On 9 January 2013 my wife Nancy and I attended the funeral for Mary, a dear Christian friend who had died of breast cancer at age 42. She left behind her husband Eric and two children, ages 11 and 7. Earlier that same day, we discovered that Nancy, age 47, had breast cancer as well. It was the worst day of my life.
Recently I was in Asia Minor with a group of Christians at a convention. I met Carl, a fine gentleman in his mid-50s who was one of the organizers of the convention. In the course of our conversation he mentioned that his wife, Cherie, was also being treated for breast cancer.
I mentioned that Nancy had completed her chemotherapy and was in the second half of her radiation treatment. It was wonderful to be done with chemo, the worst part by far. Carl grinned and replied that his wife found her cancer so early that she did not need chemo or radiation; surgery sufficed. He said that “it was a God thing”. As our chat continued Carl repeated his phrase “it was a God thing” each time he mentioned something good about his wife’s condition.
Carl was justifiably happy for his family, his repetition of “it was a God thing” implying that the Lord had used his special power to reduce the pain and danger to his wife. However, he also unknowingly begged the questions of why God didn’t use that same power to prevent the cancer at all, or why other women did not have equally light disease.
Eric and I believe in the same God as Carl, and yet Mary is dead, and Nancy is undergoing painful and difficult treatments. Is the relative good fortune of Carl’s wife “a God thing” or not? We could restate the question as “did the loving and compassionate God give this terrible disease to these faithful Christian women, but allow them to experience it differently? If so, why?
It is no good saying that the utterly sovereign God of the universe could not have stopped their cancer. The idea that the Creator of All is not able to prevent cancer is ludicrous. That He could not cure it instantly is equally farcical. We can say that God allowed Satan to afflict these women, as He did with Job, but that does not get God “off the hook”. He still bears responsibility for everything that happens in His universe. God gave them this disease, as He gives suffering of all sorts to each of us. He does not give us wickedness, for there is none in Him to give; we bring that on ourselves. But Job was right; good fortune and misfortune come from the hand of God (Job 2:10).
The next question is why did He allow them to experience it differently? The most common answer in modern times might be that He had nothing to do with it; “a God thing” is really just good or bad luck. A scientist might claim “biological determinism”, meaning that some people, due to their genes, environment and actions, are destined for worse disease, and God has nothing to do with it. This idea makes the impersonal “laws of nature” into God and binds the Creator within His own creation. To a Christian, however, such is balderdash. The God who gives cancer is the same one who controls its extent.
Another common answer is that cancer is a misfortune and misfortune is caused by sin. In the global sense, this is true. Had the first humans not allowed sin into the world, no one would ever suffer, get sick or die. In the particular sense, however, it is not true. Scripture is absolutely clear that sometimes even the most moral suffer adversity, and the most wicked prosper. The story of Job is a prime example, and Jesus Himself foreswore that assumption (Luke 13:1-5).
Carl was right; both the fact that his wife had cancer, and her early diagnosis, was “a God thing”. Nancy’s more severe cancer was also “a God thing”, as was Mary’s fatal cancer. None of us can definitively answer why; we can only suffer together and do whatever we can to ease the suffering of others.
I was happy for him, but every time Carl called his relatively good circumstances “a God thing”, I felt a twinge of pain. My understanding does little to reduce this pain, but hopefully it will make me more sensitive around those people like Eric, who have suffered far more than I.