Any parent who has watched their child go through protracted suffering has experienced a particular kind of torment. This experience, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, changes one forever.
A few years ago our seven year old daughter was admitted to hospital with appendicitis. What we didn’t realise was that Emma’s appendix lay against her colon, and trauma from the first surgery would cause that organ to twist, causing her unbearable pain and the inability to digest food. After a number of days during which she lost an alarming amount of weight, the doctor said he had no option but to perform a second, exploratory surgery and hope they could resolve the problem this way. It is a deeply scary moment when you realise that the best surgeon available is worried about your child’s prognosis.
During one particularly long night, a few days after the second surgery and when we were still deeply concerned as Emma was growing weaker by the day, I found myself in the bathroom at 3am, head in my hands, crying out to God. (As one does.) The next day, Emma turned the corner. The crisis was over. A few days later, she was declared well enough to go home. It took three months for her to build up her strength sufficiently to go back to school.
My husband and I were enormously grateful to have our daughter back in the land of the living when we had come so close to losing her. We reveled in everyday family experiences – seeing our children playing together, riding their bicycles, sitting down to a family meal. It all seemed miraculous.
But this experience changed me in unexpected ways. During those long days and nights at Emma’s bedside, I knew that I was not the only parent in that hospital crying out to God for a miracle. And beyond that hospital, there were many others in my city, my country and all around the world, praying and hoping for a miracle. And not just in my time, but in ages past, stretching back hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Parents have sat by their children’s bedsides for millennia, helplessly watching them slip away. My great advantage was that the bathroom I was crying in during that long, dark night was located in a modern, well-resourced hospital, staffed with doctors and nurses who had trained in the scientific method for many years and were using all their knowledge and skill to bring my child back from the brink. Most mothers around the world, praying the same desperate prayer that fell from my lips, are not in so fortunate a position.
According to the World Health Organization, 5.6 million children under the age of 5 years died in 2016 (mostly from illnesses that could have been prevented by access to basic healthcare). This translates into 15 000 deaths per day, just in the under five age group. This also translates into a lot of desperate prayers by parents for their children. Prayers that went unanswered.
Christians would say many of these parents were praying to the wrong god. Studies show that geography and family background are the most significant predictors of religious belief, so according to this thinking, unfortunately these people were born in the wrong place and in the wrong family. (This alone is a thought that should keep more Christians awake at night.) This raises another thorny question: The Bible says that God determines where and when we are born, so if this is true, then he has a direct hand in making it more difficult for these people to believe in him.
In any event, if praying to the Christian God works, one would expect that Christians would enjoy significantly better health and certainly better infant mortality rates than non-Christians. After all, Jesus is quoted as saying: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21,22)
But this is not the case. Some of the most Christian societies on earth are also in the poorest parts of the world. Studies show us that the most religious societies on earth tend to be the poorest. As Guy P. Harrison observes in his book, 50 Questions for Every Christian:
“The poor tend to pray hard and pray often. Extreme poverty and religious belief seem matched in some weird joust between hope and despair.”
He goes on:
“If prayer works, then we should see the most religious societies on earth – the places with the most praying going on – as the most ‘blessed’, secure, and safest places to live … Is this the world we see? Not even close.”
I have observed this in my own country (South Africa), as well as in my travels to Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar and Ethiopia. These countries are deeply religious, filled with Christians who regularly pray through the night, fast often, read their Bibles every day. If anyone’s faith should be rewarded, it is theirs. However, too often their prayers fall on deaf ears, and it is their children who slip away from preventable diseases such as malaria and TB. It is very difficult to reconcile this reality with Jesus’s promise to answer the prayers of believers. Christians often explain this by saying that God does answer all prayers, but sometimes his answer is “No”. It seems that his answer is “No” more often than not, in poorer societies. Or Christians respond by saying, his thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his ways are higher than our ways. Who can know the mind of God? The creature cannot question the creator.
This leads me to ask the following: How can a believer claim to have a personal, intimate relationship with an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent Father God, the creator of heaven and earth, when this deity seems to turn his back so frequently, on those who need him most? When any compassionate human being with these powers would make it their priority to answer the most common and most desperate prayer of all, the mother’s prayer?
After Emma got better (“was healed”), I found it increasingly difficult to pray. For anything. Because a god who ignores the prayers of the most desperate, all those mothers watching their children slip away, has no business answering any others.
My conclusion is that economic factors play a far more significant role in the recovery of children from childhood illnesses, than the prayers of mothers to a deity. Far from proselytizing and urging more people to put their faith in a God who seems powerless to act in the face of childhood illnesses, we should be using our energy and resources to join hands in fighting against the injustices of our world, in which issues of life and death are too often determined by economics.