Cancer and Christ

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This article is not an argument. There are plenty of arguments seeking to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with an all-good and all-loving God. I have written about one such argument elsewhere on this site. What I offer below is qualitatively different; it is a reflection, a rambling, a thought or two that I hope in some small way helps the reader when grappling with evil, difficulty and loss.

 

A Funeral

I recently officiated the funeral of a 49 year-old man who died of cancer. He left behind a wife and two children. This man was active in the community and spent much of his professional life as the principle of various elementary schools. He was esteemed and loved by many. A man who pours himself into the future is not easily forgotten – he was such a man.

The question inevitably arises, ‘How is that fair?’ ‘There are murderers who live long lives and this man, who served the community productively while being a good husband and father, dies of cancer at 49.’ It is easy to be angry and shout to the heavens ‘why’ when you hear a story like that.

It may even be Biblical to do so. Just read the Psalms.

 

Anger

During the Celebration of Life, I felt the stirrings of sadness and anger, as did others who worked with him. Anger that cancer crippled him so early in his life. Anger that his wife is now a widow and anger that his children are forced to navigate the teen years without their daddy as a trusted source of love, encouragement and counsel.

Anger.

Why do some of us get angry when we hear stories like this? There are probably several plausible answers to that question. But here is one possible response: we are angry because it doesn’t seem fair. During the celebration of life one old friend spat out the comment, ‘My friend was fair, but this doesn’t seem to be.’

It is not fair!

This is another way of saying, ‘things ought not to be this way.’ My friend shouldn’t have died, tragedy shouldn’t strike, and my dad should still be alive! When I examine my anger, I find that it is often a protest against the way things are, in light of how I intuitively sense they ought to be. ‘There IS a way things ought to be, and things aren’t that way.’

Is my anger rooted in something illusory or real? And what worldview, what over-arching narrative, validates the above emotional response to the indiscriminate nature of cancer, or the grievous wounds inflicted by injustice?

Surely, not a ‘godless’ worldview because in atheism there is no objective ‘ought’ there is only a subjective ‘is.’ This IS just the way things are – accept it; there is little point getting enraged when a bad person lives and a seemingly good person dies. My anger, which is deeply rooted in a sense of perceived injustice, is irrational. There is no objective standard of fairness to which our world must conform in an atheistic universe.

There is no moral arch to the universe that gravitates towards justice (whatever we define justice to be); there is no eventual cosmic embrace, only a cosmic abortion; the atheist has murdered God and tried to resurrect hope, but that type of resurrection would require a miracle and the atheist can’t permit one.

But, (and, granted, it is a big ‘but’) is it possible that every vote we cast for change, every protest we wish we could attend, and every white-hot surge of anger that bubbles up from within, testifies to a fundamental Biblical truth – the world is not supposed to be this way! There is a way that things ‘ought’ to be and this circumstance or this tragedy doesn’t resemble it; therefore, I’m angry.

What I’ve written above doesn’t, of course, prove anything, I am simply asking the question, ‘when we are livid in the face of the injustice or perceived unfairness is that rooted, or grounded, in something true about our world, or something false?

What is written above also doesn’t represent an attempt to answer the ‘why’ of evil and suffering, but at least the Bible gives our angst some objective legitimacy – at times, we truly feel the reality of the fall. And, if I am honest, I’m never tempted to seriously believe that Atheism is the answer. As C.S. Lewis wrote years ago:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of “just” and “unjust”?…What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world really was unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies…Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.[1]

 

The Face of God

Whatever we believe about God, God can’t just make sense in the good times, or during the peaks of human experience. We need a God for the valleys, for the pitfalls, for the unexpected illnesses and for the heartache.

In Christianity, this God comes to meet us in Jesus. In the incarnation Christians believe the second member of the Trinity, God the Son, took on flesh. The word, the creative and unifying principle in Greek Philosophy and God’s creative agency in Jewish theology, became flesh. The eternal God entered into time; the creator became a creature: from power to poverty, from wealth to weakness, from a throne to a stable. This is the stunning depth to which God willingly condescended to rescue floundering sinners.

When we meditate on the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ we still don’t receive a full answer as to why we suffer any specific act of evil, but we know what the answer can’t be; it can’t be that God doesn’t love us.[2] He has demonstrated His love once and for through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As Dorothy L. Sayers wrote,

For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – God had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money, to the worst horrors of pain and humiliations, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.[3]

 

In The End

Here is the difficult truth: we may fail to fully understand why our lives run aground, spin off the tracks, capsize in the raging sea, or sputter into conflicting bundles of absurdity. And often it can be this apparent lack of comprehension that creates a barrier of distrust between our heart and God’s. Jesus alone is the bridge across that barrier. Because of Him we never have to make a choice between specific answers from God, or sustaining intimacy with God. Jesus is the ultimate answer from God who makes possible intimacy with God.

I believe that in the midst of loss the only tears that can ultimately provide comfort, and shore up floundering faith, are tears on the ‘face’ of God. The other ‘gods’ have dry eyes, but every reader of the gospels has, at some point, stumbled across the wet cheeks apparent on Jesus’ visage and had their soul leap to attention in salutation of a small but significant scripture, ‘Jesus wept.’

In the face of Jesus we glimpse the character of God, and there we find traces of His tender tears shed over a broken world – we see his angry outburst at the alien intruder of death. Wipe this God away from the horizon of our lives and we lose the healing balm of His tears and keep the biting bitterness of our own. And in Him there is hope.

This world is fallen. This world is broken. But God is redeeming it all; He is picking up the shattered pieces of shalom and steadily stitching them back together through the work of His Son and the power of His Spirit and the faithful witness of His church.

In that there is hope.

 

For more on this topic see SufferingwithGod.com

 


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 31

[2] Timothy Keller often points this out. See The Reason for God.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” in The Whimsical Christian, p. 12

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