There is much wisdom and comfort to be found here:
Because we all suffer, we all grieve. But we suffer and grieve in different ways. Sometimes we can identify with and relate to someone more if we share in their same sort of suffering and grief. Going through a year now of my wife’s cancer, I am now a bit more sensitive and understanding of others who are on a similar journey.
While I may have spoken and written a lot about suffering and evil over the years, it is only over the past year that cancer has been a major focus. Given that I am a bit cerebral, I tend to learn more about stuff through reading. The same here: I have picked up some books on cancer lately. I discussed one last month, so let me repeat what I wrote there:
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. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2023/02/16/we-dont-wanna-talk-about-this/
In that article I featured some quotes from Ch. 4. Here I want to share a few more quotes. One thing that is important for the believer is to understand that their own small story is not insignificant or something God cares little about. Instead, our story is part of God’s much bigger story. We are in Christ, so our story matters as it is a part of the overall biblical story-line. Tonjes expresses it this way:
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo find themselves exhausted from their quest. As they confront the enormity of their task and the hardships both behind and before them, they reflect on what it means to be part of a heroic tale. Frodo recognizes that, in real life, such stories are much harder than they seem. The heroes don’t know what is coming on the next page. “You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’”
At the same time, Sam realizes that it is within such stories that life is found. Those heroes didn’t choose their path; they simply persevered on it: “The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo . . . I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for . . . But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.” It was in playing their parts in these greater dramas that their living came to have significance.
Within the story of Jesus, we find the proper shape for the narrative of our lives. Our struggles are not the final act of a tragedy. Our sorrow is not a pit from which we will never escape. Jesus is fighting for the world, and his victory is sure. We know the ending, and that ending transforms our present struggles. They are given meaning and significance and will ultimately give way to the triumph of the Lamb. 144-145
Of course the whole issue of healing arises in these situations. This is a massive discussion, with plenty of controversy and debate. While not wanting to get into another theological war here, let me say that I tend to side with Tonjes on all this. As he writes:
While Scripture insists that God can heal, it never promises that he will. But there is a deeper issue that lies behind these false promises. It has taken Elizabeth and me a long time to recognize it. An inappropriate hope in God’s healing isn’t just dangerous because it is untrue; it is also dangerous because it can prevent us from finding the real sources of hope that Scripture provides. When healing is where we place our confidence, we can make it our idol. 170
He goes on to speak about the comfort God provides us, and says this:
None of that comfort is dependent on our circumstances. It does not say that God will fix my current situation, or heal my physical maladies, or give me a prosperous and pleasant life. But that isn’t because such hopes are too much for God—it is because they are too small. Our hope rests in God himself. All of his promises are true just as much in our suffering as in our successes. They provide resources for us regardless of our present conditions.
The great danger in seeking healing is that the healing can easily replace God as the object of our hope. He becomes a means to an end; a spiritual treatment regimen we use to get what we really want. By putting our ultimate hope in our circumstances, we have placed it on a shaky foundation. More than that, we are often revealing the ways our hearts are captive to idols. As understandable as it is to desire the end of sorrow or the removal of disease, when we set our ultimate hope on something within this world, of necessity we aren’t fixing it on Jesus. We are worshiping a created thing instead of the Creator.
None of that is meant to say that grief is wrong. There is an appropriate affection we should have for the things of this earth. Loved ones, health, and security are all good, and it is appropriate to weep when they are snatched away. However, they will all ultimately be taken from us, if not now, then later. The Lord alone will endure. 172
And a quite practical thing that he discusses is worth closing with here. I have already been learning that there can be a thousand wrong ways to deal with grief, but not so many right, or biblical, ways. As Tonjes writes:
Grief can make us vulnerable to Satan’s attacks. Temptation is at its most dangerous when we are worn out, discouraged, or lonely. Christians don’t often dwell on the dangers of walking through grief because our instinct, rightly, is to focus on communicating empathy and understanding. Nonetheless, we need to be careful.
There are all sorts of things we use to medicate our pain. This impulse is not inherently bad. The means of grace, viewed from a certain angle, are such a coping mechanism. We can find good comfort in this world. The pleasure of a soft bed or a meal with friends or even just the distraction of a good movie can all be life-giving in their proper place. We are embodied creatures, and God gave our bodies experiences and desires that can bless and encourage us. But all worldly coping mechanisms carry dangers as well. Any of them, when indulged wrongly or too much, can end up being destructive, especially when we are wrestling with grief.
Sorrow can open us up to enormous temptation to use things in ways that ultimately imprison us. This danger is most obvious in things like alcohol, painkillers, or pornography. I have watched grieving people slip into addictions from which they feel they cannot escape. However, we can also destructively medicate through subtler sins. Losing oneself in the internet or television, impulsive eating or overspending, or even social isolation can slowly suck the life from our souls.
Such temptations, while they might start off as a way of alleviating our sorrow, can become traps that end up making things worse. This is the cycle of addiction. We start off medicating our wounds from the world, but we sacrifice family and friends and our sense of ourselves to our chosen medicine. Soon the wounds we are treating are caused by the cure rather than the original disease, and we are well and truly stuck. There is no easy upward road out of the valley of sorrow. We may walk it for years to come. However, there is a path downward, deeper into the darkness. In our grief, we need to be on our guard against the ways our flesh and the devil can leverage it to our destruction.
Such coping mechanisms can also crowd out more life-giving alternatives. It is harder to pray or sit in Scripture than it is to wallow or overindulge, but it is also better. I could spend the evening stuffing my face and watching sports or I could go for a jog and play with my kids. The first option isn’t always wrong, but if it is what we consistently choose, we are depriving ourselves of things that offer more joy. 182-184
He concludes that chapter by looking at practical ways the local church can help meet these needs. Sadly the church has not always been that good at helping the sufferer deal with grief and loss. He reminds us that the body of believers has so much to offer the suffering saint. But he reminds us of this as well:
Lastly, recognize that you and your struggles are a gift to the church as well. Your experiences have given you a perspective that the community of believers needs. God can work through you to teach people about his love. Indeed, one of the ways people experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection is by walking beside you as you struggle to find it in your own death. 187-188
Many more such quotes could be offered here, and future articles may present more. But if you are looking for a very helpful and encouraging book to help you or others on this sort of painful journey, this is a must read.