Praying for death

TombstoneA year ago we took my mother home on hospice care. She died three days later, mercifully freed from a series of chronic health problems that were cascading out of control.

But getting her out of the hospital—her sixth time there in six months—and into hospice was not immediately easy. Each individual medical specialist kept wanting to “fix” the problems they were in charge of addressing. Only when a wise generalist listened to what we were saying, listened to what Mother was saying, did someone finally understand. Quality of life was gone, and merely staying alive was not the best option available. Individual medical issues might be addressed, but the overall prognosis remained poor.

This reminded me of another situation I encountered a few years ago. When making hospital visits, our pastoral staff members often ask, “How might we best pray for you today?” Before blindly praying just to check off the duty done, we want to understand the patient’s sentiments and pray for the relevant needs.

Usually, patients ask that we pray for healing or for peace or for discernment. Imagine my surprise, then, when this particular patient in a skilled nursing facility responded, “I want you to pray that I die.”

She thought I would be so shocked that I wouldn’t do what she asked. But like each of our ministers who visited her thereafter, I took her request seriously. I knew she was deadly serious. An autoimmune disease was taking hold of her body, and she somehow knew the end was in sight. She didn’t want to linger in misery.

I’ve replayed this conversation in my mind many times since then. It reminds me that we are eager to pray for the sick to be healed but don’t take seriously the need to pray for God’s mercy on those who will find healing only in eternity. How many times have you heard a pastoral prayer in church for death to come quickly?

Ecclesiastes teaches us that “to everything there is a season,” with a time to be born and a time to die. One of the side effects of our modern medical advances is the belief that every illness can and should be treated. This is not an appeal to stop praying for physical healing; many times, that is exactly appropriate. But there are times when the treatment becomes worse than the disease, and there are illnesses that are, in fact, worse than death.

One of the greatest of life’s mysteries for me is why God allows so many people to linger in earthly bodies beyond any reasonable quality of life. Of course, defining “quality” of life could be a slippery slope indeed. And I must once again remind myself that I am not God and that God’s ways are higher than our ways.

The Christian hope in resurrection to eternal life should allow us to pray both for healing here and healing in eternity. To neglect either is to lessen the power and plan of God. The Apostle Paul taught: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Let us all pray for healing—both the miraculous kind we see here and the miraculous kind that happens in the kingdom of God. To everything there is a season.

Mark Wingfield

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About the Author
Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the book, “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom about Traditional Churches is Wrong.”

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