Letters from the land of cancer

wangerinI began reading Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin Jr. nearly a year ago. However, I didn’t finish it. I think I felt a little overwhelmed by it. The topic, the intensity, the unrelenting discussion of cancer and death. I wasn’t yet ready to read 22 letters by a man reflecting on his cancer. I set myself the project of reading it all this week. If I was planning to write a book about living with cancer, then I needed to consider what it felt like for the reader. This probably makes me one of the more motivated of his readers. We share the same cancer, a similar profession, same number of children, grandchildren (that’s right – I’m awaiting delivery in October), love of motorcycles, and more.

The obvious difference is that Walter Wangerin is a world-class, well-respected, writer. That makes WW a WWW! (Grandad joke!) He’s a teacher of English literature and a prolific writer of fiction. He’s a wordsmith. He’s eloquent. He’s poetic. His writing is thick, like treacle. It’s deep, intense, heavy, profound. His words are disturbing, niggling, probing. But they’re also light and fresh and invigorating. They stir the soul to action. At least, they did mine. I’ve written so many notes and comments and questions.

I found this book hard to get into, but harder to put down. I wanted to know what happened next. What did you learn? How is your treatment? How is your wife? What are the doctors saying? What are the results of the next scan? How does this mesh with your faith? What is important to you now? What will you make your priorities? What’s it like to be on oxygen 24/7? Why don’t you pray for your own healing? Why do you look forward to death? How do your family feel? What leads you to say your cancer is an adventure? Or a blessing rather than a battle? I suspect that I was vicariously travelling this journey with him, and that these are more questions about me than him.

This book worked for me. It pushed me to reflect, to reconsider my own experiences, to look again to God. It’s heavy, but he’s writing about heavy stuff. Reading 22 letters one after the other is a bit like watching a still frame motion picture. You know, the ones that show a seed being planted, a sprout emerging from the ground, a plant growing to maturity. All frame by frame. One picture per day. It’s like that. We see the outside journey experienced by the Wangerins, and we also learn of the inner journey, the impact on his mind and heart, his faith and convictions.

I’m not sure who I’d give this book to. My dad has read it, so I’ll have to ask him his thoughts. I suspect you’d want to be a serious reader to tackle it. I also suspect you’d need to be willing to be confronted heavily with your own mortality. It’s no coincidence, that I wrote the poem, Pain, while reading this book. It’s an intense book.

Following his journey throughout this book, I fully expected the final chapter to be posthumous. Perhaps, a final word from his wife, speaking of Walter’s passing. But no. It’s all Walter. The cancer was discovered in 2005, the final letter of the book written in 2008, the publishing date 2010. As soon as I finished the book, I hurried to my computer and googled his name. So when did he die? According to his website he has a speaking engagement on May 31 in West Virginia, so I’m guessing not yet!

I’d love to meet this man. I think we’d have a lot to talk about!

What cancer cannot do

cancercannotdoPeople with cancer desperately need hope. They need a hope that’s real, that they can hold on to. They need reason to keep on going. They need inspiration to focus on what really matters. They need encouragement not to be overwhelmed by their circumstances. They need the cancer to get smaller and God to get bigger. If not physically, then at least in their hearts and minds.

Why do I say these things? Because I know them to be true in my own experience. Hope is the power to live and to live well. Lack of hope leads to despair and destruction. If we have genuine hope to offer people, then we have a life-enhancing medicine to share. This little book is such medicine.

What Cancer Cannot Do is designed to be given as a gift to someone who needs it. The inside cover has a page where you can write your and your friend’s names, much like a gift card. It’s an attractive book, full of colour. But the true beauty is found in the words. The book is divided into sections with the following perspectives on cancer:

It cannot cripple God’s love
It cannot shatter hope
It cannot corrode faith
It cannot destroy peace
It cannot kill friendship
It cannot shut out memories
It cannot silence courage
It cannot invade the soul
It cannot steal eternal life
It cannot conquer the spirit

These are words from the hearts of people who have journeyed with cancer. They offer encouragement and hope. They highlight the limitations of cancer. They share people’s stories. Stories of faith and hope and love making a real difference to people’s experience. Every one of the stories concludes with three or four poignant verses from the Bible. Each one is short and engaging. It’s ideal for people who are weak and weary and struggling to concentrate for any length of time. It includes wonderful testimonies like this:

Even if doctors were unable to control the spread of my bone cancer, even if I died, I would still have God’s love and I would spend eternity with him. (p113)

If you know someone who is doing it tough, who is struggling with cancer, who needs some encouragement, and won’t mind you offering the perspective of Christians, then why not get a copy of this little book to give to them? And just so you know, I’ve got a copy already!


fatigueI’ve gone from sleeping 6-7 hours a night for years and years, to needing more than 9 hours a night. Some nights I need 11 or 12 and still wake up feeling tired. This on top of occasional nanna naps in the afternoons. It takes a huge effort in the mornings to open the eyelids and if I don’t get a shower and a coffee then I probably spend the first hour of every day sleep-walking.

No doubt it’s another effect of the chemo and, maybe, the high blood pressure caused by the chemo. It comes with its aches and pains, inability to concentrate, and the frustrations that go with both. I think it’s given me some small insight into how chronic fatigue sufferers might feel. Friends of mine have been struggling with fatigue for years and years. Some have given up any hope of life ever being different. Some are barely able to lift themselves from the bed, and time with family and friends leaves them exhausted. It’s difficult to know how to offer support sometimes, because a visit or phone call can deplete their already limited energy. One friend told me it takes days to recover from half an hour with a well-meaning visitor.

There’s also the difficulty of an illness that people can’t see and very few understand. Just go to bed earlier. Start exercising more. Change your diet. Snap out of it. It’s all in your head. I reckon you’re making it all up. This is some of the helpful advice that people get given. And then there’s often the person with the success story. My friend visited this specialist, started on that diet, discovered acupuncture, went to such and such healing service, moved to the beach… and now everything’s ok.

The reality of this life is that sickness, sadness, and suffering are all part of our experience. We ache and groan as we long for things to be better. But the truth is that things don’t always improve. More often than not they get worse. Old age sees our breakdown and decline. We don’t heal as quickly, illnesses become more complicated, some things become permanent. Our body struggles to recover, our mind isn’t what it used to be, and our spirit eventually loses the will to live. Sometimes it seems like life is one long tragedy. It might start well for some, but it always seems to end badly.

What a pessimistic post! Is this what fatigue does to me?! Let me presume to share a few thoughts with those of you who are struggling with fatigue.

Don’t give up hope. Maybe there will be a change for the better just over the horizon. Perhaps someone will understand what’s causing it. Maybe there is something that will help, even a cure. Keep looking, keep on trying. Pray. Talk to God. Ask God to take away your pain and suffering. Ask friends to pray for you or with you.

When everything feels dark and hopeless, cry out. Let your family and friends know how much it hurts. Ask for help, comfort, love, kindness. And call out to God. Your Father in heaven knows what you need. Maybe God wants you to depend more on him. If it’s not his intention to take away your suffering at this time, then ask him to help you trust in his grace. Ask him to strengthen your trust in his goodness. Ask him to help you draw near to him for comfort, even if he seems so remote.

Are there things you can do in your fatigue? Do your energy levels let you get up from time to time? How can you best fill that time? Is it your family who needs you most? Are you able to encourage others in your weakness? Can you spend time praying for other people? Can you make a list of things that you can do when you’re down and others when you’re up? Have you asked how God can use you in your frailty? Maybe you could brainstorm some ideas or chat to others about this.

But don’t compare yourself with others. “At least there are people who are suffering more than me!” How does that help, really? “Why do I suffer so much when those around me do whatever they please?” Self-pity, jealousy, anger, bitterness will only make things worse. There is one who is well acquainted with suffering, who understands what you are going through, who can help. His name is Jesus. He was betrayed, rejected, beaten, ridiculed, and crucified. He took the punishment we deserve in his body and paid the price. He endured all this in confident hope that God would raise him from the grave, as the first fruits for all who would follow after him.

Focus your hope on the future. Not just for this life, but for eternity. Keep your eyes on Jesus and remember the promise of a day with no more pain, suffering, fatigue or death. As your earthly body decays remember that God has in store a new, complete, and perfect body for all who trust in him. There is hope. God guarantees it!

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
(2 Corinthians 5:1-4)

Consider it pure joy

Sickness, loneliness, trouble at work, struggles in marriage, financial pressure, wayward children, car accidents, overlooked for promotion, slandered, mocked, imprisoned, persecuted. Who wants a piece of that… any of it? And yet James writes in the Bible:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…  (James 1:2)

What was he thinking?! And he doesn’t simply say, look on the bright side, cheer up, things will get better. He says to consider it pure joy (or all joy) whenever you face trials. And he doesn’t restrict the range of trials. I take it this covers pretty much the full spectrum of nasty things that could happen to you. How do you adopt such a view of life? And is this any different to the power of positive thinking?

Perhaps we need to consider the meaning of joy. The temptation is to equate joy with happiness or a bubbly personality or a permanent smile. But joy runs deeper than an emotional response. It has to do with contentment and trust and confidence. In James’ words he calls us to a thinking response more than an emotional response. He’s not telling us how to feel about the trials we’re experiencing, he’s telling us how to think about our circumstances, to consider it pure joy when we face various trials. But why?

…because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  (James 1:3)

The experience of facing trials puts our faith to the test. It shows up what’s real and not real. Theoretical faith is no faith at all. Genuine faith is shown by it’s action, it’s fruit, the changes it produces. And the real test is perseverance, keeping on when things are tough, and finishing the race.

Sadly, I know a number of people who have claimed to have faith in God, who’ve claimed to be Christian, who have said most of the right things… but when pain and difficulties and trials have come along their faith has proved wanting. Perhaps they were presented with a false picture of God – one where he’d remove anything undesirable – and it didn’t stand up to their experience. Maybe they hadn’t really come to the point of trusting God at all. When life is good, when we’re healthy, wealthy and happy, it’s easy to think we’re in control and not bother trusting in God.

Trials of various kinds give us the opportunity to live out our faith, to demonstrate a faith that works. I would never have planned it this way, but my experiences with cancer over the past year have given me many reasons to examine my faith and look again to God. Will I trust God with what I do not like? Can I be contented and joyful in the midst of painful chemotherapy? Can I count it as pure joy to have an ‘incurable’ lung cancer? Please note, I’m not saying that the cancer is a good thing. God is sovereign over all, but he teaches me that cancer, disease and death is part of this cursed world that he will ultimately restore. I don’t go looking for trials, but they will come and the question is how I respond when they do.

I’ve had a number of people say to me that they’ve been observing my faith more closely since I’ve got sick. They’ve heard me preach and teach and counsel people over the years, but now they are watching how I respond personally? Is my faith really real? Does it stand up? Will I persevere or turn away? My prayer is that I will persevere as my faith is tested and consider it pure joy when I face these and other trials, because of what God is doing through them.

One of my problems is that I’m so short sighted. All I can see is the immediate trial. Right now, it’s the effects of chemo: the headaches and nausea and rashes and fatigue. Another time it’s the struggle of a difficult relationship, or the criticism of others, or my disappointment in myself. God is calling me to get the bigger picture, to grasp his perspective. James continues…

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  (James 1:4)

The God who reveals himself in the Bible doesn’t promise health and prosperity… in this life. He doesn’t say that he will remove all our suffering and take away all our pain… in this life. But we can be confident that God is at work in all situations. He is growing our faith muscles against the resistance of trials and difficulties. He is strengthening us to persevere through the trials, that we might become mature and complete in him.

Do I always have this perspective? Sadly, no. Sometimes the end is hard to see behind all the hurt and the pain. And at these times God promises to help.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  (James 1:5)

This is a wonderful promise. When we’re blinded to the truth of God at work in our lives, we should ask God for wisdom to see things more clearly, to see things through his eyes. And he promises to give generously. God knows it’s hard, he knows it hurts, he knows we’re weak, and he doesn’t find fault. He gives us the wisdom needed to be able to count it pure joy.

When I was younger I remember singing the song, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’. It’s a great song, but I think this second verse means more to me now than it did back then…

Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.

And so I will pray…

Heavenly Father,
Please give me the wisdom to see things your way.
Please help me to look beyond my current circumstances,
to be reminded that you are working within me,
to strengthen my faith,
to enable me to persevere,
and grow into maturity.
I ask that you will help me consider it pure joy as I face my trials.

Remember the things that matter when hope is hard to find

RememberGood friends of ours sent us this book in the mail. I know they’re good friends because they sent such a good book! It truly is a gem. This is a book to read slowly. I didn’t – but I will! Take it a chapter at a time. Maybe read it more than once. Pause, reflect, write notes, meditate and pray.

Rhonda Watson has motor neurone disease (MND) and has lost her ability to speak, along with other physical functions. In the midst of her loss and grief she turns her heart to the Word of God. Not in any superficial or trite sense, but grappling with the ambiguities and complexities of life. Like so many of the Psalms, she cries out at the pain, she fights to maintain her trust in God, and she finds consolation in the character and promises of God. I found that I could identify with many of the author’s feelings and experiences, and I was encouraged by her honesty as she struggled to find answers and hope in God. My heart was warmed as I read Remember and these words from the foreword ring true:

Rhonda Watson writes with the sensitivity of a tender heart, tested in the furnace of trial, and the wisdom of someone who has learned to depend utterly on God for her daily portion of strength. I greatly appreciate the combination of the subjective – her own feelings and experience – and the objective truths of the Scriptures.  (p7)

The author follows the advice of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Spiritual Depression where he stresses the importance of talking to ourselves, instead of simply allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us. There are so many voices telling us what to think and feel and do, and sometimes the worst one to listen to is our own! It’s so much more helpful to listen to God’s voice and allow him to speak into our lives. God offers us true perspective and we do well to remind ourselves of God, who he is, what he has done, and what he promises to do.

Each chapter of Remember takes us on a journey of hope with the author. She grapples with the issues faced by those who are suffering and she turns our hearts and minds to the wonder and freedom found only in God. This is no simple exercise. It requires honesty, humility, and trust. We’re called to open our Bibles and prayerfully take God at his word. This book helps us through this process and encourages us to make our own responses in each of the following areas.

1. Beauty and ugliness

In a society obsessed with body image, it can be very difficult for those with chronic illness and disability. Instead of being overwhelmed by the ugliness of our situation or measuring ourselves by others, we are encouraged to look to Jesus who reveals the beauty of God. Jesus takes the ugliness of our sin and replaces it with his beautiful righteousness.

2. Silence and speech

Watson had spent her life speaking. She was a teacher, trainer, and educator. She mourns her inability to read books to her grandchildren or enjoy conversation with family and friends. And yet she writes:

I look forward to the day when, with healed tongue, I will sing and praise my Saviour. On that day my silence will be over.  (p37)

3. Fear and trust

Took me by the throat today
Shook me till
My bones rattled

Chased me
Relentless and cold
Insidious, mocking
Chased me all day

I could have stood my ground
But I ran
So fear
Grew stronger

I was captured
In the end
Quaking and fallen
Curled on the ground in shame

(Rhonda Watson, 2009. p63-64)

We’re encouraged to overcome our fears by turning to God who can be trusted. God is our mighty, sovereign, and loving Saviour. He calls us, as his beloved children, to trust him.

4. Thankfulness and bitterness

I found this chapter full of challenges. It’s so easy to feel that this world owes us something and to grow bitter at lost opportunities or unrealised potential through a disabling disease. Drawing on Oswald Chambers, Watson writes of the challenge to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. I might think that I should be doing extraordinary things for God, when he simply calls me to do ordinary things in an exceptional way – his way, for his glory, not mine! When I’m reminded of God’s extraordinary grace in Jesus Christ, it moves me toward thankfulness instead of wallowing in bitterness.

5. Joy and grief

Acceptance of grief is part of the journey toward joy.  (p107)

We don’t need to deny or suppress grief in order to experience joy. The Psalms give expression to a range of human emotions. They acknowledge and give voice to our pain, disappointment and grief. They show that it’s okay to cry out to God, to express our doubts, worries and fears. And they shine a light on the path to joy that can only be found in God himself. Joy is not be found in our circumstances, but through trusting our loving Father in Heaven despite our circumstances.

6. Delight and despair

In times of suffering it is so easy to give in to despair, to give up hope. Perhaps, we now view ourselves as unproductive and worthless. Watson speaks of two choices for how we think and act…

Choice 1: I am worthless, I don’t know why God would inflict this useless suffering on me, I give up, I will turn my face to the wall and surrender to these feelings of despair.
Choice 2: This is tough going, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of worth, but nevertheless I will commit my way to God, I will attune my desires to his ways, I will trust him, and I will seek to delight him.  (p132-133)

7. Awake or asleep?

Chronic illness can lead to sleepiness. Not simply staying in bed, but drifting aimlessly and passing the time with mindless distractions. Some of this is necessary, but failure to navigate can lead to shipwreck. We can slide into self-pity and resentment or drift into despair. We need awakening to how God sees us, our circumstances and this world we live in. Watson offers this prayer:

Our Heavenly Father,
Help us to stay awake.
We grow drowsy and distracted as we wait for you,
At times our hearts are loaded down with sadness and struggle.
By your Spirit, strengthen us,
By your Word, nourish us,
Keep us longing for our true home,
Forever with you.  (p160)

8. Life and death

Everyone one of us is going to die. This is our lot, but that doesn’t make it okay. Death wasn’t part of the good world that God created and it’s right to rage against it. It’s not a natural part of life and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Death sucks!

22 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 to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  (Romans 8:22-24)

Many of us go through life ignoring death. Those with chronic and terminal illnesses probably feel it’s presence more acutely. We groan along with the creation at the pain it causes. And we groan not in despair, but with hope and longing. Jesus in his death and resurrection has conquered death’s power over us. God has promised that he will abolish death and restore the creation, and we long for that day. We are meant for life, not death. Watson writes:

…there are two ways of looking at this day. Either I am dying of MND, or I am living with MND. There is a simple but profound difference between these two perspectives. One is death, one is life. The choice is: Which perspective will I accept for myself today?  (p166).

And so I will pray:

Please God, help me to choose life.

I thank God that he has used Rhonda Watson to write this honest and inspirational book. My only regret is that the cover has a feminine look about it! This is for blokes just as much as women. It’s a gutsy message. Remember is a book for all people, not simply those with illness of some form or other. We will all experience the struggles of faith in the face of suffering and temptations. This book calls us to remember the things that matter when hope is hard to find.

Blessed be the name of the Lord?

I think I’m becoming more emotional! I’ve probably shed more tears in the past year than in all the years previous. It doesn’t take much to get me a little choked up and one of the big catalysts is music. At this point I must confess that I’ve become totally addicted to the TV music shows, The Voice and X Factor. Some of the singing has given me goosebumps. Some of the heart-wrenching stories behind the musos have brought tears to my eyes. Let me say, I think it’s good for me. Crying is a helpful pressure release valve, and I find that music sometimes flicks the switch.

Those of you who know me via church, will recognise that I’m not much of a musician. Sometimes I drift off during the singing. Other times I find myself kind of lip-syncing. Very occasionally, I get into a song and belt it out with gusto. Sometimes I find myself stopping to think, what exactly are we singing?

One song that has become something of an anthem in the Christian circles I mix in is Matt Redman’s Blessed be the name of the Lord. With a great band and lots of people singing, it can really get you going. I’ve sung it many times, I enjoy it, and at times I’ve been swept along by it. But until very recently I haven’t stopped to think about what we’re actually singing. I could be wrong, but I suspect that few others have either. This is a shortened version of how it goes:

Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

Blessed Be Your name
When I’m found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name

Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s ‘all as it should be’
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

It’s a song for all seasons. It’s a message of contrasts and extremes. We sing of plenty and abundance, the sun shining and the world being as it should be. But we also sing of the desert and the wilderness, suffering and pain. The refrain says that it doesn’t matter what comes our way, we will bless God’s glorious name. These are bold promises we are singing and I wonder if we sing them with integrity. When everything is cruising along nicely, how often do we stop to thank God for his goodness to us? When our world seems to be falling apart, how easily do we offer praises to God?

A few weeks back I was singing this song with a crowd of others and I found the tears flowing in the final chorus:

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

We kept singing over and over You give and take away. I felt like I’d been pierced through the heart. God had given and he had taken away… from me! He’d given me my health and and now it was gone. He’d given us the plan of heading to Darwin and brought us right back to Canberra. He’d given me dreams for the future and he’d cut them short. He’d given me life and he’d take it back again. Suddenly, this song hurt. It asked questions, real questions, of me: Will my heart choose to say Lord, blessed be Your name? How will my faith stand up to the challenges of circumstances? Am I a fair-weather believer? Do I simply turn to God because he protects me and shields me? Will I trust him and honour him in my darkest hours?

As I sang these words and contemplated these thoughts I remembered that I’d heard the words and the context before somewhere. They’re taken from the introduction to the Book of Job in the Bible. Job is a bloke who’s experiencing extreme suffering. His livelihood has been completely taken from him and his family have been killed in a catastrophic disaster. This is suffering and pain at the top end of the richter scale. It’s far more than I’ve endured, or ever want to. This isn’t passing and failing tests at school. It’s not struggling with diets or disappointments. It is life and death. It’s God giving and taking away. We may know people who’ve faced such tragedy, but it doesn’t happen often at this level. How will Job respond? Of what value is his faith? Will he acknowledge and turn to God?

This is how he responds after hearing the disastrous news:

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”

I think Matt Redman’s song is worth singing. But I also reckon we should pause and consider if we can sing it in all honesty. It’s ridiculous to mouth the words as though they’re the latest Christian pop song. They cut to the heart. They lay bare our soul. They point us to the Lord who leads and guides us through the light and the darkness. I pray that God will enable me to honour his name, whatever he gives and whatever he takes away.

And I think I’ve got it easier than Job in another way. Job didn’t know about all that God had planned to give in the future. A future that has now happened. He didn’t understand that God would give his only son, Jesus, so that all who put their trust in him would not perish, but live forever. Once we grasp this, we can know for sure that God gives far far more than he will ever take. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

If I were God I’d end all the pain

PainIf I were God I’d end all the pain. That sounds pretty right. I’m not much of a fan of pain, especially my own! Currently, I’m sitting on my bed wearing ugg boots and a hoodie, bemoaning the cold weather, wondering if I’m well enough to venture out to watch the Brumbies play the Reds at Canberra Stadium tonight. Today’s temperature is supposed to range between 0 and 10 degrees. Subtract the wind chill and it will probably feel like minus a zillion at the ground. I must be sick or something, because until this year, I don’t think I’d missed a home game in a decade. Maybe I should ring up someone and see if I can sneak into a corporate box!

Yesterday it felt like sickness was getting the better of me. I ached all over and spent the afternoon and evening drifting in and out of sleep. I’ve probably just got another cold and a weakened immune system. But it’s not fun and it’s another reminder that things aren’t what they should be. For some dumb reason I checked the weather app on the phone at 10pm last night to discover it felt like -1.6 degrees in Canberra, while it was a balmy 25 degrees in Darwin. My heart sighed, I wished we were there, and once again wondered what on earth God was doing.

John Dickson’s little book, If I were God I’d end all the pain, is a helpful read for those who are looking for answers to the questions raised by suffering and pain. It’s not a detached philosophical book that fills the head and ignores the heart. John has experienced pain, first hand and from a young age, having lost his dad in plane crash when he was nine years old. He writes as one who understands the questions and who has explored many of the answers being offered.

Issues of faith and doubt loom large in the presence of suffering. Sometimes people attempt to use suffering as proof for the non-existence of God. It’s often expressed something like this:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God would be able to end suffering.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God would desire to end suffering.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  An all-powerful, all-loving God, therefore, does not exist.  (p15)

John offers an alternative proposition that he explores in this book:

Assumption 1:  An all-powerful God exists.
Assumption 2:  All all-loving God exists.
Fact:  Suffering exists.
Conclusion:  God must have loving reasons (which he is able to achieve) for permitting suffering.  (p16)

This is not offered as a proof for God. Nor does it solve the problem of suffering. It still leaves deep and emotional difficulties for the one who believes in God. Such as, Why does God allow this suffering? and What has he done about it? 

Before John gives a Christian explanation for the problem of suffering, he explores a number of other perspectives. He demonstrates how Islam understands suffering in a very different manner to Buddhism, and how Hinduism and Atheism are very different again. I won’t attempt to summarise these views because I don’t want to caricature them by reducing each to a few sentences. But it’s important to understand how different these world views are, against the popular claim that all religions are simply windows into the same truth. This suggestion shows serious ignorance and disrespect for each of these religions and world views.

The Bible’s perspective on suffering is that it’s okay to ask questions and raise doubts. In fact many of the biblical authors, especially the Psalm writers, do exactly that. Psalm 22 is offered as an important example:

1  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2  O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

John writes in response to the words of this Psalm:

If I were a Buddhist, this sort of questioning would indicate my unenlightenment; if I were a Muslim, it would border on blasphemy; if I were an atheist, or course, it would be meaningless. Actually, I suspect some church folk of today would feel uncomfortable repeating the sentiments of this psalm. Sometimes we in the church feel we must declare “The Lord is my shepherd” even if the Shepherd seems to have gone walk-about. But faith isn’t like that, at least biblical faith isn’t like that. Faith is not denial of reality, nor does it involve repeating a mantra to dispel the doubts. The presence of Psalm 22, in the Bible, right before Psalm 23, reminds us that we have God’s permission to express our disappointment.  (p34-35)

The Bible gives an explanation for the cause of human suffering and it lies in our decision to reject our Creator. From that moment onwards (somewhere near the beginning of human history) everything has been out of whack. Things have grown worse and worse with every assertion of our independence from God. I’m preaching on Genesis 4-9 tomorrow and I’ve been struck again at how quickly everything deteriorated. John writes of Genesis 3:6, So began the long and torturous story of the human will: men and women, made in God’s image, defying their Maker for an imagined personal gain. (p42)

Of course, many have asked why God doesn’t simply step in, over-rule our selfish decisions, and stop the pain we cause. If he has the power to do this, then what’s stopping him? The answer lies in God’s respect for human dignity. He has made us as real beings with real choice. We’re not puppets like Truman, in the movie, The Truman Show. God doesn’t play ‘dolls house’ with the world. We are real independent beings who can choose either to relate to God, or to reject God. God allows us to choose, and to live with our choices, but he won’t allow evil and suffering to continue forever. He’s set a time when he will call all injustice to account. It’s a testimony to God’s patience that he hasn’t done this yet. God is giving people time to turn back to him.

This book also highlights the biblical perspective that God hasn’t given up on this world. He promises an eternal future for all who put their confidence in Jesus Christ. Contrary to the popular notion of heaven, where people are seen as disembodied souls separated from physical existence, the Bible speaks of a new physical creation. We can look forward to an end to pain and suffering and the restoration of our bodies. This is a place where we continue to enjoy real physical sensory experience. We can look forward to a future that holds real hope for those currently suffering in pain.

John finishes his book with a profound perspective on suffering that’s unique to Christianity. In contrast to Islam, which sees God as the ‘Unmoved-Mover’, the Bible portrays God as sharing in our suffering as the ‘Deeply-Moved-Mover’. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, shares in this painful world, suffers deeply, and dies a torturous death by crucifixion. But the deeper significance in Jesus’ suffering is found in these words of Psalm 22, that Jesus makes his own:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why would Jesus cry out such a thing? This is God’s Son, in whom God is well pleased, so what’s happening? Jesus does far more than experience my physical or emotional suffering and pain. He takes my guilt and shame, enduring the judgment of God against all my selfishness and sin, so that I can receive God’s mercy. Totally undeserved, but generously offered. Here is real hope for all who suffer… if we will put our trust in Jesus.