We all go through grief, suffering and loss:
In the West at least, the related topics of suffering, grief, dying and death are not something we like to talk about. Sure, these are not pleasant things, so one can understand the reticence. But they are also universal things – we ALL experience them.
In fact, to speak of certain people having a terminal condition is misleading – we all have a terminal condition. Because of the universality of sin, death is universal as well. We will all die. But unless one is going through this, or knows someone who is, we shy away from it and really try not to think or talk about it.
And that includes most Christians. But it should not be this way. We all pay lip service to the truth that ‘this is not our home, we’re just passing through’. However most believers live as if the opposite is true. We avoid thinking about the next life and we put everything into this one.
It often takes some tragedy or illness to get our attention, and to get us to refocus. Cancer – whether in yourself or a loved one – will certainly do that. Millions of people right now are struggling with cancer. Some of it is curable, some not. Some people seem to get through it, yet often remission occurs.
We have friends in this situation. And much closer to home, my own wife is in this boat. While we all know about the word ‘cancer’ and many would know the word ‘metastasis’, it is usually not until it happens to us or someone we love that we really stand up and take notice.
There are different ways to deal with this. If you are like me – a hardcore reader – you will start buying books on the topic. I already have many hundreds of books on the broader topic of suffering and evil, and many of those books would cover practical matters such as dealing with grief. A subset of this would be dealing with cancer.
There are hundreds of books out there on this. Let me highlight just one very good volume. In 2021 American pastor Eric Tonjes wrote Either Way, We’ll Be All Right (NavPress). He and his wife married young, and while still quite young, Elizabeth got cancer and eventually died from it. This book is about his story, and his wrestling with God.
I want to highlight one chapter here. Given that I wrote a piece yesterday discussing purpose and meaning, how does cancer fit into this? Is there a reason for it – does God have a purpose in it? Most believers are aware of the famous statement that our chief aim in life is to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ But with cancer?
Tonjes cites Isaiah 43:7 among other passages: “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Says Tonjes, “Isaiah’s point is inescapable: God’s purpose, and the purpose of his people, is his glory.” He continues:
How does God’s glory meet our grief? We think that happiness is the goal of life, but happiness is a mediocre purpose. Those seeking it never accomplish much of worth. Given that life includes suffering and, ultimately, death, what we need is a purpose big enough to make that struggle worthwhile. We need something worth laboring for, and there is no worthier goal than God’s glory embodied in our lives.
Pursuing the self cannot sustain us in the face of this world’s brokenness. A pursuit of God’s glory can. In fact, such a purpose is uniquely suited to creating people who are unafraid in the face of loss and sorrow. When our highest ambition is to show forth the goodness and love of God, we can do that just as fully in our dying as in our living, just as clearly in how we handle loss as in how we respond to gain. Jesus himself, in his prayer or preparation for the cross, prayed, “Father . . . glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).
I am not saying that suffering itself is good. The brokenness of the world is not the way things are meant to be. However, what God’s glory provides is a purpose we can live into even in the rubble of humanity’s fall…
We exist in this world to show forth the goodness and greatness of God. That calling is what gives us purpose and significance. It is meant to anchor our identity. It is a calling, as Paul says, that continues no matter our life circumstances. We live and we die to the Lord. This fact transforms grief from something we simply endure into something we can steward for good. Because this calling rests on God rather than our own happiness or self-realization, our source of purpose is secure…
Of course this is more than theory, and there is a practical side to it. He writes:
God’s glory provides an indestructible purpose. It is a powerful resource to help us move forward under the burden of sorrow. Yet even in writing these words, I feel like I’m doing an injustice to how it feels in practice. It can sound like some hagiographic account of a martyrdom, too romantic and unwavering for the hardscrabble realities of my heart.
In practice, living in this season is not some grandiose sweep of glory and more a series of small, hard choices. I must choose to do the next thing, to go to work and invest in the people God has called me to care for, to be present with my children, and to not withdraw from my marriage into myself. I must choose whether to lay on the couch in the evening or to get up and serve my family. I must persevere in making these choices, and there are plenty of times when I fail. Having a vision for God’s glory does not mean there is some ball of energy in my chest that makes those choices easy. Many days feel like moving through a vat of molasses. What his glory provides, though, is a different perspective on what I am choosing in each of those moments.
He concludes the chapter with these words:
God’s glory functions like a lighthouse to sailors lost at sea, a shining beacon by which we can navigate. It recasts our decisions: I am not taking care of myself because I am worthwhile (I don’t feel worth much some mornings) but because God created me with significance and purpose. I engage with my wife not because it is worth the pain I know it will eventually bring but because God made me to serve her and, in doing so, to serve him. The glory of God changes the stakes. I might still choose the path of least resistance, but when I do, I am forced to recognize that there is a profound cost.
To put it another way, God’s glory offers me a story I can inhabit even when the other stories in my life turn tragic. I love the story of how Elizabeth and I met and got married. I’ve shared it hundreds of times, and each repetition makes me look across at Elizabeth and smile, relishing the shared memories and the shape of her face. It is a wonderful story, but if it is the story of my life, then my life will be over when hers ends. What God offers is a larger narrative. Our life together is a major plot thread, a glorious act 2, but it is not the whole play. The reason the curtain rises comes from the Lord, and the play will continue even when my favorite companion disappears stage left and I am left alone.
I realise that an article like this will have only a small audience, because most folks are not in this place at the moment and do not want to think about such things. But as I said, we are all in a terminal condition. We all will face death at some point. So learning about how God and his glory fits in with our suffering and grief is important for all of us.
As Tonjes said early on in the book (about his newborn daughter nearly not making it): “I was doing everything in my power to stay aloof from grief, keeping it safely contained and out of sight. What I had missed— what the Christian culture I had grown up in had failed to teach me— was that, while there is hope in Jesus, we can only experience that hope by entering the darkness.”
We will all go through the darkness, the suffering, the grief, and death itself. Seeing that God cares about this, knows about this, and is with us during these times does make a difference. Tonjes had to learn this. I have to learn this. We all do.