I must have repeated the question “So he thinks I have cancer?” to my wife a half-dozen times as the fog of the colonoscopy anesthesia wore off. It was for a time literally unbelievable.
We learned I had Burkitt’s Lymphoma—an aggressive cancer that would require to be treated in kind. After the second round my immune system was compromised so badly that I spent many of my recovery days back at the hospital, fighting infections of all kinds. For six months, I was in the hospital more than I was at home.
There’s not much to do in a hospital in between the administration of chemotherapy drugs, the spinal taps, the transfusions, and the occasional visitor. Maybe that’s why so many people write books about cancer; they’ve had a lot of time to work them out. One day, I measured the length of a floor tile, then counted the number of tiles along the hallway, and calculated how many laps I needed to walk to cover one mile. Each day, I walked this mile with my IV pole companion and my thoughts.
The Inevitable Question I Avoided
My wife was the first to ask aloud why I thought this was happening to us. I told her I didn’t know, but that I wasn’t interested in finding the answer either. I wasn’t going to search for an answer to the “why” question because I didn’t yet have an answer to the “why not” question.
Why shouldn’t I get cancer? There was no reason to think I was entitled to anything better. I knew plenty of people who persevered in the face of situations monumentally worse than mine. It seemed an affront to them to claim I somehow deserved better.
I also sensed early on that answering the why question would not truly provide the stability it seems to promise. And I needed real stability.
Instead of trying to nail down an answer to the why question, I drove other stakes deep in the ground.
First, God is still in control and he loves me.
Second, God actually loves my family more than I do.
Third, nothing can separate any of us from his love.
These stakes tethered me. The why question would sometimes wander into my thoughts. But each time it did, God seemed to redirect my attention to his character more than his answers.
During this time, I read through the story of Lazarus in John 11. You may know the story. Jesus’ good friend is sick and dying. Mary and Martha send word for him to come, but he doesn’t. He delays. By the time he gets there, Lazarus is dead and more than a few folks are asking their own versions of why questions.
Jesus gives a response, but it is likely not the one they were expecting. By my count, Jesus explains four different times his actions are actually for the sake of their faith. Perhaps Jesus’ first inclination is to rush to his friend and heal him immediately. But he delays and allows Lazarus to die because of something greater—the faith of those who knew and loved Lazarus.
It was therapeutic, in the fullest sense of the word, to dwell on the possibility that Jesus’ first inclination and most natural reaction was to rush to my side and heal me quickly and painlessly, if not miraculously. But if he delayed it was because of something greater—my faith and the faith of those around me.
So, what remained was a somewhat vague, elusive, ethereal answer to the why question: because of something important, because of faith. But what also remained was a bedrock certainty about his character: he loved me. And that was enough.
It remained enough for most of those six months, so much so that I became a little self-conscious over it. I wondered at times about the sincerity of my faith.
I read a dozen or so articles and a couple of books on suffering and sickness. All of them described the haunting nature of the why question for everyone who suffers and all of them gave answers to the why question one way or another.
Eventually everyone asks why, they seemed to say. Everyone wants to know why they have to suffer, why they have to experience some particular hardship, or why they have to endure disappointment, pain, or loss.
In fact, one article explained that even Jesus asked the why question on the cross. In Mark 15:34 we read this: “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
If Christ asked why in the middle of his suffering, and it was sinless, then maybe the why is part of our shared humanity with Christ. It’s natural.
Enough for Now
This began to make me feel uneasy. As a professor of psychology and counseling, it occurred to me on more than one occasion that my avoidance of the why question could have been a form of denial, a self-protective refusal to face a painful reality.
Or worse, perhaps it was false pride or self-righteousness masquerading as some kind of spiritual maturity.
So, I wrestled with a different set of questions: Am I being honest with myself and others? Am I burying my head in the sand? Am I fabricating a sense of security just to make myself feel safe? Do I think I’m better than Jesus?
Those were uncomfortable questions and the answers did not come easy. But I felt God’s presence as I wrestled with them, aware that he wasn’t afraid of my questions and I shouldn’t be either.
The why wasn’t my issue, at least during this season of my life. The day may come when a different hardship leads me to entertain a whole host of why questions. If this is an honest part of my spiritual journey, I’m okay with that. And I think God will be too.
Cover image by Marius Ciutacu.
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