If you hang around church long enough, you’ll hear some version of the popular church myth that goes something like this: if you’re in the will of God nothing bad will ever happen to you. You’ll hear it said in different ways, but the gist of it is always the same. If you’re doing what God wants you to do, then you’ll always find a parking place near the front door, you’ll never have a cavity or get stuck in an elevator. Your kids will never get a fever and your job will always make you happy and pay well.
Anytime you will hear about an “exception” to this rule, someone in the crowd will want to know what unknown sin is now being paid for. After all, this person must not be in God’s will if – pick the instance you want – the children made bad grades, someone lost or job or, God forbid, someone gets cancer.
Sadly, I have to confess I believed this myth for most of my life. Now, I would have never admitted to believing it. I was far too sophisticated in my theology to ever admit I was this shallow, but in the deepest recesses of my mind, I did believe it.
And I had a pretty good reason to believe this myth. Most of my life had been charmed. I grew up in a great home. I went to good schools and made good grades. I married a beautiful woman who gave me two beautiful boys. My life was charmed. Whenever I would be with someone who was having a tough time, I would do my best to be a good friend to them, but I was always grateful to be “blessed” by Jesus.
Then I got prostate cancer.
I hate to admit this, but one of my first responses was thinking Jesus had broken our deal. Here’s was our deal, or at least my assumption of the deal I thought we had: I served as a church pastor and put up with all of the Baptists that attended and in return, Jesus made sure nothing bad happened to me.
That seems fair, right?
Anytime you hear the doctor say “cancer”, it will rock your world. Your mind does some crazy things to you in those moments. Your heart does too and if you’re not careful, if you’re not willing to pay attention to what God is doing in this moment, you can lose your faith all together.
I lost mine. No, that wouldn’t be correct. I didn’t lose it. That means you put it somewhere and then, when you went to look for it, you couldn’t find again. I didn’t misplace my faith. Jesus took my faith from me. He stripped it away. Jesus will never tolerate the presence of idols or falsehoods in your life, even when we call that idol “faith.”
For most of us, faith is about a feeling. We have strong emotions about Jesus so, therefore, we “believe” in Jesus. We begin to live for these deep, emotional moments. We measure how close we are to Jesus by the intensity of the emotion we feel. We become spiritually addicted to this emotion.In the New Testament, faith isn’t about emotions. It’s about action. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “keep my commandments.” Period. No qualifiers. No exceptions. No escape clauses. If we love Jesus, we obey His teachings…even when you have cancer.
I mentioned Jesus took my faith away. What He did was take my understanding of faith away. I had understood faith as a contract. I did this for God and in return, God was obligated to do something in return for me.
But Christ didn’t give us a contract. He gave us a covenant. The covenant is His promise He won’t leave us no matter what. His Presence redeems every moment, even the moments when you’re recovering from surgery…and waiting on the tests to come back…playing “what if” in your mind.
In it all, Christ walks with us and we learn some things along the way.
In this life, sooner or later, everybody gets a turn. Sooner or later, something goes wrong – a family breaks up, a business goes under, your child gets arrested. It may be your fault. It may not be your fault, but the pain will be all yours. No one gets a free ride. Suffering is the price for living in this world.
While Jesus never guaranteed we’d never have to face a bad time, He did promise that He would redeem every moment. What do I mean that? I mean He’ll give meaning to suffering. One of the reasons suffering is so hard to handle is too many times suffering doesn’t mean anything. We endure days and days of pain and for what?
A woman goes through a lot of pain when she’s in labor. When the baby is born, she forgets the pain, or she just thinks of it a lot less. The baby gives her pain meaning. Jesus promises to give our pain meaning.
And what meaning did I get from my pain? More than I can tell you in the limits of this blog. I can tell you two things. First, I live out my priorities with a lot more intentionality. Sure, I had priorities before I got sick, but I was always living by someone else’s expectations. Not anymore.
Second, I became a lot more human. I listen more intently. I pay more attention to the beauty of each moment. Jesus, in His power and His grace, used even my cancer to continue to sanctify my life.
I’ve been cancer free for eight years, but I haven’t been pain free. My father passed away. We had to put my mom in memory care for Alzheimer’s. In big ways and small ways, life has happened.
And through it all, Jesus has kept His promise. He’s walked with me through all of it. The promise was never that bad things wouldn’t happen, but that He would never leave us. In the end, that’s all that matters. The blessed life isn’t found in the absence of pain, but in the constant presence of the Risen Christ.