Paul Prather: Your faith will be tested, by illness or something else


Few trials batter our faith harder than those wrought by serious illnesses.

The damage to our souls can be worse than the damage to our bodies, if we happen to believe in a supernaturally powerful, intimately involved God who could heal us but often doesn't.

When Ebola swept Liberia last year, members of the United God Is Our Light Church, a Pentecostal congregation in the nation's capital, Monrovia, faced this dilemma.

Pentecostals are Christians who say the divine "gifts" of the Holy Spirit that were first manifested on the Day of Pentecost among the first-century church — gifts such as healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues — still occur today.

My own congregation is Pentecostal. When we're sick, we seek medical treatment. At my age, battling chronic irritations such as diabetes and hypertension, I sometimes feel as if I spend more time in doctors' offices than I do in my own den.

But we also ask our fellow churchgoers to anoint us with holy oil, lay hands on us and pray.

That's similar to what happened at United God Is Our Light Church during last year's Ebola epidemic, as reported in the May 9 online edition of the New York Times by staff writer Norimitsu Onishi.

Last June, a sick woman was brought to the church for prayer.

"After hands were laid on her — and then on those who got infected after touching her — the disease tore through the church, killing eight members, or about a tenth of the congregation," Onishi wrote.

The result was as spiritually catastrophic to the survivors as it was deadly to its victims.

"Some survivors blamed the church leaders; others accused the person who had invited the sick visitor," Onishi wrote. "The church was placed under quarantine, closed for services during the greatest period of anguish and loss. Members scattered as Ebola raged through their city and shook their faith."

Liberia now is free of Ebola.

But United God Is Our Light Church is struggling to coax back former members.

"Ebola brought problems in churches; it brought problems in relationships," Philip Moseray, the assistant pastor, told the few who assembled at a recent service. "But God is in control, and we're not giving up. We are trying to rebuild. We are trying to overcome."

Such tragedies played out in churches across West Africa. As many as 40 pastors died in Monrovia after ministering to infected parishioners.

Some ministers who died had believed that because they were filled with the Holy Spirit, Ebola couldn't harm them.

If you're a Christian, even if you're not a Pentecostal, there's a common thread here. Certainly, not everyone will encounter an Ebola epidemic.

But walk with the Lord long enough, and sooner or later, a devastating event will shake your faith and poison your doctrines. Maybe it won't be a cataclysmic illness. Maybe it will be a divorce. A bankruptcy. Or a plane crash that takes a loved one.

You'll be scared, crushed and enraged.

"How can God be all-good and all-powerful, yet allow such horrible things to happen?" you'll cry.

It's an ancient conundrum. I wouldn't presume to offer a definitive answer. But I do have some observations:

First, faith isn't static. For as long as we have a relationship with the divine, be it five months or five decades, our faith will change. It strengthens. It questions. It fades. It returns matured, wiser. It questions again.

What our faith looks like today isn't what it will look like tomorrow. It's normal to lose faith for a while.

Second, suffering is universal. No one is immune. Sooner or later, we will suffer. Faith doesn't immunize us from tribulations.

Third, half of everything we believe to be absolutely true is probably wrong. Part of any spiritual journey is facing up to our errors of judgment and re-evaluating. It's painful, but it's also beneficial.

Fourth, eventually we must bow to the fact that we'll never, in this world, understand everything. We must surrender.

Either the heavens are void and there is no God, or else God is arbitrary and kills us for sport (to paraphrase Shakespeare), or else God really is all-powerful and all-good, but sees a far bigger picture than we do and is working a broader, better, longer-term plan. If we choose the last option, we have to admit we don't know what the plan is.

Fifth, sometimes God works miracles; sometimes he doesn't. We can't make miracles happen whenever we want them, or they wouldn't be miracles.

Sixth, many Christians who get hurt and run away will come back. Whether it's innate gullibility, as the skeptics say, or, as I prefer to think, it's the Spirit living with us who holds us fast, those inclined toward God usually can't stay away from him.

Finally, whatever happens to us in this world is temporary. Everything here is ephemeral — youth, love, longing, wealth, illness, pain. It all passes away. We who commit ourselves to God are staking our hope on an eternal, everlasting outcome, not on the good or awful circumstances of the moment.