Don’t waste your cancer

I mentioned to a friend at the Oxygen conference last year that my father had cancer and was receiving treatment. He then asked if I’d read a little booklet by John Piper called Don’t waste your cancer. I hadn’t heard of it and, to be honest, I found the idea of the book a bit too intense. Maybe he picked up on this because soon after the conference he made contact with me to apologise if he’d been insensitive in speaking of it.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I also had cancer growing inside me. I don’t think I’d even begun to put myself into my father’s shoes, to understand what he was going through. ‘Cancer’ was just a word – mind you a scary word. If I’d got hold of Piper’s book and given it to my father back then, it would have been rather academic, simply passing on the ideas of someone else. Of course, things are very different now. I’ve read the book, and passed it on ‘carefully’ to one or two others, including my dad (who is now in remission).

This was the first book that I read after being released from hospital – helped by the fact that it is only 15 pages long! It crams 11 chapters into its tiny size, but each one packs a punch, and really needs to be considered slowly and carefully. I don’t think this is a book for everyone. It’s useful and true, but I think to make the most of this book, you need to have begun to experience something of the pain and tragedy that gives rise to it. This is a booklet for Christians with cancer or some other serious condition, for their families and carers, for Christian doctors or medical staff, for pastors, and for people who want to seriously encourage those struggling with their suffering in a context of faith.

Let me offer you a snapshot of the booklet by outlining the title of each chapter:

We waste our cancer…

  1. if we don’t hear in our groanings the hope-filled labor pains of a fallen world.
  2. if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.
  3. if we believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  4. if we seek comfort from our odds rather than from God.
  5. if we refuse to think about death.
  6. if we think that “beating” our cancer is staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  7. if we spend too much time reading about our cancer and not enough time reading about God
  8. if we let it drive us into solitude instead of deepen our relationships with manifest affection.
  9. if we grieve as those who have no hope.
  10. if we treat our sin as casually as before.
  11. if we fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and the glory of Christ.

In some ways I’m not ready to review this book. I’m still working through each of the points. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea and another thing altogether to live it out. But I have come to appreciate the tough love in many of these reflections.

God has been pushing me to look forward to heaven. When life is so good here and now, it is hard to consider eternity with him as something better. He has been helping me to move through the pain and grief, to focus less on myself, and to appreciate him and all that he’s given me. God has been helping me to love what is good and hate what is evil, even as I see it in my own heart. I’m realising more and more that my hope lies not in medical advances, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded that grief is normal, appropriate and healthy, but that I can grieve with a hope grounded in God’s promises.

9 thoughts on “Don’t waste your cancer”

  1. Thanks for the reflection Dave. Your honesty is refreshing.
    I haven’t read Piper’s book but can see why it would be hard going.

    I am starting to understand the extent, depth, width… and plain old pain of grief.
    When James died I was immersed in it so suddenly and without warning.
    It made me think whether I had unknowingly swallowed a prosperity doctrine.

    The reality of death is real… but we avoid it.
    The comfort of the Gospel is also real, but we so easily close our eyes to it until in God’s grace and kindness we desperately need it.

    I am thankful for so much in my life… for James, for the gift of being married to him for just under 23 years… but mostly for what Jesus has done.
    Jesus rose from the dead… and yes I’ve known it for so long but the reality of this truth is now really hitting home.
    Christian hope is rich beyond measure… enabling us to face incredible heartache.

    I know that this will be what gets you and Fiona through… and I pray also for your 4 kids.

  2. Powerful words Dave – yours and Piper’s.

    Dealing with death and grief from an intellectual point of view is one thing -but when the rubber hits the road you learn quickly if what you think is mere intellectual assent.

  3. Thank you Dave. I have read this little but brilliant book at least once a year since the diagnosis in 1988 and every year there is something new to think about. I still disagree with Chapter 2 but God and I are still talking about it. Thank you.

  4. it’s a gift? Yes, God can and does use it for his purposes, and it’s a gift that he is doing so, but is the cancer itself a gift? Isn’t it evil? What does Piper mean there?

  5. Thank you all for the comments. I know that that they aren’t ivory tower, theoretical issues for any of you. This is a challenging little book – both theologically and existentially.

    Like you Jennifer, Fiona and I anticipate wrestling with it for sometime yet.

    Laura, the question about ‘gift’ is a hard one. We don’t want to attribute evil to God and it is hard for us to think of cancer as anything but evil. It’s certainly a product of the fall and something that will be completely eradicated in the new creation. Piper acknowledges that Satan is real and brings evil upon people, but he also reminds us that his power and reach in constrained. He can only do what God allows. God’s purposes prevail – as it says in Genesis 50:18, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

    Rob, thank you for referencing the additional comments by David Powlison. They are a very helpful and pastoral supplement to Piper’s notes. You and Laura should connect – same city!

  6. I’m glad that this book appeared on your list.

    You may not know this, but I too, have had cancer.
    When I was first diagnosed, I went to Koorong in search of this book. I wandered between rows and rows of bookshelves a while, trying to find it without having to ask someone for it by name. Each time I imagined asking, imagined saying the words, I could feel my throat tightening and tears swelling. At least 2 hours passed this way.
    As a consequence, I flipped through and browsed many, many other books. Some, came home with me. The most notable of these was “Face to Face With Cancer” by Marion Stroud. I’m wondering if you’ve read it??
    I eventually found that I could ask a shop assistant to help me find it, without feeling that the rawness of my emotions were too confronting for them to bear. We both laughed when we saw how small it was. But, it was exactly what I was needing!! It packs a punch! I was needing to be shown HOW to hold on to God as the rudder, to steer me through the storm.
    I found that the most difficult things to face were
    1) having to make a decision about which treatment option/s to take …. And to choose quickly!
    2) pain…….which overwhelmingly saps emotional and intellectual resources.
    Now, merely because I was lucky to have a surgical option to remove it all(mastectomy) and I had no evidence of it in my lymph nodes, I’m as close as they can get to a cure.

    I’m on the other side of that storm now, but there are other storms to sail through.
    You’ve inspired me to re-read that little book.

    Deb O

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