In our local church we have had what seems to be our fair share (if not an overabundance) of members who have been diagnosed with cancer over the years. The "prayer list" seems to always have names of men, women, and even boys and girls at times, who have been diagnosed with the dreaded "C" word.
Even though I have not personally been diagnosed with the disease, I have had family members placed under that cloud. I imagine everyone reading this knows someone who has had, or currently is, fighting cancer.
As I write this, there are four women in our church who are front and center in my mind as they are on their own journeys of treatment for their cancer. Their loved ones have sought prayer. Their children are worried. They are super strong women, but even their strength is sometimes tested to the breaking point as they work through their chemotherapy and other treatments.
The men in our church have faced their share of cancers as well. Each story is unique and yet as they go through their own personal journeys, a fraternity of sorts develops of those who have been down the road before.
Thankfully, we are in an age where many cancers are treatable. Many have great success with recovery. One of our dear sisters shared with me last week that for the first time in many years, she has been declared "cancer free" as the doctor said her cancer is in a state of dormancy. This is nothing less than miraculous as even the doctors did not expect this in her journey. She was smiling from ear to ear giving God praise for the day, and every day to come. Certainly the disease and treatments over the years have taken their toll on her body, but her spirit is strong and I was reminded of God's goodness and grace at that moment.
Not everyone gets such a report, but God remains faithful.
While that may not sound encouraging, it truly is.
The Fear That Follows the Shock
The initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer must seem overwhelming. I imagine that following the shock, there is often a wave of fear tinged with anger that hits. At least that is what I have been told. In a church culture that often reminds believers that they should not fear but have faith, even the strongest of Christians wonders how that is possible when the diagnosis is given.
Leslie Schmucker, a cancer survivor and believer, wrote a guest column about her journey with cancer for Desiring God. In her article (full article here), she states...
Just because we feel some measure of fear does not mean we have no faith; it just means that our faith isn’t perfect yet. Our temporal flesh is broken and weak, and God knows that. That’s why he “gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). As we look to God in faith, his Spirit gives us strength to act from an eternal perspective and to resist cowering in our temporal frailty.
These are good words for those fearing the road ahead and then fearing that that fear is nothing more than lack of faith and therefore, sin. Fear and faith are not necessarily polar opposites. Fear leads to the opportunities to faithfully receive strength that cannot be mustered within oneself.
Don't Waste This Moment
Desiring God is the ministry of John Piper. Piper's transparency through his own battle with cancer has helped him minister well to other believers going through their own cancer journey. Of his most poignant writings on the subject is titled "Ten Ways Not To Waste Your Cancer." If this were written by someone like me who has never faced cancer first-hand, it would sound idealistic and even offensive, but coming from one who was diagnosed and faced the very daunting reality of cancer, it gives clarity. It is truthful and hopeful.
I'll just list the ten points here, but encourage you to click here for the full article by Piper with insight from David Powlison (who also faced his own cancer.)
- You will waste your cancer if you do not believe God designed it for you.
- You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
- You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
- You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
- You will waste your cancer if you think that "beating" cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
- You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
- You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
- You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
- You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
- You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means to the truth and glory of Christ.
Piper's pamphlet, as well as audio recordings, of Don't Waste Your Cancer are available on Amazon here.
If you find Piper's insight encouraging, or just challenging, take the time to listen to him here as he speaks of the truths he faced when the diagnosis was given:
What's a Church To Do?
When the church is viewed as little more than a club for the community to join so that good deeds may be done in the neighborhood, the concept of "church family" will never be experienced. If that is the case, then when crises or challenges such as cancer hit, the one battling the disease will not view their church as a place of respite, hope, and strength.
Since a church family is comprised of the redeemed, we are much more than a team. We are more than a club. We are more than a community group. We are family. In fact, as the redeemed, we are closer than blood relatives. We are united in the Spirit as one. We will hurt when one family member hurts. We will grieve when even one grieves. We will celebrate as one when victory is experienced.
Sadly, many never truly see their church family this way and some never will have such an experience of oneness. Perhaps this is due to the heightened individuality partnered with the desire not to go too deep with others that many of us have? Maybe it is just our sin nature at work? Whatever it is, much is lost to the individual Christian when there is no faith family to come alongside in times of trouble.
There is the tendency in many churches to share all the needs, issues, and illnesses with others as part of the "fill out the prayer list" time in groups, but to do little with the list once it is created. FYI - just because it is called a "prayer list" does not mean people are actually praying. That is not a shot. It's a confession.
We have our commission. There is no denying that we must make disciples as we go. We know we are to be on mission here, there, and throughout the world. We must. We also understand the very real calling to evangelize those who are far from God. These are not debatable. These are commands. When it comes to the greatest commandment, there is no argument that loving God is essential and that loving people is commanded. Yet, we may at times be guilty of loving those we have yet to meet more than those in our own church family.
To face outward only as a church may be called evangelistic and mission-minded by some, but leaves care for those within the fellowship undone.
To face inward only as a church may be called discipleship by some, but leaves the command to go ignored.
Therefore, when a brother or sister in our family is diagnosed with this horrendous "C" word, the church must respond. Maybe it will be the creation of a "Meal-train" online or a "GoFundMe" account to help cover financial hardships. Serving our loved ones in very practical ways are helpful - whether it be mowing their lawn, taking care of their kids, sending ready-to-eat meals to the home, or any other very such thing. And...if you say "Call me if you need anything" just realize they likely will not call. So, seek to find the need and fill it without waiting for the call. There are very real and tangible things that can and should be done. They are good and right to do.
However, the coming together as loving family members to pray must be paramount. Prayer is not our last resort. It must be our first response. Our intercession for the health of our loved ones is key.
We Must Pray
Pray for healing? Certainly.
What if healing does not come? Don't stop praying.
Our prayers will lead us to a healthy and strong understanding of the sovereignty of God. The God who loves deeply, is never wrong, heals fully, and provides completely desires the prayer of his children on behalf of his other children.
The humbling aspect of prayer is not only what our brothers and sisters facing cancer need, but what we all need. Every Christian in the family of God–every member in the local body–should know what the carpet in their room smells like due to being on their faces in prayer before the Lord.
Cancer has hit in the past.
Cancer has just been revealed in someone's present.
Cancer will be diagnosed in the present.
Treatments will be coordinated and handed out and those seeing to the treatments and applications of such should be lauded, appreciated, and prayed over.
Those who are walking the cancer journey must be loved deeply by their church family. They must know this.
They need to be more than a name on a "prayer list." Love them well. Serve them honorably. Walk with them along the journey. And, get to know the smell of your carpet as you intercede for them. I will be.