What happens when you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die anyway?
That’s what we were asking at Anna Reinstein’s funeral on a recent Tuesday. Anna was only 51 years old, a beautiful young mother with children still at home. She had a rock-solid faith, she had hundreds of people praying for her, and they were praying to a good and loving God. At least that’s what we thought. On Tuesday afternoon I stood before a sanctuary full of mourners and said:
“But here we are at her funeral, and even though nobody wants to say it out loud we’re thinking that Anna lost her fight, that we must have failed her in some way, and that God himself has let her down. It’s not wrong to want to be healed of cancer. It’s not wrong to do everything you can toward that end. What’s wrong, I think, is to believe that if your cancer goes into remission you’ve won and that if it doesn’t you’ve lost. What’s wrong is to come to a moment like this one feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and optimism you once had, for all those slogans you posted around the house. What’s wrong is to believe not only that your prayers failed, but that God failed, or that for whatever reason he could not or would not heal Anna.
“When that happens you sometimes start to redefine your understanding of God. You begin to think maybe God is not all-powerful, maybe he is not all-loving. Why didn’t he heal a woman like this? But what if, instead of redefining your understanding of God, you redefined your understanding of death? What if death is not the enemy we sometimes think it is, and what if succumbing to it is not the same as ‘losing’?
“I think about my daughter, Ellie, who used to fight against sleep when she was a little girl. She never wanted to go to bed; she was always afraid she might miss something. And so I would have to hold her sideways in my arms and rock her back and forth to put her to sleep. She would fight against it, so that I had to keep a firm grip on her, but finally I would feel her little body relax and eventually she would fall asleep, and I would put her to bed. She always seemed to be a little surprised when she woke up the next morning, rested and refreshed, a little surprised to find that the sun had come up after all, and that her dad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee while her mom made pancakes.
“If we could see death from God’s perspective, we might see that it’s like falling asleep at night. We might not fight against it so hard, we might believe that we would – in fact – wake up the next morning. But for me the most helpful analogy has been the one I heard from John Claypool who said that, ‘from the womb’s perspective, birth is like death.’ I hadn’t really thought of that before, but when a child is born that womb that was so full of life only moments before is suddenly dark and empty, and if a womb could grieve, it would grieve the loss of that child. But the child isn’t grieving: the child has been born into a world full of light and sound and love. And even though it’s a little frightening at first, I don’t know of any child who – after getting used to the world – wants to go back to the womb.
“The world is a good place to be and we know it. With all its problems and imperfections, it is still the best place we have ever been. It’s the place where our friends and family are, the place where we have experienced all the life we have ever known. We hold on with both hands, terrified of losing our grip.
“But suppose this world is only the womb in which we are made ready for our everlasting life? And suppose the world into which Anna Reinstein has been born is as different from this world as this world is from the womb? It’s been traumatic, but that’s just how birth is. It’s hard, sweaty labor, and if you ask any woman who has given birth she will tell you that it hurts. It is a bloody, messy business, and at the end of it someone almost always cries. But it’s not the end. It’s the beginning of a whole new life. Suppose that death is just like that: hard, sweaty labor, full of pain. Suppose that it’s a bloody, messy business, and that at the end of it someone almost always cries. But suppose that it’s not the end after all, but only the beginning of a whole new life.
“When the apostle Paul talks about what it is like to enter into life with God, he uses the analogy of death and resurrection. He says that ‘we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6:4). But Jesus has a different perspective than Paul. He has an eternal perspective. He can see things from the other side. And when Jesus talks about what it’s like to enter into life with God, he uses the analogy of birth. He tells Nicodemus that ‘no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (John 3: 3,5).
“Suppose that’s what’s happened for Anna: suppose she’s been born into the Kingdom of God. And suppose that we have gathered today not to mourn her death, but to celebrate that birth. It’s been hard, painful, messy, and at the end of it here we are, crying. But it’s not the end, not for Anna. Not at all. She has been delivered. She is surrounded by the bright light of heaven. And she is feeling more love than she has ever felt, even when her mother first held her in her arms.
“It’s the beginning of a whole new life.”
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.