God. Is Good – or Protecting God’s Reputation When Shit HappensFeatured, Social Justice — By Jo Hilder 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.