I sat in a cushioned chair beside my wife’s hospital bed reading C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain on the morning of August 15, 2002. Honestly, the pain was mine but it was more for my wife’s as she lay with bandages, tubes, and a morphine pump to ease the agony of the nine-hour surgery she had the day before.
C.S. Lewis says, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and existence of free wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.” Suffering invaded our lives so that the problem of pain had become personal. Life hurt.
The events leading up to my wife’s surgery shocked and stunned our family. My wife mentioned to me in passing one morning about a “lump” on her breast. “Go to the doctor. Get it checked,” I advised, thinking nothing of it. What surprised me was that the said she would get an appointment. A visit to the doctor does not rate high on her list of favorite things to do so I knew that she must be concerned about the lump.
On that June day when she told me about the lump, we were riding high on the crest of an exciting wave. I had been in England earlier in the year, we had walked through 16 years of ministry in the same church, our church was near the end of its invigorating relocation project, and family plans came together for our annual July trip for fun in the sun in Florida. After twenty years of marriage and a time of blessing from God’s hand we prepared in days to return from our vacation and move into our new building at church. God’s goodness overwhelmed.
We went on vacation and returned with doctor’s appointments. Doctors confirmed what only we had whispered: my wife had breast cancer. One doctor told us it was the aggressive kind of cancer and needed to come out as soon as possible. My wife researched the Internet and to my surprise asked the surgeon about a double mastectomy and reconstruction.
“Judy, let’s talk about this,” I responded to her, not giving the doctor time to respond. He waited patiently and responded, “I think it’s a good idea.”
I am a pastor and I have read the Nouwen’s Wounded Healer, Swindoll’s For Those Who Hurt, Claypool’s Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, Westerberg’s Good Grief, and Dr. Seuss’s Oh! The Places You will Go! Still, not much prepared me for the place into which suffering pushes you. I am a pastor and I had ministered effectively to cancer patients, but now my wife was both a patient and a parishioner, albeit my flesh and blood, as well as God’s family.
The night before was intense: a nine-hour surgery, church members whom I will never forget in the darkness of that day, and the ride home full of tears, questions, and an attempt at explaining to my three teenage daughters that everything was going to be alright. Would everything be all right? Where will this pain lead us? Whose problem is the problem of pain, mine or God’s? “Is she going to die?” my youngest daughter asked.
C.S. Lewis says, “Our design is a less formidable one: it is only to discover how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without contradiction.” As I looked over at my wife who on that August morning was pained, I found myself thinking about God. I cried.
Now almost two years later here’s what God taught me through cancer.
John 1:5 tells us the light shines in the darkness. John’s darkness is not existential like the pain of cancer. His darkness is spiritual, a darkness of a world minus Christ at the center. John’s darkness is philosophical, the logos of Christ come as flesh and blood, truth and grace, but ignored by the masses. John’s darkness is personal, evil roaring throughout the earth seeking whom he may devour. Paul speaks of the dark as sin, evil lurking in the heart to undermine light in the soul: foolish talking, pornography, greed covetousness, and dirty jokes (Ephesians 5:3-4).
If there’s anything I’ve learned, darkness comes. It comes in the morning. It comes at noon. It comes in the afternoon. It comes in the sunset of life. It comes when life rides high on the crest of a wave. It comes suddenly. It comes surprisingly like an intruder at the door with noises that go bump in the night.
For our family darkness arrived in a chariot of sickness with its prisoners of pain, uncertainty, and grief chained to it.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” I once asked my friend Frank as he lay dying. “I’m afraid,” he said. Fear swells in the soul when darkness comes. The Gospel writer John reveals God’s peace throughout the pages of his book. John summarizes Christ as the life, not biology where cancer cells race through the body seeking to ravage, but zoe, the life of God in the souls of man or woman. John knows that in life and in death, life, zoe, serves as the fundamental stuff of genuine life.
John Calvin says, “Where the brightness of God does not shine, there is nothing but fearful darkness.” Fearful darkness creeps into the soul when darkness comes.
Fear plagues the mind when a doctor announces, “You have cancer.” The victim feels fear. The family feels fear. In my case I do not think the fear came until later, several months later when I watched my wife navigate the brutal passage of chemotherapy. Imagine someone pumping poison into your loved one and nervously watching that person withdraw from life itself.
The poet Keats penned words for moments of darkness: “Beneath my palm tree, by the river side, I sat a weeping: in the whole world wide …” When the darkness of chemotherapy came my wife and I wept and talked, and vowed together to trust God in the darkness. If you seek spiritual things eventually the darkness creates a yearning for light.
John tells us that the light shines and the darkness does not comprehend it. What did John mean? He means the darkness cannot comprehend light and that darkness cannot seize or grasp or take light captive. Darkness cannot imprison the light. He means that the darkness cannot quench the light.
If I’ve learned anything, I know that God’s light shines even in darkness. The poet Walt Whitman spoke of life: “It is not upon you alone that dark patches fall, The dark threw its patches down upon me also.” Dark had thrown patches upon us, but Jesus said I am the Light of the world. Light shines. The Light reigns!
Paul invites the saints of God: “Walk as children of the light!” (Ephesians 5:8). Paul experienced a thorn of the flesh. He dodged stones thrown at him whole running for his life on the fast track out of town. He knew the pain of disagreements (remember John Mark?), criticism of his preaching (remember his weighty letters, but bad speech that even put Eutychus asleep?), and the pain of hunger, cold nights, beatings, and weariness (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). In spite of the pain, the suffering, he challenges the saints of God: walk as children of the light.
Paul’s word to saints in the silent agony of suffering indicates a resource, like the Sun for the light of day, like electricity to a light bulb in your kitchen, like a battery illuminating a flash light on a camping trip in the dark of night. The resource is Christ.
Christ is the light of the world! He is the photos. He is the Light of hope. He is the Light of peace. He is the Light of love. He is the radiant, express image of God. He is the Light that lights the city on a hill. He is the Light behind the sun. He is the Light behind electricity. He is the Light behind the flashlight.
Christ is the true light that gives light to every person who comes into the world (Luke 1:9). Sitting in the hospital room on the 15th of August reminded me amid tears: Christ’s light is the only genuine source of hope amid the uncertainty of life. The rough seas of life call for a lighthouse whose peaceful harbor calms. Amid tears Christ was and is that lighthouse. Walk as children of the light! What do children of the light do when storms seek to diminish the light?
If you draw a circle around everything the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5, that circle provides strength for life and that circle answers the key to walking through the darkness with God’s light as the primary resource: Walk in love (Ephesians 5:2). The source for Light is God’s love. His love graces us to give thanks for blessings even in the midst of suffering (Ephesians 5:4). His love cleanses us when sin darkens the heart (1 John 1:1-9). His love produces fruitfulness in the daunting challenges of life. His love compels us to walk in wisdom and redeem the time (Ephesians 5:15).
Time crawled for days during in the hospital. Now, two years later, time marches: preparing sermons, raising the kids, running to Wal Mart where – during the month of October – yogurt labels will remind me that is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, paying the bills, balancing the check book, folding the laundry, raking the leaves, and changing the oil in the car. Ordinary time with its daily tasks march like soldiers preparing for battle. Time mercilessly and joyfully fills our days
Tennyson in one of his poems has a line that speaks of “life piled on to life.” Cancer has been life piled on to life. You cannot turn back time or put a leaf back on a tree or make a river run backwards or force the ticking, ticking, ticking of time to silence. Paul’s Christian world view of time piled upon time invites us to live life to the fullest by buying back time, valuing time, redeeming the time, celebrating time, enjoying time with the people we love.
Patches of darkness piled life upon life almost two years ago. Remarkably, though, a light shined. Love surrounded. The saints rallied with love to the cause. And all is well. All is well. It is well with my soul, because the Light was Christ; the Light is Christ.
What have I learned about God through my wife’s cancer? I have learned that love multiplies, deepens and never fails. I have learned that God supplies light in the darkness; strength for the journey; joy in the sadness of unexpected events; and an anchor of hope in the soul in the uncertainty of life piled upon life.
George Mueller of Bristol says, “Faith begins where man’s power ends.” I have learned that I can go to God when circumstances are beyond my control. I have learned in faith to let others minister to me and my family when I need ministry. I have learned in faith to walk the darkness but cling to the Light.
Several years ago in Cambridge, England I attended church at the Eden Baptist Church. Like a good Baptist I sat on the back row of the church. I met a man by the name of Dr. Roger Carpenter, a teacher at Gonville and Caius Medical College in Cambridge. He invited me to eat with the fellows on Wednesday. Before we ate with Cambridge’s finest scholars, steak pie and English peas and potatoes, he gave me a brief tour of King’s College and the grounds, library (over 33,000 volumes), and courtyard of Gonville and Caius.
As he led me through corridors, into the basement of King’s College, and into historic buildings, he kept reminding me that he was taking me places I could not go without his assistance. His swipe card, digitally programmed, kept giving us “access.” Paul says that faith triumphs in times of trouble: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).
I learned in new way about access to God’s light in the shadows of darkness. I have learned that access to God lights a way in the suffering of darkness. In the Lord’s presence, before His throne, I have learned that C.S. Lewis was right: even in suffering God is good. Oh, how good He is!
John Duncan is Pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury, TX.