Have you heard a patient or a family member ask, "Where is God?" "Where is God when I need Him most?" "Why doesn't He answer my prayers?" "Why is He so silent?" Perhaps you have asked that question yourself only to hear the same response -- silence.
Like many of you, I have heard all of these questions at one time or another over my years of nursing. I ask myself, "What is prompting the patient to pray such that a lack of response from God becomes a deafening silence?" In other words, what is at the core of both the prayer and the reaction to God's perceived silence?
The prayers of many late-stage lung cancer patients are ones for physical healing. When healing doesn't happen and/or progression occurs, the questions begin, and for many, God is neither listening nor talking. This silence, even for some who have a strong faith, can be devastating. Some patients begin to doubt their faith and their God. God is viewed as ambiguous or uncaring.
I remember a very young patient who fought a long battle with her lung cancer. She and her fiancée decided to get married while she was in the hospital because she didn't know if or when she would be discharged. One afternoon when her mother was visiting, we were both sitting by her daughter's side talking when I noticed the shift in her breathing. The patient had been barely arousable for a couple of days and I knew that she was going to die any day. I had the mother come to the head of the bed to be closer to her daughter. The patient died five minutes later. The mother sobbed, shoved the IV poles away, grabbed the lapels of my jacket, and cried in a very loud voice, "Why? Why did God let this happen? She is so young. Why did He let this happen?" Believe it or not, she repeated this act of anguish to me at the funeral. My response was the same as at the hospital -- I held her close and let her cry and question.
The patient's mother had spent months and months praying for the healing of her daughter accompanied by times of strong faith as well as doubts. Now more than ever, God seemed silent and completely gone from the picture. If her daughter was gone and God was nowhere to be found, who was left?
For some of us who have been nurses for a long time and/or who have a strong faith, knowing how to respond in a situation like this comes as second nature. But if we are honest, it wasn't always second nature. As we grew professionally and spiritually, so did our ability to respond appropriately and effectively. Is there one right response? No. Is there one overarching attitude? Yes -- loving compassion. It is an attitude or personal ambiance that projects welcoming arms and emits a deep sense of emotional safety that draws those who are hurting to drink at the well of compassion.
When patients share doubts about their faith or God, I listen. It is not the time to correct their feelings or theology or to share my own thoughts. After they have talked for awhile, I will ask them a question within the context of what they have shared. For example, "You mentioned that for you, having feelings of doubt about God feels like a lack of faith and that you shouldn't ask 'Why?' Can you help me to better understand what that means to you?" Then in the course of conversation, and being sensitive to where they are emotionally, I will normalize (without minimizing) their feelings of doubt and asking why.
Using their language, helping them to see that doubt isn't the same as lacking in faith. Rather, doubt prompts us to ask questions, which then provide an opportunity for dialogue. It truly seeks an answer until one is found or until the person is satisfied.
Faithless doubt is just the opposite. It asks the questions without ever intending to seek or listen for answers. Faith really isn't about certainty, because that would make faith worthless and unnecessary. If you feel comfortable giving them a scripture, Hebrews 11:1 states, "Now faith is the substance (realization) of things hoped for, the evidence (confidence) of things not seen."
Here are some practical points that may help the patient and/or their family members:
- Help the patient to understand that feelings are a part of who we are as human beings and that living with them in a healthy way is what is important.
- It is okay to question God and to ask Him questions.
- Doubt that prompts us toward truly seeking an answer does not equal faithlessness. Faithless doubt doesn't care about an answer.
- Provide scripture when and if appropriate.
- Provide chaplaincy referral if appropriate.
- Pray with the patient if they would like and you feel comfortable doing so.
- Listen with both your eyes and your ears.