God. Is Good – or Protecting God’s Reputation When Shit Happens

Featured, Social Justice — By on August 9, 2010 at 8:00 am

I met Tammy about two years ago. We used to be neighbors, and my son and her eldest daughter caught the same bus to school every day. Tammy and I would often chat, strolling home from the bus stop. As it turned out we had a lot in common. Tammy, like me, was a wife, mother, a Christian and a cancer survivor.

Tammy was told she had esophageal cancer a few years ago. Born with a congenital condition causing chronic reflux, Tammy was always fully aware sufferers are often diagnosed with esophageal cancer later in life. Tammy was about thirty-five when the doctors found a tumor.  She and her husband Adam, a pastor in a local church, believed from the start that God wanted her to be totally healed by faith and faith alone. They decided to refuse all mainstream treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, instead praying for a miracle.

Several months after they started believing for her healing, tests showed the cancer had disappeared. Tammy stood by her miracle every day. She drove around in a little yellow hatchback with “God heals – just pray” written up the sides in bright pink. She celebrated both her continuing good health and her confidence in her miraculous healing by speaking at Christian women’s conferences and walking in the survivors lap at every Relay for Life.

It was at this year’s Relay for Life about two months ago when I last saw Tammy. She, Adam and their two girls were having morning tea after their victory lap. She told me that her doctor had found secondary cancer in her liver. Indeed, her abdomen was swollen, and she looked terribly thin. She had maybe three months left, the doctor said. I asked if she were going to have any treatment, even if were just palliative. It’s too late, she said, all we can do now is pray.

I took Adam aside, asked him how he was doing. We’re still trusting God, he assured me. If only we’d thought to pray about secondary cancers, he said, looking at the ground and shaking his head. I told Adam I would pray for his family for the strength and courage to face whatever was coming. He knew what I meant. I didn’t know what else to say.

The cemetery is just around the corner from where we live, about ten kilometres west of town. Last Thursday, as my daughter and I were driving to the video store, a funeral procession passed us heading out. A black hearse carrying a white coffin, followed by a little yellow car with bright pink writing up the sides.

By the time I can get back, the internment is over. It’s been raining. No one is around as I park on the muddy grass and walk over to the graveside. Her slim white coffin, covered with lilies, lies in the grave. I noticed the simple gold cross on the lid, a little handful of dirt scattered across it, like a little hand sprinkled it there. I imagine perhaps it was one of her two young daughters. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” is all I can think of to say.

I don’t know why Tammy didn’t get better the second time. I know from my own experience that sometimes people pray and cancer goes away, and sometimes, nobody prays and it goes away. Some people blame God for cancer and never speak to Him again, living long, happy lives. I know folks who develop cancer and get over it, never considering getting God involved at all; they neither blame Him nor ask Him to help, and seem to enjoy a wonderful relationship with Him throughout the experience. I also know people who pray and pray and pray, have surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and still cancer marches relentlessly through them like an unstoppable army of the damned. And I just don’t know why.

When I had cancer, we decided to take whatever was coming to me – chemotherapy, radiotherapy: the whole lot. The only reasons I could think of to say no were to prove something about me to God, or to prove something about God to everyone else, and I figure both reasons were pretty redundant. I certainly hoped God wasn’t asking me to prove something by it because I realised pretty quickly I just wasn’t up to it.

It was Jack taught me that. Jack was in the bed opposite me when I was about to have chemotherapy for the first time. One morning, the nurses came to give Jack his medicine, and he said no. He didn’t want to be kept alive any longer. The doctors came and counselled him, but his mind was made up. Jack was ready to die.

I was horrified. Because Jack was going to die? No – I was horrified because I thought God wanted me to get up out of bed, go over there and tell Jack about Jesus, and I’d better hurry up about it – I might never have another chance like this, and clearly Jack was not going to be around much longer. And I couldn’t do it.

I made myself literally sick worrying about this. I went and hid in the shower and tried to think of some other way I could make sense of my having cancer. Was this His purpose for it all? In the end, I simply crawled back into my own hospital bed, curled up into a ball and desperately hoped God would find someone else to save Jack’s mortal soul because I was just too preoccupied with being a very sick person. What kind of a Christian was I? Surely the most selfish Christian ever; the biggest waste-of-time that ever walked the face of the earth. Later on, after I realised that I was only just walking the face of the earth at all and might imminently be facing the same decision as Jack sometime soon, I cut myself a small break.

But don’t we just believe it. We think God puts us in these situations merely to have us prove His existence and demonstrate His great power to the world. But at what point do we actually allow ourselves just to be a passive recipient of His wonderful attributes, like His goodness, His kindness and His mercy? Why does cancer have to be like a Bible college exam we have to attain a high distinction in – or else?

I’m not saying every Christian who gets cancer thinks they have something to prove, but I just don’t understand why we put ourselves under this kind of pressure. I mean, what the hell was I thinking about with Jack? Sure, I was right to be concerned with Jack’s eternal soul, but would God really place complete responsibility for his eternal destiny onto me at a time like that – when I was dying of cancer myself? What kind of an insecure, sadistic monster is this God? How many people really will never believe in God because Tammy died? Because she didn’t get better, does this prove unequivocally that God is non-existent? How many people would want to believe in a God who waits until you are at your weakest and most vulnerable, and then stakes His reputation, His very existence, on your ability to be strong and survive? When my own kids are sick, the last thing I’d do is make them carry around a sandwich board that says “Doesn’t matter how bad I feel – you gotta believe my Mum is Real.”

I happen to think that God will not do everything we wish He would, and not because he actually can’t. I think it’s more a conscientious decision He makes to withhold. Perhaps He won’t help us in ways we could in fact help one other. As a parent, I try not to do things for my kids that they can do for themselves. Maybe God does fewer supernatural miracles these days because we can now do so much for ourselves – like vote, alleviate world poverty and sometimes even cure people with cancer.

Despite my own bout with lymphoma, and Tammy’s death, my own belief in God’s existence is unmoved – except perhaps slightly sideways to the consideration that He is even bigger than I thought; bigger even than men who must raise their children alone, bigger than babies with tumours the size of oranges inside their skulls, bigger than me relapsing and never seeing my ten-year-old grow up. I have to be honest – these things really shake my faith. God, however, seems to remain unchanged despite all this human upheaval. I don’t know if this says something about me, or something about Him.

What really breaks my heart is thinking about Tammy’s girls; the times they will need their mum and she won’t be there. It also pains me to think that they may doubt God’s goodness because He wasn’t prepared to exert His power to save her. I doubt somehow that this is the legacy Tammy would have wanted to leave them. I hope Tammy’s girls will understand, regardless of what anyone tells them, that God didn’t need their mum to die for any higher purpose, that she isn’t in a better place now, and she didn’t inadvertently suicide through a lack of faith, because I doubt they will be comforted. I hope they do come to realise that it wasn’t up to their Mum to convince the world He existed by surviving her cancer, and that dying from it is not a failure that He will be embarrassed or angry about. I hope that Tammy’s girls will be comforted knowing she loved them more than anything and knew they would be in Good Hands when she left.

We don’t always get what we want or hope for, but we are always loved as only God can love us. And it’s okay to be simply incapable of putting out good publicity for God sometimes. It’s a blessing to spend time merely languishing in receipt of His qualities, not always slaving away in marketing, particularly when things aren’t so good.

When shit happens, there’s really only two things that count: 1) God. 2) Is Good – and in that order. And when it does happen, and it will regardless of the fact you or I may be a Christian, I just hope God isn’t counting on my ability to keep up His reputation as much as I am counting on Him to live up to it. I’m not actually that great under pressure, as history bears witness. Pardon the pun.

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    13 Comments

  • Great post!
    I’ve asked questions along these same lines most of my life … and especially after almost dying from injuries received in an accident.

    As I adjusted to a ‘new normal’ due to pain and lifelong limitations from the injuries, I heard many reasons about why it happened or why God did this to me. Some were enough to make me want to kill myself.

    Thankfully, I kept searching (still am) and realized that God is love, not a vicious monster, doing things to me that would get me arrested if I did them to my children.

    Love your last paragraph!

  • Lisa says:

    “I happen to think that God will not do everything we wish He would, and not because he actually can’t. I think it’s more a conscientious decision He makes to withhold. Perhaps He won’t help us in ways we could in fact help one other. As a parent, I try not to do things for my kids that they can do for themselves. Maybe God does fewer supernatural miracles these days because we can now do so much for ourselves – like vote, alleviate world poverty and sometimes even cure people with cancer.”

    I love this! I truly believe that God is GOOD. His very nature is goodness. I don’t believe that cnacer was his idea in the first place. I wonder sometimes if His hands are kind of tied when we have made a huge mess of the world, yet have the tools and the knowledge to fix it (things that He has given to us to bring about redemption and restoration) but we still want him to get us out of the pile of shit we’re wading in. Sometimes I feel like cancer is just a symptom of bigger issues like the kinds of processed garbage we eat and how farmers are putting chemicals onto the foods that we eat. It’s all about money and prosperity and selfishness. We are not making choices for anyone but ourselves yet everyone pays the price for those choices. I better stop, I’m ranting. Thanks for your thoughts and your honesty. I have been wrestling with the issue of prayer and cancer for many months since two of my friends are battling it. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone.

  • karen says:

    Jo:

    Thought-provoking post.You’ve penned too many important truths to single out just one. Thank you for sharing.

  • lillian says:

    I am not sure why God is keeping me here after all I have been through for almost 87 years, I am still here while people like Tammy died. I am ready to go, but maybe God is going to reveal something He wants me to do, or say, — or write. So,
    I will be patient and trust in Him.

  • Jo says:

    One of my favorite chapters in the bible is Job 13. An excerpt:
    7 “Are you defending God with lies?
    Do you make your dishonest arguments for his sake?
    8 Will you slant your testimony in his favor?
    Will you argue God’s case for him?

    Recommend the whole chapter (and book) for a fuller view and effect.

    With all due respect for those that have passed on: I do feel that at times people share such things as you mentioned out of a genuine, good intentions and love for others, even if at times in ignorance of the larger picture. Although I have also seen such things communicated in a “what’s wrong with you? Get with the ball game” attitude. Yet I know in either case, God makea allowances as He sees fit.

    Like one time when I felt a believer in her ignorance was sarcastically criticizing my behavior. Long story but I felt God wanted me to let it go and even felt He wanted me to buy her a gift and I did. Shortly thereafter she went through one very difficult time after another. I felt his heart was very much with her and was glad I was able to catch on and follow through.

    Anyway, finer details may not exactly fit in but I think the overall idea applies. My intitial thoughts were, “What a self-righteous attitude. I need to give her a piece of my mind.” But I found there was no gas to carry those thoughts through and let it go, then a couple days later I felt God visibly showed me He wanted me to give her a gift. This is what I call following after his Heart than our knowledge (not that I always get it right). She really did need to know his heart for her and communicated that when I gave her the gift (not knowing what she would soon be going through), especially with all she was going to go through and glad I was able to be sensitive to Him there, that time.

    May the Lord give you a fuller measure of his peace and understanding of his great love for you through it all. God bless you.

    Love in Him,
    Jo

  • Jo says:

    Thought I was done but wanted to come back and say one more thing. I really appreciate the heart you showed while communicating these things. Can go on about that but I won’t. Thanks for the boundary stretching piece…

  • After thinking, I will not try and add anything profound to your words. I just want to say thank you for sharing your experience. Your raw honesty about tough issues is a beautiful thing.

  • Susie says:

    I just read your post, so beautiful. Just heartwarming and sensitive and honest. God truly is Good, all the time. Sometimes we miss his answers to our prayers, sometimes he just says “no”. He’s always at work and promises to be with us to the end.

  • Lisa says:

    Jo, Thanks for this post. I’ve had similar thoughts over the years as I’ve watched people I love die from cancer. My husband is a cancer survivor. He would say that people’s best intentions in claiming that God would heal him actually really hurt. He lost his leg, something that people said God would not let happen. It did happen. God is still God. He’s still good. He still loves. Shit does happen. Somehow we’re always surprised when it does. I’m so glad that when it does, our understanding of God can grow and expand. So glad that there is grace for each us in the journey of life. Thanks again…

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