Learning Joy in the Darkness
“There’s no doubt about the diagnosis,” the doctor said. Incurable cancer. A fatal disease. I had just celebrated my tenth anniversary with my wife, and we were busy raising our children, aged 1 and 3.
The next week, as I prepared for chemotherapy, my wife smiled and handed me a handmade card, colored bright with crayons and signed by a fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome in our congregation. My tears flowed as I read the top:
“Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”
My tears were a mingling of grief and joy. Yes, God is bigger than cancer, and bigger than my cancer! The girl in my church wasn’t denying that the path of my future seemed to be narrowing, hidden beneath the fog of a diagnosis. But she testified that God is greater: The God made known in Jesus Christ shows us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
In my tears, I relished the fact that in the body of Christ theological truths are not a commodity trafficked and controlled by theology professors like myself. God is bigger than cancer, period.
Does God Owe Me 80 Years?
As I learned more details about my diagnosis, I realized that overnight my expected lifespan had been chopped by decades. This news reinforced my gratitude for each breath and the gift of every moment — the opportunity to hug my children, to cherish my wife, to labor in my vocation for God’s glory.
Cancer changes your perception of life. Each day comes to us as a gift from the gracious hand of God — whether it is the last day of a short life or the first day of a long and healthy life. But living into the reality that each day is a gift also involves coming to recognize a stark, biblical truth that is deeply countercultural: God is not our debtor.
Surely God is not capricious or untrustworthy. God has disclosed himself as gracious in his dealings with creation, with Israel, and most fully, in Jesus Christ. The Triune God binds himself to covenant promises that include, envelop, and hold us in a communion that sin and death cannot break. God is faithful to these promises, fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
But this does not mean life is “fair,” or that we are shielded from all of the present consequences of sin and death. God is not our debtor. He does not “owe” us a certain number of requisite years of life.
God does not “owe” us a certain number of requisite years of life.
Christ promised to never leave us as orphans (John 14:18) — but Christ never promised us the American dream, a comfortable retirement, or that we will soak in all the expected blessings of what we think is “normal” life. Each day is a gift. Each year is a gift. Each decade, for each of us, is a gift that comes gratuitously from God’s hand, not from our entitlement to live a “normal” life or life span. The “abundant life” that Christ offers is not measured by the length of this life (John 10:10).
Groaning Before the Lord
Yet, even if God does not “owe” me a particular lifespan, the stinging questions are unavoidable: Why would God take away my children’s father in the middle of their childhood?
I have watched others die. I knew a cancer patient whose family prayed and prayed for healing. But his healing didn’t come — and death came before anyone expected. His path of suffering seemed senseless. Was that the path I was destined to walk?
Moreover, for years my wife and I prayed for children. And our prayers had been answered. But to what end? Was God toying with us? I join the psalmist in lament: “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘take me not away in the midst of my days — you whose years endure throughout all generations!’” (Psalm 102:23–24).
Through the Psalms, God gave me a means to bring my anger and confusion into his presence. Again and again, in communal and personal prayer, I began to see how my suffering is part of a much larger drama — for God is bigger than cancer.
Hoping Enough to Lament
I was not given a magical answer as to why God allowed my cancer to hit me. I still don’t know what the future holds. But the Psalms have paved a path for me to rest in the hands of the Almighty, delighting in his work, even when it is a strange work, a hard work on the road of suffering.
In the moments of darkest anguish, the psalmist shows us that God accepts our rawest laments: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6). Do we feel alienated, angry, and confused? The psalmist has been there, too. And the depth of our anguish has been exhausted in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who joined with the psalmist in lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).
In the moments of darkest anguish, the psalmist shows us that God accepts our rawest laments.
But even in the darkness the Psalms are shot through with hope because God’s covenant promises are ever at the center. While some Psalms are songs of exuberant praise, jumping up and down in exultation that God is truly the God he promises to be, many other Psalms, like the one Jesus prays on the cross, are Psalms of lament.
Yet, even the darkness of this anguished cry of lament points to God’s promise: “My God, my God.” Even when he feels abandoned, the psalmist brings his burden before the Almighty. “Why have you forsaken me?” Only those who know they belong to God can press this question to God. God promises that he will notabandon or forsake his people (Psalm 94:14). Thus, it is an act of trust and hope to lament — to remind God of this promise when things seem desolate, when God’s promise seems to ring hollow.
In this way, lament is not just “venting” toward God, dumping our emotions upon him. It is bringing our confusion, anger, and even protest before the Almighty, allowing the Spirit to reshape our lives and affections into Christ’s image, and all in the security of God-centered hope.
A Joy Bigger Than Cancer
At the center of God’s revelation is not a secret about how to live a lengthy, self-sufficient and secure life. We’ve been united to Christ by the Spirit to follow the way of the crucified Lord. On this path, we do not seek out suffering for its own sake, but we do expect for the God of Jesus Christ to be active in the most unlikely places: on the path of suffering, on a path hidden from the light of worldly glory. We are a people who take up our crosses to follow Christ.
And this is not a joyless path.
Instead, when we follow the path of prayer with the psalmist, we shed tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament. Lamenting and hoping in God with the psalmist is a practice that runs counter to our consumer culture. Rather than soaking in self-satisfaction or self-pity, in these seasons of sorrow we find our affections reshaped by God — we delight in what delights God, we grieve over what grieves him. It is a joy that is bigger than cancer.
The Psalms are doing this for me, fixing my eyes upon God’s promises and God’s mighty acts — in the past, and in the incredible blessings of life and breath in each moment I have now. Indeed, even though we join the Spirit in grieving at the corruption of God’s creation through tragedies like cancer, we can hope that since our Lord is the crucified and risen one who broke the power of death, he can work even in the midst of what seems to be senseless suffering in our lives.
For now, joy and lament go together in our lives. For as we cry to God “out of the depths,” we also trust that “with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption” (Psalm 130:7)
And as we walk Christ’s cross-shaped path, we will continue to groan with the Spirit until Christ returns (Romans 8:23). We groan and we also rejoice with the psalmists in God’s faithful love. For God is bigger than cancer.