Religious Belief and the Incurable Disease

Religious Belief and the Incurable Disease December 11, 2014

[Today’s guest post is written by Pete Eisenmann, a former Vineyard church planter from South Carolina.]

I’m not sure when I actually made the choice. I’m sure that it was early on in my relationship with my wife, but I didn’t want anyone to pray for my wife’s health any longer, at least not in her presence. If you wanted to pray for her, pray at home, across the room, anywhere but in her presence. It was too heartbreaking.

In her earshot you could pray for peace, travel mercies (whatever the hell they are), wisdom, strength, greater love for god, whatever, BUT you were not going to come close enough for her to hear you pray for her health.  It was too heartbreaking.

My wife, who is one of the bravest and most amazing people that I know, has Cystic Fibrosis (CF), an incurable genetic disorder that affects lungs, pancreas, and other organs. Characterized by chronic lung infections, digestive issues, frequent hospitalizations and ultimately, if you are able, a double lung transplant to extend life past the average age expectancy of 41 (my wife is 43 at this writing), CF is a killer.  For a person with CF, every cell of one’s body cannot properly rid itself of mucus (sodium chloride transfer issue), which builds up in various organs and ultimately causes death. Bottom line:  My wife is dying of this disease and I’m pretty pissed off and anguished about this. It’s heartbreaking.

As a former pastor of a charismatic Southern Baptist church and church planter in the Vineyard Movement I was very aware of the claims and practice of praying for healing. I prayed for people to be healed and I encouraged others to do the same. I even attended and led workshops to teach people how to “minister to others.” I “believed” in healing prayer, just not enough for me to watch my wife experience more disappointment from well-meaning people. It was too heartbreaking.

Her parents were involved in the Charismatic Episcopal Movement, and long before my wife and I met  they had been praying for her healing, as had countless hundreds of others. In fact, they even took her to The PTL Club and had Jim Bakker lay his hands on her for healing. You can imagine how desperate her parents were to save the life of their only daughter. Again, heartbreaking.

Since my de-conversion I have reflected some on this issue, here are some thoughts that I have gathered:

  1. Most religious people cared for my wife and praying for her healing was one way to show this concern. Praying is one way that you show your concern to others in that community context. So was bringing food when you are sick, or picking up your kids from school, or cutting your grass. These people hated CF too but this was their way of connecting with her in her fight to live, and it helped them know that they had done what that community said was the right thing to do – offer prayers.
  2. Most religious people do not want others to suffer – not starving children, not tsunami victims, not war ravaged populations, not people with AIDS, not those who are homeless, not people with CF. The amount of suffering in the world is just overwhelming to most people – I know it is for me.
  3. Most religious people who act in these ways do not connect the dots when their prayers are not answered. They simply keep on caring and praying, and hoping something changes. This surely doesn’t make them bad people, just unable to face the awful reality that nothing can really be done for others through incantations and magical thinking. But there is definite action taking place – steps, real activity that makes a difference – food, cards, calls, texts, Facebook posts, flowers, grass cutting, meal making, etc. People really do care even when prayers aren’t answered.
  4. Some religious people say really hurtful and stupid things when others are suffering. Those of us from church/religious backgrounds know all too well what these are. Some of us have even said these very things. But the thoughtless and harmful statements do not ONLY come from religious people, just the religious dumb/thoughtless/stupid things. The non-religious also say dumb/thoughtless/stupid non-religious things.  Typically, though, the religious people, especially the ones that I ran close to, would say “magical thinking” and “incantation talk” like: “Believe god for your miracle”; “I’m praying for new lungs for you”; “we rebuke that infection” and REALLY stupid sh*t like that. Non-religious people tend to stay away from those types of statements, except the ones that are natural medicine, homeopathic, alternative treatment types, and then it can be just as bad: “Here drink this tea (sleep next to this crystal, rub this oil on your temples, wear this necklace), it will make your lungs better.” Those who say these things should be corrected, or asked: “Who would say such a thing to someone!”  Or more my style: “You just missed a wonderful opportunity to keep your f***ing mouth shut.”
  5. Most religious people don’t pay attention to what the Bible states, which is that when you pray “the sick WILL be healed.. They just don’t. Other posts have covered this disassociation with actual results and reality and obvious theological/semantic gymnastics so I won’t take the time or space here. This doesn’t make them bad people.
  6. I for one prayed, and prayed hard—hours and hours—over days and days, months, years. Begged with god. Offered my life in exchange for my wife’s. Wept. Screamed. Paced. Rebuked the devil. ANYTHING that I thought would/might/could work to see her suffering alleviated. There isn’t one person in this world that wants to believe in prayer more than those who have loved ones that are dying in front of their eyes. That, too, is heartbreaking.

In my present understanding as an ethical humanist and an atheist, I still acknowledge when people say that they are praying. Most times it means they care. Those who say they are praying in a casual way (“Tell your wife that I am praying for her”) I treat like a “hello” on the street. It’s a social nicety, especially in our area of the country – the Deep South.  I have decided that I will not use that opportunity to debate the theology and absurdity of the issue of prayer. But I want to.

I still want to issue a challenge to them:  I want to point out that thousands of others have prayed for the same thing for my wife, people with way more investment than they have – medical team members, friends, step-children, parents, a husband, and other people with CF – and she is still sick and dying.

I want to tell them that all of their prayers are STUPID and USELESS and that I would rather them throw rocks at my wife or pour water on her head because there will be more of a measurable result than their praying – a bruise or being soaking wet.

I want them to sit on the couch with me and listen to my wife struggle for breath and watch her body wrack with coughing spasms in its attempt to expel the mucus that she is fighting a losing battle with and ask them to lay hands on her and make her well. Get your god to step up here, because he isn’t doing sh*t so far.

But I do not. It serves no purpose for me or my wife, or for that matter the people who pray. Whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druid, Rastafarian, Hindu, or whomever, they are simply saying in their vernacular “I am thinking about your wife.” I realize that there IS a different dynamic when people say that they are talking to an invisible being that is supposed to make her better. It is NOT the exact same as saying, “I’m thinking about your wife,” but in the end they care.

Look, I get the debating. I get the philosophical discussions. I get the necessary and even interesting discourse with religious people. I do not believe in God, I do not believe in supernatural anything. I do not believe in invisible beings, and I do not believe that prayer heals people. There is a time and place for the confrontation of ideological beliefs that have no evidence. I like that interaction. I have participated in these debates and will continue to do so. It is part of how I am wired.

BUT I will not take away from others a way in which they express their concern just because what they believe is not true. I take issue with their belief, not with their heartfelt concern and desire for everything to be OK with my wife, and to let her know that she is on their minds. To crush that expression, in that moment, would be harsh and cruel. And that would be heartbreaking, too. And I for one think that there is enough heartbreak already.


petePete Eisenmann was converted in his early twenties, went to Bible College and was in Christian ministry for over 20 years as a lay leader, elder, youth pastor, senior pastor and church planter before de-converting. Pete lives in the Deep South with his wife and two “failed” foster dogs. His passion is to encourage others to live with passion and congruity since this life, and each other, is all that we have.

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