“I found an email address for Philip through his publisher and wrote a long query asking him how a doctor who believes in God but also knows facts about certain diseases can honestly tell a terminal patient to have faith and believe and not give up. How can I pray for my patients when I already know how God is going to answer?”
Excerpt from I’ve Seen the End of You, by Dr. W. Lee Warren:
Samuel came through his surgery fine, and after three days he was ready to be discharged. He handled the news of his cancer with a squeeze of Christy’s hand, a single tear from his right eye, and a promise to eat, sleep, and get stronger before starting radiation in two weeks.
The day I sent him home, I stood at his bedside and went through his instructions, telling him what to watch out for and when he should call me.
When I finished, he looked up and opened his mouth but didn’t say anything.
“What is it?” I said.
He looked at Christy, who stood from the chair where she’d been sitting and moved to take his hand. “Tell me the story of one of your patients who beat this disease.”
I stared into his eyes for a little too long, and he knew. “Samuel, let’s just get you well from the surgery, and then we’ll take it one thing at a time.”
He squeezed Christy’s hand but didn’t say anything.
“It’s going to be okay,” Christy said.
Samuel cleared his throat. “Give it to me straight. How long do people live?”
“When we can remove the tumor, fifteen months or so is average.”
Fifteen months. You thought you’d see grandkids, beaches, Europe, your spouse’s hair silvering, but now you’re hoping to see her next birthday. Your life’s timeline, previously open ended, now extremely compact, finite. I see it in the eyes every time. I saw it in Samuel’s and Christy’s then: fifteen months.
“I’m going to give you a story to tell, Doc,” Samuel said.
“I’m praying for you,” I responded with a guilty conscience.
That night my wife Lisa told me I’d done well, that it was my job to tell the truth but also to pray that God would come through for Samuel. She knew she’d be meeting Samuel and Christy in the office in a couple of weeks, and as always she would get involved with them emotionally. Our practice was like that—Lisa related to the patients and got to know them. It was neurosurgery meets family medicine, and the patients loved it. We were not a distant, cold, superspecialized organization but more like a family. We believed that people did better if they knew we were on their side.
But it came home with us.
Lisa reminded me of a book we’d read together not long before, Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey. Yancey was like my faith guru. I’d been raised in a fundamentalist tradition that leaned heavily on rules and largely eschewed grace. When I was in my early thirties, my faith hit a wall, where the things I had been taught just didn’t seem to work anymore, and two of Yancey’s books saved me. What’s So Amazing About Grace? taught me a better way, and then The Jesus I Never Knew introduced me to Jesus as a savior instead of a cosmic assassin waiting to take me out whenever I went astray.
Lisa tenderly suggested that I email Philip Yancey and ask his take on this situation, my faith-versus-facts quandary.
I’ve learned over the years not to argue with her when she says something like that. She has a Nostradamus-like prescience that results in scary-good things happening when people listen to her insights. So I stifled my questions—How will I even find out how to reach him, and why would he bother to read an email from someone like me?—and started googling.
I found an email address for Philip through his publisher and wrote a long query asking him how a doctor who believes in God but also knows facts about certain diseases can honestly tell a terminal patient to have faith and believe and not give up. How can I pray for my patients when I already know how God is going to answer?
Isn’t that dishonest? Isn’t it mendacious?
I pressed Send and figured I would never hear back. But it felt good to at least write down the questions.
Excerpted from I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know. Copyright © 2020 by W. Lee Warren, M.D. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.