My Sister Thinks Prayer Will Cure My Cancer. How Do I Talk to Her? (2024)

Magazine|My Sister Thinks Prayer Will Cure My Cancer. How Do I Talk to Her?

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Subscriber-only NewsletterThe Ethicist

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on relating to a sibling with a radically different worldview.

My Sister Thinks Prayer Will Cure My Cancer. How Do I Talk to Her? (1)

By Kwame Anthony Appiah

A year ago, I was told I had a form of ovarian cancer and was given two to three years to live — five years, if I’m in the top quartile of patients. I nursed my husband through metastatic lung cancer for 15 months. It was horrific; I am hoping that God takes me early.

My sister, whom I love very much, is part of a fundamentalist Christian church and is one of their top “prayer warriors.” As such, she calls me nearly every day and launches into long prayers asking God to send my cancer to the “foot of the cross.” She implores me to pray with her and says that if I just believe that God will cure me, he will.

I grew up Catholic and have fallen away from the church. I believe God is bigger than what we can understand as human beings. I am a data-driven health care practitioner: I believe that everybody has to die of something, and this happens to be my fate.

I’ve told her as tactfully as I can that her praying for me and expecting me to pray with her for my cure is upsetting to me. It makes me feel that if there is a God, he must really hate me; otherwise, he would have cured me. (She says that he wants to use me as a “messenger” to others and that it’s the Devil, not God, who gave this disease to me.) Also, I had a pretty abusive marriage, and I am a little freaked out that, if there is life after death, my husband will have the opportunity to abuse me more in the afterlife.

What do I say to my sister without belittling her beliefs? I’ve told her that if she wants to pray for me, I would rather she do it on her own time and not ask me to participate. But she is persistent, thinking that she’s going to “save my soul” and my body at the same time. She disputes every reason that I give her and insists that what she is doing is helpful. But it’s not helpful; it sends me into a terrible depression. — Name Withheld

From the Ethicist:

Yours isn’t the stereotypical clash between believer and skeptic. You’re a believer of sorts, as your anxieties about meeting your late husband establish. (Let me assure you that on the standard Christian view, as the Catholic and Protestant clerics I conferred with agree, you would not be subject to your late husband’s abuse in the afterlife.) What you don’t believe in is a personal God or the power of intercessory prayer. Given that your sister very much does believe in these things, what she’s doing makes sense.

And that’s why this clash is so difficult: Hers is the good-hearted action of a devoted sibling. You’ve made your arguments; at this point, you should simply let her know that you find her calls to prayer dispiriting and that you want to spend your remaining time making peace with your condition, not spending your energy in what you consider a futile effort to deny reality. You can tell her all this firmly but tenderly and without bitterness, acknowledging that she has been acting out of her love for you. (You could ask others in the family to support your request as well, if you think that would make a difference.)

Even the staunchest of believers struggle with doubt, and your prayer-warrior sister may also be having a hard time accepting your mortality. The idea that she can’t do anything about it may pain her. Whatever the explanation, though, you may have to tell her that if she calls to pray with you, you are just going to put the phone down. Your situation is already difficult. Your sister’s convictions — and her love for you — don’t entitle her to make it worse. What you need from her now is a particularly exacting kind of love: the kind of love that sets aside its own convictions out of respect for the convictions of another.

Readers Respond

The previous column’s question was from a reader who was told by a summer intern at his company that the intern’s hobby was to recklessly drag race cars, frequently at over 130 m.p.h., on public highways. He wrote: “I’m struggling with what to do. Should I let human resources know about this behavior so that we take it into account when deciding whether to make an employment offer? Should I keep quiet and hope for the best and let him be evaluated only on the basis of his work at our firm? Should I approach him and tell him that he is risking his life, and possibly the lives of others?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Because he told you about his reckless behavior in a moment of friendly collegiality, reporting him would be a betrayal. But you do need to let him know what you think. If you say nothing, he could infer that you condone the pastime, which could encourage him to continue with it. You will have failed to do anything to protect unwary strangers from the dangers that this activity imposes on them. Nor will you have protected him from risking his position at the company — and elsewhere, if what he’s up to becomes a news item. Using public roads as a racetrack is a good way of going nowhere fast.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

An excellent response from the Ethicist. By sharing his concerns, the letter writer is treating the intern as an adult and is possibly enlarging the young person’s understanding of the ramifications of this behavior. If the intern’s reaction is to not see this and not be grateful for the counsel, it is further information about his maturity and fitness for a permanent position at the firm. Pam

Besides doing his illegal activities, the intern also exhibits extremely poor judgment in disclosing his illegal activities to what seems to be a casual colleague at an internship. Would you want someone with such poor judgment and loose lips representing your firm and talking to clients? This should be the reason you recommend against hiring him for a full-time role. Gaurav

The letter writer has a golden opportunity to mentor the young intern by telling him about the long-term professional consequences if there is an accident or a citation for speeding on public highways. Clearly this young person has promise and can make great contributions to the company. It’s the same with all young people — it’s incumbent upon the older folks to help them improve their chances of success by dropping bad habits. Elizabeth

The intern’s decision to share this information with the letter writer raises concerns about what the intern may think is appropriate to share about himself with current and prospective clients, and may indicate a greater lack of judgment that could manifest itself in other ways on the job. A conversation with the intern about his unsafe behavior should also be accompanied by a discussion of proper boundaries in a professional setting. Andrew

I agree with the Ethicist’s recommendation but would have liked to see his response include a stronger emphasis on the lives the driver is putting at risk. I think saving lives is more important than this young man’s career prospects. There’s absolutely no certainty that he and the other racers won’t come upon another vehicle on the road. My adult niece is in recovery from a recent crash caused by two teenagers drag racing on a highway. She has a long, slow recovery ahead of her, and all of it was completely preventable. Dianne

Kwame Anthony Appiah is The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist columnist and teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to More about Kwame Anthony Appiah


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My Sister Thinks Prayer Will Cure My Cancer. How Do I Talk to Her? (2024)
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