My wife’s parents were like many French people, agnostic to atheist, covered over with a vague New-Age layer. Many years before the events of this story happened, she had a thought occur in her mind, with a comfort and confidence, and she took it to be the Spirit of God speaking to her. “Your mother will come to faith first, then your father.”
Now, regeneration and conversion is a miracle always, but in a country such as France, you tend to diminish your expectations by a factor of ten, no, more like a hundred. It’s a tough, tough place for Christianity. We talked to them about the Lord, but apart from a little more openness for our sake, nothing much happened. It was hard to have too much impact; we were in the U.S. and they were in France.
One day in 1999, we had just brought home a new electronic answering machine. Back then those things were still gadgety enough to be kind of cool. You had to put a code on it to be able to retrieve messages. My wife suggested 828, because she liked Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” We were about to get a lesson about that verse.
We installed it, and the first time it rang, we decided not to answer but let the machine pick it up. What could it hurt?
Only it was her parents calling from France—with bad news. About 18 months earlier, my wife’s mother, Nicole had been operated on for cancer, successfully, we all thought. The cancer was back, and it wasn’t looking good.
In the next few weeks Nicole declined rapidly. My wife talked to her doctors, but French doctors are typically not frank with the patient or with family in regard to bad news. They told her they could treat her, which Nicole seemed to interpret as “cure,” but this was not what they meant. My wife eventually persuaded the doctor to level with her, since she was so far away and needed to know whether and when to fly over there. “Come now,” she was finally told, since they gave Nicole perhaps a couple of months.
While she was preparing to go over there, my wife spoke to her mother on the phone. We knew most of the evangelical ministers in their town and we wanted to get someone to her to pray for her. My wife quoted to her James 5:14: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”
She wasn’t in any church, but we were working on arranging a pastoral visit with someone we had contact with. But before this could happen, she was at the hospital for chemotherapy, and a Catholic priest happened by. She told him what her daughter had said, and asked him if he could anoint her with oil and pray over her, like James said. Now for Roman Catholics this verse has basically become the basis for extreme unction, last rites for the immediately dying. Yet he agreed, and came to her house the next day and did just as James instructed.
Well, my mother-in-law still died of cancer, but it was a year later, and here’s what happened in that year. First of all, though the cancer was not cured, she did have an immediate change of symptoms, whereas she was weak and also unable to eat, she had new energy and her appetite returned right away. She was up and out of bed, and was able to spend many pleasant months with her husband and later with us, when we came to be with her.
We still had “our people” come and pray for her, and they spoke with her about the Lord. Now she was ready to listen. And she did listen, and she placed her trust in the Lord, and she started attending that evangelical church. My father-in-law went with her, and seeing her faith, and impressed by the love that body was giving them, he came to faith as well.
The cancer was still progressing and eventually Nicole did become weak again and unable to do much out of bed. But the very last day, as it turned out, that she was physically able to attend church, both she and my father-in-law were baptized. Nicole gave her testimony, between tears, recounting the story of the priest’s prayer, and her healing, partial and temporary as it was. Then she said, “If I had not gotten sick, I never would have come to know the Lord.”
Nicole still had confidence that the Lord could heal her, and she even thought he would. Now the doctors still had not made it clear to her that they considered her terminal, and we did not wish to discourage her either. You have to understand something; in this beautiful, but post-Christian country despair fills the air, so thickly sometimes that you feel you could cut it with a knife. Cancer patients as a rule do not go gently into that good night, and if her oncologist did not spell out the doom she foresaw, it was to grant a measure of false hope to her remaining days. That is the only hope she was able to dispense, having seen so many agonizing as death approached.
One night my wife stayed with her mother in the hospital, conflicted over knowing the medical prognosis and yet not wishing to overtax her mother’s new faith. But Nicole had a dream about Jesus, and she awoke the next morning both radiant—and knowing she was going to die.
“There’s going to be a reunion,” she said mysteriously. Not understanding, my wife asked her what reunion, with whom? “A reunion with Jesus,” she said.
Her remaining weeks were spent in one hospital or another, and all her friends came and visited her. And Nicole told all her friends about Jesus and how wonderful he was and how she was so happy to be going to be with him. This was a new experience for the oncologist, who was not at all used to hopeful—dying patients.
The doctor told us she wouldn’t last until Christmas, but she did. She died in January 2000. In those last weeks, her estranged son came to see her, and there were tears and there was forgiveness.
At the end of the most difficult but amazing year of her life, she went to her dearly anticipated reunion. The church was packed for the funeral, all her family and friends had come. It was a long service. We gave her testimony. We gave our testimonies. The pastor preached to gospel. That day everyone Nicole loved was gathered together and heard about the love and grace of the Jesus she had come to love and with whom she was now joyfully present.
Perhaps I should think it inadequate that her healing was not quite a “New Testament quality” miracle, not complete, irreversible, permanent. Right.
I am persuaded that the Lord used experiences, in Nicole’s life, in all our lives, to encourage, to build up, to demonstrate His love. And to demonstrate the truth of His Word. Frankly, I really did not have much confidence in the Roman Catholic priest who had prayed for her. But our faith is not in men but in the Lord and in His Word. Besides, James did say to call for the elders, the presbuteroi in Greek, and in the history of the church that word became prêtre in French,“priest.” Of course, the greatest gift was not the physical healing, would not even have been her being totally cured of her cancer. James goes on in verse 15: “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
And the Lord proved His Word that all things, even painful, grievous things work together for good to those who are called, and “those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom. 8:30b)
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vv. 35, 37-39).