I was diagnosed with cancer (Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma) eight years ago this past September, and it is this experience that I am going to reflect on for this week’s blog. Perhaps I should begin by offering a qualification. I recognize that I am not qualified to speak for all those who have been diagnosed either with cancer or with a disease or disorder that is similar. I can only write out of my own experience. Certainly, some of what I have written will resonate with those who have been touched by these sorts of ailments. However, I am confident that some will not resonate.
There are two passages of Scripture that have functioned as barriers on either side of the road with cancer that I have been travelling. The first is found in Ecclesiastes 3:18-21. It reads:
I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?
The second verse comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 50-55:
What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the cartoonist Dick Guindon, but in one of
his cartoon captions he wrote, “The good Lord never gives you more than you can handle. Unless you die of something.” It is possible that those who have not yet been faced with the reality of their own mortality find that funnier than those of us who have been confronted by our own. I like it because it reminds me that even the faithful die.
That was a great comfort to me in cancer. Some of you may understand what I mean, but for those who haven’t yet discovered this sort of comfort, perhaps you’d be surprised by how many people make cancer patients feel like dying is some sort of unforgiveable sin. I’ve been given more advice in the last eight years than I had in my first 27—and believe me, there was no shortage of advice in the fist 27.
You need to exercise more, you need to claim healing, you need to take vitamins, you need to have faith, you need to take this supplement, you need to eat apple cores, there’s a special protein in the biologic remains of an underwater protoplasmic googly fish that could have prevented your cancer, but the FDA won’t approve it for public use because there’s a conspiracy to keep people dying with cancer because it’s good for the health care system…
You get the idea. I asked people during that time, “What if I die?” You’d think I just blasphemed the Holy Spirit. I could hear the whispers, “I think he’s giving up. We need to pray for him.” Even my doctors said, “You can’t think that way.”
When I received my cancer diagnosis my first two questions were natural ones. They were the same questions I imagine we might ask if we were told that a nuclear missile had been fired at the town or city in which we live, and it was going to hit in thirty seconds: Who did it? and Why? Those are important questions, but they also prove to be the least pragmatic. Practical questions in hindsight, might have been, “What do I do?” or perhaps “What are my chances?” But, those seemed secondary.
Did God give this to me? Did I do it to myself? Is it my microwave? Maybe my cell phone? My diet? And, above all else, why me? Those were the questions that filled my mind, and then the real stuff started to come out—you know, the stuff you say when someone tells you that, without treatments you’ll be dead within a year. What if I’m wrong? What if there is no God? What if this is it? Or worse, what if God’s not who I expect? I began to feel the significance of Shakespeare’s words in the mouth of Hamlet:
But that the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of?
Now I recognize that I am being a bit morbid and perhaps even self-indulgent in recounting some of this for you. My intention is to invite you into the space in which I experienced the initial realization of cancer so that we might be able to explore both my interpretation of my experience and the theological ramifications of these sorts of diseases. What I began to discover is that, for me, no matter how profoundly I might have described my personal relationship with God, no matter how clear and consistent my theology to that point had been, no matter how many times I had experienced something, either individually or in community, that I was sure was a fruit of the presence and power of God, God remained a theory to me until I was told that I was going to meet God soon. In all honesty, that reality surprised me. And, what was worse for me, it seemed that my Christian faith resisted the honesty and intensity of my response.
As Arminian-Wesleyan as I always have considered myself to be, my first instinct was to come back to theological orthodoxy by way of deterministic Calvinism. God must have a plan. Maybe I’m supposed to witness to these doctors. Maybe God wants me to have an influence in the chemo ward. Or, even better, maybe God wants to heal me in a miraculous way so that God’s Name might be praised. For the first time in my adult life, I heard myself saying the words I had rolled my eyes at in the past… “Everything happens for a reason.” It seemed like I either had to become a determinist or I had to embrace a conception of God that I found very difficult to accept.
For those who are thinking, that’s either/or thinking; perhaps you should have considered a both/and approach; I have a response for you. Diagnoses like cancer are either/or diagnoses—either you will live or you will die; either the chemo will work or it will not. And, for me, it pushed my whole world into an either/or reality. Either there is a God or there is not; either God is merciful and forgiving and I have a chance, or the New Covenant is more similar to the Old Covenant than I’ve been led to believe and I just may hear those words, “I don’t know you.” For me, the subtleties of philosophical and theological speculation were shattered by the reality of my situation.
I started to read the stories of the Bible, not from the perspective of the hero, but from the perspective of the extras. I had some people tell me to take hope from the story of Job. Maybe God was testing me. Certainly God would bring me through. And I thought, “What if I’m one of Job’s kids? They don’t make it to the end of the story.” Rather than being at the center of the narrative of God, I began to feel like I had been moved to the periphery—like I got next week’s script, and they were writing my character out of the show. C’mon, right? It’s cancer…everybody gets cancer nowadays. Get over it, kid. I know. But, what can I say? It was different when it was me.
I used to get pretty severe earaches as a kid—lots of them—, and I can remember how long the nights seemed when I felt the throbbing of the pain in my ear every second of every hour. In many ways cancer treatment felt like that. It felt like a seven month long night, and I looked for God and God’s will everywhere, and saw neither.
I wanted to be a witness, but it seemed like nobody needed my testimony. I wanted some enlightenment that would give my suffering a purpose, but every interpretation I offered proved to be presumptuous. I wanted to have a changed perspective on the world and life that was positive and life-affirming, but I was getting more and more depressed. I had moments with God that were precious, but my faith in God slowly changed. I continued to trust that God would accomplish God’s will and that God will fulfill God’s promises. But, I no longer trusted God to protect me from that which I feared. I trusted God eschatologically, but I no longer trusted God today. My early return to Calvinistic determinism was deteriorating into deism, at best, and practical agnosticism at worst.
I gradually realized that, for me, the best way theologically to survive the dark night of chemotherapy and cancer was to stop reflecting on it and start concentrating on the task ahead. I just pretended that my faith in God was the same during this time as it had been before. I talked about God’s provision and strength; I continued to work as a full-time pastor, even twice going on youth retreats the day after a chemo treatment; and I focused on the moments…chemo today, youth group tomorrow, preaching on Sunday, dad’s coming this weekend, gotta stay positive for the church people, for my parents, for my wife.
But, then chemo ended, and they told me that I was in remission. I began getting quarterly scans to determine whether the cancer would return, and I settled back into life. But, somehow, life was not the same. Where I had been optimistic, energetic, and full of life, I now was fearful, nervous, and empty. I left the church I had ministered in for the previous four years, and I moved to Kansas City to continue my seminary education at Nazarene Theological Seminary. But, I didn’t even want to start that, so for the first year I
volunteered at a church I knew was dying a slow death. It felt safer somehow. It was in that context, that I started really to reflect on my experience and attempt to understand it.
During my last month at the church in Chicago, before I moved to Kansas City, an older gentleman from the church had asked my wife, Jennifer and I to come to his house. During that meeting he told me that God had told him that I had been given cancer as discipline and warning from God. He had some specific things that he felt God was warning me about, but I sat there in the conversation almost complacent. One more chemotherapy drug, one more hurt, one more betrayal. His was the only critical comment I received as I said goodbye to friends and colleagues, but I carried his words with me.
Perhaps that’s why, when I attempted to reflect on my experience with cancer a year or so later, I asked myself, “Was there any measure of discipline in that experience?” I am unprepared to discern the exact way in which each of the experiences of our lives connect with God’s Sovereignty and Providence, though, with James Arminius, I am convinced that they do connect. Consequently, my question was not, did God give me cancer? or did God intend me to get cancer? Rather, I began to consider how God had used the cancer in my life, and gradually, I began to feel as though my rather abrupt friend had been at least partially correct.
Slowly, over the course of my young life, God had ceased to be a Person to me and had become a concept…an idea I was attempting to grasp and live out of. When I felt my call to ministry, God was as real to me as any person sitting in this room. But, as I graduated from college, entered full-time ministry, and began to see some quantifiable fruits of my ministry, God became sort of like the wallpaper on my laptop—God was never out of sight, but I really believed, when it all came down to it, that life and ministry were, for all practical purposes, entirely in my hands—God was just window dressing.
I believed hypothetically that God might show up at any moment, that Christ might return, that fire might fall from heaven, or that I might meet a divine messenger on the way to church, but I didn’t really believe such things. God did God’s thing and I did mine, and I’d only find out the difference (if there was such a thing) and the concurrence at the last day (if I even found out then).
My initial experience with cancer confirmed these convictions. God didn’t heal me miraculously; I was healed through medicine. I didn’t have any outstanding opportunities to witness that had any reasonable chance of bearing fruit. At first I thought I was spared the worst side-effects of chemotherapy, but by the time I hit my fifth treatment the psychological side-effects were causing me to vomit and panic just in walking into the cancer center. I was alone. I was willing to accept the reality of God, but that reality had very little to do with my practical life. God’s teaching had an impact on the way I chose to live, but it was my choice. God was either a passive participant or perhaps even a disconnected observer.
As I reflected (and continue to reflect) on my journey with cancer, I realize that my feeling of isolation and loneliness had a very positive consequence. I had ceased to think of God as a concept, and I was becoming desperate to encounter God as a Person—a feeling I had not felt since high school. I had heeded the voices in my academic training that said that young Christians and children seek ‘experiences’ of God; mature Christians realize that such experiences are emotionally charged, deceptive, and far too intermittent to build a faith on. However, none of that rational and practical advice meant anything to me anymore. I wasn’t interested any longer in a theory, or in an ethic, or even in a community—I was interested in God. As a side, that very individualistic and even self-centered desire, curiously, has led me deeper into theology, ethical living, and Christian community than has ever been true of me in the past.
What have been the results? I remember just last year sitting in a class with Dr. Henry Spaulding in which one of the authors we were reading began to speak of criteria by which we can evaluate whether a concept is a concept of God or not. My shift from God as theory to God as Person, pushed me to question that line of thought. A Person is not logical, predictable, or even, in many ways, quantifiable. A person is whatever that person is and any definition must be curtailed by the reality of the individual. I want to know God as God is, not as my philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology, or even cosmology tells me that God should be. I’ve given up trying to predict God’s behavior with sophisticated algorithms and projections—read, theology and doctrine. I want to know God…even if God is a monster by human evaluative standards, I want to know God.
Now, I’m not saying that this is the right approach, but I am convinced now that there is something right about it. I no longer feel qualified to say with absolute certainty what is true about God beyond the often ambiguous narratives and teachings in the canonical Christian Bible. I want to be surprised. Honestly, who could have predicted with absolute certainty the cross given just the writings of the First Testament? And, with all due respect to Tim LaHaye, who can really predict what will come next?
What I am becoming convinced of is this: we have to trust God without being entirely certain of the kind of God that God is. The evidence regarding who God is, it seems to me, could go a number of ways. The cross is a powerful and revelatory event, as are the flood, the Canaanite genocide, and the language of final judgment. Which of these is more reflective of the true nature of God? or are all equally revelatory? Can we really know for sure? Even when I testify to surviving cancer, I am painfully aware that my testimony can be offset by the countless stories of Christians who did not survive the same disease, including a woman in my own church who was diagnosed right around the time that I was.
Pre-cancer, I had constructed for myself a very safe God. A God I understood and approved of. A God that, curiously, looked a lot like me—but, in the words of Karl Barth, writ large. I learned how to operate with that God because I could predict and even preach God’s responses by forecasting God’s reply based on what was consistent with God’s unchanging character—which I had all worked out, theologically, of course. To say it another way, my theology had allowed me to control God.
After cancer, Lucy’s question in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Is He a safe Lion?” takes on new meaning for me. What a wonderful response… “No, He’s not safe. But, He is good.” But, what does good mean? Do I get to decide? Does it mean that I shouldn’t die from cancer? For me, and I recognize how controversial this is: God is either the only one who knows or the one who determines what Good really is. Even knowing God is good doesn’t give me a clear and safe forecast for the future. I (or perhaps we) may be the context in which I come to know God, but I no longer believe that I am the medium through which God is known any more than I determine who my wife, in reality, is simply through my perceptions of her.
I do believe now that God used my cancer to discipline my arrogance. When my experience suggested that God no longer fit in the box I had built for God, then I might have been tempted to build another box, perhaps a larger box, more theologically and philosophically sophisticated. And I have, to some extent, endeavored to do that. But, more than all that, I am attempting now to conceive of a box that is open and made of a more flexible material than wood, steel, or stone.
I believe that the Scriptures themselves—particularly if one is willing to encounter all the Bible, and not carefully selected sections, on its own terms—embrace such a paradoxically fixed and fluid understanding of God. Habakkuk wrestles with God because God has determined to do something in his time that he, prior to this recent revelation, would have thought to be completely inconsistent with God’s character. Similarly, the apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus, was surprised to discover that he had been persecuting the God he thought he had been serving. Revelation even suggests, metaphorically of course, that the humility, weakness, and mercy of the cross will be translated into a battle in which the blood of the wicked runs knee deep.
If my understanding of my journey with cancer can benefit anyone other than me, and it is possible that it cannot, then I offer it to you now as a voice amidst the many voices that have shaped and are shaping your worldview and your living. I needed to be reminded that God is not safe. If I have learned this lesson well, I hope that I have begun to move to that next critical step of faith and say, despite some powerful evidence at times, that God is good. Standing at the foot of the cross, it must have been hard to believe that that sweating, bleeding, moaning, dying, and apparently powerless human being was, periphrastically in the words of Athanasius, simultaneously holding together the entirety of the cosmos. Cancer has allowed me to accept that God, as I experience God, will not always look like God—at least, not according to my criteria. In that way, all of life on this side of eternity is lived in the shadow of the cross.
But, even in the darkness of doubt and despair, I am choosing to believe that this image not only reveals, but also conceals the truth. The disciples witnessed the Resurrected and Ascended Christ, and they experienced the fire falling on Pentecost. The evidence, at times in our history, seems to countermand their testimony. But, with the thief on the cross, I am asked to believe in more than my eyes can see. Cancer brought me back to the cross and challenged me to believe in a dying Lord, not just in the resurrected Christ. Perhaps this is why it is so important that we remember in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s death until He returns.
If life and experience have threatened to shipwreck your faith, I pray that you will find the strength and hope to believe, whatever the present evidence may be.
J. Thomas Johnson
P.S. I routinely read blog posts by people wrestling with life-threatening illness, and the following post by Andy Root of Princeton Theological Seminary was particularly poignant in regard to a very human Christian response to cancer. He’s uses some foul language near the end that I wouldn’t condone, but I do understand the sentiment. Here’s the link: http://www.jakebouma.com/andy-root-on-cancer-theology/.