This past Monday, I had the opportunity to talk to a friend whom I have not talked to for a while now. He is a fellow believer, and one that I respect greatly for his humility: he is aware of his own sin, even of its tendency to hide in places he would not have guessed. He understands his sinfulness and need for a Savior; he understands his weakness and need for grace. I see him constantly strive to fight sin in his life, and to give God the glory for the sanctification that occurs. I have tremendous love and respect for him. Having not talked to him in a while, I was glad for the opportunity to converse with him. I asked him how he has been.
“I have cancer,” he said.
What do you say to a 19-year-old sophomore in college who has cancer that the doctors suspect has metastasized? What comfort do you offer? What advice do you give? How does your theology inform the words you say next? Does your theology have a category for this, or does all your belief in God shatter at the horror of a 19-year-old with cancer? I hope you are encouraged by what my friend had to say. I know I am tremendously encouraged by his faith in God in this trying time.
He is thankful for the fact that this has brought his family together. Although he has withdrawn from college for the next couple of months to undergo treatment for his cancer, he is thankful for the opportunity it gives him to serve at his home church, as well as to witness to his unbelieving father. As I talked with him, I saw him strive to see the different ways he could use this cancer to glorify God. I am moved by his faithfulness to God. He will not abandon God, because in his utter sinfulness, God did not abandon him.
I offered him the thoughts that came to my mind, and I hope that God used me to give him comfort and encouragement. I encouraged him to continue to have faith. It may become difficult at times for him to see the goodness of God, but the God who gave him this cancer is the same God who rescued him from the dominion of sin and death. His goodness has not changed. His sovereignty has not changed. I encouraged him not to lose sight of that, nor to turn aside from his pursuit of the glory of God. Two passages of Scripture come to mind:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
Furthermore, God is not good despite the cancer. He is good because of the cancer. As the Scripture verses show, God never fails to give us good things–it is only we who fail to see that they are good. I told my friend that I have every confidence that this cancer will work for his good. I already listed a few ways that he has already begun to see that. I also added that this trial would also sanctify him, by driving him to prayer, increasing his faith, increasing his hope and confidence in God and his faith, strengthening his testimony–the list goes on. It takes an immense faith to believe that God is using this immense trial for my friend’s good, and that is why my primary encouragement to my friend was that he not lose faith in the midst of this. It takes great faith to believe that God is using this for good, but such faith and trust glorifies God. I have no doubt that Scripture teaches that God will use this trial to strengthen my friend and thus glorify Himself:
3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… (Romans 5:3-4)
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas. 1:2-4)
In this trial, as with all others, we are to rejoice in them. It is commonly said that no one ever marvels at how much their faith grows in the good times. These verses indicate that it is times of trial, when our faith is tested, that our faith grows. The “testing of our faith” brings us closer and closer to being “perfect and complete” (James 1:4). Suffering ought to drive us closer to Christ as we see the diminishing of all else but our salvation and faith in Him.
So I encouraged my brother to look to the cross. We cannot forget that this is the single most important thing in our lives. The forgiveness of our sin and our reconciliation to God ought to be infinitely valuable, such that we dare not throw it away in times of trial and doubt. Paul writes to the Philippians that “to live is Christ” (1:21) and, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:8). Christ is supremely valuable above all things. This fact does not change in the midst of trial, no matter how immense. Christ is still worthy of worship!
One last note: When we pray, our primary focus should be the revealing and furthering of the glory of God through trial, not healing or removal of suffering. As Christians, our primary desire is the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). We are to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17), to do as Jesus would do. Just as Christ desired the will of God in His suffering in Gethsemane (Luke 22:42), our primary concern should be that God glorify Himself through this trial. If the way for Him to best do that is through healing, then we should call for healing. If He desires to glorify Himself through a more protracted fight with cancer, then that should be our calling. As much as I desire for my brother to be healed, our overriding and consuming desire in sickness and health should be the glory of God, however He wills it. I pray that my brother will have faith in this, and desire the glory of God over the removal of his cancer, should it come to that.
Though I did spend a good deal of time praying for and encouraging my brother, he also greatly encouraged me. I have constantly seen his desire for God to be glorified through his life, and this event has not changed that trajectory in his life. Knowing the strength of his faith now, I am eager to see how God stretches and grows him through this cancer. I await the days in the future when we can talk about what God has been teaching him and how God has grown his faith. I am praying for you, brother, that your faith may be strong. Our God is good, and I am certain He will teach that to you in incredible ways in the weeks to come.