Suffering, Cancer, God and Hope
We all suffer in so many ways, with cancer being a major source of suffering:
Let me begin by saying that this is a somewhat more general discussion of the topics mentioned in my title. But I hope to run with another article tomorrow on this – one that reflects a much more personal take on these matters. And it can also be said that I obviously have written about the issue of suffering quite often – as have millions of others.
Indeed, a quick look on my site reveals that around 1400 of my 5800+ articles at least contain the word “suffer”. So it has certainly exercised my mind, as it has for countless others. And no wonder: we all suffer. As the afflicted Job wrote millennia ago: “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Or as the philosopher Eleonore Stump much more recently put it, “The crust of the earth is soaked with the tears of suffering.”
There are obviously tens of thousands of books on suffering in general and coping with cancer in particular that have been written over the years. They would be penned by both Christians and non-Christians. I have spoken about many of these books over the years – primarily the former. Over a decade ago for example I featured 55 recommended books on the issue of suffering and evil: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2011/09/21/readings-in-theodicy/
Plenty more titles could be mentioned, including so many important volumes that have appeared since 2011. Perhaps I will soon offer a greatly updated and expanded version of that reading list.
As we well know, cancer of course takes so many lives each year (although abortion which is usually not taken into account in these statistics seems to take far more lives annually). Hardly a family escapes this dreaded disease. One website said this: “Cancer accounts for around 3 in every 10 deaths in Australia. It has a major impact on individuals, families and the community.”
So many books on cancer from a Christian perspective exist. Numerous books penned by believers who have cancer or loved ones with cancer exist. I just did a search of that term on the Australian Christian bookstore Koorong website and some 700 titles came up in the search results.
Here I want to make use of just one book as it specifically relates to cancer. The book I have in mind is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings (Brazos, 2015). One blurb about the book says this:
At the age of thirty-nine, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings’s journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God’s promises. Theologically robust yet eminently practical, it engages the open questions, areas of mystery, and times of disorientation in the Christian life. Billings offers concrete examples through autobiography, cultural commentary, and stories from others, showing how our human stories of joy and grief can be incorporated into the larger biblical story of God’s saving work in Christ.
Simply featuring some helpful quotes from this book will suffice for the remainder of this article. Millions of people will of course relate to his story – it is so universal. Early on he says this:
On the morning after hearing the news that a precancerous malady was likely, with cancer possible, I was downstairs, shedding tears of pain and anxiety. Rachel came downstairs with our seventeen-month-old son, Nathaniel, while our daughter continued to sleep upstairs. . . . The fear, the uncertainty, was palpable. As we wept together, Nathaniel started bawling in his high chair as well. He didn’t know why Mom and Dad were crying, but he knew that this was not the normal breakfast routine. Rachel and I dried our tears and attempted to console Nathaniel. But his crying continued, big tears rolling down his face.
A good part of his book explores the lament psalms in Scripture. What can we learn from them? How can we claim them and pray them today as Christians? I have often written about the lament psalms, so for those not familiar with what they are and why they are so very important – yet so often neglected today – see this piece for starters: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-lament-psalms/
Billings says this:
Cherry-picking only the praises from the Psalms tends to shape a church culture in which only positive emotions can be expressed before God in faith. Since my diagnosis with cancer, I’ve found that my fellow Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death. In some sense, this lack of affective agility in their faith is not surprising since our corporate worship has lost many of the elements that are so prominent in the psalms of lament. Somehow, expressions of deep grief and loss have been evacuated from the sanctuary. As Carl Truman observes:
“The psalms as the staple of Christian worship, with their elements of lament, confusion, and the intrusion of death into life, have been too often replaced not by songs that capture the same sensibilities—as the many great hymns of the past did so well—but by those that assert triumph over death while never really giving death its due. The tomb is certainly empty; but we are not sure why it would ever have been occupied in the first place.” . . . When worship expresses only ‘victory,’ it can unintentionally suggest that the broken and the lonely and the hurting have no place here.
He has a chapter on prayer for healing, and all that this means in its biblical and theological complexity. Of course we pray to be healed, but most importantly, we pray that God’s will be done. And sometimes that may mean God doing things differently than what we want or expect. He writes:
Again, we must return to the luminous mystery of Christ at Gethsemane. At Gethsemane, Christ prays for the cup of suffering to pass, yet he submits to the Father’s will and purpose rather than his own desire to escape the cross. At Gethsemane we see the Lord’s Prayer in action. . . . When we come to God thinking that we are the heroes of prayer, we have forgotten the cross of Christ. When we assume that God only wills healing and joy rather than suffering in our lives now, we have forgotten the cross of Christ.”
In his concluding chapter, “I Am Not My Own” he says this:
Until that day when we join the whole earth in a song of praise, we still focus on God’s promise through lament and thanksgiving, petition and praise. Full justice and restoration have not yet come; the world has not yet been made right. And while we have real tastes of the new creation in Christ by the Spirit, we still wait with groaning for our adoption to come in fullness. We walk on a cross-shaped path with the psalmist ad with our crucified Lord, and yet in the end we will reach the final chapters of the Psalms, joyfully singing, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Ps. 150:6). Then our true story, our true life – which is none other than life in the living Christ – will no longer be hidden but unveiled.
These are just a few of the many things worth featuring from this very helpful book. His volume is not the only one on this subject – not by any means. But If I did a list of my top five books looking at this issue, his would of course have to be included.
As mentioned, I hope to post an article tomorrow looking at a much more personal take on this matter of cancer, suffering and faith in a good God. So please stay tuned.
14 Replies to “Suffering, Cancer, God and Hope”
My wife died of breast cancer in March 2017. Triple negative (meaning not one with a known cure) breast cancer which quickly metastasised to the lymph nodes and then her brain. They gave her 16 months and she nearly made it.
Many thanks Michael. Yes my wife is triple negative as well.
A wonderful and timely article Bill. Great truths that we overlook and need to be reminded of. Thank you so much for sharing and for continually helping others through your ministry.
Love in Christ
I know you’re struggling right now with many things. I just want you to know that God has used you to reach so many of us all the way here in Houston as well. You’ve been a source of encouragement, truth, insight and wisdom in my life these last couple of years since I was so blessed to find your blog. I can only think that it was God’s providence. I know I can always count on you for truths and wisdom I’m seeking. I’ve sent your articles to many in my circle and I believe that they’ve definitely caught on to you as well. My husband and I often say to each other, I wonder what Bill thinks about what’s going on now??? I believe God has used you for much and I’m very thankful and grateful to God for you. Even the people that you say are mean to you, they still read your articles for the same reason I do, for consistent truth and wisdom. I’ve never met you but you are my brother in Christ and my husband and I, we love you, we love your words and we will pray for you and your wife. Hang in there brother. When I don’t get what’s going on, I just keep repeating Proverbs 3:5-6. Only God understands and His ways are unsearchable. One day everything will be restored and there will be no more tears. But it doesn’t make dealing right now with pain any easier. I pray for God’s peace on you.
Bless you Anne.
If there is anything I can help with don’t hesitate to let me know. You have my email. You are in my prayers.
Many thanks Michael.
As mentioned, here is my new and more personal piece on what is happening with us:
I don’t know how to pray for a sick person other than to try and accept God’s will for the outcome. Our beautiful son Tim got cancer aged just 31 and only lived 8 months. He was a super fit surfer. People all over the world prayed that Tim would be healed. Ultimately he didn’t have a physical healing but he had a remarkable spiritual awakening. Many of his friends were profoundly moved.
Bill, no doubt your wife will be very aware of God’s presence at this time. Isn’t it a great comfort for us as Christians to know that the future is in His hands.
I am so sorry for what you are going through right now. I’m following your progress with prayer. Xxx
Many thanks Ronelle.
For those who asked about helping in funding the special immunotherapy treatment for my wife, we have set up a Christian funding page. See here: https://givesendgo.com/HelpBillMuhlenbergHelpHisWife