Christ and Cancer

NIH illustration
illustration by NIH

by John Piper

Before I entered college I hardly gave a thought to cancer and terminal illness. But ever since those college days death by disease has walked beside me all the way. Two of my college acquaintances died of leukemia and cancer of the lymph glands before they were 22. At seminary I watched Jim Morgan, my teacher of systematic theology, shrivel up and die in less than a year of intestinal cancer. He was 36. In my graduate program in Germany my own “doctor-father,” Professor Goppelt, died suddenly just before I was finished. He was 62—a massive coronary. Then I came to Bethel, the house of God! And I taught for six years and watched students, teachers, and administrators die of cancer: Sue Port, Paul Greely, Bob Bergerud, Ruth Ludeman, Graydon Held, Chet Lindsay, Mary Ellen Carlson—all Christians, all dead before their three score and ten were up. And now I’ve come to Bethlehem and Harvey Ring is gone. And you could multiply the list ten-fold.

What shall we say to these things? Something must be said because sickness and death are threats to faith in the love and power of God. And I regard it as my primary responsibility as a pastor to nourish and strengthen faith in the love and power of God. There is no weapon like the Word of God for warding off threats to faith. And so I want us to listen carefully today to the teaching of Scripture regarding Christ and cancer, the power and love of God over against the sickness of our bodies.

I regard this message today as a crucial pastoral message, because you need to know where your pastor stands on the issues of sickness, healing, and death. If you thought it was my conception that every sickness is a divine judgment on some particular sin, or that the failure to be healed after a few days of prayer was a clear sign of inauthentic faith, or that Satan is really the ruler in this world and God can only stand helplessly by while his enemy wreaks havoc with his children—if you thought any of those were my notions, you would relate to me very differently in sickness than you would if you knew what I really think. Therefore, I want to tell you what I really think and try to show you from Scripture that these thoughts are not just mine but also, I trust, God’s thoughts.

Six Affirmations Toward a Theology of Suffering

So I would like everyone who has a Bible to turn with me to Romans 8:18–28. There are six affirmations which sum up my theology of sickness, and at least the seed for each of these affirmations is here. Let’s read the text:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (RSV)

1. All Creation Has Been Subjected to Futility

My first affirmation is this: the age in which we live, which extends from the fall of man into sin until the second coming of Christ, is an age in which the creation, including our bodies, has been “subjected to futility” and “enslaved to corruption.” Verse 20: “The creation was subjected to futility.” Verse 21: “The creation will be freed from slavery to corruption.” And the reason we know this includes our bodies is given in verse 23: not only the wider creation but “we ourselves (i.e., Christians) groan in ourselves awaiting sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” Our bodies are part of creation and participate in all the futility and corruption to which creation has been subjected.

Who is this in verse 20 that subjected creation to futility and enslaved it to corruption? It is God. The only other possible candidates to consider would be Satan or man himself. Perhaps Paul meant that Satan, in bringing man into sin, or man, in choosing to disobey God—perhaps one of them is referred to as the one who subjected creation to futility. But neither Satan nor man can be meant because of the words “in hope” at the end of verse 20. This little phrase, subjected “in hope,” gives the design or purpose of the one who subjected creation to futility. But it was neither man’s nor Satan’s intention to bring corruption upon the world in order that the hope of redemption might be kindled in men’s hearts and that someday the “freedom of the glory of the children of God” might shine more brightly. Only one person could subject the creation to futility with that design and purpose, namely, the just and loving creator.

Therefore, I conclude that this world stands under the judicial sentence of God upon a rebellious and sinful mankind—a sentence of universal futility and corruption. And no one is excluded, not even the precious children of God.

Probably the futility and corruption Paul speaks of refers to both spiritual and physical ruination. On the one hand man in his fallen state is enslaved to flawed perception, misconceived goals, foolish blunders, and spiritual numbness. On the other hand, there are floods, famines, volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, plagues, snake bites, car accidents, plane crashes, asthma, allergies, and the common cold, and cancer, all rending and wracking the human body with pain and bringing men—all men—to the dust.

As long as we are in the body we are slaves to corruption. Paul said this same thing in another place. In 2 Corinthians 4:16 he said, “We do not lose heart, but though our outer man (i.e., the body) is decaying (i.e., being corrupted) yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” The word Paul uses for decay or corrupt here is the same one used in Luke 12:33 where Jesus said, Make sure your treasure is in heaven “where thief does not come near and moth does not corrupt.” Just like a coat in a warm, dark closet will get moth eaten and ruined, so our bodies in this fallen world are going to be ruined one way or the other. For all creation has been subjected to futility and enslaved to corruption while this age lasts. That is my first affirmation.

2. An Age of Deliverance and Redemption Is Coming

My second affirmation is this: there is an age coming when all the children of God, who have endured to the end in faith, will be delivered from all futility and corruption, spiritually and physically. According to verse 21, the hope in which God subjected creation was that some day “The creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” And verse 23 says that “We ourselves groan within ourselves waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” It has not happened yet. We wait. But it will happen. “Our citizenship is in heaven from which we await a Savior, the Lord, Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our lowliness to be like the body of his glory” (Philippians 3:20, 21). “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). “He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no longer any death; and there shall be no longer any mourning or crying or pain; the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

There is coming a day when every crutch will be carved up, and every wheelchair melted down into medallions of redemption. And Merlin and Reuben and Jim and Hazel and Ruth and all the others among us will do cartwheels through the Kingdom of Heaven. But not yet. Not yet. We groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. But the day is coming and that is my second affirmation.

3. Christ Purchased, Demonstrated, and Gave a Foretaste of It

Third, Jesus Christ came and died to purchase our redemption, to demonstrate the character of that redemption as both spiritual and physical, and to give us a foretaste of it. He purchased our redemption, demonstrated its character, and gave us a foretaste of it. Please listen carefully, for this is a truth badly distorted by many healers of our day.

The prophet Isaiah foretold the work of Christ like this in 53:5–6 (a text which Peter applied to Christians in 1 Peter 2:24):

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (RSV)

The blessing of forgiveness and the blessing of physical healing were purchased by Christ when he died for us on the cross. And all those who give their lives to him shall have both of these benefits. But when? That is the question of today. When will we be healed? When will our bodies no longer be enslaved to corruption?

Continue reading “Christ and Cancer”

A Giraffe On Roller Skates, [Mental Illness]

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People will sometimes ask me, “What its like to be a Christian and to have a mental illness?” I’m not entirely sure I can really answer, but I do try. It seems almost always there are misconceptions, or even a stigma attached to their curiosity. But here goes.

It’s like I’m a ‘giraffe on roller skates’, It seems like I’m always lurching and tottering— always on the verge of total collapse. (It’s a wonder I’m even ‘standing.’) Careening from one side to another, I’m aware that I’m becoming quite the spectacle, and I imagine I hear whispers about the ‘splash’ I’m making today.

I’m uneasy and unsure. (Am I being inappropriate?) I seem to speak too loud and pressured, I feel conspicuous; like I’m slightly inebriated at a party of Mormons. I’m aware of nervous glances and uneasy whispers.

Welcome to the world of bipolar mania.

I have a mental illness. ‘Rapid cycling’ bipolar disorder is my particular ‘flavor.’ I’m on meds (and have been for some time) but it only seems to do is to take of edge off— but I’m grateful for even that small mercy. Over time I’ve been able to accrue some coping mechanisms.  Identifying my paranoia and random delusions is simple ‘Bipolar 101’. It has become the present state of my world.  I don’t always do it well— but I do ”do it’. (And I take my lithium daily.)

There is a learning curve to all of this. It must be discovered. I have tried ‘avoidance tactics’, and I suppose most of the time they seem prudent. But life can’t really be lived cloistered in your room. That is safe, but also very dull. The isolation becomes more toxic than ‘the spectacle.’

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and having bipolar disorder creates some problems. I’m aware of the incongruity. But my faith often uses these issues I face; they propel me closer to Him.

Being ‘broken’ has become a real blessing.

28 “Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Matthew 11:28-29, NLT

The promise of Jesus is for those who carry extra weights (like mental or physical illness). It’s for those whose ‘cheese has slipped off their cracker.’ It’s for giraffes on roller skates. Anything we bear is endurable, and easy. He carries us far beyond every weight and every burden. He alone gives rest to the troubled, and real peace to those troubled by their souls.

30″ For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.

(verse 30).

What Jesus actively does is to puncture my pride, and then release His spirit and grace over me. But He also makes things ‘light’. The reality is that I bear nothing. All that He does is ‘light’. My blundering is seen and never belittled. But His grace only gets revealed in my weakness.

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Can a Mother Forget? [Love]

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Yet Jerusalem says, “The Lord has deserted us;  the Lord has forgotten us.”
Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child?  Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible,    
 I would not forget you! 16 See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands. Always in my mind is a picture of Jerusalem’s walls in ruins.”

Isaiah 49:14-16, NLT

Some of us need to be persuaded of God’s love. We are unconvinced. But Isaiah understands. We grasp the theology, but not the meaning. Our own native ideas keep us in disbelief. Perhaps the greatest liability we have as believers is this doubt that God really feels this way about us. But, He does.

Isaiah claims the impossible, yet grounds himself in what is real. The Father loves us and we’re His very own. Even if we don’t seem as holy as we ought to be. In His out reached hands, we discover scars.  This is the price He has purchased us with. We once were blind, and very lost— but now we are His own children.

We are given the impression that He more than ‘loves’ us; He ‘likes’ us. That dear ones, is not a point I’m prepared to support with scripture— it doesn’t exist except in my own thinking. I know that He theologically loves me.

But I also believe God also likes me as well. Surely, there is such a fine line here, between ‘like’ and love. The more I walk with the Lord, and it’s been almost 35 years now, the more I do love/like Him. I have learned to like Him as much as I love Him. And if God doesn’t like me, I think it diminishes His love.

Some of us must be persuaded again and again of God’s love.

Regardless, Isaiah speaks for the Lord with tender things. Among the people they had the mindset that God had somehow forgotten them. They thought that they were ‘the lost ones.’ God uses the analogy of a mother. A nurturing mother. This metaphor is strong and sure. No, God hasn’t forgotten His people. Look at His hands, your name is ‘tattooed’ on them. You’re His, forever.

“In math, if you divide an infinite number by any number, no matter how large, you still have an infinite quotient. So Jesus’ love, being infinite, even though it is divided up for every person on earth, is still infinitely poured out on each one of us!” 

Charles Spurgeon

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Nowhere Man

Meaninglessness

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Sometimes it takes us a long time to learn what life is all about. Like a fish making the step to seeing the water, or the bird determining that air exists. Both fish and bird are in their element whether they have conscious awareness of these real things.

But we are different. We are driven to know why we exist, and how is it so. Some of us determine that there is nothing– a deep and compelling vacancy in our universe. Simply, there is no meaning to be found, anywhere. In October 1965, the Beatles recorded, “Nowhere Man” which captured the angst of that generation.

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

It’s funny, but we wrestle with the ‘spirit of this age’ as we are trying to learn the obvious. It seems that our most profound struggles have to do with what is real and what is true. We are compelled to find meaning somehow, and our frustration is often intensified by the passing of time.

Simply– we are running out of time, and we all know it. The dread we have is that we are wasting our lives. Every second that ticks by is irrevocably lost; wasted time is lost time. My generation has dealt with this in hedonistic ways. We often cover our lostness and anguish, with ‘sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll.’ Others go out and make as much money as they can, or seek power over others.

But our odd quest for meaning is often like putting a mere band-aid on a broken arm. It not remotely good enough. So much is clumsy and so ridiculous it begs the question, “Has the quest for the cure become just another way of self destruction.” Our hospitals and prisons are bursting, and our mental health industry is making billions of dollars.

But there are two keys that open every lock.
  1. There is a God.
  2. You are not Him.

You must start with a simple mental assent, then progress to faith in a very real God. We Christians believe Jesus Christ came and died for us, building a bridge to God. Since you really haven’t found meaning your way, won’t you try His?

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

St. Augustine

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”

– Blaise Pascal, Pensees

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A Bit of Homespun

I’m Still Learning

I’ve learned — 1
that you cannot make someone love you.
All you can do is be someone who can be loved.
The rest is up to them.

I’ve learned — 2
that no matter how much I care,
some people just don’t care back.

I’ve learned — 3
that it takes years to build up trust,
and only seconds to destroy it.

I’ve learned — 4
that it’s not what you have in your life
but who you have in your life that counts.

I’ve learned — 5
that you can get by on charm
for about fifteen minutes.
After that, you’d better know something.

I’ve learned — 6
that you shouldn’t compare
yourself to the best others can do
but to the best you can do.

I’ve learned — 7
that it’s not what happens to people
that’s important. It’s what they do about it.

I’ve learned — 8
that you can do something in an instant
that will give you heartache for life.

I’ve learned — 9
that no matter how thin you slice it,
there are always two sides.

I’ve learned — 10
that it’s taking me a long time
to become the person I want to be.

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But Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God to those people God has called—Jews and Greeks.”

1 Corinthians  1:24, NCV

I’m not sure who wrote this, I can’t remember even where or how I found this.   I’m obviously not the author. But it is an excellent piece of thought, I really hope it blesses you– making you see your life through some simple wisdom.

I do know that I have a Savior who is within me, living His life through me. Today, I choose to rest in His unfailing love for me.

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Release the Perfume!

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“And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment.”

Luke 7:37, ESV

“Your love delights me, my treasure, my bride. Your love is better than wine, your perfume more fragrant than spices.”

Song of Solomon 4:10

“What about you? What precious perfume is locked inside your heart that could be lavished on our Lord? The little treasures you and I struggle to hold on to may hold back opportunities to worship Him with extravagant praise, releasing ministry and service to Him that will bless all those around us.”

-Angela Munizzi

We should know that our simple words really do have a way of blessing Jesus.   Our words spoken will be translated into actions. Our actions become an obedient faith. An obedient faith is the character that moves the hand of God.

We are truly significant.  You have no idea the role you play in His kingdom. What you really do does matter in His realm. The worship we sincerely offer is also duly noted. Furthermore the radiance seen on our faces is the proof we’ve been with Him.

We touch Jesus, somehow, and in some way we’ve blessed Him.  I believe that this must encourage Him, and that He receives our offering.  He then responds and blesses those who are desperately crying out.  God is not capricious, nor is He temperamental. One of the hardest things to grasp it seems, is believing that our worship really does matter to Him.

Worship needs to become extravagantly simple again.  Poured out, ‘good-to-the-last-drop’ kind of worship.  It gives and pours out until there is simply no more.  A praise that is on the lookout for  the needs of others. This level of worship becomes intercessory. It is supercharged praise that  reaches a level of ‘standing-in -the -gap’ for others. Prayer at this level breaks chains and heals the sick.

Intercessory worship will cover the helpless, and turn God’s intervention to the needs of the lost.

When the Holy Spirit tunes us, we become precise instruments of grace and love; that enables us to touch the hearts of many billions who are lost, who have no hope at all. We are never more like Jesus  than when we’re in intercession for the needs of people.

I’m one of many believers who really struggles with clinical depression. The realization that I might be inserted into a challenging situation while I’m severely struggling is an awful possibility. It truly is a frightening prospect for me. I don’t want my issues to ever thwart the work of the Holy Spirit.

But I have learned much of this while laying down at His feet.  I attempted to pour out every bit of perfumed nard,  and I sincerely desired to hold nothing back; to pour out the entire bottle.

This desperation has a way somehow of making me adequate.

It’s showing me how to become competent.  It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with Jesus Christ, and His undisputed authority in the realm of this world.

His desire is to create a flock from the willing, and to bring all that glory home, to His Father.

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Speaking Out of Our Pain, [True Authority]

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In “Letters to a Young Poet“, the author deals with the subject of weakness, difficulty and trouble.  As a person who struggles with depression on a substantial scale and yet can try to speak the Word of God to his brothers this is remarkably good news.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

“Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good.

His life has much difficulty and remains far behind yours. Were it not otherwise he would never been able to find these words.”

*-Rainer Maria Rilke

@Inevitably, as Christians we  find ourselves helping other disabled people that have somehow worked  themselves into our lives.  The irony is that our illness has taught  us something, but somehow we don’t communicate well. Inevitably, we miss the point and speak even more confusion into their hearts. That is frustrating.

When we are finally work up the courage to speak, we seem to only deliver pious platitudes and inane ‘babblings.’ We know we can help them, but alas, we can’t do it. This is when we must meet the Holy Spirit first. Hearing Him will guide us and direct us. We will be able to speak something, that will really mean something.

We so want to be mature and wise.  We want to be in a position of strength. We aspire to that.  But the truth is, life doesn’t work that way. We are always sabotaged by our weakness. We discover that we have no place to go.

I believe life is constructed so that we’ll learn the reality of desperately humble prayer.

A child plays with two colors of “Play-Doh”.  After a while separating them is no longer possible.  The colors blend and become a completely different color.  As simple believers in Jesus this “mixing” can cause despair and frustration. We must live with the realities of being seriously weak and unconditionally loved, simultaneously. We must blend the two.

St. Paul would come to the conclusion that he “would boast in his weaknesses, that the power of God would be revealed in his life”.  It seems to us that “boasting” is a bit of exaggeration or hyperbole.  And “weaknesses”, are those terrible flaws that need to be painted over or ignored.  But we can’t seem to see them as the starting point of the spiritual life.  (Oh God, please teach us to boast in our flaws, to let You use our weaknesses.)

Strength comes in a frustratingly weird way.  It’s the very opposite of our heart’s inclination.  Admitting that I am weak is my starting point.  I suppose you might say that as a physically and mentally ill person,  I may have a step on the average person.  I can be strong because I am so pathetic.  I can speak something that may bring life and hope to someone else.

But I am distinctively flawed, and I can’t pretend that I am otherwise.  I now have the liberty to speak without pretense to my wounded brothers and sisters.  But let us have no foolish talk that I’ve been able to fix myself somehow.  That is not going to happen.

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