My brother Rees Harris II was born in December of 1982. He was soon diagnosed with Werdnig-Hoffman Syndrome, the infantile form of spinal muscular atrophy. It was very rare. Only a handful of kids were diagnosed with it. The nerves don’t send impulses to the muscles so they don’t work. He could not move. He had a tracheostomy tube and a ventilator to breathe for him. He had a feeding tube so he’d get nutrition. He had around the clock nurses to care for him because his condition required suctioning of his trach & use of an ambu bag while not attached to the breathing machine. He passed away exactly 22 1/2 years after his birth, outliving his life expectancy by 22 years. He also outlived several of his doctors and our mom. So where was God in this struggle? Rees had a smile that kept you from seeing his problems. God was there. Rees had a fabulous mind trapped in a terrible body. God was there as he not only went to school, but excelled and was inducted into The National Honor Society. To have Rees live 22 years longer than expected was truly of God. He was sent home to die on July 1, 1983. Our parents were told early on to just let him go, to enjoy their three healthy children and live their lives. They did not. God was in their decision to keep him alive. God was there when they didn’t sleep, worried his condition would kill him sooner or later. God was there when our Mom died unexpectedly and we had to carry on without her. God was there when Rees finally could not fight anymore, when it was his time to go to heaven and join our mom and Jesus. As Rees was dying, my husband joined two of his nurses and me around his hospital bed. We prayed him up to heaven and Ken remarked, “Can you imagine your mom’s face when Rees WALKS to her in heaven?” How could we be sad? God won! Rees won! Every day was a miracle from God and we got well over 8000 of those days. God was always there and He is always there. He’s there in our struggles and our celebrations. Thank you God for always being there.
I believe that God heals. Isaiah 53:5 writes prophetically about Jesus, the Messiah who would redeem all of humanity, and notes that “He was beaten so we could be whole; He was whipped so we could be healed.” This passage coupled with the numerous healings Jesus and the apostles did, as well as a few healings I’ve seen personally, solidifies this belief.
But what happens when God doesn’t answer prayer? What happens when we don’t see the healing that we desperately seek? Is God still a God of healing?
On May 23, 2016, my family began to explore these questions when my mom was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I was working on campus at Messiah College for the summer, with few friends to confide in, and I was mad. I was mad at God. I was having some difficulties with my faith at the time, and I didn’t know what to do. After an hour of talking with God, yelling at Him and crying to Him, God reminded me of a verse from the book of John: “In this world you will face many troubles. But take heart, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I had a choice: to either give up hope and turn from God, or to turn to Him and cling to the hope of this promise. Choosing to trust God, as I had in years prior, our family clung to His promises and prayed for Mom’s healing.
Mom started chemotherapy and was discouraged for the first month and a half. However, she found that living in fear was not only a hopeless position to have, but physically damaging for her health. When we are afraid, our body has natural responses: our heart rate increases causing our blood pressure to go up, our breathing becomes heavier, and adrenaline starts flowing through the body. While these symptoms of fear are typically used for a fight-or-flight scenario, when battling cancer it actually weakens the body and gives the cancer more strength. Mom put her hope in Jesus instead, and we saw her rapidly improve thanks to a lack of fear and the many prayers that were sent her way. By the end of August, three months after the initial diagnosis, her health was where most patients would hope to be six to nine months into chemotherapy. Mom was able to go back to work at our church in September.
We were grateful for God’s providence, and even during this time of better health, Mom continued to seek God for complete healing in her body. She declared Scriptures over herself, read various books about healing, and spent a lot of time in prayer. Our church was also very supportive during this time, in ways we had never seen our church work before – providing meals for our family, sending people to our home every night to pray, and even doing things that we hadn’t thought about, like yard work.
However, our time of rejoicing was short. Near Christmas, Mom had another scan that showed the cancer had grown. We were disappointed, but Mom chose to be thankful for the healing work that God had done, knowing that the growth was small compared to where her journey had begun. We recognized that cancer was not just a physical battle, but a spiritual one as well, as any sickness or disease is. However, we also knew Who held victory over sin, death, and disease, and we continued to trust Jesus.
The Spring of 2017 was a fairly consistent season with little change in Mom’s condition. For the most part, she was feeling well with the occasional bout of symptoms with each chemo treatment. In this strange season of seeking health for Mom, my parents went on a retreat together as they did every year. During that retreat, they felt God was saying something kind of odd: to make plans for the summer and to not change them. So Mom and Dad took that to heart and made their plans for the summer: they planned to help with a summer camp in June, attend a conference in DC in July, and visit missionaries in Thailand in August.
In May, a full year since Mom was diagnosed, she received bad news. The cancer was growing again – and we saw similar symptoms to what happened the year prior: the cancer in her liver was sending funny signals to the kidneys, and the kidneys were essentially telling her body that she was not retaining enough water. Thus, her body started to balloon with excess water weight, so much that she looked pregnant and had swollen feet and legs.
Despite these symptoms and the difficulties they presented, she did not fear and fully trusted God. Even though she was sick, she held onto what God told her to do and did not change anything. She helped out with camp in June and delighted in ministering to the campers and other counselors. She attended the conference in DC in July and enjoyed her stay, holding firmly to faith. Several of the other conference guests would approach Mom and, seeing her ballooned belly, ask “Are you expecting?” Mom would smile and say, “Yes, but I’m not expecting a baby. I’m expecting a miracle”, and would proceed to tell them her story. At the same time, she quietly made preparations in the scenario that healing would not occur – organizing her files, making sure people knew where things were, and having people at the church take on responsibilities she could not do as easily in her weakened state.
The closer the day to leave for Thailand came, the worse Mom’s condition became. Family, friends, and doctors asked her if she really wanted to go, but Mom was adamant: “God said not to change anything. I’m going on that plane.”
Mom passed away in a hospital in Japan after the plane stopped for a layover there. She passed in perfect peace, as if God’s Spirit had enveloped her in His love. Her story ended with her repeating a single phrase while on her deathbed:
“Just trust Jesus.”
There are many cliché things that can be said – “she was healed in heaven”, or “she received her healing differently than we thought”, which is true. However, it doesn’t help the heart ache of losing someone you loved. It doesn’t help to overcome the pain, the longing to see her and hear her say “I love you”, things that over a year later I am still wrestling with.
What it does do is beg a question: does God really want to heal?
Even now, I say yes.
Mom’s testimony of faith was to trust Jesus with everything. Jesus healed everywhere He went, and He delighted in restoring identity and wholeness into those around Him. Jesus also says that God hears our prayers, and desires to answer them, for a good Father will always have compassion on His child, and gives good gifts to His children.
However, I recognize that God is not the only unseen power. I think a better way to understand the world is to recognize the battle behind this reality. Life, both physical and spiritual, is often a battle, and sometimes, people die in battle. In mom’s case, she died valiantly and will full confidence in Christ. I am glad to know that I can take her words to heart and hold the same bold confidence in Christ and His power.
Besides, if she was able to fully trust Jesus in the midst of sickness and death, why should I not trust Him while I still have health and life?