Christina Levasheff believed medicine would keep her son well. But when doctors offered no answer for Krabbe's Leukodystrophy, the genetic disease that was destroying her toddler's brain cells, she and her husband went to their knees.
"When we received the terminal diagnosis from the doctors," Levasheff recalled, "I remember driving back with my husband, who said, 'Doctors can't do anything, but we serve a powerful God; let's beseech him.'"
Praying when ill — or when a friend or family member is unwell — might be one of the most common of religious impulses. The three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam each encourage the practice. Approximately 60 percent of Muslims, 72 percent of Christians and 74 percent of Jews have prayed for "help with specific diseases," according to a 2004 Beliefnet/USNews survey. Some 37 states protect parents from criminal liability for choosing prayer over medicine in healing their children, and lawmakers in Idaho are debating a bill that would strengthen that religious exemption.
While some observers suggest the simple act of praying can be emotionally helpful, those believers expecting a definite, positive result — whether at a faith healer's revival or in the quiet of a hospital chapel — often have to confront their beliefs when a prayer seems to have failed.
For the Levasheffs and others interviewed for this story, the unanswered prayer offers lessons on how to relate to God. When seeking healing for their son, Levasheff said, their praying began "a very long process for me understanding what it means to pray in faith when truly there's nothing on earth that can be done."
The prayers, ultimately, did not result in healing for Judson, who died eight weeks before his third birthday. Levasheff recounted the prayer-filled struggle in her memoir, "Eyes That See."
Healing prayer common
Both Jews and Muslims have specific liturgical prayers that can be said when seeking healing, as does the Roman Catholic Church. The Book of Common Prayer, used chiefly in the Anglican and Episcopalian churches, has specific prayers for what it calls "Ministration to the Sick."
The practice has biblical roots, where the first recorded account of an answered prayer for healing is found in Genesis when Abraham prayed for Abimelek and his household. Eleven centuries later, David's prayer to save the son born of his illicit union with Bathsheba proved futile, as recorded in 2 Samuel. In the New Testament, Jesus' ministry was replete with accounts of healing prayers being answered, both by Jesus and his disciples.
Basing their claims on New Testament passages, there are groups within Pentecostal Christianity that teach faith in Jesus Christ assures believers whatever they desire, including healing. Though not representative of mainstream Protestant or evangelical faith, such belief is popular in North America and has been for decades. The late Oral Roberts, who gained national fame for his healing prayers, said it was the verse Mark 11:24, in which the faithful are promised "whatsoever ye desire" if they "believe that ye receive them," that raised him from a deathbed of tuberculosis in 1935.
One of today's leading proponents of such "word of faith" teaching is Creflo Dollar, who pastors the 30,000-member World Changers Church International in College Park, Georgia. Dollar said a Christian can expect healing in answer to prayer.
"Healing is part of the finished work of Jesus Christ, it was done 2,000 years ago, and we are believing that we have received," Dollar, who was mentored by Roberts, said. "That's where our faith comes in. Our faith is not to be used to try to get God to heal us, but to receive what God has already done."
Islam has liturgical prayers for the sick, which fall into a category known as "du'a" in Arabic, or "personal supplication," said Islamic scholar Salih Yucel, who studied the relationship between prayer and healing for his 2010 book, "Prayer and Healing in Islam." He said illness was often a particularly special time for prayer.
"In the Islamic tradition, if someone is ill, they are closer to God than anyone else," because they are focused on their condition and are not distracted by material concerns, he said.
Purpose of prayer
Bill Newcott wrote about prayer and healing for AARP the Magazine and experienced how the course of an illness can change the emphasis of prayers for healing. He lost his wife Cindy to ovarian cancer four years ago.
"In the beginning we would pray that she would get better," Newcott said. "Then we prayed for the wisdom of (her) doctors, and then for her to handle the treatments well. As the illness progressed, we prayed for different things, for strength and endurance."
Newcott said he continues to pray, despite losing the woman he called "my high school sweetheart," to whom he was married for 36 years.
"I know there are people who use tragedy in their lives to say, 'That's it, I'm not praying anymore,' and they're entitled to that, but there are those of us for whom life really is a journey," he said. Noting that aging changes a person's way of thinking about topics ranging from Social Security to health care and relationships, it's "natural," he said, "that you would think differently about prayer."
Thinking differently about prayer is something the Levasheffs also experienced. Christina and her husband, Drake, who holds a doctorate in early Christian history from the University of California at Los Angeles, considered themselves nondenominational Christians, but during the course of their son's illness, the two visited what for them were less-familiar prayer venues.
"We ended up taking Jud to some of these ministries that do pray for the sick. That stretched me; it was hard for me. It was culturally so different from anything that I had been a part of," she recalled. "At that point, at a point of desperation, where you are longing to do anything for your child, you do it. It's this desire in many ways, we did everything we could to put our son at the foot of Jesus."
When her son died, Christina said she was left with "a great woundedness," and "wrestled" over it with "prayers of lament and struggle." Ultimately, though, came acceptance.
"Prayer isn't about getting what you want," she said. "I know we approach it that way, but I think God was doing something in my heart as I was asking him to heal my son; he was drawing me into a deeper relationship with him. I sensed his presence and his love in a profound way while Judson was struggling; I was literally begging him, on my knees."
Accepting God's will is something Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist, sees as an important element of prayer. Her 2012 book, "When God Talks Back" discussed how American evangelicals "relate" to God, and while she doesn't take a position on the God's existence, she saw great value in prayer.
"I do think that prayer is talking to God, and it's a remarkable system to sort of self-soothe and focus on the positive and reorient yourself in the world," said Luhrmann, a Stanford University professor. Instead of viewing God as a celestial "Santa Claus," she said, focusing on one's relationship with deity is more useful.
"For the person who has a healthier way to use prayer is to experience it as giving you hope before the outcome arrives, but primarily being about the relationship," she said. "Prayer does give you a hope for a different ending."
Did her research on prayer change her practices? "I have a much richer sense of the possibilities of the world," Luhrmann replied. "I do."
Prayer and medicine
Unlike those who believe in a faith-only healing message, Dollar said medical care is not off limits.
"God's not against medicine," he explained. "Sometimes, God will speak to you about a certain visit to a doctor ... When we pray, we're praying to God but also listening for direction."
Dollar said that understanding led him to seek a High Intensity Focused Ultrasound treatment in Canada when the evangelist was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He said he was healed by the treatment.
"I believe in miracles, but we also walk in the blessings of God, every day God can lead us to do things where we live our lives better," he said.
Yucel said Islam teaches that those who are ill should seek medical aid as well as God's help.
"If (Muslims) don't seek treatment, that's contrary to Islamic tradition," he said. "Your body is a gift, and the human should be protective of that gift.
When medicine is abandoned for sole reliance on prayer and other "spiritual treatment" the law can get involved, resulting in criminal charges against parents or guardians. In February, Tennessee's state Supreme Court upheld the 2012 misdemeanor conviction of Jacqueline Crank, whose 15-year-old daughter had died from Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, 10 years earlier. Crank had rejected medical care in favor of faith healing prayer.
Idaho members of the Followers of Christ have buried 200 of their young children, and many of those deaths are related to the group's rejection of medical care in favor of faith healing, the Idaho Press-Statesman reported.
A bill that cleared the Idaho House last month said parents and legal guardians "have a fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, education and control of their children." Supporters of the bill maintain the language is meant to safeguard educational decisions, while several opponents, the Press-Statesman said, view it as a way to enhance protections for faith-healing.
In a 2013 report, the National District Attorneys Association said 37 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Guam, "have laws providing that parents or caretakers who fail to provide medical assistance to a child because of their religious beliefs are not criminally liable for harm to the child."
When God says 'no'
While word-faith believers put much stock in the New Testament passage James 5:16, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" — the answer to such requests can sometimes be "No." Dollar said he's not always able to say why some petitions are rejected.
"There are a lot of things I don't know about an individual, about their relationship with God, about their understanding," Dollar said. "And there are a whole lot of things I don't know about God. I won't presume to have an exact answer why some get healed and others don't."
Sorting out that uncertainty can have a profound impact on clergy as well as congregants.
Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, a Jewish cleric in New York City and a trained hospital chaplain, knows what it's like to receive a "no" in response to a prayer for someone who is ill.
Sirbu recalled a close friend, a woman with young children at home, had been diagnosed with cancer. Sirbu was persistent: "I prayed every day, from the time of her diagnosis to the day of her death, that she would be healed."
Yet, Sirbu's friend succumbed.
"It's hard," said Sirbu, who directs Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "You better believe I was angry at God, and had some choice words that I have sent in God's direction."
But like others seeking comfort, Sirbu kept praying, and the emphasis of her petitions changed.
"Now, I pray that her children will have the support they need. I pray her husband has the strength to keep going," she said. "I'm still praying, but my focus has shifted."
Yucel, an associate professor at at the Center for Islamic Studies and Civilization of Charles Sturt University in Sydney, Australia, said that in Islam, while God hears all prayers, not all petitioners receive what they ask.21 comments on this story
"Sometimes a person is asking for something from God, but it is not good for him," he said. "It is strongly believed, all prayers are answered. Either sooner or later, or in the hereafter."
A petitioner praying an Islamic du'a, or personal supplication, for healing needs to recognize God's central role in the process, Yucel said, to better accept the result.
"The body and everything in the universe, belongs to God," he said. "God wants to display his (ways) on human beings. If people do not get sick, they won't know who is the healer. If they don't get hungry, they won't know who is the provider."