‘When is a miracle not a miracle?’ (part 1)

A number of years ago, a Christian friend Sonny (not his real name) recounted an incident that happened in the last days of his father’s life. Desperate because his father was terminally ill,  Sonny asked someone from another church to pray. Assuring Sonny that everything was going to be okay,  a group  from the church arrived to pray. During the prayers, one person asserted how he believed it was God’s intention to heal his father and that this would begin right now as they prayed. Sonny was delighted. So too the group who were spurred into even more fervent praying that extended well into the night. Later, as they were leaving,  Sonny was told to let them know if there was any change in his father’s condition – presumably they hoped for news of a miraculous healing. 

Next day, Sonny returned home to find his father’s health was deteriorating. With no sign of improvement, he decided to phone the church. Aware that his call would be interpreted as a lack of faith on his part, he called and left a message explaining the situation. A short time later someone phoned back instructing him to anoint his father’s head with oil – apparently the prayer team had forgotten to do this. Sonny asked for clarification and was told that he needed to

‘pour some oil into a saucer, pray over it and anoint his head with it, using the sign of the Cross.’

His father’s head anointed, Sonny went downstairs and – having periodically checked in on him – returned to the bedroom to discover his father had died in his sleep. Angry at the realisation that the prayer team’s pronouncement wasn’t true, Sonny phoned the church to let them know and see what they had to say. The person who answered – one of the prayer team who visited that night – listened as Sonny reminded him about what had been said and how he had complied with the instruction to anoint his father’s head with oil. Finally, he asked the person why his father had died when he had been told God was going to heal him?

There was a long pause as the person weighed up everything that had been said. Then, with a voice, less than apologetic, the person at the end of the phone gave his diagnosis as to why the healing had faltered.  ‘The reason it didn’t work is that you didn’t anoint him correctly with the oil. God wanted to heal your father but it wasn’t done properly and this stopped God from answering your prayer.’ Stunned, it took  Sonny a few seconds to respond  – then it rapidly descended into argument and recrimination. Dazed, confused and angry, Sonny ended the phonecall, reeling at what had happened and been said.

Extreme as this incident is, I think it helps to illustrate some of the pitfalls that occur when people pray with a simplistic belief that God will provide a physical healing to every request asked of Him. Thankfully, Sonny’s experience should be considered unusual because most churches do not go round making such claims. Moreover, the way in which blame was transferred onto the grieving person – rather than the prayer team acknowledging their mistake in predicting how God would respond – differs vastly from the many genuine attempts at prayers for healing that happen within and outside of churches throughout the year. Occasions in which it’s possible that prayers made on behalf of the sick, injured or dying person may be seen as answered in some measure through a skilled surgeon who operates or the strength to endure where they couldn’t before or accept death.    Q) When is a miracle not a miracle?        A)When it doesn’t happen!

(extract adapted from ‘A short book of believer absurdities,’ Bob Eckhard)