summer and ruined week at camp. I could have been frustrated that she had to miss camp. All of this inconvenience and disruption for nothing

Prayer doesn’t often change our circumstances, but prayer does change our perspective. In that way, God healed Lydia and me on Wednesday; he restored hope and brought peace and joy. Jesus faced his own suffering with incredible empathy and compassion, wholehearted love and grace for the entire world, even those who were hurting him. That is miraculous. That is healing.

The last few weeks, I’ve found myself overcome by grief in the most random of moments: washing the dishes, talking on the phone, walking the dog. Everything will seem fine. And then I begin to weep. One of my family members and another of my friends are quite possibly nearing the end of their lives because cancer is stubborn and relentless. Neither circumstance is fair. Both are terrible.

And yet, the two individuals couldn’t have more different perspectives. One of these people seems open and free. One seems closed and trapped. One of these people is filled with grace and peace, love and gratitude, wrapped in the arms of the Holy Spirit and held in the midst of her pain and exhaustion. The other is twisted in fear and blame, anger and confusion, bitterness and regret.

Prayer is powerful. I believe that, no matter what happens in the coming days and weeks, prayer has healed one of these people, and prayer can heal the other. Maybe they will both get their miracles, miracles of science or of God, or of both. The least I can do is offer up my own prayer for comfort, healing, and peace, along with this plea: that God would prop open my heart so that hope and gratitude might always abide with me.

Daisy and sky photo by Aaron Burden from Pexels.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). My memoir, American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation, and the second volume of devotionals, The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others, will be released in 2022. Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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