Prayer, Physicians and the Great Physician

Sixteen year old Neil Beagley died from complications of a urinary tract blockage, a condition easily treatable and rarely fatal, and his parents, Jeffrey and Marci Beagley, have been charged with criminally-negligent homicide. The family belongs to a religious sect (as in cult?) called “Followers of Christ Church” which believes in the power of prayer and rejects all medical treatment. When Neil got sick, he refused to go to a doctor and the family and their church simply prayed. The toxins that gradually built up in his body caused kidney and heart failure, and Neil eventually died. The state of Oregon believe that Beagley's are responsible for Neil's death.

There are a lot issues surrounding this case. Though a minor, isn't 16 old enough for Neil to have made a somewhat informed decision on his medical issues? If he had killed his parents, there is a good chance that the same authorities would have tried him as an adult. Family members told police that Neil chose not to see a doctor and his parents backed up his decision. The legal questions have not been thoroughly determined; Neil died in June of 2008 and his parents were only recently charged. It is taking some time for the authorities to decide how to respond to this difficult case.

What about people who believe so strongly in prayer that they see all human effort and work as a lack of faith? If we really believe that God answers prayer and heals His people, then what purpose would there be in going to a doctor? Wouldn’t that show a lack of faith? Don’t we expect God to act?

In scripture, there is always a relationship between faith and works. James says that faith without works is dead (Jam 2:26). Trusting God to act should lead us act as if we trust him. The apostles prayed for God to give them boldness to preach-- then they went out to preach (Acts 4:31). Nehemiah prayed that God would soft the heart of the king so that he could help Israel-- then he went and spoke to the king (Neh 1:5-10, 2:4-5). To pray for something with folded hands while refusing to act is not faith in prayer; it is presumption. I’m reminded of the old joke of the guy praying for God to save him from a flood while refusing aid from a truck, boat and helicopter. After he drowned, he asked God why he didn’t answer his prayer. God replied, “I sent you a truck, boat and helicopter… you gotta work with me here.” God provided the Beagley’s with a medical system; they needed to pray and then get to a doctor.

But then frankly, the problem that most of us face is not relying on prayer TOO MUCH. For too many of us, prayer is either a formality we go through because we know we should or a last ditch effort after all effort fails. We pray for God “to work through the hands of the doctor” to heal the sick as if working through modern medicine were the ONLY and BEST means God has to heal people today. We pray to God but, if we are honest with ourselves, maybe we have more faith in man. This seems to me to be the opposite problem from the one illustrated in the Beagley case.

Maybe the Biblical view is somewhere between the two extremes. Or maybe rather the Biblical view is at BOTH extremes. I remember an old saw from when I was a kid, “Pray like everything depends on God; work like everything depends on you.” Maybe we should spend more time, like Nehemiah, praying and waiting on God before we act. But acting certainly doesn't devalue prayer; neither does prayer devalue action. Faith and works co-exist quite nicely together; in fact, they must.