May 24, 1998

LOVE AND CANCER

“Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction.” Isaiah 38:17

When Bea Hoek found out she had breast cancer, she fainted.

When David Watson found out he had colon cancer and needed surgery, he said he couldn’t possibly fit it into his schedule.

After Bea fainted, her doctor revived her with smelling salts and filled her ears with words like mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Bea says, “I walked out of the small room almost in a nightmare. ‘This can’t be a serious problem,’ I argued with myself. ‘I’m not sick, and I’m young. I can’t have cancer.’ But as reality slowly filtered through my denial, I began to feel very vulnerable and alone.”

David was such a busy man, with such important work, that there just wasn’t any way to fit cancer surgery into his plans. He had an important trip coming up. He’d been planning it for months. A lot of people were counting on him. He simply couldn’t miss it. But he did. His doctor made him give up his plans and cancel the trip and have the surgery.

Bea Hoek and David Watson had something in common: they both got cancer, and they each wrote a book about the experience. Each book tells of shock and fear and doubt and shame and loneliness and helplessness and pain. At the same time, each rings with love and life and hope and dignity and power and joy. Both make it clear that cancer is an awful enemy, and both make it equally clear that there is a power far greater than the power of cancer: the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

It can be dark and depressing to talk about cancer, and even more dark and depressing to have cancer. But, odd as it may sound, the horrors of cancer can also be an opportunity to know the wonders of God’s love as never before. When God’s love carries you even through the dreadfulness of cancer, you know his love can uphold you anywhere.  Some of the most joyful, lively people I know are people who have survived battles with cancer.

Perhaps the only people I’ve seen more joyful than these survivors were some who didn’t survive. I’ve seen dying patients who seemed to be tasting heaven already even in their suffering. I’ve seen people on their deathbed aglow with a more direct sense of God’s reality and a warmer experience of his love than they ever had before.

Does this mean cancer is good? No, it means God is good. If you come to know God’s love more fully in the experience of cancer, don’t praise cancer; praise God! I have no desire to convince anyone that it’s enjoyable to battle cancer. It’s not. But it is possible, in the midst of the battle, to know God and to enjoy his love as never before.

Cancer itself is cruel, and the attempted cures for it are cruel. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy–these things can make a cancer clinic seem like a torture chamber. After surgery you may wake up with body parts missing or mutilated, racked with pain and ashamed of how you look. During radiation and chemotherapy, you lose your hair, and you lose your energy. You feel rotten: too weak to work, too nauseous to eat, too wired to sleep.

[And there in the middle of the night, lying awake in the darkness, your daytime worries seem to grow and multiply into monsters of fear. Everything seems worse in the dark. Some of your fears are wild and irrational, but some are quite realistic. You know you wouldn’t be the first cancer patient to suffer all sorts of nasty treatments only to end up dying anyway.]

Bea Hoek says, “After hearing my diagnosis, I was totally overwhelmed. I said to myself, ‘It would be easier to die than to face multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, needles, and then uncertainty.” I understood why some cancer victims give up. I could even imagine why some cancer patients commit suicide. The grief and fear are almost inexpressible. The pain doesn’t go away. The despair and anxiety are all‑consuming. There is no way out on one’s own.”

“But,” Bea continues, “my second reaction was to hang on tightly to my God, whom I had always claimed as Lord of my life. He is the only ray of hope in a situation that feels hopeless. He is the only source of life‑‑even in the face of death.”

David Watson, too, found that the only way to cope with cancer was to depend on God and his love. [As David lay in the hospital awaiting surgery, he meditated on God’s Word in the Bible and he said, “You, Lord, are all I have. No one else could offer me complete forgiveness. No one else could be with me day and night throughout my life, and even through the valley of the shadow of death. No one else could give me a new heart and a new life. No one else could give me an abundant hope in the face of death. There is no one like Jesus!”]

David and Bea both rested in God’s love in Jesus. At times they both endured terrible moments when God seemed far away, and they struggled with doubt and fear. But each time the Lord would restore their faith and renew their spirit. David says his doubts and questions were worst in the middle of the night, but even then, he says, “I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I belonged to God for ever. Nothing could ever separate me from him.”

It’s hard for anyone to face cancer, even the most heroic Christian. But it’s hopeless if you don’t know Jesus at all. How can you deal with such an awful disease on your own? How can you look death in the face without Jesus at your side? If you don’t trust Jesus as your Savior, if you’re not born again by the Spirit of God, then cancer may be a harsh wakeup call. When you were healthy, maybe you didn’t give much thought to God or think you needed him. But your cancer may be teaching you otherwise. So turn to God and his love before it’s too late.

Once you know the love of God in Jesus, you can face any enemy, even an enemy as dreadful as cancer or some other deadly disease, confident that nothing can separate you from his love. God will hold you and help you through the darkest times. No matter what lies ahead, you can rest your weary soul in a love that will not let you go.

How can we taste God’s love when we’re struck by a deadly disease? God’s Word, the Bible, sheds light on that in a story about Hezekiah, king of Judah. In Isaiah 38 the Bible says,

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”

Now, when a doctor says you’re sick and you’re probably going to die, it’s bad enough. But when God himself says you’re going to die, what hope is there? Hezekiah was a man of faith, but he was shattered when he heard the news. He turned his face to the wall. He didn’t want to look at anybody. He didn’t want to do anything but stare at a blank wall.

In his shock and despair, he managed to groan a prayer: “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” It wasn’t a great prayer. Hezekiah made it sound like God owed him, like God should remember what a good guy he’d been and not let bad things happen to such a good person. With that Hezekiah broke down completely and wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: “Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘This is what the Lord says: ‘I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will add fifteen years to your life.” What fantastic news! Hezekiah’s life wasn’t over, after all. [God made it clear that this good news wasn’t based on Hezekiah being so deserving of longer life. The Lord didn’t say, “You’re right. I’ve seen your goodness.” He said simply, “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.”] Even when our prayers are filled with self‑pity and confusion, even when there’s too much of “Poor me” or “How can such a bad thing happen to such a good person like me,” God hears our prayers and sees our tears. And sometimes he decides to heal the deadly illness and lengthen our lives, even after death seemed certain.

Hezekiah later wrote about the devastation he felt when he first heard he was going to die and about the thrill of his new lease on life and how he grew in his relationship to God.

About his devastation he wrote, “I said, ‘In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years? … I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled; O Lord, come to my aid!” (Isaiah 38:10,14) If you’re a cancer patient, you’ve perhaps had similar thoughts, especially if you’re young and in your prime. This wasn’t supposed to happen to you, at least not yet. You were supposed to have years and years of good health left, years to work and play and enjoy family and friends. How can you be robbed of all that? It’s too much to take, so you cry and cry and cry some more. Your eyes are too weak to see God and his love; all that seems real are your troubles.

When Bea Hoek’s biopsy showed her tumor was malignant, she says, “My faith had been devastated. Throughout that night‑‑and many nights to follow‑‑I woke up and prayed, ‘Lord, please don’t let me die.’ I was only forty‑two. I wanted to see my children graduate from high school. I wanted to celebrate my twenty‑fifth anniversary with the man I loved. I wanted grandchildren and retirement‑‑all the normal things.” That’s what Hezekiah was feeling when he cried, “In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?”

After Hezekiah was healed, he got fifteen years added to his life, and with those years, he also gained a new perspective. He was overjoyed to be healed, of course, but he also came to see that if he had died, he wouldn’t not have been robbed of his years. He came to see that each year was not his own right or his own possession which it would be robbery for God to take away. He saw that each year was a gift‑‑not something he had earned, not something he could assume was his to keep‑‑but a precious gift from a kind and loving God. This was humbling, and at the same time it helped him appreciate his life and his Lord more fully.

Almost breathless with awe and happiness, Hezekiah wrote, “But what can I say? [God] has spoken to me, and he himself has done this. I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul. Lord, by such things men live; and my spirit finds life in them too. You restored me to health and let me live.” [If someone had told Hezekiah before his illness that he had just 15 more years to live, he might have thought that sounded too short. But after his illness, each one of those years was a treasured gift from God.] Hezekiah was obviously delighted with his healing and was eager to give God all the credit.

But even as he rejoiced in his healing, he gained new insight into his sickness. He wrote, “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.” When the illness first struck, it had seemed like nothing but a horror; but in hindsight, Hezekiah realized it had been good for him. Now he knew as never before that the only thing that kept him alive at every moment, the only thing that kept him from falling into the pit of destruction, was the faithful love of God. He knew that God’s kindness and healing weren’t based on his own goodness but on the love of God by which the Lord forgave and put all of his sins behind his back and out of his sight.

Hezekiah had a fresh sense that this precious gift of life must be used to praise God and tell his family about the Lord: “The living, the living‑‑they praise you [he said] as I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness.” Even before his illness, Hezekiah had believed in the Lord and served him. But his suffering and healing and additional years of life helped him to appreciate God’s love and God’s gifts more than ever and not to take anything for granted.

Again, Bea Hoek’s experience was similar to Hezekiah’s. After being devastated by her cancer, the Lord gave her healing and has added many years to her life. Bea was a Christian already before her illness, but her cancer and suffering and healing made her more appreciative of God and his gifts. Bea says, “Looking back now I realize that I had never really known or understood the grace of God. I had been a committed Christian, perhaps even a woman of faith, but that faith was tender and untested. It’s a shame,” says Bea, “that we fully appreciate the things we have and the people we love only when we are afraid of losing it all. It’s so easy to take life for granted‑‑until we are faced with death. My embarrassment at my former apathy does not keep me from expressing my thanks now.”

Bea spends many paragraphs thanking God for her church and her friends, for birthdays and weddings and family reunions, for her job and her coworkers, for her dear husband, her children and grandchildren and other family members. But her greatest thanks, with which she ends her book, is directed to God: “Thank you, Lord, for your peace. I really don’t have to be afraid. Thank you for having the patience to teach me, over and over, that I can trust you. Lord, I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.

“Lord, thank you for life. For this life here on earth, yes, but even more for the promise of life in heaven that will never end. Your are my rock, my hope, my salvation, the only thing worth having. Lord, I love you.” Through her cancer Bea came to taste God’s love as never before, and her love for him grew accordingly.

Nobody looking into their own future would deliberately choose to go through disease and trouble, but there are many who can look back and say with King Hezekiah, “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish.”

But, you might wonder, what if the disease ends not in healing but in death? It’s easy to see why Hezekiah and Bea Hoek and other believers would be thrilled by God’s healing and relish each day as a wonderful gift. But what about those who end up dying? Where is God’s love then?

David Watson, whom I mentioned earlier in the program, ended up dying of his cancer. Much of David Watson’s book tells of the ups and downs of his battle with cancer, but by the time he wrote the last chapter, it became increasingly clear that he would die. Ironically, David was a pastor who believed strongly in miracles and God’s gift of healing, but Lord chose not to heal him. His preaching was making a great impact in England and in other parts of the world, but God didn’t stop the cancer from cutting him off in his prime. Why not? Listen to what the cancer-stricken writer says at the end of his book.

“God hasn’t done anything for David,” people are now beginning to say. “We’ve prayed and prayed, and nothing has happened at all.” Medically speaking, that seems to be true [says David]. However God has been far from inactive in my life. I’m not very good at listening to God, but … God spoke to me so powerfully and painfully that I have never felt so broken before him.

He showed me that all my preaching, writing and other ministry was absolutely nothing compared to my love relationship with him… God also showed me that any ‘love’ for him meant nothing unless I was truly able to love from my heart my brother and sister in Christ. As the Lord put various names into my mind I began to write letters to about twelve people asking for forgiveness for hurting them…

Whatever else is happening to me, God is working deeply in my life. His challenge to me can be summed up in three words: ‘Seek my face.’ I am not now clinging to physical life … but I am clinging to the Lord. I am ready to go and be with Christ for ever. That would be literally heaven. But I’m equally ready to stay, if that is what God wants.”

Barely a month after writing that, David Watson died–and he now lives forever with the Savior he trusted.

If good health and fun times were the only source of joy, then illness would mean only misery. If this life were all there is, death would mean utter defeat. But the true source of joy is God and his love, and the life that really is life is to live eternally in the presence of God. This is what the Bible teaches and what Christians claim to believe, but sometimes only when everything else is taken away do we surrender completely to God and focus entirely on him and seek his face. Only then do we find out that his love is better than life itself (Psalm 63:3).

Edward Payson was a Christian who lived about 200 years ago. Listen to what he wrote during the illness that ended his life.

Christians might avoid much trouble and inconvenience if they would only believe what they profess, that God is able to make them happy without anything else. They imagine that if such a dear friend were to die, or if such blessings were to be removed, they would be miserable, whereas God can make them a thousand times happier without them. To mention my own case, God has been depriving me of one blessing after another [remember, he wrote this on his deathbed], but as each one was removed He has come in and filled its place. And now, when I am a cripple and not able to move, I am happier than ever I was in my life before or ever expected to be; and if I had believed this twenty years ago I might have been spared much anxiety.

That sick man was becoming very healthy indeed. That dying man was becoming more alive than ever. He knew at last what had been true all along: If you have everything in this world except God’s love, you have nothing. If you have nothing in this world except God’s love, you have everything.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, help each of us to surrender to you and to find rest in your everlasting arms of love. Hear the cries of cancer patients and their families and all others who face deadly illness. Walk with each one. Comfort the discouraged; strengthen the weak.     Display your power and love by healing many and adding years to their lives, that they and their loved ones may rejoice in you and praise you in all the years you give them. Where healing is not what your wisdom ordains, grant an even richer taste of your love. Fill the dying with peace and a growing eagerness to see Jesus face to face and to enjoy forever the boundless riches of your love. Fill all of us, Lord, with faith in Jesus as our comfort and joy in life and in death. Amen.

Sources:

Beatrice Hoek, Surrender or Fight? One Woman’s Victory Over Cancer: Baker Book House

David Watson, Fear No Evil: Hodder & Stoughton

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.