Thursday, 4 December 2014

On Being Told You Have Cancer

Getting ready to die is hard work. I realize it probably should not be. As Christians, we are to live each day sub specie aeternitatis, that is, under the aspect or in the light of eternity. We are to be aware that our days are numbered, that they may not accrue to even the usually allotted span of three score and ten. I am presently just pushing three score. But throughout my ministry I have buried enough people, among them many people much younger than myself, and accompanied many as they lay dying, to awaken me to the reality of death and its unexpectedness. As the character in the old medieval morality play is made to say, "O Death, thou comest when I least expected thee"! Likewise, Bishop Thomas Ken's stately evening hymn teaches us frequently to sing,

Teach me to live that I may dread the grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die that so I may rise glorious at the awful day.

I know that my Redeemer lives. I know that I am justified by His righteousness, and not at all by my own. I know that this faith which lives in my heart is a gift from Him. I know that I need Him every hour. I know that He loved me with an everlasting love, from before the foundation of the world. I know that he who dies believing dies safely in His love. I know that I must bear my own Cross and follow Him. But when they tell you that you have cancer, in my case a very large B-Cell type tumour, the corrupt fruit of a disease called Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, it seems there are some unavoidable reactions.

This is so because information of this type, "you have cancer", tends to carry with it a fairly powerful emotional charge. Words and ideas and thoughts carry with them an emotional charge, just as a pair of socks can become electrically charged when you walk across a dry carpet in winter. And the emotions attendant upon learning that you are very sick are both involuntary and relentless. They insist that you attend to them. And so you must. This takes time and is laborious, just what you do NOT need when you are sick, of course, but it must be done, and, if we are wise, it will get done. How complicated our emotions are need hardly be said. They carry us here and there, up and down, in and out. We cannot escape them. They demand our attention.

Perhaps we feel cheated, thinking that we are being robbed of precious years of life, while others, surely less worthy than ourselves, go on living disease-free, utterly useless, wastrel lives! Perhaps we dread saying goodbye, if only for a while, to those who we feel still need us in some way, those who are perhaps vulnerable and in need of our protection and care. Perhaps we just feel afraid, and unwilling to think about what our last hours may be like, what kind of pain we may have to endure. Perhaps we feel just a strong sense of uselessness, that we have not lived our lives as we should have.

And, of course, we have not. As Christians, we know about Original Sin and we know that even a life repeatedly dedicated to God's service is far from being what it should. We are not what we ought to be. We are not what we shall be. And, yes, thanks be to God, we are not what we used to be. We may, however, find ourselves thinking "if only", and re-running those deeply imbedded video clips of our most stupid, ridiculous, sinful moments. This may not be entirely without its uses. It does not hurt us to remember that we are sinful, even when we are regenerate. But there is something to which we must constantly return, especially when we are sick and faced with a death which may come sooner rather than later.

And it is this : He hath made every thing beautiful in his time (Ecclesiastes 3 11). It is a beautiful thing to have cancer. And this is so because there is a purpose for everything. Nothing happens outside, or apart from, God's wise counsel and foreknowledge. He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He overrules all His creatures and all their actions. As Dr. Gill wisely notes ...

God has made everything; as all things in creation are made by him, for his pleasure and glory, and all well and wisely, there is a beauty in them all: so all things in providence; he upholds all things; he governs and orders all things according to the counsel of his will; some things are done immediately by him, others by instruments, and some are only permitted by him; some he does himself, some he wills to be done by others, and some he suffers to be done; but in all there is a beauty and harmony ...

In other words, it is a beautiful thing to be told that you have cancer. It is not an accident. You are not a victim of blind chance or fate. It is, in a very real sense, God's visitation. It is a gift. This is what it means to understand God's "providence". We mean that He overrules all things, that His wise, loving, holy, good, guiding hand is finally behind everything which happens to us and, if we are wise, we shall consciously receive it ALL AS FROM HIS HAND. He is never unjust, never evil, never sinful. But even what is evil or sinful, He overrules it for His own purposes and those purposes are always beautiful. He hath made everything beautiful in His time. And, as John Calvin reminds us, therein lies true felicity:

give heed and you will at once perceive that ignorance of providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness. (Institutes - 1 17 11)

In other words, for the Christian, it may not be pleasant to be told you have cancer and that you may die sooner rather than later. The emotional charge that comes along with those words is real and pressing. But behind all this lies reality. And what is real is that God is God, that this is His world, and that I am, by His grace, His son. Can anything happen to me that is not designed to increase my faith in Him? Can anything happen to me that is not for my good? Can anything happen to me that can really hurt me? The answer to each of these is an emphatic "no". Also, is anything impossible with God? Is He no longer the sovereign ruler of His universe? Is it beyond His power to heal either directly or by means or even against means? We give the same answer.

Of course, I am heartily sick of being sick. The treatment which is, thanks be to God, making me gradually, steadily better, also has the effect of making me feel right poorly, and as day follows day, and month follows month, the mind and body grow weary. I certainly did not plan to be sick this long! But there is another level, the level where we really live, the level of the soul or spirit. There is no weariness there, only joy, joy in knowing that real happiness is a by-product. It is one of those things which, if we pursue it, will always remains just out of our reach, but which will flow to us freely and easily when we pursue what we ought. For it remains forever true, that if we seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, then all that is needful will be added unto us as well. He hath made all things beautiful in His time. God grant that we may embrace as beautiful all that he sends and to Him be all the glory.

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