Thursday, March 12, 2015

Facing Cancer

Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: March 12th, 2015
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:1)
What do we do when our high hopes of faith clash with the harsh realities of life?

I remember being trained for evangelism years ago to share the gospel with people, to open up the Word of God to them, and to share my testimony with them. With step by step explanations and diagrams, I would lead individuals with questions, be engaged with them about the questions of life, and often concluding with a personal testimony of what life in Christ looks like. A typical flow would be something like sharing the powerful effects of faith on born again believers.
  • “I used to be very hot-tempered, but since coming to Christ, I have mellowed.”
  • “I was self-centered but since Christ came into my life, I have become more God-centered and other-centered.”
  • “I was a very unhappy and dissatisfied person, until I met Christ.”
  • I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” (John Newton)
I can also rattle off a list of blessings that people receive from time to time. It can be a huge salary jump or a triple promotion. It can be one’s book entering the list on the New York Times bestseller books. It can also be a surprise present from nowhere, or an answer to a poor missionary’s prayer. For the sick, people’s hopes rest on miracles. For the down and out, hopes rest on a quick turnaround or in extreme cases, a quick end to life. I am not saying that these are bad. No. I thank God for every benefit that comes from God. What I am concerned about are people who place the hope of such blessings as the primary purpose of faith, instead of the glory of God. For people who converted to Christianity on the basis of blessings, good health, and prosperity, the moment the perceived blessings stop, there is a high chance that they will leave the faith.

A) A Happy-Feet Christianity?

As the years go by, I learn that faith is not so simple. Being a Christian is no shield against the harshness and pain that comes from living in a broken world. As much as I like to embrace a beautiful picture of love and grace, of God’s power and might, and the glorious future of being with Christ, I am often brought down to earth to make sense the tragedies of life, in the light of faith. Just as rain from the skies fall on everybody, illnesses, strokes, and cancer could very well happen to ANYBODY. Just because one is a Christian does not make one less susceptible to cancer. We all share this common space on planet earth. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, and live together in various communities around the world. Being Christian is no immunity against the diseases and sicknesses that plagued much of the world. So, what’s the point of being a Christian? First of all, it is about God’s glory, not man’s. It is not about luck or a magical formula to ward off evil. It is about seeing God’s glory being manifested in God’s time. When we promote the gospel to people as if it is a special potion for protection and good health, we will be doing people a disfavor and misrepresenting the gospel. Jesus said that:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
The KJV renders it famously as: “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.

Cancer Patient, Aimee Morgan whose cancer is inoperable
(Picture credit: Kval)
This abundant life promise has become a key word for certain teachers/preachers who instill in their hearers a sense of entitlement and worldly benefit. This brings me to the second point that faith is not about life with earthly riches but life with Christ REGARDLESS of earthly riches. The context of John 10:10 is not about worldly wealth or temporal health. It is about life in Christ. It is about entering into a new way of life in Jesus. All other things are secondary. Life in Christ is primary. It is not skewing the Christian life from the eyes of circumstances. It is seeing the world as it is, from the Life in Christ. The Greek word for ‘life’ is (ζωή) (zoe), which can also be translated as “living” or “way of life.” This way of life has nothing to do with the worldly definition of riches and treasures of this world. It has everything to do with the Kingdom of heaven breaking in to reveal the power and glory of the Risen Christ. As disciples of Christ, we are called to be the salt and light of the world, in spite of our physical weaknesses. Paul reminds us in Romans 8:22-23:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
B) Theology of the Cross

The third point is, faith does not make us perfect or sinless. Instead, faith in Christ enables the Perfect and Sinless Christ to live in us and through us. Unfortunately, certain Christian quarters continue to offer us what Martin Luther called, a “Theology of Glory.” Modern renditions of such a theology come as Christ becoming the magical password to unlock the healing for cancer; to relieve poverty, and to reinstate earthly riches in the name of heaven. Carl Trueman explains it as follows:
In simple terms, the theologian of glory assumed that there was basic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is: If strength is demonstrated through raw power on earth, then God’s strength must be the same, only extended to infinity. To such theologian, the cross is simply foolishness, a piece of nonsense.” (Carl Trueman, quoted in Patheos)
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, people were taunting him to save himself, to summon the power of God to release him and to free people from their misery. Have we thought about how Jesus refused to submit himself to the wishes of man? It would have been easy for him to call upon mighty lightning from heaven or a  dramatic chariot from heaven, followed by warrior angels and cherubims with heavenly sabres. Instead, Jesus chose the will of God, that he suffered and died for us. Trueman continues:
Luther contrasts the theologian of glory with the theologian of the cross. He says true theology is seeing how God has revealed Himself and building our understanding of God on the basis of that revelation. For Luther, that revelation is intensely focused on the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ as crucified at Calvary. And that involves an inverting of our expectations. Where do we see God’s power? We see it in the weakness of His Son hanging on the cross. Where do we see God’s righteousness? We see it in the wrath that is poured down upon His Son as He hangs upon the cross. And how do we, therefore, get right with God? We don’t present God with the filthy rags that are our own righteousness. We need to despair of ourselves, to become weak, and to look to the righteousness and the strength of God as manifested in Christ as the basis for our standing before Him.” (interview)
C) God is Bigger, Much Bigger

When J Todd Billings heard the news, he was devastated. Diagnosed with incurable blood cancer, a cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma, his tears flowed freely. Words of comfort too. Yet, of all the cards, emails, letters, and words of encouragement that came, one little note from a 15-year old girl topped it all.
“While I had received many cards in the previous days, this one was different. “God is bigger than cancer!” Yes. She did not say, “God will cure you of this cancer,” or “God will suffer with you.” God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama. The sky was closing in, enveloping my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger.” (J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament, Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2015, p1)
Sharing his story of initial devastation and his ongoing painful chemotherapy treatment, Billings had the opportunity to let the harsh reality of cancer shape his faith and sharpen his focus on God. Sometimes, we let the problems of this world shrink our understanding of faith. We then adopt a triumphalist attitude that says things like Christ being a shield against the bullets of cancer; or Christ being the winner by helping us win the bet to a soccer game; or Christ unlocking the financial fortunes of the world to channel it into our bank accounts. Sometimes that happens. Most other times not. For Billings, faith in the midst of cancer was a poignant reminder whether he was more interested in “praying for healing” versus “praying for the kingdom.”

The mystery of faith is that we never really know what God’s will is until God reveals it to us. In prayer, we put ourselves in a position to hear what God is saying. In prayer, we submit ourselves totally to God’s timing, and not be enslaved to man's. We are totally dependent on God. God is God whether we are healed or not. We can only trust God who is the ultimate Judge, the absolute Decision-Maker whether He chooses to heal or NOT to heal. That is what the essence of trusting God is. For when we sing hymns like “I Surrender All,” we are proclaiming to God that nothing on earth will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus for us. We can ask questions about why cancer or why bad things happen to supposedly “good” people. We can even ponder about why things are not going our way at any one time. Being under the lordship of Christ simply means this: We can ask the questions but only God is sovereign to give answers or NOT to give any answer at all. That’s why we must learn to cultivate lament as another dimension of our faith. That’s how we grow when the harsh realities of life challenge the high hopes of faith.

THOUGHT: “Of course it will seem that we wrestle with our thoughts for too long . . . Only when we are finally reduced to the point of helplessness, the realization that we will never be able to deal with our loneliness and grief by ourselves, will we give in to chesedh (God’s loving kindness) and let God bring to us the gifts of his love. When we finally let God be God-for-us and participate in his plans willingly, we can discover the Joy of them.” (Marva Dawn, Morning by Morning, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001, p6)


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