When the Miracle Doesn’t Come

 

Mette Ivie Harrison is the nationally known author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series with Soho Press, and has also published three books with BCC Press (The Book of Laman, Vampires in the Temple, and The Book of Abish ). She is currently at work on a memoir about “Old Mette” and “New Mette” that chronicles the two deaths (her daughter’s and her own spiritual death) that led to the new life she lives and the new relationship she has with God. This essay was written in the midst of the change from one to the other.

While in graduate school, I knew two very devout women who had two very similar and yet very different experience with miracles. One was Primary President. The other was in the Relief Society Presidency. Their husbands were active. But the youngest son of one of the women, in the year before we moved into the ward, had been hit by a car right in front of his house. She performed CPR on him and he survived, but was never fully healed, despite the fasting and prayers of the ward.

The other woman was in a terrible car accident in a winter storm that nearly killed her youngest son. The ward fasted and prayed for her, and her son was healed. Of course the first woman rejoiced with the rest of the ward. And this time, the child recovered completely and fully. The doctors were amazed. The woman was grateful. She rejoiced. Her family rejoiced. The ward rejoiced. The woman whose son had not been healed rejoiced for her sister in the gospel.

But she also wept.

Why had she not been given the miracle and the other woman had? Had she not been worthy enough? Had the ward not prayed hard enough or fasted long enough? Had there been some lack of faith somewhere that could be blamed?

In the church sometimes we spend so much time focusing on the rare and wonderful miracles that happen that we forget to think about the many more who have prayed for miracles and have been refused them. In fact, I never thought about the first woman’s pain at seeing another child healed when her son was not, until I faced my own anger after my baby daughter Mercy’s death years later, in 2005. In the weeks and months that followed this tragedy, I went to church every week dutifully but I came home, every week, in anguish.

Why?

Because in church every week there was a story of a miracle. The miracle of the 2,000 stripling warriors, all saved from harm in war because of their mother’s faith. The miracles that Christ performed, water to wine, raising Lazarus from the dead, healing the blind, the deaf, the lepers. And miracles closer to home, the miracle of the woman who was prompted to check on her baby one last time before going to bed, found he was not breathing and called an ambulance to save his life. The story of the family who had pitched their tent near a tree, were inspired to move the tent before the tree fell in a night storm.

Along with these tales of miracles came the explanation of why each miracle happened. Because of the faith of the family who had received the miracle. Because of their righteousness. Because of the prayers and faith and fasting of those in their wards. Because of God’s love for them.

It seemed to me that these stories of miracles should have made me rejoice. But instead they made me wonder—did God not love me? Was I not worthy? Was there something wrong with my daughter?

How does it feel to a woman who loses her son fighting in Iraq, to hear the story of the 2,000 stripling warriors? To be told that those sons were saved because of their mothers’ faithfulness? How does it feel to the woman who wakes up and finds her child dead of SIDS to hear the story of the woman who listened to the spirit and saved her child? How did it feel to Emma Smith to hear of the miracles Joseph performed to save the lives of other women’s children, and to bury her own babies year after year? I imagine that it feels much the same as it felt to me to hear the stories of miracles that are given as testament of God’s love and approval to those who received them.

I spent hours scouring my past, searching for something I had done wrong. I know that my husband did the same thing.  Who is so perfect that they could not find a mistake they had made to blame for their tragedy? For my husband and me, the small and big mistakes made us wonder—was this what did it? Were we not patient enough that day at the amusement park with the kids? Did we not read our scriptures that one day in June? And on from there—did we misunderstand what we felt was the Lord’s prompting that we should have another child? Was my husband’s blessing to me the day before our baby died, a blessing where he said, “She will be fine,” wrong?

And if it was not our fault, then why did we not get our miracle?

The only answer I found was the story of Christ’s healing of the blind man in John chapter 9, verses 1-3. “As Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinner, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

I can just imagine Christ shaking his head over his apostles’ assumption that this man had been made blind because of some sin of his or his parents, before he was even born. The reason for the blindness was, simply, as Christ said, to show the power of God.

I imagine those thirty years, perhaps, before the man was healed. I imagine the man’s parents spending time looking through their lives, trying to find out what they had done wrong. Just as my husband and I had. I imagine the man himself being angry at God for making him blind for no reason at all, just out of what seemed spite or lack of love. All those years waiting for the miracle that would come.

I am afraid that I believed too long in a God who asks that we earn our miracles, that we earn His love. If we pray enough. If we fast enough. If we go to the temple enough. If we rack up enough good deeds in our name. Then we will be granted our miracle. As though we are playing a video game, earning points for a new life or some other bonus. As though we are trying to get the top score, so that God will love us best and only give us good things in our lives, and no tragedies.

But our God is not a God whose love can be bought or demanded or even deserved. Because His love is too great for any of us. And the wonderful thing is that our God gives his love freely, to all. He loves us all immeasurably.

So why does God give one family a miracle and not another? I think we cannot know the answer to this. I remember some people told me that the experience of losing a child had been given to my family to make us stronger. That there was a lesson to be learned in it. That it would bring us closer together as a family. I do not believe this is true. This is just another invitation to make yourself crazy trying to learn the lesson, to make yourself perfect, to protect yourself from any other bad things that may happen.

A tragedy may be a chance for repentance. It may be an opportunity to see what is important in life, to reevaluate where you are and where you wish to go. But every moment in our lives is a chance like this. God is always holding his arms outstretched to us, ready to accept our repentance, ready to help us our on way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 7 verses 9-11, Christ says, “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”

If you, like me, have asked for a miracle and it has been denied you, please trust that this is not because God is trying to give you a stone. But what he has given us may not seem awfully hard and stone-like to us. Someday we may be able to see the truth of its breadness, but our mortal minds are just too small to understand it now.  

So what do we do in the meantime?

The blind man waited for thirty years before he was healed by Christ. Many of the rest of us will have to wait more than thirty years before we are healed. We will live all our lives with the wounds in our hearts. Some days may be better than others. But we will always be waiting for relief.

I believe that the rare and wonderful miracles that God gives are a reminder of the miracles of the heart that Christ promises. Whatever the resurrection brings, whatever it means to be healed of hurts and pains, to become perfect, I tend to focus more on the here and now, and on how we can find healing through Christ’s example.

God came to earth to show us a path to peace and healing, whatever that may mean for you. He showed us reconciliation and true forgiveness. He demonstrated what it means to make our enemies into friends and to build a heaven on earth with them. He showed us how to become new again, to let our old selves die and be reborn.

Comments

  1. Olde Skool says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and moving perspective, and for sharing your story of loss. I’m not sure that the breadiness of some challenges will ever be satisfactorily revealed–but on that topic I appreciate Francine Bennion’s contribution to _At the Pulpit_, the collection in the volume of women’s sermons that the Church Historian’s Press released a couple of years ago. It may offer the most persuasive argument I’ve read about the questions you’ve raised here.

    (https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/at-the-pulpit/part-4/chapter-43?lang=eng)

  2. Latam girl says:

    This is such an important thing to remember. A few weeks ago during one of these SS lessons I raised the point that there is a reason these stories were included in the Bible and survived so many transcriptions, translations, and other edits that the Bible endured…it’s likely because they were SO RARE. These are the stories that the authors considered worthy to include. We don’t hear the thousands of stories of faithful people praying for something similar to happen in their lives and yet didn’t get the desired wish of their hearts.

  3. Gina Holder says:

    Thank you Olde School. I read that talk years ago but forgot it’s power.

  4. The idea of our suffering being linked to the works of God being made manifest reminds me of Annie Dillard’s “Holy the Firm.” Such a beautiful book on this topic of human suffering.

  5. And thank you for this beautiful and quite personal post. I needed it.

  6. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I don’t know the answer as to why some miracles are granted and others are not. I have three memorable experiences. The first was with my mother who was a woman of great faith and humility and as good and compassionate a person that I have ever know. She was stricken with a form of fast growing cancer when she was 57 and died while under my care, despite all the blessing she received and all of the prayers that ascended on her behalf.

    Then there was the case of my first wife who became pregnant but was suffering from an immune system disorder. Her doctor said that the odds that she would carry the baby to term were slim and that her own life would be in grave danger and advised an abortion. We prayed about it and conferred with our branch president, our stake president, and the first presidency who told us that it would not be a sin to abort the fetus. My wife loved children dearly and could not bear the thought of aborting the child. She never called it a fetus. It was already a child to her. She prayed fervently to the Lord, not for an answer, but to have the decision removed from her. After two positive pregnancy tests, the third came back negative. She was no longer pregnant. The decision was taken from her.

    The third story was with this sane wife not too much later, maybe a year and a half. She got blood poisoning from an ingrown toenail and despite a blessing and fervent prayers on her behalf she died in just a couple of weeks at the age of 36.

    I do not know the why of any of this. All I can understand is from the Doctrine and Covenants which tells us that some are “appointed unto death” and will not be healed even with faith, blessings, and prayers. So I have to accept that. I could choose not to accept it and rail against the Lord for being so arbitrary, but it would avail me nought. I have tried to give up neurotic thoughts and behaviour and hopefully am succeeding.

    Now, later in life I was diagnosed with a slow growing type of cancer which can be treated but not cured. A friend of mine from work has already died from the same disease, but I am in remission. How long I will remain in remission is unknowable. And I do not care. I am not brave. I am not fatalistic. I just have gained enough faith to not be afraid.
    Glenn

  7. Reinhard says:

    “Ecclesiastes 9:11 (KJV) I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” That’s the nature of mortality. Doesn’t make it any easier when the storm falls on us, even when we know it. The miracle is to be able to endure it with as much faith, honor, kindness and gratitude one can muster.

  8. mattchrispete says:

    Thank you for writing your experience and thoughts. Reading sincere words like yours helps me to see my own experience better and reshape my belief in who God is.

  9. arganoil says:

    I know it is a heart-sinking thing to imagine, but maybe things in this life happen more randomly then we really think. Not everything is destiny.

  10. I think it’s pretty obvious we’ve misunderstood the whole healing miracle thing. If God were in the business of bestowing supernatural healings as a result of priesthood blessings, prayers, etc, it would be VERY obvious in epidemiological statistics from Utah. Either he’s doing it equally for everyone everywhere regardless of righteousness or religion, or he isn’t doing it at all. I tend to take the latter view. Please don’t take this comment wrong—I have a firm testimony of the church and the power of God. I just think God knew what he was doing when he set up the world we live in and the rules that govern it. I’ve held more than one of my own dead babies in my arms, so no, I don’t think much of people’s “miraculous” recoveries from cancer or the common cold. Sometimes people just get better because bodies are miraculous already, and sometimes you just find your keys. Honestly, I find the key-finding “miracles more plausible, since would depend on communication with God, which is definitely a thing, rather than supernatural intervention in the laws of nature. None of this means we shouldn’t rejoice and praise God for all good things that happen to anyone. He is the author of our existence and all goodness, even if he isn’t Gandalf Claus.

  11. Thank you for this. Variations of the phrase “qualify for blessings” appeared multiple times in general conference. I alternated between questioning what I was missing in obedience, and frustration with the over-emphasis on works. Life isn’t fair. It was nice to read a post this week reminding me that it isn’t due to God watching in heaven with a checklist, shaking his head.

  12. Nobody of Note says:

    Transactional, or Vending Machine, God has never made sense to me.

  13. Old Skool, thank you so much for that link. That’s the best talk I’ve ever read on the subject, and the OP prepped me well to be receptive to it.

  14. Than you for this, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot: tomorrow marks three years since my brother was hit by a car and killed while on his mission. It’s still hard for me to listen to stories about people getting miracles in their lives and attributing it to being faithful when my family didn’t get “our miracle.” I remember one particularly difficult time when I was upset and angry about a story I’d read about someone miraculously recovering from an illness after getting a priesthood blessing since I knew that my brother’s mission companion gave him a blessing as he lay on the ground before the ambulance got to him, but he wasn’t healed. As I was praying/accusing God, I had the question come to me, “is one enough?” And I reflected on the fact that my family and I are offered the one miracle of eternal life, along with every other person the world has known. Initially it seemed unfair that I had to be happy with a miracle everyone is offered when some people get “extra” ones, but I decided that miracle could be enough for me. It isn’t all I wanted, and I still really struggle with stories about faith and miracles, but I am beginning to see that God’s grace can be enough.

  15. Perma Banned says:

    Very well put. I can personally relate to this. Without going into too many details. Over time my many prayers started decreasing in ambition. They started at praying my child would be made whole, to everything in between, to finally something along the lines that God’s glory be manifest in its own way through my child, but your words helped crystallize the process I have been through.

  16. This post is really great. And the comments too.

  17. Thank you for this beautiful post. It spoke to my heart.

  18. Thank you Sarah and Glenn, for your personal perspectives on the matters of faith, miracles, and the goodness of God in the midst of your own experiences with grief and loss. I feel that since I will not experience ALL that mortality has to offer in the way of pain and suffering, others experiences help round out my own thoughts, fill in gaps, and do point me to Christ. I thank you all, and I’m sorry for your loss. May you continue to be carried and access the eternal love of Our Redeemer and Savior.

  19. Bob Powelson says:

    I am old enough to have seen a few miracles. Here are about three instances.

    1. My wife in particular wanted a good size family. We had a daughter just about exactly a year after we married. In due course my wife became pregnant again. She was having trouble with the pregnancy, and a blessing was give. I said that she would have a healthy child, that it would be a boy, an she would have little trouble.

    The blessing was give in late October, in late November she miscarried. Our reaction was that I had misread the spirit. Between Christmas an new years we talked about adopting, the day after the New Years holiday we made application for adoption in Alberta, where we lived (government agency). We were approved on the 21st of January (a very short time), and on the 29th of April we were told to come and pick him up. A healthy BOY. That day was what would have been the 40th week od her pregnancy.

    Coincidence? I don’t think so.

    2. Near the end of my mission my companion and I visited a woman who was in complete kidney failure. She was unconscious. I asked her non member husband if we could give her a blessing. He agreed and she was given that blessing. Her kidneys started functioning that night. From what I learned later she left the hospital two days later. And a couple of months later became Ward Relief Society President.

    3. A young boy fell off a high porch and got a large split on his forehead. He was blessed and healed. The split closed as he was being blessed and there was no scar.

  20. Bob Powelson says:

    In my small branch, there was a foster child girl who had the worst fetal alcohol syndrome I have ever encountered. She had lost most of her speech, the full use of her limbs, was fed through and tube in the later stages.

    She was also a gentle, loving child of God. Our wise branch president gave her an official calling. She was the greeter. She didn’t show anyone to their seats or shake hands. She gave hugs and smile. She is still alive but now in a place where she can get full time care.

    I am going to look her up in paradise (at my age, I may beat her there). I want another hug.

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