When God Doesn’t Look Like God:
A Christian Confrontation with Cancer and Other Evils
By: Rev. J. Thomas Johnson, B.A., M.Div (www.amazon.com/author/jthomasjohnson)
How can we remain faithful to Jesus in the midst of personal tragedy? When God Doesn’t Look Like God weaves the faith-shattering questions that surface in life’s darkest seasons into the tapestry of biblical narrative.
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When God Doesn’t Look Like God is a spiritual autobiography of my own attempt theologically to retain my Christian faith in the midst of cancer. Tragedy often places us in the shadow of the cross, trying desperately to cling to the hope that a dying man is indeed the Lord of all creation. When God has been stripped of His glory and no longer appears to be the God we have believed Him to be or, more personally, now need Him to be, how can we remain faithful and hopeful?
That governing metaphor provides the context in which I explore six of the most challenging spiritual questions that I have confronted during my walk with cancer:
- Which of God’s promises can Christians claim in this life?
- Why would God allow us to be so vulnerable to our environment?
- Does death expose a false faith?
- Why doesn’t God seem to act justly and fairly now?
- How can I be sure that God can be trusted?
- Why this road, God?
Each chapter begins and ends with personal anecdotes and struggles from my own journey with cancer. Those personal reflections frame an exploration of Christian Scripture and teaching which attempts to provide a narrative context for each inquiry within the larger story of salvation.
Chapter one introduces the guiding metaphor of the shadow of the cross along with the foundational elements of my own spiritual struggle with faith in the midst of cancer.
Chapter two addresses the question of God’s faithfulness to His promises by exploring the distinctions which Christian scripture draws between the Covenant of Sinai and the New Covenant of Jesus.
Chapter three seeks to understand our human vulnerability to peril by tracing the metaphor of water and the destructive forces that it represents through the narrative of Scripture beginning in creation and terminating in the description of the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation.
Chapter four endeavors to create space for the reality of death and dying in the Christian life by surveying the treatment of those concepts throughout the Christian Bible.
Chapter five confronts perhaps the most challenging inquiry of the book—that of God’s apparent indifference to human evil—by placing human wickedness under the scope of God’s mercy and patience.
Chapter six recognizes the reality that many who suffer often question the trustworthiness and the goodness of God. This admission leads to a realization that the biblical witness itself provides room for such doubt within Christian faith.
And, chapter seven offers a suggestion as to why God has asked humanity to walk the road that has been uncovered by the prior explorations.
A Unique Approach to a Theology of Suffering
When I was diagnosed with cancer I was surprised at how few books had been written by Christians on the place of these kinds of experiences in Christian faith. Most books are filled with proverbs and platitudes intended to help people receive encouragement from Scripture (e.g., When God and Cancer Meet [Tyndale House, 2002], Praying through Cancer [Thomas Nelson, 2007], Grace for Each Hour [Bethany House, 2005]). These offerings don’t address questions so much as they attempt to provide edification for those who are falling into despair.
However, for those like me who wanted real engagement with significant questions, I could find very little help. There are a few popular books which attempt to provide some substantial engagement with the more challenging questions arising from tragedy. However, most of these tend to emphasize God’s control, God’s goodness, sin’s consequence, personal perseverance, God’s discipline, and heaven’s promise of eventual justice (e.g., David Jeremiah’s A Bend in the Road [W Publishing Group, 2000] and Emilie Barnes’ A Journey through Cancer [Harvest House Publishers, 2003]).
What seems lacking is a more comprehensive understanding of the place of suffering and tragedy in creation as a whole and in the Christian life in particular. In other words, where does suffering fit in the larger story of God’s redemption and salvation of humanity? I have endeavored to bring all the threads that I have just identified into a tapestry woven from biblical narrative.
The more people I talk to, the more this sort of an engagement with Scripture seems necessary. However, outside of academic texts written for a primarily scholastic audience, I have not found anything that approaches what I have attempted to provide in the marketplace.
J. Thomas Johnson