Last year I remember looking at my prayer list in my notebook in disbelief. The top of the sheet said “Prayer” and the subcategory on the page said “Cancer.” I’d just written a fourth name down from my small church. One of the names was a dad with two kids, another name was a young mom that had recently had another child. My heart hurt for each name on the list, for each family standing behind each name.
Around that time an unexpected and uninvited thought began surfacing at different points throughout my day: “What if I get cancer?”
And there were variations of it: “What if my wife does? What about my sons? What about the rest of my family?” At times I could swat it away but other times it seemed to just sit there, unmoving, staring back at my throughout the day.
But a surprising thing happened: One day as I spent time with God and my Bible I gave in. I said, “Okay, what if it happens? What would I do?” And in that moment God met me in a surprising way. God brought to mind what I’d heard over the last year from the very people battling cancer, truths that the each held on to in different way.
I’ve held on to these four truths and I’ve returned to them more than once since then.
Cancer cannot kill you
Jesus is not a liar. The simple promise of John 3:16 is deeper and truer against the backdrop of cancer: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). When sin entered the world, death entered the world (Gen 3), both a physical death as well as an eternal spiritual death. Ultimately cancer scares us because we fear it is something our bodies cannot recover from, because it leads to death. And in light of this cancer pushes us even faster to come face to face with that thing we should fear: eternal spiritual perishing.
But Jesus is not a liar. He came and suffered for our sins, he died our death, so that if we believe in him we would have eternal life. This is life that can’t contract cancer, life that can’t be lost later, life that is glorious and goes on forever. This life, cancer cannot kill. This life can’t be affected by test results or diagnoses, this life doesn’t depend on experimental treatments or PSA numbers.
I’ve taken to underlining a word I never paid enough attention to in the New Testament: eternal. If the ground beneath your feet begins to shake, pick up your pen and underline the truth until you feel its weight.
Cancer cannot kill God’s purpose for you
Cancer can take away years, it can take away mobility, it can take away normalcy. But it cannot take away God’s purpose for you and your life.
Psalm 139 tells you that God knew you before you were born (15) and that God has written our days out before us (16). And the good news is that God has set our days out that all things “work together for good, for those who were called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). God has set out a purpose for our lives, a good purpose. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). There are good works God has prepared us to walk in. If all this is true, then cancer may take many things, but it cannot take God’s purpose for our lives.
One of my friends who has cancer shares often how he prayed for years for God to give him opportunities to share the gospel, but that he’s shared the gospel more than he ever expected since being diagnosed. Another friend shared how she’s grown to know God more through the hardship of cancer than she ever expected. Cancer may not be the path we would choose for ourselves, but it cannot stop God’s good purpose for us and others.
Cancer cannot kill God’s purpose for your family
When cancer strikes, it is not just the patient that suffers, but the whole family. Children ask hard questions, a spouse of decades wonders what life would be like without the one they love. This scares me. But in the difficulty of cancer I’ve also seen something surprising. In many cases families survive, and even thrive through this.
One friend with cancer told me that while the year was hard, it had been better than he’d ever imagined for his family. Together they pressed into God more than ever before. Eternity became more tangible and real. Through surgery and medical trips, God’s purpose for them continued working.
How is this possible? Because the promises listed above apply in Christ to the family just as much as to the one battling cancer. The are not less real, and true. This is what the Bible tells me: if I’m taken away from my family, God’s care for them will not stop, his ordering of their steps will not stop, and his goodness will not stop.
Cancer will be killed
We will outlive cancer, in Christ. There will come a day when every cancer, every debilitating illness, every body ache and pain will be no more. This day will come: “”He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 ESV)
Cancer is ugly. It is hard. It is painful. Those things are true. Sometimes it doesn’t help to deny hard truths in the world around us. Instead we need to add more truth–truth about God, about ourselves, and about eternity. So next time fear grips you consider going straight at your fears with the truth of the Bible. It may not take them away entirely, but it will give you a place to stand.
On that day the cancer that seems so dangerous and frightening now will be thrown into the pile of “former things” that will be left behind.
These are not easy truths. There are days when I stare at them and the feel cold and distant. Then there are other days when I feel like I get a glimpse of glory, when I see more clearly that final day and rejoice.
But one thing is true: these are solid and unmoving. When all else fails, they give you a place to stand.