Have you ever read something and quickly realized it would change your life forever? I recently had that experience with a text message. I flew through the message, picking out key words but not reading it fully. A few sentences in, my thoughts overcame my concentration as I rushed to the end. I was searching for specific words. This time the words were “cancer” and “returned.” That text changed me from being able to say, “My dad used to have cancer,” back to, “My dad has cancer.”
You see, three years ago my dad was diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer. After surgery and treatments, the cancer was gone, but we were never guaranteed it wouldn’t come back. So for three years we prayed and thanked God for the healing He had already done. But at each checkup and doctor’s appointment, we would wait for a text or phone call. Is he still clear? Did the cancer return?
When the text from my dad came in, I got stuck reading the end of it over and over. I read it out loud, even. At the end of his message, my dad had written this simple paraphrase of Psalm 118:24. “This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.”
Those aren’t the words you think you’d see at the bottom of a letter declaring your worst fear. I love Jesus with all my heart. I believe everything in His Word is true. I believed that He was in fact, the author and maker of this day. But I was confused. Why would God make this day? For years, I had been praying and hoping, and enlisting others to beg God for this day not to come. And yet it did. I did not feel like rejoicing. I was not glad for it. How could anyone be glad for this day?
Later, I found myself asking my dad about the statement. “Do you really feel that way? Can you really rejoice over the day your cancer returned and be glad in it?”
It’s what I was struggling with in the moment. It’s what I struggle with still sometimes when I’m trying to untangle the mess of thoughts and emotions that go along with things like cancer. There are times in your walk with God where the things you believe are called into action and you need to know, “Are they true?”
What my dad answered blew me away.
“My main prayer is not that God would heal me,” he said. “I pray what Paul prayed: I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. [Philippians 1:20 NIV] In spite of everything, I still view each day as a gift from God. It’s another chance to be God’s light in a world of darkness. Another chance to be the salt that preserves life and adds flavor to it. Another chance to love someone for God. It is with this mindset that I can rejoice in the day the Lord has made.”
My dad knows that with God, his suffering is not arbitrary. The God of all comfort is with him in the midst of his cancer, empowering him to comfort others and point them to Jesus.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. … Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, 9 ESV
My dad is sure. He’s able to have joy, to rejoice in his afflictions. He is able, in a time when it arguably should happen in the reverse, to share with me, his family, and friends, the comfort he’s received from the Holy Spirit.
What I’ve been learning through watching my dad is this: cancer forces us to rely on God and not on ourselves. When we do that, we find that we are standing on solid ground. The waves come and the storms rage, but we’re still secure. It’s how we know for sure that what the Bible teaches is true. God is with us. He is making our weakness into strength. His promises are trustworthy. When we suffer, we’re able to encounter the God of all comfort, who comforts us to such excesses that people are compelled to stop and ask about it. We then receive the great joy of sharing our comfort with others and pointing them to the one who raises the dead.
Because of that, even in suffering, we rejoice.