My life is a parade of questions—a nearly 65-year procession of whys and how longs, met mostly with divine silence. God has never whispered his secrets to me; I imagine because his reasons corresponding to my whys would be unfathomable, even if explained (Deut. 29:29; Isa. 55:8–9; Rom. 11:33–34). This has left me with scores of lament-filled and faith-challenging mysteries.
Consider my medically incurable stage four cancer. Doctors give me no hope for cancer-free remission. Instead, they’ve insisted from the outset that my cancer isn’t going away. Treatments might stall it, but unless God intervenes (my caveat, not theirs), my cancer will eventually consume me. It’s only a matter of time.
But that’s an additional question: When is it going to happen? This question creates acute psychological trauma for many who face what I face. It’s deeply unsettling to have incurable cancer that, while momentarily quiet, is inevitably going to raise a deadly ruckus. It’s not if, but when.
If one’s heart isn’t fixed on God, the ominous, open-ended “when?” will mess with the mind. It can mess with the mind even if the heart is fixed on God. We can choose to not think about it. We can think about it only in a perpetual state of dread or self-pity. Or we can think about it in ways that lead us—however falteringly—to trust and worship God.
I’m going to die of this cancer (or something else), but I don’t know when. Likewise, everyone is going to die of something else (or of this cancer), and they don’t know when either.
We’re all in the same boat.
Except that things seem a little less seaworthy on my side of the dinghy. Doctors’ prognoses and life-span averages say my “when” will be around 6 to 8 years younger than most American males’ and at least 10 years younger than my dad’s.
I’d feel profoundly gypped by this if I didn’t know that God is perfectly just and holy. He gyps no one—and I trust him in that. But still.
Indwelling Mortality, Sighing Sadness
I sigh a lot these days, especially when it hits me that death is already in me. That awareness will invariably tinge with grief everything I feel and do from here on out.
Anyone living with chronic suffering will know something of this. Sighing sadness marks those who wake up each morning to the same sorrow, loss, betrayal, injustice, sickness, divorce, financial hardship, and addiction. It marks the consequence of bad choices to which they woke up yesterday.
A moment of pain is one thing. Pain with no end in sight is quite another. This is the sort of enduring pain from which the whys and how longs of the saints have long emerged.
A moment of pain is one thing. Pain with no end in sight is quite another.
It’d be silly to grieve a head cold from six months ago. It’s over, so get over it. But what if that head cold moved in to stay, to greet you each morning for the rest of your life with the same sniffles, headache, and itching eyes? What if you never felt well again?
That’s my cancer. There’s indwelling sin and indwelling death, and I’ve got both. I’m learning how to cope, but despite my best efforts, I can’t “get over it” completely. How does one get over what isn’t over?
Chronic sufferers wish others would understand this. Well-intentioned “comforters” often urge sufferers toward greater faith and to get over whatever it is they’re under. But they miss that people are still weeping because it still hurts.
Between Groaning and Hope
I know I have joyful hope in Jesus, but life on earth is still filled with groaning (Rom. 8:22–23). How can it not be, given all that’s broken? There’s no Christian pixie dust strong enough to lift my heavy groaning heart and send it soaring into a happy Neverland of my own making. Life hurts too much for that.
Yes, the gospel and the love of a sovereign God mean sadness need not embitter me or banish all courage and hope. And yes, I can truly say I’m always rejoicing. But I’m sorrowful nonetheless (2 Cor. 6:10). Sadness always seems but a sighing millisecond removed, like a haunting specter lurking in the shadows, stalking every moment.
It helps to remind myself not to be surprised by my trials, for the path to the eternal heavenly kingdom is marked by “many afflictions,” and God will see me through (Acts 14:22; 1 Pet. 1:6–7; 4:12–13; 5:6–11).
It helps to remember I’ve received all spiritual blessings in Christ—and cannot be separated from his love (Rom. 8:35–39; Eph. 1:3–14).
The gospel and the love of a sovereign God mean that sadness need not embitter me or banish all courage and hope.
It helps to call to mind that I’m invincible until God’s purposes for my life are complete. Until every good work prepared for me to do is actually done, my life won’t be done (Eph. 2:10).
And it helps to remember that when my life is done, even then it won’t be done. Good Friday and Easter guarantee a hope beyond—hope that makes living, loving, and serving worth doing, no matter my prognosis (1 Cor. 15:50–58).
More Important than Why or When
On my best days, I know that “why” or “when” questions aren’t my concern. God alone knows. I need only be concerned with a “what” question: “Lord, what would you have me to be, do, and enjoy? What should be the objects of my listening, learning, lamenting, loving, laughing, and looking in the time that remains for me?”
That’s how I think on my best days. On all my other days, I cry silently in my chair, fight off despair, beat down my fears, extinguish Satan’s flaming darts, and keep trusting that our Savior’s mighty arms will keep my dinghy afloat until he lands me safely on heaven’s golden shore, where sighing and dying will be no more.
And I’m guessing that in this fight, fear, and hope, I’m not alone.