"Faith, in its cognitive sense, is the tension between itself and doubt.”
Rabbi Norman Lamm
A couple of years after my recovery from cancer, I served as the U.S. tour manager for a lively Christian dance and drumming troupe from Uganda called the Destiny Africa Children’s Choir. As the end of the tour approached, I thought about John the Baptist who had a short and specific ministry -- then died (1). I feared that after my brief assignment with the tour, the cancer would return. So, I called on my team of prayer ministers who prayed over me and discerned what was happening in my spirit.
Because of my tendency toward perfectionism, I had put too much faith in my own level of faith. The enemy had tempted me into believing that if my faith was not perfect, I would lose my healing. My prayer ministers pointed out that Jesus heals, not my faith. We know from the Scripture that faith is required for healing to occur (2), but not necessarily perfect faith. We see in the book of Mark that belief and unbelief coexist; yet Jesus still heals (3). Although Abraham often displayed remarkable faith (4), we see throughout the book of Genesis (5) that he often struggled with doubt -- yet, God still credited his faith as righteousness (6). Abraham’s wife Sarah laughed at God’s pledge to give her a child and then lied about her doubt; but God still kept His promise (7). God was faithful even when Abraham and Sarah’s faith wasn’t perfect. When the father of a demon-possessed boy told Jesus, "I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief" (8), he was essentially saying, "I believe in you, Jesus, but I am struggling to believe that my son can be healed." I love the honesty expressed in that passage.
Jesus wants us to believe in our healing (9), but when we are confronted with doubt, He is kind and patient. Sometimes when we don’t have faith ourselves, He provides a friend to have faith for us. When the paralyzed man couldn’t get to Jesus on his own, he relied on his friends to break through the roof (10). Likewise, sometimes we need help from others to break through the obstacles that keep us from entering the Lord’s presence, whether those obstacles are physical, emotional, or spiritual. My prayer ministers did that for me.
It is natural for cancer fighters and long-term survivors to encounter the tension between faith and doubt. This is not something to be ashamed of. (In fact, many people experience this tension whether they have cancer or not.) God is a compassionate Father, and when we are honest about our unbelief, He won’t let it disrupt His blessing. The truth is, doubt can become the means through which our faith is ultimately strengthened. I offered my unbelief to God in faith and repentance and found rest in His faithfulness. I encourage you to do the same. Even when our faith is imperfect, our Friend and Savior, Jesus, is more than able to make up the difference.
(1) Luke 3:1-20, Mark 6:22-32
(2) e.g., Matthew 9:22, Mark 9:23, Mark 10:52, Acts 14:9, 10
(3) Mark 9:17-27
(4) e.g., Genesis 22:1-18
(5) e.g., Genesis 15:8, 17:17-18
(6) Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3
(7) Genesis 18:12, 15; Genesis 21:1
(8) Mark 9:24
(9) Mark 9:19, 23
(10) Mark 2:1-5
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3
The first time I spoke with my pastor about my diagnosis, I told him that I was concerned about God's will for my life. He instantly responded with confidence and authority, "God's will is for your children to keep their mother.” I remember thinking to myself, “Okay... that sounds really good.” Like a little child who had just been re-directed by her loving father, I eagerly received my pastor's words and clung to the goodness of God. A good and loving father would never choose cancer for his child.
Like many people, I have wrestled to understand God’s will and the heart-wrenching problem of suffering. Theologians have debated such topics for centuries, producing a labyrinth of thoughtful texts far beyond my comprehension. I wasn’t looking for a trough of literature to validate my child-like faith, but when cancer visited, I needed something firm to grab hold of.
So, I searched the Scriptures for answers to my basic questions and discovered them hiding in plain view: Our heavenly Father has spoken to us through His Son (Hebrews 1:2) who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). Now, pause here, and think about that for a minute. Reread that sentence and really soak it in until you have a clear picture of it in your mind…
It means that God doesn’t just speak to us through Jesus; Jesus Himself is the word of God (Hebrews 1:2; John 1:1). What Jesus says and what He does reflect what our Heavenly Father believes and what He wants. God’s will is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. And guess what else the Scriptures tell us plainly? Jesus always healed people. In fact, sometimes He even raised them from the dead (Mark 5:35-43; Luke 7:11-14; John 11:38-44). Jesus never made people sick. So, the best conclusion I can make from the scriptures is that God’s will is for health and life--not cancer and death!
When I reflected on the brief but profound conversation with my pastor, I could hear the voice of the Holy Spirit resonating through his words, enabling me to surrender my questions and become like a little child who recognized her helplessness and embraced her Father. The truth I discovered in his Holy Word affirmed my faith and calmed my tension.
God did want my children to keep their mother. To be sure, God wants all children to keep their mothers. We can’t deny the reality that some moms don’t survive cancer, but we can’t let our questions about the unknown mysteries of God keep us from believing what is known about God: Our Heavenly Father loves us. He cares for us. He has compassion for us, and wants nothing but the best for us. He wants us to have life--the full life Jesus came to give us--a life that includes joy and the fulfillment of our mission on earth.
It is true that believing the promises of God is a risk, and the risk of disappointment is not a trivial matter. But if we don’t take that risk, we allow the enemy to govern our mindset and pilot us on a hopeless journey through the kingdom of darkness. Rather, we have strength by the Holy Spirit and confidence in the cross to point our compass toward the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus revealed His Father’s will in the most basic prayer He taught us: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. There is no cancer in heaven (Revelation 21:1-4).
"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." Hebrews 4:16
We often refer to the significant decisions in our lives as "life and death" decisions. The stakes are high and the right decision is crucial. So, we do our part using all of the resources God has given us, researching our options and carefully weighing the risks and benefits, bathing everything in prayer. But sometimes, despite this process, the "right" decision remains unclear, and we find ourselves in a swirl of ambiguity.
As I navigated the real life-and-death decisions associated with cancer - what kind of surgeries should I have? Which doctors? How much chemo? - the quest for the right decision became a quest for the "perfect" decision. So, I pushed harder, to be even wiser, more judicious, more diligent; as if heightening my efforts in response to the seriousness of the issue would make it all clear. But my increased effort only increased the weight of the pressure.
I learned that the decisions I faced during cancer were just like the other important decisions I had confronted throughout my life. No matter how diligent or wise or judicious I might be, there was always a chance that I would miss something or that some of the pieces would be missing. The best I could do was simply my best. I could spend hours, months and years second-guessing my decisions; but there was no second-guessing my relationship with God. I was confident in Him and my relationship with Him.
In the bible, we read about David who was a man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). He achieved success as a king because he inquired of the Lord (e.g., 2 Samuel 2:1). We are to be like David and inquire of the Lord for all of our decisions. If we feel drawn to a particular oncologist, then let us be confident to rest in her advice being faithful to petition God for her wisdom. If we experience God's peace as we ponder one choice over the other, then let us rest in Jehovah Shalom. If the Lord speaks to us through the scripture, then let us believe and obey.
It is overwhelming to navigate the decisions of cancer, particularly if we try to do it without God. So, ask Him for wisdom and direction. Then, be open to the answers He is giving you (John 8:47; John 10:4, 27) and walk in faith without looking back or second-guessing. He was there for me at every decision point, waiting for me to seek Him, waiting with an answer. And He is waiting for you, too.
(photo courtesy of Daughter of the Woods)
“Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” John 1:12
When I talk about cancer with other people, I avoid using the phrase “my cancer”. This is intentional, because cancer is not mine. When we use the qualifier “my”, the thing we are qualifying becomes an identifying mark, and we can even grow affectionate toward it. “My children”, “my husband”, “my faith”, “my ministry” -- these are all blessings I love and proudly proclaim as mine. Cancer, however, I despise and I will never allow it to claim my identity. Not ever! Likewise, you won’t hear me use the phrase “your cancer” either, because I refuse to claim it for you, too.
I am sure there are times when I have inadvertently said “my cancer” because sometimes the vernacular of the English language commands it. So, don’t misunderstand me as being legalistic. I’m not trying to establish a rule I believe everyone should follow, nor am I imploring you to package yourself with a super-spiritual slogan. I am simply suggesting that we, as cancer survivors, need to thoughtfully consider our identity because the enemy would like nothing more than to steal it.
I was diagnosed two months before October, which -- as many of you are well aware -- is breast cancer awareness month. I was in the middle of treatment when I entered the supermarket for the first time that month and was overcome by cereal boxes and egg cartons sporting pink ribbons. Sure, they represent something good --sponsorship of cancer research -- but my heart wrenched at every sighting.
Invitations in the mail to parade in the survivor leg of various cancer relay walks were plentiful; and promptly condemned to the trash. I had no intention of placing a label associated with cancer anywhere on my body. I had upped my commitment to exercise, since it’s important for the healing process, and was excited to find a pair of rollerblades that fit comfortably on my bunion-burdened feet. Excited…until I saw the pink ribbon embellishment delicately stitched on the ankle. You have got to be kidding me! The emblem of the land I didn’t love was stalking me.
I rebelled against pink ribbons, the month of October, satin survivor sashes, and other trendy hallmarks of breast cancer survivorship -- not because these things are bad --but to protect my identity: "I am a daughter of the Most High God and Jesus Christ is my Redeemer." Yes, I am also the wife of an amazing husband, the mother of two incredible children, a writer, a prayer warrior, and a servant of His kingdom who happens to be a cancer survivor. These things are all wonderful and worth celebrating, but they don’t define me. They merely characterize what I do and what I have experienced. My identity is not based upon my achievements or failures; the opinions of other people; or my oftentimes, painful past -- it is firmly fixed and established upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and who He says I am.
Nine years after my diagnosis, I attended a cancer relay walk to promote my prayer ministry. As I ran my fingers across the satin survivor sash the organizers had given me, I remembered the cereal boxes and rollerblades and how they used to trigger me. But this time was different. It felt okay to join my comrades in the survivor lap, to receive the cheers and encouragement from the supporters standing by. It felt good -- even right -- because I had learned how to walk in the fullness of my healing, secure in who I am. Jesus redeemed another piece of me that cancer tried to steal.
If you enjoy the colorful ribbons associated with cancer awareness, then by all means, display them. But let’s never forget who we are and that our most valuable membership resides in the club of Christ. “We are sons and daughters of the Most High God and Jesus Christ is our Redeemer who sees us and loves us and is with us to the end.”
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Joellen Putnam is the founder of ACTIVATE THE CURE, a prayer ministry for those who are impacted by cancer. She is also a cancer survivor who lives in Connecticut with her husband as well as her daughter and son (when they are home from college).