While I had received many cards in the previous days, this one was different. “God is bigger than cancer!” Yes. She did not say, “God will cure you of this cancer,” or “God will suffer with you.” God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama. The sky was closing in, enveloping my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger. The girl in my church wasn’t denying the fog or the loss but testifying to a God who was greater, the God made known in Jesus Christ, who shows us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). In my tears, there was not only grief but also joy that in the body of Christ theological truths are not a commodity trafficked and controlled by professional theologians. God’s story in Christ is bigger than my cancer story, period.
God is bigger than cancer. Yet, from those early days in the fall of 2012, I sensed that my unfolding cancer story was not to be denied or repressed because of God’s story, either. The news felt like a heavy burden. When I would see students and colleagues at the seminary where I work (Western Theological Seminary) and respond to their queries of “How are you?,” any response I gave felt like a lie. My wife and I decided to share the news publicly—with no “secrets”—within two days of receiving the diagnosis. An emergency faculty meeting was called. No dry eyes. An announcement went out to the seminary community, the church, and friends on Facebook. For better or worse, my cancer journey was no longer just my own or that of my family. It was shared with our community.
There are risks with that kind of sharing, as cancer patients know. Our culture often suggests that we are “entitled” to a long, fulfilling life, and if that doesn’t happen, there must be someone to sue, someone to blame. When the word “cancer” is spoken, looking to the future reveals only a fog of uncertainty. It brings to mind a life that is spent in the process of dying—a casket waiting to be filled, with no politician to blame for it. In this state of affairs, people often don’t know how to respond. Many simply said that I would be in their prayers. Some shared a Bible verse in encouragement. Some allowed the conversational habit of “free association” to hold sway, sharing about the last person they knew who died of cancer or of someone they knew who had a remarkable recovery from cancer. For the patient, the last approach tends to be the least helpful. And the more public the news is, the more frequently one will hear stories of others with the same cancer who died an early death, herbal remedies that one must try, or other less-than-helpful bits of advice.
Whether or not cancer patients intend to share their journey openly with others, they generally find that the cancer situation itself has put their lives into a fish bowl—for public viewing—whether they like it or not. “What were your most recent test results?” “What did the doctor say?” Those questions used to be for me and my family. Now, with a “terminal illness,” they are relevant questions for all who care about my family and me. My body—its test results, its symptoms—has become a public spectacle, something for public commentary. Some things are kept private. But much that was formerly private is no longer so.
Sharing the cancer story, however, can also open the door for many blessings to flow. One blessing is that I have been able to explore—and bear witness to—the ways in which God’s story intersects with the cancer story; how my cancer story is complicated and mysterious but not nearly as compelling as the mystery of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. This opportunity came with the initial announcement of my diagnosis, where—in all of the various venues—I included the following words from Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism:
“What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but that I belong—in body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Like the note from the fifteen-year-old girl in my church, it breaks through the fog of “terminal” and “incurable” and “cancer” by pointing us to the bedrock of what matters: that I belong, in life and in death, to Jesus Christ. My life is not my own.
This is taken from Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings, published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2015. Used by permission.
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