How to Pray for Someone with a Terminal Illness

J. Todd Billings offers the following suggestions for praying for someone who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease.

Listen. Ask. Listen carefully to the concerns of the ones you are praying for. If possible, ask them how they would like you to pray for them. They may not have an answer. Or the answer may surprise you. But starting by listening and asking is a way to honor and support those in need.

Pray with the Psalms. Whether in the hospital bed or at a prayer service, the most powerful and comforting prayers offered to me were from the Psalms. They don’t cover up the loss—they bring anger and grief before God. “My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread.” And yet they bring all of this in petition before the faithful God of the covenant. “Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you. Do not hide your face from me on the day of my distress” (Ps. 102:4, 1-2).

Present your petitions in light of the Lord’s Prayer and Gethsemane. We are to bring our requests before God, in light of Jesus’ command and promise to answer our prayers. But this does not mean that we just pray for a comfortable lifestyle. Remember that our model prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, was enacted by Jesus at Gethsemane. He asked to be led from the time of trial, to be delivered from evil. He was right to ask, to present his heart before the Father. Yet, the petition of the one who defines perfect faith—”Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2)—was not granted. His cup of suffering was not taken away.

All prayer involves a relinquishment of our will to the Father. My friends wanted healing, strength, and courage for my family and me—and they prayed for it, as they should. But our faith does not cause answered prayer; moreover, we must remember that the center of God’s revelation is not a secret about how to live a happier, healthier life, or a message that God’s work is transparent to our eyes in a steady, upward journey. As ones united to Christ by the Spirit, we follow the way of the crucified Lord. We should not seek suffering, but we must also remember that God works in surprising ways: through the way of the cross.

Pray in solidarity. Those in crisis often feel alienated, so make the most of your prayerful, Christian solidarity with them as brothers and sisters in Christ. For example, I had to shave my head in preparation for intensive chemotherapy. After finding out when this would happen, over a dozen Christian friends shaved their head the same day. The seminary turned it into a joyful event that my family could also attend. I was in the hospital, but a group of supporters joined to cheer me on via Skype—cheering on the others getting a head-shave as well. There were tears, but also a lot of laughter. And it wasn’t just a one-time event: when I looked in the mirror, I did not feel isolated; I knew that others were with me—praying every time they were reminded of their funny-looking shaved heads. It was a living prayer displaying Paul’s words that “you will fulfill the law of Christ” when you “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).

Find care for yourself from those not at the center of the crisis. A cancer diagnosis affects many people, and it is crucial to find appropriate places for support, prayer, and encouragement. But as you seek to “bear one another’s burdens” in a crisis, it’s essential to first remember the people who should be the main focus of your prayers and care. Imagine a circle with the main sufferers and their families at the center, close friends at a second layer of the circle, other loved ones in an outer layer of the circle. Then, look and see what part of the circle you occupy.

Here’s the rule of thumb: from wherever you stand, keep your eyes, prayers, and support directed toward the inner part of the circle, and get your own support from the outer part. Sometimes church leaders go to a person in crisis or their family and say, “I don’t know whether I can handle this!” That is profoundly unhelpful. Instead, seek out friends who are not at the center of the crisis for your own support.

Finally, remember that prayer is not about offering magic incantations that will make everything better. In prayer, we bring our whole selves before the gracious covenant Lord in trust: lamenting, petitioning, thanking, and hoping in God.

It does not take a Ph.D. in theology to know how to pray for someone with incurable cancer. The most powerful prayer that I have received for my cancer was from a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome in my congregation. She made me a colorful card, a week after my diagnosis, and wrote these words on it: “Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”

As soon as I saw it, I wept with tears of joy and wonder: God is bigger than cancer. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama—like a story that closes in the sky, enveloping my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, is bigger.

This girl wasn’t denying my loss but was testifying to a God who is greater, the God made known in Jesus Christ who shows us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Praying for someone with an incurable condition is not mainly about trying to “fix a problem” or even “finding the right words.” It’s about joining the suffering in crying out to a gracious and powerful God, acting as living testimony to God’s promise in Christ that darkness will not have the final word.