“Do you even care, God? Why haven’t you healed my brother? Have you forgotten our family? Have we been forsaken by you?”
These were some of the crushing words that I uttered to the Lord in the midst of eyes overflowing with tears and a soul burdened with grief. Earlier that week, I had learned that my brother’s previously treated cancer had unexpectedly returned with a fiery vengeance. He was now Stage 4 and deemed incurable.
In the past, two of my sisters were diagnosed with equally destructive forms of cancer, robbing both of them of the breath of life while they were still so young and filled with dreams and potential.
How could the Lord be so callous and cruel as to allow lightning to strike our dwindling family not once, not twice, but three terrible times? Why does God allow a disease as dreadful as cancer to ravage those whom he claims to love so dearly?
I’ve spent countless sleepless nights wrestling with this excruciating question – a question which has become intensely personal to me in light of the fact that three out of four of my siblings have been afflicted with the disease dubbed “the emperor of all maladies.”
Have I discovered answers that have provided any degree of relief to my emotional and spiritual turmoil?
Yes, thankfully I have – and while I don’t expect that we’ll be fully comforted or satisfied until we are in God’s presence – my prayer is that you will find some solace in these words, whether one of your loved ones is facing cancer, or even if you find yourself in the jaws of affliction.
So, what possible reasons could God have for allowing cancer to exist?
First and foremost, because it’s a fallen world.
The most carcinogenic food ever consumed by mankind wasn’t a genetically modified ear of corn, a can of soda, or even a bacon covered donut – it was an organic piece of fruit grown in the richest, most pristine soil the earth has ever known. When Adam and Eve defied God’s command and bit into the forbidden fruit, the very foundations of the earth groaned as hatred, greed, famine, disease, and death itself spilled forth. The world that we find ourselves living in now is not the world that God originally intended for us.
While cancer entered the world through the fall, it didn’t achieve super-villain status until the 20th century, when exposure to pollutants, pesticides, herbicides, radiation, artificial chemicals, refined sugar, and pharmaceutical drugs dramatically increased; as the nutritional content of food simultaneously decreased.
Meanwhile, most of us are sleeping two to three hours less per night than we should, spending more than 90% of our time indoors, and living with more lifestyle and job stress than any generation to precede us. It’s a wonder that our bodies do as well as they do considering the abuse that so many of us endure on a daily basis.
The Biblical concept of reaping what is sowed is as true as ever – whether the seeds have been sown by our own hands, or by the hands of the generations to precede us. The human body is an incredibly complex and finely tuned system and it should come as no surprise that mistreating it will have undesirable consequences.
The good news is that while I believe that cancer is a man made disease, initiated by Adam and Eve’s rebellion and perpetrated by mankind’s recklessness; I also believe that there are God made solutions. Additionally, I believe that we have tremendous potential to influence the way our inherited genes express themselves through the emerging science of epigenetics – but that’s a story for another day.
Getting back to the dilemma at hand – we recognize that this is a fallen world inhabited by souls occupying fallen bodies; so why doesn’t God just fix it all? The good news is that he’s going to, but not until his appointed time.
So why doesn’t God at least fix the more sinister problems in this world such as cancer?
I have no doubt that with the mention of a single word, God could command every rebellious cell in the body of every cancer patient to turn from a path of destruction, toward a path of meaningful service to that body instead.
In fact, there are stories of miraculous healings out there, and I would never dismiss the notion that God does in fact miraculously heal certain individuals for reasons that he alone knows. But back to the question at hand – why doesn’t God heal EVERYONE of cancer?
If God healed the world of cancer, then the next logical step would be to ask him to heal everyone of AIDS, and then heart disease, and then diabetes, and then colitis, and then arthritis, and then heartburn, and then seasonal allergies, and then the common cold, and then.. you get the idea. Why not prevent all war, rape, and famine while he’s at it?
That is what we all long for, more than mere words can begin to express – but rather than gradually patching over the very real problems of a broken and crumbling world; God is going to once and for all cleanse this cursed chunk of rock with fire (1) and create a new and spotless earth instead (2).
Meanwhile, God is acting as the greatest director of all time by using our trials and pains to develop us and those around us; masterfully weaving everything together into a story that won’t fully be understood or appreciated until the final credits have rolled. Just as all the best books and movies feature villains, uncertainty, and challenges to overcome, I suspect that the same will hold true for our own life stories. Sometimes we wish that we were the ones holding the pen – yet who among us can compare to God?
But how can God possibly use something as terrible as cancer to bring about ultimate good?
God can use the pain and suffering of cancer to draw people to himself.
We humans are an incredibly stubborn bunch and more often than not we don’t truly seek God until we find ourselves in the midst of great pain or tragedy. If the fires of life cause us to seek refuge and salvation in Jesus’ scarred hands, those fires are of infinite value, even if they scorch and scar us in this present world.
From the perspective of eternity, a person who has cancer and ends up seeking the Lord because of their disease is infinitely more blessed than a person who lives in perfect health until the age of 100, but never seeks after God because of their contentedness.
God is not timid about using a comparatively brief moment of finite fire in this life in order to steer us away from infinite fire in the life to come.
God can use the pain and suffering of cancer to develop perseverance, character, and ultimately, hope.
Paradoxically, many people who have faced cancer have called it one of life’s greatest blessings because of the way it gave them perspective and shaped their character. We know that intense pressure is capable of transforming mere dust into diamonds. We also know that people who have been “fortunate” enough to have minimal experience with pain, suffering, and difficulty are more likely to be shallow and uninteresting. Very little of what they say tends to bare any weight to those who have been in the trenches.
James 1:2-4 states “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Likewise, Romans 5:3-4 states “..we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
But can cancer still be a blessing if it robs a person of their very life? Absolutely. The hope that Paul is referring to is the hope of eternal life. Cancer may ultimately lead a person to death, but as Randy Alcorn puts it: “For the Christian, death is not the end of adventure but a doorway from a world where dreams and adventures shrink, to a world where dreams and adventures forever expand.”
Those who have experienced cancer are better able to relate to and help those who are suffering.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul states “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
No one is as capable of comforting those who have cancer, as those who have had cancer.
Seeing a friend or loved one struggle with cancer can cause those around that person to reevaluate what truly matters in life.
From an emotional and spiritual angle, sometimes the friends and family of a person struggling with cancer are nearly as impacted and shaped by the experience as the person who actually has the cancer. The experience may even cause them to take a step back from day to day life in order reevaluate what truly matters in life.
An hour spent in a hospital waiting room can infuse a person with a more sobering dose of perspective than thousands of hours spent in a classroom, or even a church.
Cancer provides an opportunity for acquaintances, friends, loved ones, and even strangers to commit – or not commit – acts of love and compassion toward the afflicted.
It’s been absolutely humbling to see the love and support that my brother has received from friends, family members, coworkers, and even complete strangers. I truly believe that so many people are hungry for the opportunity to do good for their fellow man – and though global charity work is extremely important – sometimes our hearts aren’t moved to action until tragedy strikes close to home and bares the face of someone that we hold dear.
Being able to embrace a suffering person in a hug while slipping a check into their pocket is a uniquely transformative experience. Handing a warm meal to someone who is hungry, but who is too tired to cook feeds not only the stomach of the one consuming the meal, but the soul of the one who prepared it.
As Jesus states in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Because of this reality, those who are sick and in need of service, are paradoxically being of tremendous service to those around them, by providing a very real opportunity to serve the Lord.
On the other hand, it also provides an opportunity for the Lord to expose those who know the good that they should do and yet fail to do it – and thereby sin. (3) On a micro level this applies to individuals, and on a macro level this applies to the heads and members of organizations which often hold patents and profits above patients and progress.
It brings tremendous glory to God when a believer endures suffering and hardship, and yet still manages to praise the Lord.
While praising God during the gentle, care-free seasons of life is important; I’m convinced that virtually no other human act causes the demons in hell to cover their ears, and the angels in heaven to lift their arms in celebration than when someone who is enduring a storm offers praise to God in the midst of their suffering.
The unwavering loyalty of one true fan is more precious than the shallow support of a thousand fair weather fans. The perseverance of one man, Job, in the midst of his affliction, utterly humiliated the devil, who had proudly boasted that the only reason Job loved God was because he had received so many blessings, without any real hardship. (4)
In conclusion, life after the fall wasn’t necessarily meant to be easy or painless.
Some of the most kind and humble people that I’ve known have had the most difficult lives, while some of the most unkind and arrogant people that I’ve known have seemingly had it the easiest. Life is a gym, not a spa – a gym where God strengthens and refines those whom he loves. Ultimately, this life is a split second proving ground when compared to the infinite span of the eternity that awaits us. If eternity is an endless line, this present life is merely a dot which God is using to prepare us for the life to come. A life where the broken and humbled will be exalted. (5) A life where sorrows, struggles, and scars will be transformed into crowns.
What if some of the most terrible experiences in this life are the seeds of some of most beautiful experiences in the life to come? How rewarding would it be to hear the Lord say “Well done, good and faithful servant. You kept the faith in the midst of your darkest days. You trusted and loved me even when you couldn’t know or understand my plans for you. You proved that you loved me more than you loved my blessings, and in doing so you brought great glory to my name. The dark backdrop of the world you’ve left behind will allow you to more fully appreciate the brilliant brightness of my kingdom – a kingdom where I’ve been preparing a place for you. Welcome home my precious child, I love you.”
UPDATE: My dear brother passed away shortly after I published this post. I encourage you to read the tribute that I wrote to learn about what an amazing man he was, and what a special life he lived – truly.
(1) 2 Peter 3:10
(2) Revelation 21:1
(3) James 4:17
(4) Job 1:8-9
(5) Mathew 5:3-10