My spouse and I are in the process of joining a Boston church; the church requires that would-be members give their testimony. Because my memory is lousy these days, I wrote mine out; it’s pasted below with a few minor edits. Some of this material, though not all of it, will be familiar to anyone who read this blog last spring. Here it is:
I would have said I was a believer when I was a teenager, but I’m not sure that was really true. I now believe I became a Christian in my mid-20s—a few years after Ruth and I got married, while I was in law school and shortly afterward. Two things triggered my conversion. First, I started reading C.S. Lewis, and it blew me away. Before that, I never saw how unbelievably beautiful our faith is—like a love song that makes you weep every time you hear it. More than I believe in any set of abstract propositions, I believe in that love song. Abstract truth is often beyond our ability to grasp. (If you doubt that, spend some time trying to understand quantum mechanics.) But we were made to see beauty. Reading C.S. Lewis taught me that.
The second trigger happened in a Philadelphia church we attended for a year in the mid-1980s. Every Sunday morning, I left that church feeling convicted. Before that, I hadn’t understood what a wreck I was, and in many ways still am. It sounds strange, but I found that message captivating. That was when I first encountered a God who makes serious demands on my life.
Most of the 24 years since then, I’ve been trying, fitfully, to understand what those demands are and how to meet them: how to love Ruth and our kids, and how to serve my students and my employer instead of using my job to advance my own interests. For the most part, I’ve done all of those things badly—especially parenting: our kids have done more for my faith than I’ve done for theirs. They are amazing human beings, all three of them, and that’s a credit to them and to Ruth and to the God who made them, not to me.
In other words, for most of my adult life I muddled along, as middle-aged religious folk often do. In the past few years, the muddling stopped. I nearly lost my faith, and then I found it in a different way than before. That part of the story has a lot to do with two serious illnesses. Nine years ago, I injured my back when changing a flat tire. Ever since then, the base of my back and the top half of my right leg have hurt. Today and for some time past, they hurt a lot; they also hurt all the time. Two back surgeries, dozens of injections, and thousands of pills haven’t stopped that pain from growing. Pain-wise, every year has been at least a little worse than the year before.
A year ago this week, doctors found a large tumor in my colon. Six weeks later, my oncologist found tumors in both my lungs. In the past year, I’ve had two cancer surgeries and a little over five months of chemotherapy. The surgeries and the chemo were successful, but even so, the odds that I’ll live more than two or three years are low. The odds that cancer and chronic pain will be with me for the rest of this life are high.
None of that makes me an appropriate object of pity. There are countless bodies and souls in unfathomably worse shape than mine; many live in circumstances that make my life look like a day at the beach. Even so, I cannot help seeking understanding in these circumstances, and understanding begins with the proposition that the circumstances are hard to take. Life has been more intense of late, but it has also been more difficult. The largest difficulty, I’ve found, is wrapping my mind around my situation: coming to terms with it, and thinking about how best to live in the midst of it.
In the course of that mind-wrapping, I have sought out Christian friends and pastors, and have heard three main messages in response. As my back got steadily worse and again as my cancer spread, friends told me repeatedly that they believed God would heal me. The second message was something I chiefly heard in sermons and read on Christian websites (see, e.g., this link
)—cancer and chronic pain are blessings, not curses; they are the means by which a loving Father disciplines His children and teaches us things we need to know. Both of those messages were devastating to hear, and neither was true. Christians die of cancer in the same numbers as non-Christians; I have no reason to expect miraculous healing in this life. Both of these illnesses are very probably with me to stay. As for the idea that cancer and chronic pain are blessings, my response is this: There is no more horrifying thought for someone in my condition than the thought that any of my children might inherit some propensity to these diseases—that one or more of them might feel what I feel because of the genes I gave them. We want to see our children blessed. But the worst parent on Earth doesn’t want his or her kids to have cancer or to feel constant pain. These illnesses are redeemed curses, not blessings.
Concerning the notion that serious illness is a form of divine discipline: I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, but I don’t have cancer and chronic pain because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is messier and more arbitrary than that.
The third message is the one that saved me. My friend Jeff Barneson—Jeff works with Christian graduate students for InterVarsity—told me this: The God of the Universe grieves over me, as Jesus grieved over Lazarus before bringing him back from the dead. Let that idea sink into your soul, and it will change you. It changed me. Turns out, I don’t need to understand why I’m sick, and I don’t need to have my sickness taken away. I do need a God who meets me in the midst of my circumstances, a God who knows what pain and impending death feel like, a God who felt those things and infinitely worse, all for the sake of stupid sinners like me.
A great line from a great movie captures that reality for me. The Shawshank Redemption is about a prison inmate who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. This inmate escapes the prison, and in his escape, he crawls through a sewer line until he makes it outside the prison walls. The narrator says: “He crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.” I believe God the Son did that and, in part, did it for me—so that I too can come out clean on the other side.
There are also two verses that capture my hope; they come from Job chapter 14. Job is talking to God about what will happen after he dies. Job says this: “You will call and I will answer; You will long for the creature Your hands have made. Surely then You will count my steps but not remember my sin.” I love those verses. I’ve longed for the Triune God all my life, though I didn’t always know it. Only recently have I come to understand just how much, and just how amazingly, He longs for me.