When to Pray for a Peaceful Death

by Francis MacNutt
Jan/Feb 2003

I write this a few days after our dear friend Tommy Tyson died. Even now we find it hard to believe. Tommy, in his 80's, had led a marvelously fruitful life as a Methodist evangelist. He was my closest friend, like the blood brother I never had. In recent years he had been suffering from an increasing num­ber of ailments, including cancer of the prostate and kidneys. We might easily have thought, "Perhaps now is the time to forget about praying for healing;-maybe we should let him go on, to be with the Lord." And yet we (including his three children), kept on pray­ing, trusting that Jesus might still heal him.

After all, Tommy had received at least three major healings through prayer. They dated all the way back to 1970 when Tommy and I (with Rev. Joe Petree) were giving a retreat to 70 missionaries in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the middle of the night Tommy woke up and called out, "Father Francis, I am dying!" We were far from medical help, in a re­treat center without electricity, so after a moment of shock, I lit a candle. Then we prayed until dawn when it appeared that Tommy had been healed.

So, encouraged by God's graciousness in the past, our hearts once more moved towards healing prayer.

Is there ever a right time to die? We know that there must be. Even those raised by Jesus from the dead­Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus - eventually died. When do we pray for healing and when do we let go of our dear friends and pray for a peaceful death? After many years of struggling with this question - as most of you do - let me share a few thoughts.

First, in a sense, there never is a right time. Death really is our enemy. "He [Jesus] won't let up until the last enemy is down — and the very last enemy is death!" (1 Corinthians 15:26, in the Message translation). Even Jesus wept when he came near the tomb where his dear friend Lazarus was bound up in a shroud. Seeing his tears the onlookers said, "See how Jesus loved him" (John 11 :35-36). It goes against everything human within us to say goodbye to a dear friend.

It is only our faith that makes death endurable, helping us believe that death really is a door leading to a new life and resurrection with Jesus forever. With him, in heaven, we hope to meet our dear friends once again, never more to part. But it is still so hard to see our loved ones die, to see them fade away, and then, finally, to leave this world.

Our minds tell us that now is perhaps the time to go, but our human hearts find it hard to let go. So how do we know whether or not we should go on praying for healing?

Since only God knows the answer to that ques­tion, the first thing we must do is to pray and ask God, "Should we go on praying for healing?"

This is a lot easier to talk about than to do. When we really love someone we simply don't want to say goodbye, and our heart's affections may cloud our prayer so that we can't hear clearly. The truth is, if God responds, "Now is the time," I may not want to hear it.

Yet, when it comes to the time to die, it is a mis­take for us to hang on. The dying or sick person may see our sorrow and try to hang on to life for our sakes. When Judith's mother was semi-conscious, struggling to stay alive, Judith had to tell her after ten days, "It's all right now for you to go," and within minutes her spirit left her body. When the time is right, it is very im­portant for the sick person to let go, and also for the relatives and friends to release the dying person into the hands of the Lord. Agnes Sanford believed that her husband was kept alive for years after he should have died, because some members of their church kept on pray­ing for his healing, long after it was time for him to go. In the last few years of his life, he was only a shadow of the person he had once been. According to Agnes their affection for him was very real, but mis­guided. They held on to him too long.

On the other hand, others have truly been inspired never to give up hope of healing, even at the moment of death. For example, I know a woman who had a brain tumor; the medical prognosis was that her con­dition was terminal. Many of us prayed for her and yet the inoperable tumor just kept growing. She kept getting worse and was finally hospitalized. One night the doctors told her family that she probably wouldn't last through the night.

But, amazingly, when the nurse stopped in her room at dawn, she found the "dying" patient sitting up in bed, loudly demanding breakfast (I saw her ten years later still in thriving health).

The lesson here is that our human intelligence - and the physician's prognosis-do not supply all the answers we seek. For an absolute answer we can only tum to God in prayer.

And here is my suggestion: if a clear answer isn't given, follow your heart and trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding you. But don't pretend to be sure that you have truly heard the Spirit when you are not certain but are just hoping.

Here I want to pass on a practical suggestion that a nurse once gave me. She said that when she isn't sure whether God wanted her to pray for healing or for a peaceful death, she simply admits that she doesn't know how best to pray. Then she asks Jesus to fill the sick person with his life and with his love. With this prayer you can't go wrong. You let Jesus decide whether his life moves in the direction of bringing physical healing or whether it prepares the person's spirit to meet the Lord.

And that is how I prayed for the last two weeks of Tommy's life after having prayed for his healing for the past 35 years.

By coincidence, the liturgical reading for Tommy's last day on earth included the beautiful section affirm­ing that God

will destroy death forever. The Lord
God will wipe away the tears
from all faces
(Isaiah 25:7b,8a).

I was going to phone and read that passage to Tommy when his son, Thomas Earl, called here to say that Tommy had passed on.

with Judith

Francis MacNutt Francis MacNutt is a Founding Director and Executive Committee member of CHM. Jan/Feb 2003 Issue