Great title. Great cover. Great book! Wednesdays were pretty normal: A boy, cancer, and God by Michael Kelley has given me plenty to think about. It’s an open and honest story of a father wrestling with faith questions, after his boy is diagnosed with leukaemia. All the books I’ve read on cancer and serious illness so far, have been written by the patient themselves. This book, by the father, feels even more potent. When it’s happening to me, that’s bad enough, but if it were my own child, then I suspect I’d find it even harder. I especially recommend this book to parents who face the heartache of their children having serious illnesses. This is a battle ground for faith. Not just intellectual ascent, but struggle to keep trusting in God.
Kelley was trained as a pastor and thought he knew all the right answers to most problems. He figured he understood faith. It was a noun. Joshua’s cancer put this to the test. He began to realise it was something he needed to choose. It was one thing to have a set of beliefs, but another thing entirely to act on them in adversity. If God was truly in control of this world, then what did that mean for the evil and cruelty he saw and was now experiencing? He couldn’t pick and choose what he liked about God. If God was to be trusted for real, then this meant trusting him in the good times and the bad.
Faith and doubt are sometimes seen as opposites. Kelley shows how they are often part of the same experience. He’s on solid scriptural ground with this, quoting the man who came to Jesus in Mark 9:24, saying “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” There is a humility in these words. The man’s failings are obvious. All he can do is trust in Jesus, because his own resources are lacking. Isn’t this the essence of faith – trusting in Jesus, rather than trusting in our own faith? I wonder how often those who are perceived to have a ‘strong faith’ are tempted to trust in the wrong thing – ultimately themselves? As Kelley writes…
What if our definition of faith is wrong? What if we have been putting faith in our own ability to have faith? What if real faith is not necessarily absent of questions and doubts; what if real faith is more about what we do with doubt than whether we have it? (p33)
As Kelley describes the impact of chemo on his boy, I find myself feeling most of what he describes. He speaks of the toxic impact, the drugs, the side effects, the pain killers. He also describes the psychological impact, the emotional pain, and the spiritual questioning. Why are these things happening? He introduces us to the experience of Job in the Bible, and his quest to find answers from God. Job puts his challenges to God, and yet God chooses not to answer them. Instead, through four chapters, God makes himself known. Not why, but who, is the answer God gives.
Never once did God crack the door of eternity and say, “See this whole thing started when Satan came walking in here…” Never once did He take Job into the future to show him the good that would come from his struggle. Never once did He reveal the way He would redeem Job’s pain. Never did God show Job one of the billions of Bibles that would be printed in the future, all containing his story. Not one single answer to Job’s specific questions. Just descriptions of himself. (p50)
Kelley shares his ongoing struggles to find evidence of God’s love. The circumstances of pain seem to argue against God being loving towards him. Where is God when he’s needed? Why doesn’t he fix things up when he’s asked? He writes…
I didn’t need a Jesus who was sleeping in the boat while the storms raged around His friends. I needed a Jesus who was turning over the tables of sickness and disease and calling out cancerous cells like they were demons. (p56)
I can certainly relate. What a great picture! But, if we only look to our circumstances for proof of God’s love it can easily seem like God has given up on us. We need to remember how acquainted Jesus is with human suffering. He didn’t offer sympathy card platitudes. He shared in our pain and he shed tears like us. He faced rejection, betrayal, torture and death. He bore our sin in his body. He took the judgment we deserve. Here is compelling proof that God is not remote, that he hasn’t abandoned us, and that his love is profoundly deep.
Kelley shares the breadth of grief he experienced in dealing with his son’s cancer. The dreams that were shattered and the plans unfulfilled. He speaks of losing his identity, his sense of significance, and becoming poor in a variety of ways. The experience of Joshua’s sickness and treatment was hugely demanding. It took Kelley to the ends of his resources, and it was then that he began to picture himself more accurately. When career and health and achievements and family life are all altered and threatened, then the truth about ourselves comes into focus. It’s only when the things we’ve clung to to define ourselves are stripped away, that we are freed to see ourselves more clearly in Christ.
We learn in this book about how God has brought healing to Kelley through his son’s illness. God revealed to him sicknesses that he didn’t know he had.
It’s brought to light my shallowness. It’s brought to light my idealistic view of faith. It’s brought to light my dependence on circumstances and my reluctance to accept responsibility. It’s brought to light my love of all things material. (p146)
God taught Kelley many lessons about patience. Patience is faith that waits. Treatment for childhood leukaemia is a long term process. Even after the words remission were used, chemo had to continue for the remainder of three years. In the midst of their pain and exhaustion, the family kept looking ahead in hope, knowing that they couldn’t have what they wanted, just yet. Living in the western world leads us to expect instant gratification, and the church has also bought into this trap. So often God says to wait. He has good things for us, but we must wait.
There were many things in this book that stretched me. The big issues for me had to do with the nature of faith. It made me realise that there are times when I assume I’m exercising faith, when in reality I’m probably not. It’s just that I become used to the routine, what’s coming up. This is familiarity rather than faith. Faith is about looking to God when the routine is blown, when the expectations are shot, when I can’t control the circumstances. It’s also about recognising God’s hand and provision in the routine and mundane. This book has reminded me that passive faith isn’t really faith at all. Faith is active and we need to fight for it.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to his protege so long ago…
10 … (some) have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6:10-12)