God’s Work and the Hospital Bed

God’s Work and the Hospital Bed

As Christians, we often pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in the hospital. This is as it should be. But how do we pray? And how do we pray when we are in the hospital bed ourselves?

I’ve reflected a lot on these questions since my cancer diagnosis 3.5 years ago. It has not been in the abstract, but has related to my own praying, and praying for others. In the fall, Leadership Journal asked for me to address the question of how to pray for those with incurable conditions, in particular. You can find my article in response here.

This last week, I published a book review of a small book which takes on the question in a more general sense: how God meets us in the hospital, and how to pray in that context. The book is John Piper’s newest, Lessons from a Hospital Bed.

On the one hand, I found much to appreciate. As I write in the review, “As Christians, we often pray for our loved ones in hospitals to be able to leave the medical premises swiftly. But rather than assume God only works to eject us from the hospital doors, Piper commends the moment: don’t ‘waste’ the illness, but prayerfully offer your aching body to God. ‘That will be the greatest result of your hospitalization: you will glorify him.’”

Moreover, “on praying for healing, Piper wisely avoids dead-ends: ‘We should ask [God], without hesitation, for healing and for relief of pain.’ Yet, ‘we should trust him with the timing of his answer.’ For God may answer ‘not yet’ to those prayers, Piper continues, but will still use your suffering for his purposes, and bring final healing in the end.

Piper also avoids the body-denying stoicism that sometimes plagues Christians in the hospital: be honest about your need and your pain, Piper says. Ask others for help, tell your congregation you’re in the hospital, request and receive prayer and assistance.”

But I was also troubled by the book. As I explain:

“While Piper quotes Psalms numerous times, he does not cite psalms of lament, even though more than one-third of the psalms are laments (more numerous than any other type). The psalms of lament are also among the most frequently cited in the New Testament, and are prayed by Jesus himself: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). In spite of these biblical examples of faithful complaining, Piper’s approach is one-sidedly negative:

We are so prone to complain. I certainly am. And I am ashamed of it. It contradicts all that I believe about God. It makes him look weak or foolish or inattentive or uncaring or unhelpful. He is none of these. And so my complaining tells lies about him. And I am sorry. . . . [Y]ou don’t need faith to grumble. All you need is your own entitled self.

As someone immersed in the cancer community, I know first-hand how hospital patients experience confusion, fear, and anger. Christian patients often wonder how this could be happening. Has God abandoned me? In response, Piper and I both affirm God is faithful to his promises. Moreover, Piper is exactly right in countering a self-absorbed form of complaining—like the Israelites in the wilderness who grumbled as they turned toward their self-made gods. That is a temptation in the hospital like anywhere else. As creatures who completely depend upon God for our life and being, we can rejoice in gratitude that every breath is a gift from God.”

(To read the whole review at the Gospel Coalition website, click here.)

How is God active in the midst of our pain on the hospital bed?

It’s an extremely important question — one that I think we need to reflect upon more and more deeply, as the whole process of dying has been moved from the home to the hospital. We have a profound hope: that we belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. But precisely because of that hope, we need to find a way to follow scripture’s paths in bringing our joy and gratitude, as well as grief and anger, before the throne of the Almighty.