Partnering With God Through Death

By Susanna R. Wagner

Partnering with God in the health of our children does not have a given outcome.

2017 was a big year for us. My family and I moved to the Netherlands from the U.S. for my husband’s mission job. While we were there, we met a Dutch couple named Jacob and Anna and we often spent New Year’s Eve together.

The first New Year’s Eve we shared our ups and downs from the last year and the hopes and our prayers for the next. Jacob and Anna shared they had been trying for quite a long time to get pregnant, but they weren’t successful. They asked us to pray for a pregnancy for the next year. The following New Year’s Eve, they shared the happy news that they would have a baby in the new year. On April first, they welcomed baby Hannah into the world.

However, after a few months, they could tell Hannah was not well. Jacob and Anna began seeking answers with their doctor. Both of our families had recently started attending a new church. Within a couple weeks of first attending this church, Hannah was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy. She had been having little, unrecognizable seizures during her short life. Her seizures became more recognizable as she grew. While her body was growing, each seizure was causing degeneration in her brain. Her pattern for sleeping and eating did not progress. She did not seem to recognize night and day or give cues that she was hungry. Her prognosis was not good. She maybe had a year to live, a year filled with degenerative seizures.

The church they had only recently attended found out about the situation. They came around this little family to pray for healing and strength, and to bring food and encouragement. They seemed to immediately become a body around the family with a focused purpose—to help them however they could.

During this time, I was going through an intense deconstruction process of my very conservative Evangelical faith. I was listening to podcasts outside of the “safe” evangelical circle, and reading books by Catholic mystics in addition to those who had gone through their own deconstruction processes. My new thinking both excited me and terrified me at the same time. I was questioning whether God was all powerful, whether God could see everything that was going on, and whether God cared at all. As a Christian who earns their living through Christian mission, I was terrified. What if our conservative supporters found out about my process? What if they didn’t agree with some of the trajectories I was on? What if I deconstructed out of Christianity altogether? My husband was also worried. At the same time, he could see that the process I was going through was energizing for me in a way he hadn’t seen before.

The process was also thrilling. An inner desire for truth drove me, to understand God more, and to dig out the deep-seated roots of rotting religion in my life. No question was off limits. It was as if I was examining the house of my life brick by brick. I would study each brick and determine what its background and purpose was. Some I would throw out, and some I could see were good and solid and that I could use them to rebuild my house.

There was a group of “bricks” I examined around the ideas of the problem of evil, healing prayer, and the character of God. I was attracted to the ideas within Open and Relational Theology. Through this interest I encountered some of the work of Thomas Jay Oord in his book God Can’t.

Over the coming weeks I grew in my understanding of a God who is powerful and knows more than any of us, but who is also completely uncontrolling in divine love. I recognized that if we are truly in a loving relationship with God, then God can’t know the future entirely because God has authentically given us the freedom to make choices. God may know every possibility there is from each chain reaction started from every decision we make, but God can’t know each exact outcome. God also does not coerce us into deciding God wants us to make. God’s love is self-giving and others-empowering and is, therefore, uncontrolling. God’s attribute of love directs God’s other attributes of strength and knowledge.

I had to reflect upon how this new framing of God’s love would affect my understanding of little Hannah’s illness and as well as the pain her parents were suffering. I recognized that there were so many factors at play in the coming together of Jacob and Anna, in the forming of Hannah, in her birth and in her disease, in the community forming around the family, in her medical team, and in the prayers lifted for her. I also recognized that things were shifting in my understanding of what those prayers could do.

Meanwhile, Hannah’s health continued to deteriorate. Each seizure, of which she had many in a day, took her backward. She needed around-the-clock care and a feeding tube. Her parents were exhausted and reeling from the reality of their precious one moving toward death. Not to mention the fact that they would someday have to decide if they would risk having more children or choose not to have anymore.

We did not gather the following New Year’s Eve. Jacob and Anna were busy caring for Hannah. Soon afterwards we were all together again, but this time gathered around Hannah’s bed. Together with people from the church and Anna’s mother, we prayed over Hannah. Most of our prayers had changed to reflect the desires of the parents: that God would take her soon and peacefully. She had suffered enough. She was gone in the next couple of days.

I was not angry at God. I had already processed these new ideas enough to know that anger wasn’t a fair expression in this situation. I imagined God weeping as much as any of us did to see this little body racked with suffering. I imagined God’s empathetic tears for the pain of separation that Hannah’s parents felt. The medical team had done their job, Jacob and Anna had done everything they could have and prayed every prayer they could think of, and the surrounding community had helped in so many ways and had also prayed all the prayers. For me, there was comfort in the thought that if God could have healed Hannah, God would have. God was not cruel. God was not uncaring. God did see and love and grieve with us.

In the months following, I felt the need to apply that idea to my own life. I thought through how I would feel if any of my children were to have a terminal illness. I felt the panic of not having the possibility of healing prayer work for my child. I still believed in healing, but it had shifted enough to feel like the rug was pulled out from under me a bit.

As I thought through it, I found comfort knowing that it wasn’t about begging God to do something while I sat helpless. One of the most important things I learnt through this difficult time was to do with the idea of partnership. There is the possibility of healing when we all work together—parents, communities, doctors, and God. But there is also the possibility that nothing can ultimately be done. However, this does not make the partnership worthless. That partnership is there to strengthen everyone involved as we create the bonds that can only be formed in such dire and intimate circumstances.

I still have my questions. I sometimes—and often—wish for a “secret formula” of enough prayers prayed over a certain amount of time equals healing. And no doubt the questions will continue. But I am living with some uncertainties and ambiguities. And it is a huge comfort for me to believe that God is not a monster who arbitrarily chooses who will be healed and who will not, who will eat and who will not, who will be in the path of a natural disaster and who will not. Rather, I now believe that God wants to partner with us to heal; to solve world hunger; to bring wholeness to the earth. And not because God wants to teach us a lesson, but because God cannot work otherwise.

This past New Year’s Eve we met again with Jacob and Anna. Despite the many questions they feel are still unanswered, they continue to be faithful to each other and to God. There is not a happy ending for them as a family of three, but I believe that viewing God in this new way can bring them comfort, hope, and purpose.

Question: What are the implications of healing prayers not being answered in the way we want and how do we best make peace with them?

Susanna R. Wagner is a wife, mother of three, and current student at St. Stephen’s University. She has lived as a missionary with her family in the Philippines and the Netherlands and has now returned with them to North Carolina to begin a fresh, new life. Some of her favorite activities are reading about or talking theology with friends over good food, and wandering through forests.


To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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