Today I turn 28.
In the last number of years, especially as a Christian, even though I “knew” in the back of my mind that none of us is guaranteed a long life, I didn’t think much about dying young.
But, when I was diagnosed with Acute Leukemia in December, it only took a day for me to accept that very real possibility. At that point I didn’t know if I would make it to my 28th birthday. I subsequently went into remission (doesn’t equal cured) from the chemotherapy but I still don’t know if I have any more birthdays. Regardless, I see this cancer as a gift.
The reason, I believe, that I was able to come around on the news within a day was this: my theology prepared me for it. What do I mean by that? I mean that I had an understanding of a holy and righteous God, of a sinful human race, of a cursed world, and of a Saviour who bridged the gap between God and us and our world. And, by God’s grace I trusted in the Saviour, Jesus, to carry me and my family through this. It wasn’t a real shock then when I was told I had cancer. Sure I cried with my wife when I first got a phone call about the possibility, but I knew that I wasn’t exempt from the pains of this world.
Allow me to flesh out this theology for you a bit. Three aspects bear special mention.
1) The Current State of the World
Though God created this world perfect and good, we humans rebelled against God, seeking to be gods ourselves. A righteous and holy God rightfully placed this world under a curse in response. Dare we get away with treason? So, death entered into the world. Our relationship with the One who made us was broken.
Cancer exists now. Hatred exists now. Selfishness exists now. This world is a mess.
As such, I’m not surprised I have cancer. I’m a part of this world and not exempt from its pains.
“The creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20).
But only knowing this makes me a realist without hope.
But God hasn’t left us alone. Though we could not fix the relationship between God and us (after all, we’re the rebels!), God continued to act in history to redeem a people for himself. In the Garden he made the first promise that he would reverse the effects of the curse (Genesis 3:15). He entered into covenant with Abraham, promising that from his seed he would bless the nations (Genesis 13:15; Galatians 3:16). He gave the law to Moses to direct the ways of his people, a grace in itself (Exodus; John 1:16). He gave the sacrificial system to show that sin required the shedding of blood (Leviticus). He set David upon the throne of Israel, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). His people continued to fight him and so they were exiled for a time in punishment (see the Prophets). But God continued to speak of and promise redemption. Isaiah, the 8th c. B.C. prophet, spoke of the coming exiles for God’s people but also promised that after that would come one who would suffer and justify many (Isaiah 53:11) and bear “the sin of many, and [make] intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). The stage was set.
Then the ultimate act of mercy and grace that was continually promised happened: he sent his Son to die for us. Though you and I deserved his righteous judgment, Jesus was born in the flesh to take our sin upon himself. Two thousand years ago, this Jesus decisively conquered sin and death by being brutally crucified. He satisfied God’s righteous wrath. The wrath you and I deserved (see Romans 3:21-26). And through this he transforms the hearts of men and women to once again honour their Maker.
In the face of suffering I can rejoice that I have received new life in Christ.
“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But, a skeptic might argue, “positive thinking people” get through this too. But “positive thinking” doesn’t change reality. There is no future hope in positive thinking since without Christ the best one can hope for is non-existence at death. But with Christ there is future hope.
3) Consummation and Glorification
One day God will totally and completely bring to consummation what he has already begun: the reverse of the curse and our return to Eden (Revelation 21-22). He will completely remake this earth and we who accept what Jesus has done for us will forever be in his presence. He will glorify us with him (Romans 8:30). This is what we were made for. But even now we can know God, the relationship has been restored.
This is hope, grounded in the cross and resurrection of Christ and the promises of that God for what is still ahead.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
The question this poses to all of us is this: How will you respond to this? Will you give your Maker his due? Or will you keep fighting him, denying his work in Jesus all the while living in his world?
Suffering is a Gift
That’s the theology and message I believed before my diagnosis, and the theology and message I believe now. By God’s grace it changes everything. This Jesus, my Saviour, is completely trustworthy and deserving of full adoration and worship. He is completely sufficient. I know this first hand. And I know this through these trials: painful procedures, feeling unhealthy, getting sick with no immune system, facing the possibility of death, etc.
So, in light of my cancer and knowledge of this fallen world, I listen to and commend to you the words of James, the brother of Jesus: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-5, TNIV).
I know that Jesus is sufficient for all things and this trial is for my good.
It is pure joy. This suffering is a gift. It is for my joy and yours.