Whenever a person–or someone he cares about–is diagnosed with a serious illness or other forms of suffering, he begins to wrestle with issues of life and death, the purpose of suffering, and beliefs about healing. He can ignore these things at other times, but they are right in front of him when serious suffering becomes a reality.
People have many different beliefs about suffering, healing, and so forth, and these topics have been debated for a very long time. I know that I won’t resolve any Great Debate about these things but I thought I’d share a few of the things that I am pondering as JJ faces surgery, the next (and hopefully the last) step in his battle with cancer. Besides, I simply like pondering.
It’s very tricky and difficult to write about suffering because suffering is messy, and scary, and not easy to understand. Faith doesn’t always look neat and tidy, the way we think faith ought to. We want answers when there aren’t always answers. Encouragement can sound–or be–ill-timed, clumsy, and shallow, even when our hearts are filled with love for the sufferer. But I will do my best to write my thoughts about some aspects of suffering.
First of all, I’d like to say that I absolutely, positively, believe that God can heal any disease. He wouldn’t be much of a God if He couldn’t. The Bible mentions many instances–in both the Old and the New Testament–in which He miraculously delivered people from illness. I, myself, was healed of a chronic disease several years ago, but only after…well, I will describe that later.
I know that many Christians believe that God ALWAYS heals EVERY disease. I do not believe this. I believe that there will be a will there be a time when God does take away all death, pain, grief, and tears. The Bible, in describing events yet to come, says that there will be a day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will no longer be any death; and there will no longer be any mourning, crying or pain…” (Revelation 21:1-4, Complete Jewish Bible). However, that day is not yet here. There is still death and tears and pain.
I do not believe God ALWAYS heals because not only do I not see any people hundreds or thousands of years old, but all a person has to do is talk with friends, participate in prayer groups, connect with people at FB, visit hospitals, or listen to the news, to hear heart-wrenching stories of people who have serious illnesses and disabilities and other problems. Some recover, but not everyone does. Some die, no matter how strong their faith was or how many prayers were tearfully and fervently prayed for them. Not only do I think that God doesn’t physically heal everyone, but neither do I believe He delivers everyone from pain or suffering. Over the centuries and continuing to our times, millions of Jews and Christians have been oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for believing in Him.
Becoming aware of pain and suffering forces a person to wrestle with why God heals, delivers, rescues, and protects some people and not others. We have to wrestle with such questions as why some people get delayed and miss the Tragic Event that kills hundreds, while others arrive “on time” and are one of the “unlucky” lost? Is God “good” and “praiseworthy” when lives are saved but “bad” and “worth cursing” when lives aren’t? Does He protect some and abandon others? Does He loves those He “rescues” from pain and not love those who aren’t rescued? Do we somehow have to merit His deliverance? Anyone can trust God when everything is going the way he wants, but what if things don’t turn out well? Can we trust God then?
I think that in order to believe that God physically heals and delivers everyone now, we have to close our eyes to the many who are not healed or delivered. If we believe God is supposed to heal and deliver everyone but He doesn’t, we must believe we are betrayed by a God who doesn’t keep His promises. A third option is to understand that in His goodness, love, and wisdom, God really does see and know more than we do, His thoughts and plans are beyond us, that He has answers that we don’t have, and that healing and deliverance might not always look like we expect it to. This is the option I choose.
I do not comprehend the reasons for suffering. I sometimes wonder if a purpose of suffering is to cause us to wrestle with important questions or to face ourselves in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t. I know that God can reach people through suffering, and teach people about Him through suffering, and heal wounded places in people through suffering. I can understand that often people who have suffered deeply are among the most faith-filled and compassionate of all people. I hear stories of people such as Joni Eareckson Tada, who misjudged the shallowness of the water when she dove into Chesapeake Bay as a teenager and became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down. She was never healed of this injury, but God used her BECAUSE of her injury to encourage many others with disabilities.
In my own life, I have experienced God using suffering for my good. Various sufferings have taken me out of abuse, have drawn me into deeper faith, have taught me deep truths, and has healed wounded places in me. One of those experiences occurred when JJ was around 4-6 years old.
I was raised in a home in which love was based on performance. Deep inside, I feared that I could not be loved unless I deserved or earned it. I felt this not only from my family (who actually did reject me when I didn’t prove my love for them to their satisfaction), but I feared it might be true of God and my husband as well if I couldn’t deserve/earn their love. I knew this was a problem for me so I began praying Ephesians 3:16-19 for myself:
“I pray that from the treasures of his glory he will empower you [me] with inner strength by his Spirit,17 so that the Messiah may live in your hearts [my heart] through your [my] trusting. Also I pray that you [I] will be rooted and founded in love, 18 so that you [I], with all God’s people, will be given strength to grasp the breadth, length, height and depth of the Messiah’s love, 19 yes, to know it, even though it is beyond all knowing, so that you [I] will be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Complete Jewish Bible)
I guess I had sort of expected God to answer this prayer by filling me with warm fuzzy feelings of His love. Instead, I got sick. I became sick with chronic sinus problems and I had at least two bouts of Mono, both of which contributed to me being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Doctors do not know what causes CFS or how to cure it. It is debilitating. The best way I can describe it is by saying that a normal person’s “vitality” is like elastic. He gets tired and “stretched out,” he rests, he is refreshed and “bounces back.” But with CFS, a person’s “vitality” is like elastic with no elasticity. He gets tired, he rests, but he is not refreshed and he does not bounce back to strength. If he tries to push himself, he weakens further. When I had CFS, I could cook, do light housework, and homeschool JJ, but no more. On my bad days, I could do nothing. There were times I was so very tired that all I could do was weep–not because I was sad, but because I was so deep down tired. It was awful.
When I struggled with CFS, I felt that I should not pray for healing because I strongly sensed that somehow God had something very important to teach me through it. I wasn’t sure what. Some people, not everyone, knew about my illness and they respected my belief about not praying for healing. However, one well-meaning guy at church accused me of being “too proud” to pray for healing. He told me that “a man needs a strong wife and you are not being a strong wife.” He wasn’t aware that he was aggravating a deep fear, one that God was preparing to heal. I really think people should be very careful about saying such things to people who are suffering. Not only do they make the suffering one’s pain deeper, but they don’t always know what God is preparing to do.
CFS forced me to confront the reality that I did not have the strength to do enough or the ability to deserve or earn love. I could barely do daily tasks, and I was completely unable to “serve God” in the church. CFS also forced me to learn to rely on God, moment by moment, for strength. I couldn’t get through the day without Him. Slowly, as I learned to rely on Him, I also learned to thank Him for His strength, for His help. Then one day, like a lightning bolt driving into my spirit, I suddenly “knew” that God LOVES me with a love beyond imagining. You must understand that this does not mean that we can live any way we want. No. But I was struggling with a deep belief that I had to somehow deserve or earn love, and God was teaching me about His love.
Anyway, immediately after I comprehended God’s love at this deeper level, people suddenly began to pray for my healing. EJ began praying for my healing, my small group began to pray for me, my friends from all over began to pray for me, and the dear couple who cut our hair told me they were praying for my healing. My small group gathered around me and prayed for me and from that moment I was healed. I even tested that it was true by working very, very hard at moving heavy rocks in my garden. I pushed myself, and after a night of rest I was refreshed and bounced back rather than feel limp and without strength.
My story is one of healing, which might confirm to people that God ALWAYS heals, but healing didn’t come because I sought it. Instead, I believed the illness was a “strangely wrapped gift” from God, given to me because He loved me, and I learned to thank Him for it. I don’t think it’s wrong to seek healing (unless God says not to) but too often we focus on physical healing when spiritual or emotional healing might be more essential. The main point is not merely physical health but complete wholeness and a relationship with God. Sometimes He accomplishes this through healing and sometimes through a person learning to live in faith through the day-to-day struggles. It can take great faith to believe in healing and great faith to trust God’s daily provision. I think God had a specific purpose for CFS in my life, and when the purpose was fulfilled, He removed the disease. However, I have had some forms of suffering for years, and I know that many other people suffer greatly all their lives, and I believe that these sufferings, also, have a purpose, although I don’t think anyone always knows all the reasons for suffering or all that God accomplishes through it.
Some suffering that people go through is so terrible that it breaks my heart. I have at times thought that “If I were God, I would heal, or rescue, or protect these people. I wouldn’t make them suffer like this.” I do not understand the “why’s” of it at all. But I think God hears our groans and suffers alongside us in way that we can’t comprehend. Also, God said His thoughts and ways are higher than ours, and I believe this is true. As I have gone through life, I have experienced heartbreaking things but through it all, I have also experienced wounded places healed, I have learned awesome truths, my faith has grown, I have overcome fears, and many other good things, more numerous to count. In addition, these very sufferings have made me more compassionate toward others. I can honesty echo “Praised be God, Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, compassionate Father, God of all encouragement and comfort; who encourages us in all our trials, so that we can encourage others in whatever trials they may be undergoing with the encouragement we ourselves have received from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
All these experiences have caused me to believe that God is utterly righteous and loving and everything that He does is good even if I don’t understand it. I believe that He will always do what is best, even if it hurts, in much the same way (but deeper) that I would always try to do what is best for my son (including tattling on him to the doctor) even if it causes him pain and he hates it. I believe that God is good if He heals and He is good if He doesn’t. He is good if He rescues from pain and He is good if He doesn’t. He is good if He protects from suffering and He is good if He leads us through it.
Several years ago I began to teach myself Hebrew. As I learned Hebrew, I began to meet Jewish and nonJewish believers who are Hebraic scholars and teachers. Both the language and the teachers have revolutionized my faith and life. One of the many teachers I learned from is Skip Moen. He, like many others, stretches and challenges my thinking. I get emails from him each day with Hebrew teachings about the Scriptures. Yesterday I read an email from Skip that went along perfectly with the thoughts I am writing about in this post, which I have been pondering for several days. The whole article, entitled “Backtracking” is very worth reading. It’s short and won’t take long to read. I will quote just a few paragraphs here:
All the LORD’s paths are kindness and truth for the keepers of His pact and His precepts. Psalm 25:10 Robert Alter translation
All – Do you really believe that all of YHWH’s ways are kindness and truth? Are you just as likely to proclaim this with David when the plane crashes and everyone is killed, when the soldiers invade and rape village women, when your child is born with a debilitating condition, when you lose your home, when you are robbed? Are all the ways of YHWH [God] still kindness and truth?
…”We all theoretically know that YHWH is good and that whatever He does or allows serves His purposes. We all theoretically affirm that we trust in Him because we do not see the beginning and the end. But when it comes to actual practice, we slip from the holy grail of sovereignty. We act as if our purposes are the same as the higher purposes of God. We think the world should behave according to us. We forget “all” (kol).
I propose a small Hebraic exercise. Today, no matter what happens, say out loud to yourself, “This too is the kindness and truth of God.” Each time you are confronted by a bend in the road, a twist in your plans, an unexpected detour, say, “This too is the kindness and truth of the LORD.” Make an audible declaration of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness right now, and continue to reassert that claim of faith throughout the entire day. Don’t ask for explanations. Don’t try to imagine why and why not? Just declare that all of them are His.”
I like that: No matter what happens, “this too is the Kindness and Truth of God.”
People often quote Roman 8:28 in times of suffering: “Furthermore, we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called in accordance with his purpose…” It says EVERYTHING works for good. I think the “everything” in this verses means “everything”–not just the pleasant things things that we enjoy. It means that even though it’s hard to understand, even the bad, painful, scary things are the Kindness and Truth of God.
I know this post is long, and I probably should split it into two posts or something, but I have a little more to say that is closely related so I will continue:
One of the reasons why I have been pondering all these things is because of JJ’s battle with cancer. We’ve made it through a lot. He survived Chemo. He got through the followup appointment with the oncologist with a good report. Now he faces the surgery to remove the lymph node in his back. This surgery is serious. The surgeon is going to make a long incision in the front of his body. I don’t know how long or where it starts and ends. I tend to get faint when it comes to stuff like this, so my family doesn’t always tell me medical details, thank you very much. Anyway, the surgeon will have to move aside major organs to cut out the lymph node, which is located between his lungs and his spine. If the surgeon isn’t careful, he could easily cut a nerve which could cause “a thousand terrible things,” including paralyzation. And,of course, in any surgery there is a risk of complications which can lead to death. The surgeon does this surgery several times a day, and he is the best in the world, and I truly believe that JJ will come through it just fine, but still, this is my beloved son, and such a surgery is scary. Deep inside me there is a little trembling “What if?”
I could pretend that I didn’t have any fears about this surgery, and then everyone would think I was awesome. I could hide even from myself that I was a bit scared. But instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, I drag it out and stare it down. What if something VERY BAD happens during the surgery? Will I still believe God is good? Or do I only believe it when everything works out the way I want? How deep is my faith? Can I survive the death of a child?
Sometimes it seems to me that when a person confesses to being scared (or sad), Christians immediately conclude that the person has little faith. I believe God made us with emotions, which include joy and happiness and awe as well as things like sadness and fear and struggle. I believe that tears can be just as healthy as laughter. Personally, I think that any parent who says he/she is not scared about his/her son having cancer or having major surgery is not completely honest. In fact, maybe I am being unfair, but I suspect that any Christian who says he is never sad, never scared, never struggles, is dishonest or delusional. Or else he is a nonhuman alien. Or a robot. I think that being sad in sad situations, being scared in scary situations, or struggling when we don’t understand something is NOT necessarily an indication of weak faith. I think it’s normal…and also can be an opportunity for learning and growth.
I think scary situations can cause us to confront and overcome fears–or grow in other ways. Sometimes I think that when we don’t let people express their fears, we isolate them from comfort. I have a friend who years ago, when her children were very small, suffered some health problems. She didn’t know what caused the problems and she was afraid she had something seriously wrong with her and would die. When she mentioned this, everyone around her told her things like “Don’t worry. Nothing is seriously wrong. You will be fine. Relax.” When my friend told me her fears, I didn’t say that everything would be ok. I hate unsupported statements and promises that can’t be kept. “Bad” things happen to even the “goodest” people. I know that sometimes people are diagnosed with serious illnesses. Sometimes they die. I didn’t have medical knowledge that would enable me to diagnose whether or not she had a life threatening condition (and neither did those others) so how could I tell her that she would be ok? I listened to her fears, which really was anxiety that if she died, her children would have no one to care about their spiritual development. I couldn’t honestly promise that I would make sure they were taught about God because I live several states away and the reality was that I probably would never again see her children if she died. However, I did promise what I could: “If your condition is serious and you die, I promise that I will pray for your children every day.” Then I sort of mentally kicked myself for being the most pathetic encourager ever. But surprisingly that is exactly what comforted her. I think she just wanted to have her fears heard and acknowledged and to know that someone cared about the spiritual well-being of her children. Sometimes I wonder if the best way to encourage someone is not to tell them what to feel or think, but to really HEAR what they are saying. Sometimes I really HEAR people. But, honestly, sometimes I forget to listen. And, by the way, my friend is still alive and raising her children.
If I go through suffering, I want to TRY to remember that this too is the Kindness and Truth of God. I know sometimes I will forget when things get rough. I think that’s ok. I think God knows I will sometimes forget, and He can still hold me close. If others go through suffering, I want to remember to listen to them and just be there for them. I like what my dear friend said: “My theology for suffering — suffer with the one who is suffering, love them, cry with them, laugh with them, be rational and irrational with them, be quiet with them and more than anything give them lots of hugs.” This friend has been an awesome comfort to us as we battled JJ’s cancer. I am not even close to being that awesome at comforting others.
I was raised with the teaching that when Jesus (or Yeshua in Hebrew) died on the cross, the curtain dividing the Most Holy Place where the Presence of God was from the rest of the Temple was ripped in two, signifying that we now have direct access to God. I am sure that this event has deep profound meaning, and I am sure that I don’t understand all the depth of it. But this theological teaching seems rather sterile and dry when compared to the Hebraic teaching I have heard. The Messianic Jews–those who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah–say that God the Father was so grief-stricken when His beloved Son was killed on the cross that, like any father in that region of the world, He tore His clothes (the curtain) and caused the sun to darken and the earth to quake. THAT sort of love, and THAT sort of grief over the death of a child, I can totally understand. Yes, a child’s death might be for a world-saving purpose, but at the time of death there is only dark clothes ripping, world-splitting GRIEF.
So why do we expect people to peacefully smile when a loved one dies? A FB friend recently lost her adult daughter. Some of the comments to her statuses about her grief advised her to trust God and to think peaceful thoughts of Him. I wanted to tell her that it was ok to weep and wail and rip her clothes in grief, and to make the skies darken and make the earth quake because her dear daughter is no longer with her. I can’t imagine going through that kind of agony. I don’t want to ever know what it’s like.
I tend to be very honest with God. I don’t hide what I am feeling or thinking whether it’s positive or negative. Joys, amazement, anger, grief, discouragement, confusion…I tell Him all about it. I don’t pretend that I am something that I am not, that I am strong if I am weak, that I am happy if I am sad. Circumstances such as major surgery can cause a person to ponder and confront various fears. But whenever I get a bit anxious about JJ’s surgery, I drag the fear out into the open, and I say something like this,
I absolutely believe that You are loving and You are good. But this surgery is scary. I know that JJ is in Your hands and his surgeon is skilled so I think that he will make it through the surgery just fine. However, I also know that there is always a possibility that he won’t. Sometimes terrible things happen. Please, please keep JJ safe all through this surgery, and please let his recovery go well, and please make this the final victory of his battle with cancer.
I want You to know that I believe that no matter what happens, “this too is the Kindness and Truth of God”–of You. But I also want to tell You that if JJ dies, it will be the darkest time of my life. I will want to rip my clothes in grief, and make the skies dark, and cause the earth to quake–like You did when Your beloved Son died. If such a dark day comes, I will need You to get me through it because I know that I won’t be able to get myself through it. But I want You to know that even if I would make the earth darken and quake with my grief, I still, deep down, will want to believe that somehow, in ways I don’t understand, “This, too, is Your Kindness and Truth.”
I love You, Father.