At BigStuf Camps we often hear of students who are stuggling with something in their lives. Their youth pastors and other BigStuf campers often funnel the stories to us via email and Facebook. For almost the past six months we have been following the ups and downs of one of our students from from up north named Tyler. Tyler discovered he had leukemia last fall and ever since then he has been fighting hard to beat the disease. While Tyler has shown much faith in this journey, it is the strength of all his family and friends that have also grown. His mother recently reposted a blog she wrote a few months back to all friends of Tyler. This was posted publicly on Tyler’s CaringBridge site and it has so deeply affected me that I would love to share it with you. While I do not think Tyler nor his mom would mind me posting this at all, I have edited out any mentions of locations for privacy reasons (you can read it in full at CaringBridge). It is a long post, but the reward is great if you read it through. It brings so many memories of a past friend of my old church and BigStuf, Rick Pearson, who left us a few years ago. So please, grab a seat and some coffee and be blessed:
Monday, November 21, 2011 9:42 PM, EST Warning: Long Entry!
Many folks over the past 2 ½ months have expected me to be angry or questioning over Tyler’s cancer. I’ve decided to journal my thoughts on this and post it for others to read. I’ll probably go on for quite a while, so please bear with me or just skip this entry all together. I don’t claim to have the answers and realize some will disagree with me. I also don’t pretend to speak for either Tyler or Ron. Writing this is therapeutic for me, and who knows – may be therapeutic for someone else.
When my niece was 5, she fell from the top of the monkey bars and broke her arm. Her first reaction was to look accusingly at my father and wail, “Grandpa, why didn’t you catch me?” She looked to the one who was stronger, more powerful, and was supposed to be caring for her, and blamed him for the pain she was in. Doesn’t this knee-jerk reaction describe how we feel about God when something bad happens? God, why didn’t you stop it? God, it’s not fair! God, how can you do this to an innocent child? And so on. I think that’s our natural human response. God, You’re supposed to be good; You claim to love us; why are You allowing bad things?
I think to frame a horrible event in the right context, you have to establish some basic truths in your mind so that your thinking doesn’t go off course in the face of extreme emotions. In other words, what were your beliefs before tragedy hit? Here are some of my unshakable beliefs about God. First of all, God is good. He is perfect. He is holy. There is no evil in Him. He is not aloof. He desires to be in relationship with His creation rather than sitting from afar and ruling the universe. I am not complete unless I am in relationship with Him. He does not choose certain people to suffer more than others, or sit back maniacally laughing to see people in pain. So then this begs the question, where does suffering come from, and why is it running rampant in the world?
As I had the “my-world-just-stopped-on-its-axis” experience of hearing Tyler had leukemia, I felt terror, horror, shock, and devastation, but I didn’t really ask myself why my precious, loving, very special boy had to get diagnosed with cancer. As I absorbed the news a week later that he had one of the most difficult to treat types of AML, I agonized, but didn’t really ask myself why. With this last chemo course, as I stroked his bald head while he violently vomited blood and mucous, my heart broke a little bit more, but I didn’t ask myself why. With his recent stay in the ICU, when he weakly gripped my hand for hours, so horribly ill, I was numb and in pain, but didn’t really ask myself why.
With the “why” game, someone always has it worse and has more of a “right” to ask why. We don’t always comprehend it in our sheltered middle-class American lives, but the world is a place of daily abject suffering. Why does my boy have to suffer from cancer? Well, why does the mother in Honduras hold the lifeless body of her child, her fourth to die of a very preventable illness? Children she loved just as much as I love Tyler? Why does the girl in a tribal village have such empty eyes after watching her family be butchered by an opposing ethnic group? Why does the little boy immersed deep in Appalachian poverty have to experience constant, gnawing hunger? Why does the man who has looked forward to retirement all his adult life drop dead of a heart attack during his retirement party? Why does the teenager have to cry angry, resentful tears when she listens to her parents’ and grandparents’ stories of racism? Why does the Iranian pastor sit in prison waiting for execution because he won’t renounce his illegal faith? Why do entire villages disappear in mudslides, earthquakes, floods? Why do countless parents lose their children – to murder, abduction, accidents, disease, drugs, suicide?
Sure, I can ask why such a delightful boy like Tyler gets struck by a life-threatening disease, which at best, will rob him of his chance to experience a normal adolescence and give him health consequences into adulthood; and at worst, will rob him of life itself. Does this mean God is unfair? If we’re talking fairness, shouldn’t I also be asking why Tyler, of all the kids with cancer out there, gets to receive his treatment from the best hospital in the country, which just happens to be in our backyard? A hospital where some of the pediatric oncologists have made breakthroughs in Tyler’s AML subtype? Shouldn’t I also ask what led us to start attending [our current church] back in 1995, before Tyler was born, where he has been embraced and loved his whole life and now is embraced and loved more than ever? Shouldn’t I ask what led us to make financial sacrifices to send Tyler to [a] Christian Academy, where he made wonderful friends and forged relationships with teachers and staff who now, in his time of need, are showering him and our family with love, support and friendship? Should I question why someone we barely know knocked on our door the other day and handed Ron a large amount of cash? Should I ask why perfect strangers all over the globe feel led to pray for Tyler’s healing? Should I question why Ron and I both have great jobs, with co-workers who love us and care deeply about our pain? The countless whys of how we could possibly be the recipients of so much love, sacrifice and support FAR outweigh the single why of our son’s suffering. So shouldn’t we humans be fair when we get angry and question a good and loving God? Instead, we’re like my niece at age 5, angry and affronted when God doesn’t prevent the world from touching us with its pain and suffering.
So, here are my thoughts on why evil and suffering co-exist with a loving God. God created humans with the intention of intimate interaction between God and human, no death, no suffering, no sorrow, etc. Because He desired relationship and not mindless obedience, He gave us free-will to decide if we wanted to work within the parameters or go our own way. It’s no secret we went our own way. Our own sinful actions severed our ties with a holy and perfect God. Choosing what was wrong and ugly generation after generation, brought evil and suffering into our world. As societies grew and became more complex, individual acts of evil became institutionalized evil. Poverty, oppression, war, racism, etc., became part of societies’ make-up. As depraved as humanity became, God always offered His people a way for them to be in relationship with Him – again, it is always our private and personal choice. 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” And also, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Can you imagine if each human on earth made it his or her mission to obey God? We would love each other and love God, fight oppression and poverty, take care of widows and orphans and the sick. Institutionalized evil would cease to exist. Those who need care would receive the care they need. I don’t really understand the whys of natural disasters and disease. Some, I’m sure, are brought on by human behavior; others just exist in an imperfect world. I don’t really know, and I don’t really need to know. I Corinthians 13:12 says, “Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face to face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely, just as God knows me completely.”
What I do need to know is that God has made countless promises to those who suffer. First, He acknowledges that suffering exists for everyone, good or bad. “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45). Once we get that…that we are not promised sunshine and roses on this earth, we can stop wasting precious energy on anger and blame and our human sense of fairness. Instead, we can turn to a God who is waiting to give us just the comfort we need! He knows each one of us more intimately than any human ever can or will. He feels our pain the same way we are feeling it. No one, not even the one person we’re closest to, can possibly know our pain the way He does. In fact, Romans 8:26 tells us that when we’re too miserable to even pray, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. He knows what we need when we can’t speak a word! Some tell me I’m being really strong through all this. Please trust me, it’s not my strength – you’re witnessing the Lord’s strength, and a large measure of it! Here are some other scripture verses that demonstrate God’s intimate knowledge of us and care for us.
Jeremiah 1:5 I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart.
Romans 8:38-39 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Psalm 139: 1-16 Lord, you have examined me and you know me. You know everything I do; from far away you understand all my thoughts. You see me, whether I am working or resting; you know all my actions. Even before I speak, you already know what I will say. You are all around me on every side; you protect me with your power. Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding. Where could I go to escape from you? Where could I get away from your presence? If I went up to heaven, you would be there; if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there. If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west, you would be there to lead me; you would be there to help me. I could ask the darkness to hide me or the light around me to turn into night, but even darkness is not dark for you, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are the same to you. You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because you are to be feared; all you do is strange and wonderful. I know it with all my heart. When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there— you saw me before I was born. The days allotted to me had all been recorded in your book, before any of them ever began.
So, my basic beliefs about God: God is good! Because He is all-knowing, He knew before Tyler was born that he would get Leukemia. He also knows how this is all going to end. However, I do not believe in any way, shape or form that God caused Tyler’s cancer or chose him or us for this suffering. Instead, He chooses to care for Tyler and his family and his friends with the care and comfort only He can bring, tailor-made for each of us. Knowing what He knew, did God prepare us specially for this trial? I believe He did. Will He bless us, Tyler, and others throughout this trial? You bet! I also believe that God is all-powerful, and can heal Tyler and restore him to health in an instant. Will He? I don’t know. I have the absolute faith that He can, but I don’t know if He will.
I can’t lose focus: this is Tyler’s journey. Because I’m his mom, I’m journeying right along beside him. Those who know me well know that I’m a little crazily over the moon about my son. I can’t even begin to describe my love for Tyler. I swear that when I was pregnant with him, some of his essence passed through the umbilical cord into me, and I carry him in my heart and soul, my very being, each and every day. I love him so profoundly and feel so profoundly connected to him. I simply cannot imagine life without him. His suffering is my suffering. His fear and pain, I feel very deeply. I feel as if I would be lost, without purpose, without function if I ever lose him before I die. But no matter what, I believe God is faithful, He is good, He is loving, He is perfect. No matter my circumstances, that will not change!
A special word to any of Tyler’s friends who are reading this. My heart hurts for you! I know Tyler’s cancer has been shocking to you. Many of you are questioning why. A few of you are cursing a God who would let your friend suffer so much. Listen, don’t be afraid to express your anger to God. He is big enough to take it, and He won’t judge you for it. Just take a look at some of the things Job said to God in his anger and despair! But please, don’t waste too much time being angry and turning away from God, because He wants to wrap His arms around you and comfort you. He can grant peace – He can grant hope – He can grant strength. Tyler would be devastated if any of his friends turned away from God because of his illness. For those of you who aren’t struggling with God over this, I know it’s still so hard. I love you guys and the way you are banding around your friend. Tyler has his own moments of doubt and anger. He needs you, and you are making a difference!