A friend of mine recently asked “are you for real? Do you really feel the way you’re saying you do online?” With my recent surgery and cancer diagnosis, he was asking, as a good friend would, how I was really doing. I’ve wondered that myself.
I can honestly say I have more of a sense of God’s presence in my life than I ever have. I am more confident than ever that He loves me and is trustworthy; that He will work any circumstance for my good. I have a greater conviction that the most important thing in my life and everyone else’s is a relationship with God and receiving the grace of God through Jesus.
Is it possible to say all that and still have negative emotions? Still be scared, or anxious, or unsettled? Absolutely. It’s like courage: unless you’re scared, you can’t be brave. Some fear and anxiety opens the door to you actually trusting God. Here are a couple of my thoughts on the topic.
Contentment doesn’t require you to pretend your problems don’t exist.
If contentment is a kind of peace, calm, and even joy – can you have it while acknowledging you have very real, very difficult problems? Absolutely!
Thomas Watson, in his fantastic book The Art of Divine Contentment, writes this (being “sensible” of your condition means acknowledging the reality of your struggle):
[Can] a Christian…be sensible of his condition, and yet be contented? Yes; for else he is not a saint, but a stoic. Rachel did well to weep for her children, there was nature; but her fault was, she refused to be comforted, there was discontent. Christ himself was sensible, when he sweat great drops of blood, and said, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;” yet he was contented, and sweetly submitted his will: “nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The apostle bids us humble ourselves “under the mighty hand of God,” (1 Pe. 5. 6) which we cannot do unless we are sensible of it.
You can be content and mindful of the thing you wish weren’t happening. You can still humble yourself to say “God I trust you, even in this.” I’m finding it is the reality of pain and problems that unlocks the door to greater trust in God.
I can be honest with God about how I’m feeling – the good and the bad.
You can still be faithful and trust God while lamenting your situation. Many of the Psalms are “laments,” where the author basically complains to God about their circumstances. Most laments end with an expression of trust in God, too. Throughout Scripture we see it is possible to be a person of faith and have a heavy heart. Watson writes about it this way (emphasis mine):
Whether a Christian may not lay open his grievances to God, and yet be contented? Yes: “unto thee have I opened my cause;” (Jer. 20. 12) and David poured out his complaint before the Lord. (Ps. 142. 2) We may cry to God, and desire him to write down all our injuries: shall not the child complain to his father? When any burden is upon the spirit, prayer gives vent, it easeth the heart. Hannah’s spirit was burdened; “I am” says she, “a woman of a sorrowful spirit.” Now having prayed, and wept, she went away, and was no more sad; only here is the difference between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint; in the one we complain to God, in the other we complain of God.
God hears our prayers and our complaints. We are invited to complain to Him. Complaining of Him shows we don’t understand the Gospel. But if we are in Christ – that is, if we’ve submitted our hearts to Jesus and received His grace through faith in Him – then God is our good Father. He loves and cares for us; we can talk to Him in the most honest and intimate ways. (He knows it all anyway.) But He is there for us to talk to in the midst of grief and struggle. He calls us to pray, to cast our anxieties on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). That’s how intimacy and real relationship is built. Not just by reciting truths to yourself, but engaging personally with God.
Ask Him to help you believe the truth. Share your fears and uncertainties with Him. This isn’t just “allowed” but it is the path we must walk if we want intimacy with God. If we want to know God.
Faith doesn’t mean we have to be fake. We can be simultaneously content and aware that our circumstances are not what we want. We can trust God with our life and at the same time express our fear or disappointment to Him.
This is where I am as I get closer to my cancer treatment, and the reality of my diagnosis settles in. I’m thinking more about what I might miss out on, both because of the treatment and if the treatment doesn’t work. I would rather not be going through this. I would rather not be wondering if I’m going to see my daughters graduate from high school, or if I’m going to be able to grow old with my wife.
I know none of us are guaranteed those things. Any number of things could take those pictures of the future away without warning. I know in a way it’s a gift that I have this awareness of my mortality, and I’ve written about that.
But emotions are tricky things. You can’t just bludgeon them with facts. (I’ve learned this from trying to do that my whole life.)
Yes, I am getting more of God than ever before. I feel His presence and love in ways I never have. I can already see how He is using all this to grow me and reveal my sin so He can burn it away. I believe He is refining me into a better disciple of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, man. But that doesn’t mean I like having brain surgery or cancer. And I don’t have to pretend to like it to be a good Christian.
Yet even in the face of not liking my circumstances, and being a bit afraid, I can cling to truths like these, and find, for real, peace, comfort, and joy:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In dealing with my own health issues over several years, it has been a process for me as I have drawn closer to the Lord. You definitely feel a loss of control when your health becomes an issue. This is the example I use to help people understand what it is like for me. Just imagine yourself in a very dark room with the darkness blinding you. You stretch your arms out in front of you and feel your way around the room hoping you don’t bump into something or trip. Because it is dark and you can’t see, you don’t know what is before you. That is how it can be with serious health issues. Your future is uncertain. It becomes a fact that you can no longer avoid. Lots of emotions will come to the surface. You may feel anger at God and disappointment in Him. You wonder why He let you down? Why you? I think that is part of the process of drawing close to Him. The bigger question is, what are you going to do from this point on? Are you going to walk the walk with Him or go it alone? Are you going to trust Him with your future? That was the question I had to answer. That meant even if I didn’t understand what He was doing with my life, I had to trust Him. As I experienced the process of drawing closer to God, I realized I wanted to take His hand and ask Him to lead me through that very dark room with it’s blinding darkness. I still feel fear at times. I still wonder what is ahead for me but I now truly know what it means to have the “peace which passes all understanding.” Philippians 4:7
Thanks for encouraging me by sharing your journey, Marla!