The good but absent God?

The good but absent God? The dilemma of a Christian cancer survivor

What happens when the minister faces death?

of the gospel is often called upon to console, encourage, and pray for those who stare death in the eyes. As such, the minister must be “strong.” But what happens when the minister himself faces death?

This is my story, what I have learned and what I have not.

A miracle?

At 33 years of age, and with four years of pastoral experience, I was a husband and the father of a six-month- old daughter. Also, I learned that I had cancer. The doctors did not hide their concern. An oncologist rather tactlessly shared the grim statistics. The odds were that I was going to die from it—and rather soon too.

Yet, after about six months of chemotherapy, alkaline diet, phytotherapy, homeopathy, prayers, an anointing service, and care from my loved ones (especially my wife), I am still here. In fact, I have been in complete remission since 2008. As of this moment, I feel very good.

A few months after my “healing,” an Adventist radio journalist interviewed me, asking if I thought that my healing was “a miracle.”

“No,” I responded, knowing it would shock many people, especially those who diligently prayed for me.

Yet, I cannot speak of “miracle” in the same sense we commonly use this word. What I felt was a somewhat discreet presence of God. I felt His hand outstretched and at work, even if the contours are difficult to define. I do not clearly understand how God manifested Himself in my healing, nor can I say that my experience is a clear manifestation of the fact that the Lord wants to show He still operates with power among His people. I cannot imagine my recovery as “proof” of His love and interest for me. Perhaps I am not yet quite spiritually mature; it is certain, though, that many things in my experience remain unanswered.

The silence of God

Of course, I am sharply aware of the two limitations I am working from. First, this is indeed my experience, and therefore subject to my interpretation, which is not universal (nor does it aspire to be). Second, this experience continues, indeed, as an ongoing experience; that is to say, the process is not a punctual, but a linear process; a process lived out in time, and thus is interpreted and reinterpreted retrospectively. My understanding about what happened changes, it evolves, which makes it even more difficult to convey in words.

As a Christian, I believe that the first reef on which one could be wrecked is the “silence” of God. My wife and I have asked ourselves several questions about this silence. And though we both experienced it differently, out of these differences we were able to grow and interact. The void needed to be filled with feelings, words, and invocations.

My wife reacted as I would have were I in her shoes—dramatically. For my part, I felt calmer. I felt the responsibility to reassure my family; thus, I downplayed the seriousness of the situation. I did not want to sink emotionally, lest I pulled others down with me.

The serenity was not artificial but, rather, rooted in a precise faith: God loves me, and He is not responsible for my illness. But today I can say it was a fatalistic faith. My God was good, He was not responsible for the evil, and He did not need to produce any “evidence” to show His love. But He also seemed very far away.

The good but absent God?

As we all know, violence and injustice often strike the “innocent,” and this cannot be interpreted as any kind of divine punishment. At the same time, however, we often feel the need to rationalize pain and evil. We refuse to attribute them to the will of God. In my specific case, I rebelled against the many “Thy will be done” prayers offered in my behalf.

I asked, more than once, Is this really the will of God? Has God got a dark side? If this is truly the incomprehensible and inaccessible will of God, then my revolt against evil, injustice, and this disease will likely cause guilt, for my revolt happens to be rebellion against the Creator Himself!

The resulting bitterness could generate, or even justify, uneasiness and hatred. Precisely at this point, one feels the need for a liberating act: get rid of that God, or rather, that image of God that makes one feel guilty. This liberating act is to return to a God who is not responsible for evil but, nevertheless, seemed distant when it came. In short, I experienced what I believe to be the good, but absent, God.

The death of Denise

Ironically enough, my deepest revolt came, not during my disease, but after I went into remission. And that was when Denise, my 14-year-old cousin, died from cancer. Denise and I were diagnosed in the same year. Stricken by different cancers, we fought together, and we encouraged each other, when possible.

In February 2008, I was declared in remission, but less than a year later, Denise died. My real revolt occurred when my brothers and sisters in Christ told me in good faith, “You are a living miracle! You are the proof.” These are words that hurt, burn, and tear at my soul because if I experienced a miracle—then what happened to Denise?

I just could not understand how and why this would happen, so I had to move beyond it. I needed to reconnect to the God who saves, who perhaps does not visibly act in the urgency of the present situation, but who, in His essence, beyond our immediate circumstances, is the Savior God, the Savior of both the dead and the living.1

I am still angry at the God who does not, as in the case of Denise, always dispense healing. But I praise the God who saves us eternally. This may seem psychotic but it is not. A nihilist wrote, “Man is made in the image of the universe: he is full of emptiness.”2 But I believe that man is made in the image of God: he is full of paradoxes. It was necessary for me to free myself from linear thinking and enter into the dynamic of the paradox. I thank God for helping me see that heaven exists, not merely as the absence of hell, and that my life has meaning even before a death that has none.

The crucified God

In the end, I identified myself with the thief on the cross, next to a lonely, shunned, and suffering Jesus. This is the brigand who, looking at the dying Christ, exclaimed, “He did nothing wrong,” that is to say, “this is not His place.”

I found myself dying, too, but not alone. On my side, I discovered the One who died beside me, and in silence too. I do not understand why, but I know that He did nothing wrong and, yet—He was there, anyway. That is the place where you realize that, even facing death, there is an “after,” and that death, when it comes, does not constitute the final word. No, death is not the final word. However I die, I will do it, not as someone who understood (on the contrary), but as a man who trusts in the God who has already been there ahead of me. I want to fall asleep with an attitude of serenity, leaving those who are around me a legacy of peace and hope, and a smile too.

My journey is not finished. I am a work in progress, and I have tried to share my own firsthand understanding of my experience of illness and healing. And what I have learned, even amid all my ignorance, is that we need to respect those who are sick and dying and do not understand; but we also need to respect those who are healed and still do not understand. It is painful to be nicknamed a walking miracle, a “proof.”

Do I think it was a miracle? No. But God was there. This is my paradox.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.3

1 Cf. Matthew 22:31, 32 (NIV): “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”

2 Paul Rancoeur, Friandises nihilistes (Obernai: Edition Florian, 2003), 168.

3 1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV.

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June 2011

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