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Brandon Mick on Cancer & Theology

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“The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all.” — Karl Barth1

I have had a number of great theological conversations with my friend Jake over the years. Some have been intentional, like laboring through Ched Meyers together on Thursdays. Some have been unintentional; they’ve sprung out of other conversations, like the time we were laughing and playing guitar on the farmhouse porch and in the blink of an eye we were off, walking, gesturing wildly and speaking excitedly to one another across clover and cornfields. However a really good theological conversation has begun, when Jake and I really got into the heart of an issue, I would become, invariably, giddy. My heart would race, I would smile, I’d feel light as air, and I would laugh.

I have loved having theological discussions with Jake. We have not often seen eye to eye, but I have loved every minute of conversation. It has been a joy to converse with a brother about the One who created us and the One that sustains us. The One who has claimed us as His own. The One whom we can question, together, in the night like Nicodemus. The One who holds us when we don’t have any answers. The One whom we both love, for He first loved us.

It has always been a joy to speak of Him with Jake.

And then Cancer.

When tragedy or pain or suffering comes upon us, we are tempted to believe that that a word can somehow change the conversation. Cancer, infertility, unemployment, and death have been a few of the words that have entered into our theological conversations over the last few years, for these are the tragedies and pain and suffering that have entered our shared lives.

It is easy, in the midst of tragedy, to allow for that tragedy to rule a conversation. We ask ourselves or each other, “If cancer; then what of God?” It is a natural thing, I think, for the darkness of tragedy is so overwhelming. It becomes hard, or impossible, to see anything but darkness. We become dislocated and disoriented.2 But if we grope around theologically from in this darkness, we will always wander down meaningless trails. And at the end of it, we are left with a shrug, a sigh, and maybe, just maybe, a “God is down here somewhere… I think…”

As such, the temptation that tragedy or pain or suffering pushes upon us is to do poor theology (is that a theological category, Jake?). To allow cancer to take the lead in the conversation will always leave us bankrupt, leave us impoverished, leave us starving. For it cannot nourish, it can only suck us dry. Cancer does not strengthen us, it depletes us, it robs us of sleep, it makes us sweat. And while I haven’t experienced cancer for myself, this is my understanding of the disease as I’ve watched loved ones struggle against it.

And struggle, I believe, is an appropriate word;3 for otherwise we would not apply ourselves to seeking out relief from suffering or healing from disease. We can speak in euphemistic terms, there’s often good reason to. But struggle is necessitated by cancer. And we, Christians, of all people it seems, ought not to be fatalistic on this point. For while disease and dying surely seem like the most natural things in the world (it seems to come upon pretty much everyone I know!), the narrative of our Scriptures assure us that quite the opposite is true.

Disease and dying, rather, are uninvited guests to the party. Suffering and pain, these are symptoms of something gone wrong. Cancer, infertility, unemployment, death; these are words of untruth. But the Word of truth has spoken. And the new words He has spoken are healing, redemption, salvation, and life!

Rather than allowing symptoms of our brokenness to begin a conversation, Christian theology done well takes as its first subject the Triune God as revealed in our Holy Scriptures and asks, “If this God who heals, who redeems, who saves, who lives; then what of cancer?”

And what Scripture reveals to us is a God who is wholly and truly good. This is the One who speaks over us healing, redemption, salvation, and life. And this God becomes present to us in Jesus Christ, so that we might become present to Him. He lifts us from dust of disease and the ash of tragedy.4 That’s the Good News! To ponder this God is a joyous thing for He is Joy.

The word “cancer” has been spoken in our midst. It has entered into our conversations. It has pricked our ears and stirred us. It has threatened destruction, it has set its yellowed eyes on my friend. It has horrified us. We have wept. Yet, I tell you the truth, joy has remained in our conversations. Since Jake’s diagnosis we have continued to have theological conversations that have made my heart flutter, made me feel light as air. We have spoken of God and we have laughed.

But for Jake and I to do theology well in the presence of cancer, it is proper that we constantly remind each other of our Subject — the God who redeems and lifts us up. We must stand firm against the temptation to submit to an impoverished conversation that begins, “If cancer, then what of God?” and be resolved to allow our conversation to begin, “If this God, then what of cancer?”

Now some care must be given to speak of healing, redemption, salvation and life with someone upon whom tragedy has come to rest. It would be a thoughtless and careless thing to say, “Well, Christ has brought redemption, why are you wallowing in your cancer?!” But this God whose modus operandi is redemption in the macro sense also operates in the same way in the micro sense. He doesn’t act one way in the big picture and another way when it comes down to your life or my life.

James reminds us of this when he says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”5 And this admonishment comes in the context of tragedy in James’ epistle. It follows on the tails of his seemingly unreasonable urging for us to “Count it all joy… when you meet trials of various kinds.”6

We must hold onto the truth that God is good, even when it doesn’t seem that way. Do not be lied to! For God’s goodness is a greater truth than the ephemeral nature of our circumstances (be they good or be they ill). It is not God who changes, it is we who change. If my view of God is dependent upon my life circumstance, then He will either be an angel or a viper depending on how I feel.

So what of cancer?

What do we make of cancer in the face of an all-good God whose modus operandi is redemption? In the hands of this God, we can count it as joy. For just as it is with any trial or tragedy or pain or suffering, cancer then becomes the stage on which redemption will unfold as the God of Redemption performs his good and perfect work. Many writers have spoken of suffering as gift. I’m there. I wasn’t, but through my own suffering I have been given new eyes. This is a hard lesson to be sure, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

I pray that in time, and perhaps already, Jake will see his cancer as a gift. The truly miraculous, extravagant goodness of God is not simply in the absence of evil (though that is almost unbelievably good!) it is in the fact that our God can take all that has been handed to us, even that which was intended as evil against us, and turn it into grace for us and glory for His name.7

So what grace will come and what glory will be given to God through Jake’s cancer? That’s for Jake to tell. I pray that he does. (I laughed just thinking about that conversation!) And when he does we will dance and sing and make a lot of noise. For as Barth says, “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lighting.”8

If God is good and in Him is grace that doesn’t merely tolerate suffering but has the power to transform it into good, then all of life, even cancer, becomes an opportunity for gratitude.

A conversation that begins with this God always ends in “Thank you.”

Let it be so.

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Brandon MickBrandon Lyman Mick is a poet, a reader, an aspiring pacifist, a would-be farmer, a student, and a teacher. He is the Assistant Pastor at Westkirk Presbyterian Church in Urbandale, IA. He and his wife Abbey have been students of suffering in the school of infertility for over five years. They are expecting their first child in December. He is overwhelmed by this grace. He is grateful.

  1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), II/1, 656. 

  2. I’m going to put as many footnotes as I can in this post because I know Jake likes them. But seriously, it is here that we should talk about the scriptural theme of exile. We should, but we won’t. This post would get way to long. Someone else should take up that theme in their post. Did Walter Brueggemann make the list of upcoming bloggers? He should totally interject at this juncture! 

  3. It might be important to note that I do not, personally, claim to be anything more than an aspiring pacifist! Jokes aside, I think the notions of struggle and war are appropriate here in a way they are not appropriate in relation to other humans. For a human bears the image of God, and disease bears a false image. Another great conversation for another day… 

  4. See Psalm 113:7. 

  5. James 1:16-17, ESV

  6. James 1:2. 

  7. See Romans 8:28. Also, read about Joseph. It’s somewhere near the beginning of the Old Testament. Seriously, God has been running this deal for a long, long time now! 

  8. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), IV/1, 41. 

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  • EricG

    Count my cancer as “joy”?  Not when I’m terminal, and will be leaving behind 4 and 8 year old kids.  That is the most offensive thing I’ve read since being diagnosed.  It is sad when our emphasis on “good” theology leaves us with no heart (pastoral or otherwise).  Thankfully not all Christian theologies are as “good” as Brandons.