That Dragon, Cancer: When Prayer Doesn’t Work

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January 23, 2016 by Devin

Spoiler warning: I will be talking extensively about the final scene of That Dragon, Cancer.

I remember leading a Bible study on faith healing. One of the main conceits of that lesson was James 5:16b, which in the NIV says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” The words “powerful and effective” rang in my head. When we prayed, that meant something. It had effects in the world. It could change things.

We see many stories of this in the Bible. Calling on God had real effects. Sick people got better when praying. Miracles happened by trusting in God. Walls came down and people died not because of military force, but because people were willing to sing and worship and call on God’s name.

Why would that have changed? Were James’ words any less true now than they were when he wrote them? Surely not, I thought, as I had heard many stories and even witnessed miraculous healings happen right before my eyes.[1] What was the cause of these? It had to be God and only God, so therefore calling out on Him and praising His name and submitting ourselves to Him in a way that would give Him glory and only Him glory would result similarly.

There was a girl on crutches at this lesson.

Tonight, we will glorify God, I thought. Tonight, we are going to trust in Him to do His work. Tonight, we will see healing, for after all, the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

We prayed over her. We called out to God. We circled and put our hands out and took turns pleading God, “God, in Your name we ask, please heal her.”

That girl walked out on crutches.

We prayed for a long time, and I would have kept going, but my youth pastor cut it off with a loaded, “Amen.” God was not healing her that night, and we all had to walk away.

That walking away meant so much. It felt like an admittance that God was not doing what we had told He would do. It felt like we had failed Him or expected something wrong out of Him. Maybe He didn’t heal people. Maybe when hearing our prayers, He thought, “No, I won’t.” Maybe our prayers were not powerful or effective.

This was still with the understanding that God could ultimately do whatever He wanted and that He was also a loving god. Yes, it is a bit contradictory, but we did not care. We were exploring that uncertainty and trying to find the truth in it.

I thought about this conflict a lot when playing That Dragon, Cancer. This game explores faith in a lot of compelling and honest ways, and manages to be the best depiction of modern Christianity I have ever seen and one of the only ones where “Christian” did not equal “bad.”


Granted, there was not a lot of real competition.

The story of the game is that Ryan and Amy Green, the people behind the game’s development and inspiration, are parents to a young child named Joel, who is diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer before he is even a year old. This is an artistic game, where you as the player explore their story through metaphor, symbolism, and shocking realism. Sometimes the events actually happened, like when you play as Joel throwing bread to a duck, and sometimes they are figurative, like when you play as Ryan drowning in a sea of despair.

Ryan and Amy Green are Christian, and this shows up throughout the game. The game throws out Biblical references and spiritual themes without explaining why they are important. Joel’s brothers are named Isaac and Elijah. At one point, a lion shows up, and I immediately thought, “Oh that’s Jesus,” which was then confirmed by a capitalized pronoun.

The entire game explores this relationship between pleading with all your might before God to heal someone you love while also knowing that maybe you shouldn’t be doing that. Maybe it’s selfish to command God to do something, maybe He is going to say no, but that also feels like the most natural thing to do. After all, the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, but eventually you realize that God’s help may not include healing, and His answer to your prayers, as your pastors and fellow religious advisors point out, may look a lot like just leaving you alone. What happens then?

Does that give you hope? Does that make you fall into despair? Do you lose the will to continue on? Do you give up on your faith?


Let us dispense of the last one. While many people, myself included, may argue that it is the most logical, it is also one of the least interesting and least compelling. Anyone who tries to tell you that rational reasons are the most common (or even best) reasons humans make are fooling themselves. I want to know about the people that hold on, as I did so often so long ago.

Which is why the climax of That Dragon, Cancer is so compelling to me. You, the player, stand in a church where Joel, on a hospital bed with wires everywhere, lays. In front of you, there is a small piano and several candles. You can light the candles, but they go out quickly. Each key on the piano plays a different prayer, a different crying out for God. The lights slowly dim and the camera pulls back unless you keep lighting the candles and playing the piano. As long as you keep lighting the candles and keep crying out to God, the scene stays. You can stay in that moment forever, but Joel never heals.

There is a worship song called, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.” This song, sung by a band and all the passionate audience members, is of course a complete lie. No one can sing forever. No one can do anything forever. You can’t even lay down forever, and that takes literally no effort. But every time I sang this song, it felt like a challenge, and people usually take it as a challenge. In the wet grass of the dead of night at Invisible Children Global Night Commute on the lawn of First Baptist,[2] people had guitars and drums out and we all sang as many verses and choruses of that song as we could. It really felt like we could sing it forever. With our passion for God, we could and we would sing of His love forever.

But we didn’t. We eventually stopped and all went to bed, and we all got up in the morning, and some of us went to school and some of us went to work and we all got on with our lives. However spiritual that moment felt, it faded.

This Reply All podcast went into some more of the background of That Dragon, Cancer. The inspiration for this final scene was a worship session the Greens had at their house. They had prayer and worship and singing and crying out to God. Joel had already lasted far longer than the doctors predicted, but now the cancer was worse than ever and considered terminal. This was, in some ways, their last attempt at something. While I am sure that many had their doubts, some were confident that God was going to show up. After all, a leg was one thing, but this was a child’s life, one that was really important to a lot of people and provided joy and happiness to many different people. Joel, of course, would be saved by God. This was His chance to show everyone His glory and His love for His children.

Joel died that night.

There had to have been a point in the night where everyone left, where they stopped singing, packed up their instruments, and went to bed. At some point they must have stopped, and I know this because this is the moment That Dragon, Cancer depicts so beautifully. That moment is the moment you accept that you can pray and sing and light candles all you want, but what is going to happen will happen and that happening is not reliant on your actions or your understanding of those actions.


The game ends in an almost uncharacteristically cheery spot. Joel is in what we assume to be heaven with the dog he always wanted. They have so many pancakes to eat, and you get to blow bubbles for Joel. He loves bubbles. You can keep blowing forever, but just like with the church, at some point you have to stop, and then the credits roll. You have to accept that this thing happened and all the prayers and singing did not stop that.

That is what I love about the cathedral scene. It captures that moment of submission and resigned acceptance I felt at the end of almost every prayer session. You do everything you can, but at the end of the day, you feel like you have to leave it up to God, and that can be the most terrifying thing in the world.

If you like this post, feel free to comment below and share with your friends. And if you want to stay updated, make sure to subscribe either through WordPress or by entering your email in the box in the top right corner. Plus, make sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@D_A_White).

For the sake of keeping discussion civil, I am going to be deleting any comments that disparage the faith of Ryan and Amy Green and talk about how silly or stupid they are for having faith. There are many places to do that, even on this particular blog, but this post is not that place.


[1] The more I learned in life, the more I doubted these were as miraculous as I first thought, but I was fully onboard with them at the time of this lesson.
[2] To give some context, this was in response to the first documentary from Invisible Children about the situation in Uganda. The third one, released years later, was Kony 2012.

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Paul Johnson's comedy blog: I didn't get into comedy to be rich or famous. All I've ever wanted was to be somebody rich and famous.

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