How Years of Chronic Pain Tested Her Faith

She prayed for healing from a lifetime of pain and tumors. Was she not faithful enough?

by
- Posted on May 24, 2019

ILLUSTRATION BY JESÚS SOTÉS

A 54-year-old woman with encephalitis goes into remission after touching the tombstone of Charlene Richard, known as the Little Cajun Saint, in Louisiana. An 11-year-old in central Texas with an inoperable brain tumor is prayed for by her community, and an MRI soon after shows the impossible: The tumor has disappeared. A 70-year-old blind woman gets spinal surgery after a fall—and wakes up with her vision inexplicably restored. I read stories like that and can’t help but ask myself, Why not me? Where’s my healing?

I was born with neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic disease that causes tumors to grow on the nerves throughout my body. Starting when I was age 15, the pain from the tumors became unbearable. It felt as if there were hot coals behind my eyes, on my face and inside my mouth. The masses temporarily paralyzed different nerves in my face, causing my eyes to droop and my cheeks to sag. Most tumors eventually had to be surgically removed. Some of the nerve damage was irreversible—to this day, I can’t move my left eyebrow or wink. As bad as the pain was, the fear of disfigurement was worse. As a young woman, I would stare into the mirror in utter misery. Who would ever ask me out on a date? What man would ever fall in love with me?

Around the time the tumors started causing me pain, we lived across the street from a woman named Mrs. Hatten. She said the Lord would heal me if I just prayed hard enough. She’d put her hand over my head and say some words. Nothing happened. Other neighbors would bring presents and tell me, “We’re praying that God will heal you. You know he can do that.”

As the years went by and I remained uncured, guilt started to creep in. Maybe there was something spiritually wrong with me. I’d always believed in God and felt strong in my faith. I went to church regularly and prayed fervently that God would cure me. But it wasn’t working, so maybe I didn’t believe enough. After all, a kid who’d had cancer visited our church and explained to the congregation how he’d been healed by prayer when the doctors said they couldn’t do anything. He was cured, just like the stories in the Bible—all those people healed by Jesus. Maybe that kid had the kind of strength in his faith that I lacked. 

I turned to Scripture for answers, and when I read in Psalm 139 about how God formed us, how he “knit me together in my mother’s womb,” I came to what seemed like the logical conclusion: God must have somehow wanted me to have this terrible thing. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t. Yet I never stopped believing. After all, some good had come from all those trips back and forth to the hospital, all those surgeries and all the doctors and nurses who treated me. I decided to become a nurse myself. I wanted to help other people who were suffering. I learned how to relieve their pain, even if mine persisted.

In church, when we sang the old hymn “I Love to Tell the Story,” I would think, Okay, maybe this is my story: Because of my disease, I feel compassion for others. I can better help people who are suffering because I can empathize and reach out to them.

Once, a nurse I worked with at the VA hospital in Huntington invited me to her church to hear a guest speaker, a man who had evidently healed hundreds of people. “We’ve been talking about healing in our Bible study,” she said. “I’m beginning to see that it’s a matter of faith.” As if that were news to me. Still, I was hopeful.

I went to the service and found a seat near the front of the sanctuary. Folks all around me were speaking out about the miraculous healings they had received, everything from relief from shortness of breath to the reversal of paralysis. A cleansing fire had filled their bodies. Some said they knew they were healed the moment they arrived. One guy walked forward and tossed his pack of Marlboros into a trash can, claiming he was freed of the urge to smoke cigarettes for the rest of his life. Just then the guest healer approached me and placed a hand on my head. “What brings you here, ma’am?”

“I have tumors inside my head. I’ve had them all my life. The pain is unbearable.”

“Do you have faith that God wants to heal you tonight?”

“I do,” I said, never surer of anything in my life. The healer asked God for “the healing virtue to be manifested,” then slapped my forehead and tilted me backward. “Thank you, Jesus,” I prayed over and over again. “I know you have the power to heal every tumor cell in my body, and I ask you to do that.” After a long while, I stood upright—as stiff as a statue—and knew from a place deep within me that nothing had really changed. My tumors were still there.

After that experience, I began to think maybe it was because I was a nurse and knew too much about the origins of diseases, all the science behind them, that I could never really have the simple, trusting faith of some of my patients. Like the man who had esophageal cancer. It was so bad that I knew he wouldn’t live past Christmas. He could hardly swallow as it was. Still I asked, “What do you want for Christmas?”

“All I want is to be able to eat a Baby Ruth candy bar,” he said. How could I tell him it would never happen? To my amazement, however, it actually did. Despite what the doctors said, despite what I knew, the patient got better and did eat that candy bar he longed for.

Then, in my fifties, I got another terrible diagnosis. Breast cancer. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise—it was in my genes. My mother had died of breast cancer. But getting it still hit me hard. My mind reeled as I thought of everything that likely lay ahead: treatment, chemo, radiation. When I told my friend Wanda, she immediately invited me to a healing service. But this time, I didn’t want to go. I was too angry. Why had God done this to me? Hadn’t I already suffered enough?

Wanda was insistent. She was convinced that God wanted to heal me of the cancer. Reluctantly, I went with her. At the church service, she prayed for me desperately and held me in her arms. This time something did happen. My chest filled with fire. I felt some sort of divine touch. The minister called from the pulpit, “There is a woman here tonight who is being healed from cancer in her breast.” I don’t know why this experience felt so different. I wasn’t praying any harder. If anything, I had just given up.

And yet, as tests later confirmed, I was indeed healed. I needed no treatment. The cancer was gone. I struggled to make sense of it. I asked my friend Jim, a minister, why would I be healed of one ailment and not another? Why would I be released from one disease and still suffer painfully from another? I mentioned all the biblical research I’d done—all of God’s miracles—at which point Jim reminded me of the apostle Paul. “Think of everything that Paul did. Think of how he spread the faith. And all the while he suffered from some terrible condition—a thorn in the flesh, as he called it,” Jim said. “Why hadn’t God healed him? We don’t know.”

I flashed back to a conversation I’d had with one of my longtime doctors. A man of great faith. “Look at your own life,” he’d said. “Look at what you’ve gone through.” Many times we’d prayed together in his office for healing, healing that never came. “But you were stronger in your faith when you were at your worst physically,” he said. “God was such a source of comfort to you. You used to echo the words of the hymnist who wrote, ‘It is well with my soul.’” I smiled at the thought, glad to have been reminded. During my darkest times, I did used to say that. It still rang true.

My condition remains today, but I’m relatively pain-free, thanks to countless surgeries and changes in my medication. How long will that respite last? It is a mystery. What will I do if the pain returns? I have no answer for that either. What I do know, undoubtedly, is the boundlessness of God’s love. I accept his will and his help, and he cares for me in every situation. He always has and always will. And with that knowledge, it is well with my soul.

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