Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…(Romans 5:3-4 ESV)
The past ten years of my life have taught me that personal suffering and the challenges and trials of life, difficult though they are, offer an opportunity to grow profoundly in knowledge and love of the Lord. I made reference to this correlation between affliction and spiritual growth in my first post in this series.
So that is why, after having been warned in January by my doctors that my radiation and chemotherapy treatments would be grueling, I prayed to the Lord, “Please don’t let me go through these treatments without learning what you want me to learn from this experience.” How wasteful, it seemed to me, to let suffering go unredeemed, to miss an opportunity to discover something about the Lord and myself in relation to him.
Of course I was wishing that I didn’t have to undergo those treatments. I began them with great reluctance, not knowing if I would regain what I was about to lose: the hair across the back of my head, my ability to taste, a degree of hearing in my right ear – and, I had to live with the possibility that the radiation, in particular, might cause permanent damage to my jaw, neck or brain stem in some way. The radiation oncologist made no promises about my hair, taste or hearing returning: “Probably, but we can’t be sure.” As for the more serious consequences: “Not likely, but sometimes it happens.” So with no guarantees, except for the statistic that my chances for a recurrence of the cancer were much greater without treatment, I began the seven-week program.
This was a time in my life when I had little control over what was happening to me. All I could do was trust in the Lord and pray. I had to go to my weekly infusion of chemo, and daily allow myself to be strapped onto the Tomo radiation machine, and let whatever was going to happen to my body occur. Yet, there was also something very freeing about my lack of control. Because there was nothing for me to do but comply I focused my attention, instead, on the Lord and sought his guidance, sustenance, empowerment and comfort for each moment in my day: when I awoke, as I got ready for the ride over to Chapel Hill, in the waiting room, while undergoing treatment and afterwards, in the evening, as I rested on the sofa with my family nearby. I prayed and listened for his voice continually. I depended upon him for everything. There was nothing about my day and my life at this point that I didn’t take to the Lord in prayer, because I knew my own resources and intuition could not get me through this journey.
There were times, though, when my sense of vulnerability came close to turning into despair – like when I lost my ability to taste completely, when the radiation treatments triggered a yeast infection in my mouth, called thrush, and the only medicine that could treat it successfully made me sick to my stomach, and when late in the treatments nausea became an everyday occurrence and I had to face the prospect of having a feeding tube put in because I wasn’t eating very much. At each of these moments I had to choose between not wanting to face my problems or bringing them before the Lord – and accepting his way of dealing with them. That last part was key: I wanted more than anything to be released from these trials, but I had to be willing to let go of my stipulations and open myself up to however the Lord wanted to answer my prayers.
A big breakthrough for me was when I could finally pray, “Lord, if your way of healing me is for the doctors to insert a feeding tube, then Thy will be done.” I had learned to welcome whatever option he wanted to use. There were times when God had a solution I hadn’t foreseen, such as when my medical oncologist discerned that a digestive problem was causing my nausea and by taking the pill he prescribed, I was able to eat enough day by day. At other times the Lord miraculously intervened, like when he kept the thrush from returning, even though I had to stop taking take the medicine prescribed to cure it. And there were some things I just had to bear, like not being able to taste my food and drink, but the Lord made it bearable (and even better than that). In the end, I learned to surrender to God and his ways. And for his part, he showed himself mighty to save at every turn as he walked with me through every trial.
So, what I’ve learned from this latest challenging time in my life is that I can go about my ministry and care for my family by focusing on the Lord, instead of giving my full attention to what is ahead or what needs to be done. Practically speaking, this means I practice his presence throughout the day and offer prayer and praise while simultaneously doing other things, just as I did when I was undergoing my treatments. This way of living, attuned to the Lord at all times, instead of being engrossed in one’s life, is not just for times of trial. This is what it means to walk with the Lord. The Lord wants to go though our lives with us, moment by moment, instead of waiting on the sidelines for when we summon him. Our work and our recreation will be better off when we walk with the Lord while doing them, for he alone can see all things at all times and he knows just the right path to take.
And, while keeping the Lord ever before me in my thoughts, I also learned I must surrender my stipulations as soon as I realize I have any. If I trust God to heal me and provide for me and protect me, the best way to express my trust is to say, “However you want to do each of those things, is fine with me.” This doesn’t mean I can’t ask for something specific; it just means I can’t insist that what I’m asking for be done a certain way. The Lord wants us to claim his promises, but he doesn’t need to be told how to bring them about. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…” (Jeremiah 29:11)
So suffering can produce endurance, and endurance character, and character hope. This is why, even in something as awful as cancer, there are blessings to be found.