“Eight things cancer is teaching me”
Dave Hall is a friend of mine. He is now a pastor at Emmanuel Faith Community Church in Escondido, California, where he oversees the church’s efforts in global ministry. When we first met, we were students together more than forty years ago. Dave and his wife, Joni, have been married 40 years. They have three adult children and five grandchildren. Dave has been directly involved in international ministry, both as a sent one and as a sender, for 30 years. I include it here because the “discoveries” Dave highlights are things we all need to hold closely.
In late December 2015, my physician informed me that a biopsy result had returned positive for melanoma. Doctors removed the lesion and proposed an aggressive treatment plan. Surgery and four months of chemotherapy followed.
It has been an unexpected and at times frightening medical journey, but God is teaching me many heart lessons through this confrontation with cancer. These lessons are ongoing chapters in a much longer story God is writing with my life. Here are eight.
1. I am not in control.
“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). “I know O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23).
No matter how hard I work or what I do, I cannot control people, outcomes in ministry, others’ choices, or unexpected turns in my health. There is no formula in Scripture that will guarantee desired outcomes if I simply do the “right thing.” I must deal with the illusion of self-determination and the idol of control, and learn to trust the God of everlasting mercy and goodness.
2. I am more reliant on grace than I can imagine.
I am not nearly so strong as I imagine myself to be. I am not nearly so wise as I perceive myself to be. I am not nearly so self-sufficient as I pretend to be. As a broken sinner I am weak, foolish, needy, and dependent. I cannot handle life on my own, neither the good times nor the tough times. I need God and his grace constantly.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:3).
3. God is most interested in what’s happening in the part of me that can’t be touched, scanned, or medicated.
I must learn to pay close attention to my inner man, especially as my outer man deteriorates. As Paul reminded Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).
It would be tragic to be healed of cancer and have a soul plagued by sin.
4. The most important healing addresses my sinful heart and mind.
I am not so sure the most important sort of healing is physical. When God looks at me, I suspect he doesn’t see cancer as my most serious problem.
I believe cancer entered my life by the sovereign will of God. It was not a random accident. I take great comfort in trusting he permitted my cancer to achieve some deeper, eternal purpose. God will use the broken things of this sin-cursed world to accomplish his will for my good and his glory (Gen. 50:20; 2 Cor. 12:7–10).
5. I am not promised a pain-free life.
I am promised that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (1 Cor. 12:9) and that “he who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And what is this good work? To be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
Christ displayed the grace of God through suffering (Heb. 2:9–10). Through suffering I can know Christ better and become more like him (Phil. 3:10).
6. I am not indispensable.
Jesus promised he will build his church (Matt. 16:18). God will accomplish his work of redeeming a people from every tribe and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9–10). That is not in doubt. I am privileged to have a small role in the big story he is writing. I am not the center of the story, and its successful ending doesn’t hinge on my skills or talents.
It is a remarkable testament to his power that he’s able to accomplish anything through me. “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). I must not take myself too seriously.
7. Life is brief, and I should not take my days for granted.
“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
I should do today the things that have lasting value. I should stop to hear people’s stories. I should spend time—unhurried and undistracted—with my wife, kids, and grandkids. I should be present with the people God brings into my life. I should take each day as a gift from his hand.
8. My source of contentment must be Jesus alone.
I am discovering I have a much greater propensity to seek joy and contentment in people and things other than Jesus. If my health were taken from me, could I be content? What about other people and things precious to me—my family, my work, my financial resources, my reputation? Would Jesus be enough for me if those were gone?
I am learning that suffering is a gracious gift from God that strips away all that competes for my affections and loyalty to him. I am beginning to understand and live in the truth of Philippians 1:21: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
More Lessons Ahead
Most learning requires a longer process than most of us expect. God breaks through engrained patterns of thought and behaviour we have developed over many years. My list of lessons learned is always growing, sometimes daily.
Some days these lessons seem crystal clear, and I accept them. Other days, I have many questions that propel me to probe deeper into those lessons. However, I hope in the truth that “the LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands” (Ps. 138:8).
Dave Hall’s article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition website on September 19, 2016.