There are few things in life more unsettling than making a valid request and being answered “no.” Whether that “no” be from an employer, a family member, friend, or authority, when we hear someone answer a heartfelt petition with “no,” it brings us to a crossroad of conflict in our hearts.
I asked God to heal my dad, and He said “No.”
No matter his physical stature, a good dad is to a young child a towering presence that symbolizes permanence and stability. That perception is frozen and unaltered in your mind as you enter adulthood, securing for your dad a respectful place of admiration and honor in your heart. Until it doesn’t. I just endured the sobering experience as an adult son of watching my dad reach the end of his earthly journey. His was a methodical decline of health, fueled by cancer, with a sudden and shocking death in August of this year.
A host of people around the globe had joined us in praying for my dad’s healing since his cancer diagnosis in December of 2020. While it was deemed aggressive at the time, his cancer was also characterized as treatable, and he embarked on that medical path. Months into the process, however, it became evident that dad’s health was rapidly declining.
The prayers for healing were as much for my dad’s health as for for the stability of my family. My sister, my only sibling and the apple of my parents’ eyes, had died suddenly of COVID-19 just a month before dad’s cancer diagnosis. Her case repeated the all-too-familiar story: because of hospital guidelines, she died alone with her husband watching through a window and my parents hundreds of miles away.
Five weeks later, after a prolonged illness, my uncle passed away, leaving my dad as the only remaining of the four Whitt brothers. It was difficult for us all, but especially dad as he was grappling with the loss of his daughter and was not physically well himself. We were all still in the grieving stage when dad’s cancer diagnosis was thrust upon us the following week.
Praying for his healing seemed logical. It seemed right. It seemed humane.
In January, while mom began helping dad with his new life of treatments and medication, she received the news that my grandmother, her mom, had been diagnosed with COVID-19. After a brief and valiant fight, her faith became sight. Another trial and period of suffering ensued.
I made the 600-mile round trip from North Carolina to be with my parents in Alabama 20 times over the ten months from my sister’s death in October until August. While visiting in early August, Dad took a difficult fall that required paramedics to help him back to his feet. Although he was not transported to the hospital that evening, we were convinced the following morning he had broken a bone or bruised an organ because of his immense pain, and we took him to the ER. Instead of discovering a new injury, we learned the pain was from the cancer deep in his bones.
This was the first time it hit me that dad was going to die from this. Despite many, many people faithfully praying for healing, God was saying no.
I was crushed.
When You Only Have Questions
Why wasn’t God answering? Where was He? Why now? After all my mom had gone through, wouldn’t the loving thing be to heal Dad?
It was then I began to wrestle through the benefit and beauty of Biblical lament. It’s something most believers don’t navigate well, if at all. Especially men. Lament is the Biblical response to trials– taking your complaints to God.
Why complain to God? Because he permits the trials, and superintends the trials, and uses the trials for our good and His glory. The willingness to take our complaints to God when He says “no” is actually an act of faith. To bury these questions in our hearts or go to anyone else would be dangerous. God gives us permission and delights in us coming to Him with these longings from our hurting hearts. He isn’t threatened.
“When the created bows its head and heart to the will of the Creator, we have access to enter an unusually deep, maturing season of trust and worship.”
Our lament is not an end, but a pathway to trust and worship. As we go to the Lord in our hurt and confusion when our heartfelt prayers have been answered with “no,” we rehearse to ourselves the truths we know about our God. He is good, and in control, and our only hope.
Immediate answers seldom emerge from these seasons of lament, when the created bows its head and heart to the will of the Creator, we have access to enter an unusually deep, maturing season of trust and worship. Even our Savior, when His “soul was very sorrowful even unto death,” concluded his lament to His heavenly Father with “not as I will, but as you will.” God the Father said, “No.” God the Son asked why, but trusted.
It will get better, or I will get better
Before I left to return home after dad’s fall in early August, I was sitting with him while mom ran some errands. I asked “Dad, are you nervous that you aren’t going to get well?” As he sat in his lift recliner, between winces of pain, he replied “Nah, it’s going to get better.” He had said that repeatedly to me over the nine months since he was diagnosed, and it bothered me. It bothered me because we were praying for healing and God was saying no.
“But dad, the cancer isn’t going away!” I responded, almost begging him to come to his senses and join in my despair.
“The depth of your faith in the promises and presence of God are revealed when God says “No.””
He slowly turned his head to look directly at me, and softly said with that southern flavor dripping in his voice, “And that’s ok. God’s in control of the cancer. Either it will get better, or I will get better.” That was the last coherent conversation my dad had with me. He passed away two weeks later.
But dad’s response and the tension of lament taught me a valuable lesson. The depth of your faith in the promises and presence of God are revealed when God says “No.” How well have I learned this lesson? Time will tell. God in His providence has allowed another opportunity to trust.
Cancer is not in control
Three weeks ago at the time of my writing, I was diagnosed with cancer. While there are additional tests and biopsies to be done, the early diagnosis is concerning. I’m actually scheduled for surgery to have what has been identified to be removed next week. We’ll learn more in the days ahead.
I invite you to pray for my healing. My wife, family, and friends are.
But what if God says no? I’m sure I’ll ask “Why,” and “Why now,” and “Where are you, God?” But if the reports in the coming weeks aren’t good, they’ll only be so because cancer is submitting to the perfect will of my sovereign God.
Cancer isn’t in control. My doctors, as wonderful as they are, aren’t in control. And I’m certainly not in control.
And by His grace I will trust and praise Him.
The depth of your faith in the promises and presence of God are revealed when God says “No.”
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”
Paul is currently the interim-senior pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Brevard, NC. He has served there since the spring of 2015. He served as a student pastor at Berean Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta from 1995-2005, and moved his family to Wisconsin where he served on the administration of Northland International University and Northland Camp until 2013. He then with Cross Impact before being called to Bethany as Associate Pastor.
Paul and Christie have been married for 31 years and have three grown children: Emily, Alex (and Maddie), and Jackson, and a grandson, Walker. In his spare time Paul enjoys playing golf, working in his yard, and grilling. He loves cheering for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Atlanta Braves, and the Green Bay Packers. He also loves basketball, and is currently the head varsity men’s coach at Brevard High School.