Searching for God in Cancer

April 12, 2017

 

One thing about us and our ideas of God or a divine presence in the universe or the lack thereof: they can be vague until we’re in a crisis, and we need them to firm up. Or they can be firm until we’re in a crisis, and they fall short. Either way, the crisis can mix things up like a frog in a blender.

 

I’ll start from the one point of certainty: God didn’t cause your mom’s cancer, or mine, or the kid’s down the street. Period. God don’t do that kind of stuff. Unless God does. That’s up to God. But let’s just say God didn’t cause it. Assuming there actually is a God. Right?

 

Okay, so we’ve established that God doesn’t walk around tossing out cancer seeds from the little seed pouch tied around her waste. Next question: If God didn’t cause it and you pray for a miracle and you survive, did God heal you?

 

A little context here. Back in 2001, I was working for a church mission agency and realized I wasn’t sure I believed in God (yes, there’s a story there for another day). I said something that sounded, even at that point, like an invitation to disaster: “God, I don’t think I’ll be able to believe in you unless I experience a miracle”—not actually quite believing the prayer was being heard.

 

Literally a month – A MONTH – later I had a grand mal seizure that led to a CT scan that showed a tumor. Not long after that I was told the nasty little spidery mass would come back in 3-5 years, because they can never get all the little microscopic bits of cancer cells; and that when it did, the next tumor would be worse.

 

As I went through treatment and waited afterward for the recurrence to happen, I prayed, despite still not being sure there was a God. In the panic, thoughts whirl: There is a God. Isn’t there? Of course there is. Don’t be stupid. People have been looking for God since the dawn of time. It’s built into us. Whether there is or there isn’t, there is. Fighting it is a waste of time.

 

But does God interfere? Does God step in and save people from illness and tragedy; and if so, what’s the criteria? Because it clearly doesn’t happen all that often. Millions of people starve. Good, beautiful people get killed or raped or packed into refugee camps or sold into slavery. A lot of them prayed to God, or had people praying for them. It’s senseless and illogical and defies my understanding.

 

But desperation makes you do things you don’t necessarily believe at a logical level. So I prayed, not knowing if it mattered. Despite believing it probably didn’t matter.

 

Around that time, a Seminary professor insisted I meet her adult niece, who also had brain cancer. The ever-so-helpful prof dragged us together, both of us clearly wishing we could hide under our respective MRI tables. I found out later the other woman passed away a month or two later. So apparently she didn't warrant healing.

 

But my tumor didn’t come back. In fact, ten years later, my oncologist at the time (a bit of a hack, it turns out) declared me cured. Was that a miracle?

 

Then five years after being declared cured, it did come back. Did that disqualify the miracle?

 

During treatment, I discovered that the recurrence they predicted back in 2001 wasn’t just supposed to be worse, it was supposed to be fatal. Statistically, I was 100% terminal by 2006. And so in mid-2016, I may have been re-starting chemo, but my oncologist was almost giddily hopeful about my future and calling me—wait for it—Miracle Man.

 

I’m not trying to make hot fudge out of mashed potatoes here. Just telling you the facts as I lived 'em.

 

A lot of people prayed for me, and I am tremendously humbled and grateful for those prayers. And I’m walking around mostly healthy today so yes, it was an answer to prayer. But Did. God. Heal. Me? I don’t know. If I’m still cancer-free at 80, will that mean God healed me? Ask me then.

 

While in the midst of sickness and fear and worry, it was often tough to sense the God in which I was raised to “trust and obey, for there’s no other way / to be happy…” It was difficult to say with any confidence whether that God was present at all.

 

But looking back, I’m beginning to sense some divine goodness that was there in the tough times, and how it is taking shape around me now. It came from some unlikely sources and faces I never would have anticipated. 

 

Is it the God of the Evangelical church that’s coming to life? The God of confession and conversion and the Sinner’s Prayer? I’m leaning toward probably not, but then again, that’s not up to me. That’s up to God.

 

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