The Power of Prayer, & Its Limits

Published by DonDavidson on

On November 6, 2016, Ella Grace Foster, the two-year-old daughter of Jonathan and Grace Foster, of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, developed symptoms of a common cold. But she became progressively worse, soon developing breathing problems. Jonathan and Grace were members of Faith Tabernacle Church, a fundamentalist Christian church that believes in faith healing. The members of that church take James 5:14-15 quite literally:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

So instead of taking little Ella to a doctor or a hospital, Jonathan and Grace called the elders of the church and prayed over their daughter. She died in her father’s arms, from pneumonia, on November 8, 2016.

From 2008 to 2017, four children born to members of the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, Oregon died because of their parents’ refusal to seek medical care for treatable conditions. Medical experts estimate that at least 21 of 78 children buried in the church cemetery from 1995 to 1998 died from treatable medical conditions for which no medical care was sought.

I am the last person to deny the power of prayer. My son, Stephen, was born with severe meconium aspiration. In laymen’s terms, that means that he had a bowel movement in the womb—which, I’m told, is not that unusual—and then inhaled some of that contaminated amniotic fluid.

The result was catastrophic, because the meconium (fecal matter) he inhaled is quite toxic, and very difficult to remove. Three pediatricians worked on him immediately after he was born, and he was quickly moved to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where he was placed on a ventilator and given round-the-clock nursing care.

The doctor told us at the time that Stephen had only a 50% chance of survival, and that if he lived he would be in the hospital for weeks, if not months.

Needless to say, Marsha and I prayed for him, as did our church family, as well as Marsha’s parents and their church, and who knows who else. A few days later, a miracle happened. Stephen’s lungs miraculously cleared overnight.

Here is how Marsha described it in a letter she wrote to Stephen one week after he was born (for context, he was born on a Tuesday night):

The doctor showed us your x-rays. They took one of your lungs each morning. Healthy lungs show up very dark on an x-ray. Your x-rays from Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings were all very light, filled with little white specks. The doctor said that was the meconium in the lungs. Saturday’s x-ray, though, was very dark, with few or no white specks. The doctor said your recovery was “remarkable.” He couldn’t explain what happened, why they had healed overnight. When we attributed your healing to God and all the prayers that were being lifted in your behalf, he agreed with us. You are our miracle baby.

So far be it from me to deny that God still does miracles. I witnessed one.

On the other hand, He doesn’t do miracles on demand. He is not our servant. Nor is He a vending machine.

When we pray, we are like little children asking our parent for a cookie. Sometimes He is happy to grant our request. But sometimes He has to say “no”—either because it is not in our best interest, or because He has something else in mind.

If you need proof, you need look no further than Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39) We all know how that turned out.

Don’t you know that God wanted to grant Jesus’s request? Don’t you know that He would have spared Jesus—and Himself—that terrible suffering if He could have?

If we want to follow God, we must, like Jesus, surrender to His will. We must accept that God is God, and we are not. And that means God is in control, and we are not.

James was not saying that if you pray over a sick person and anoint them with oil, God has to heal them. James understood that God is in control, and that we must submit to His will, not the other way around, for in James 4:13-15 we read this:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. For you are just a vapor that appears for a little while, and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”

When I pray, I expect God to listen and to grant my prayer if doing so is consistent with His will. And if He doesn’t grant my request, then I accept His will, just as Jesus did.

The power of prayer is that we can call upon our divine parent, the Master of the Universe, through whom all things are possible.

The limits of prayer are that God is in control, not us, and therefore all we can do is ask—and then submit to His will.


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