It’s a question many people have been asking me. And believe me, I’ve asked it myself. I’m not a smoker. I haven’t spent my life hanging around smokers. So how did I end up with a lung cancer? I know it’s not a smokers’ cancer, but that doesn’t explain why I have it.
There are lots of things that go through the mind. Is it genetic? My grandfather had cancer, my father has recently had cancer, and I haven’t explored the family tree any further. But each of these cancers are so different. There doesn’t appear to be any connections between them, other than the ‘C’ word.
Have I brought it on myself with overwork and stress? Being the pastor of a church may seem like a pretty cushy job, but I can tell you it ain’t! Mentoring a team of staff, managing a significant budget, coming up with talks each week, pastoring hundreds of people, juggling church leadership with a university ministry and sports chaplaincy, raising up and training leaders, running conferences, admin, change and rebuilding year after year. Then there’s the stuff that goes pearshaped, the breakdown in relationships, the staff conflicts, helping the schizophrenic who then turns on you, counselling couples with broken marriages, comforting grieving parents, and the list goes on. A friend once told me that you couldn’t pay him enough to do all that stuff! Not that I’d change this (not all of it anyway!) and I thank God for the opportunities he’s given me.
Or is it the imbalance of life, getting it wrong, living on stress and adrenalin, insufficient exercise, too many coffees, not taking my lunch to work, staying up late to finish off work, working on days off, not allowing enough time for the fun stuff? Where should I lay the blame?
There are some who believe that I must accept the blame. I’ve clearly done something to deserve it. Perhaps it’s spiritual karma that is causing the suffering. Maybe I’ve done something that’s resulted in me getting sick. Some Christians might claim that God is teaching me a lesson, or disciplining me, or punishing me for specific things I’ve done wrong. They might suggest if I own up to my actions then maybe I’ll be healed, or spared further suffering. Others would claim that Satan has me in his cross-hairs, wanting to damage not only my life, but my faith in God.
I reckon there could be some truth in some of the things above. Genetics, lifestyle, and spiritual factors may all play a part. But it’s not helpful to speculate or jump to conclusions about what lies behind it all. It’s tempting to fall into the trap of Job’s so-called ‘comforters’ and presume to speak for God. I find myself going back over my life, and words, and decisions, wondering if something I’ve done is responsible for the cancer. But I can’t find an answer and it probably doesn’t help. The truth is I haven’t been given a divine diagnosis. God hasn’t given me an explanation, and he may never. He’s under no obligation to do so.
I don’t know the reasons why I have this particular cancer at this particular time. But let me tell you what I do know! We live in a messed-up fallen world. The Christian explanation for this, is that we’ve all chosen to turn away from our creator and this has serious repercussions. We forfeit the joy of living in harmony with God. We experience the pain of fractured and broken relationships with one another. We damage ourselves and our environment through our selfishness. In short, we’ve turned our backs on God and we now live with the consequences. Pain, suffering, tragedy and grief have become a normal part of human experience. Cancer, my cancer, all cancers are part of this fallen world. This doesn’t explain why particular things happen to particular people, but it certainly puts them in context.
In fact, from the moment we’re born we live under the shadow of death. It’s hard to accept this when we’re young. Old age seems seems so far away, but it’s an obvious fact of life that each of us will die at some point. It may not be soon, but it’s guaranteed to happen. From a Christian perspective, we not only live under the shadow of death, we also live under the sentence of death. Death is God’s judgment for our spiritual anarchy. It sounds harsh, and it is. There’s nothing nice or natural about death.
You might be thinking, what a gloomy pessimistic post. Life sucks and then you die! Is this all there is?
Let me change tone. The Bible is not fundamentally a book about why we die, but about how we can live. God cares deeply about our suffering. Jesus has shared our human experience and endured greater pain than we could ever imagine. He was rejected, tortured and crucified for no human reason other than he was a threat to the religious establishment. And yet God had a purpose in this awful death… through one death to save many lives. Jesus paid the price for our rebellion (sin) so that we could live. He overcame death to give real hope to all who will trust him.
He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
Not only is there hope for individuals, but through the death and resurrection of Christ there is hope for this world. God promises a new creation. There’s a future for people struggling with chronic sickness and terminal illness. I don’t expect to be saved from death for, even if I am healed of my cancer, I will eventually die of something else. God’s word offers me a better and enduring hope beyond death. The final scenes in the Bible point to the wonder of what is to come. The language is a little unusual, dripping with images from other parts of the Bible, but the basic idea is clear. God isn’t done with us yet! He has better things in store for those who belong to him…
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
What great words. What a tremendous hope. This momentary life is not all there is! There is hope and peace beyond the storm. Jesus has come back from the dead to reveal what lies ahead for all who will follow him.
(first published in macarisms.com on 22/5/12)