The Voice: Spring 2002

The Voice

Suffering: God's will and human understanding

By Peter Meyer ('83)

Like many of my peers, I grew up with the perspective that the world is under God’s tight control and if I thought about it long and hard enough, then God’s will would fit somewhat neatly into my human logic and explanations. After all, everything must have a purpose and actions have consequences.

Suffering, then, can have many “benefits”: It can make us confess or correct our sins; lead us to rely on God, not ourselves; provide an opportunity to witness or demonstrate Christian character; ultimately make us stronger; make us joyful and thankful as we are strengthened by God to make it through the suffering; let us taste a little of what Christ suffered for us and become more like Him; enable us to help others through their suffering; prepare us to receive and appreciate the blessings God plans for us.

I’m not an intellectual giant or a theological master; just a struggling forty-year-old terminal cancer patient whose world no longer fits into a nice logical box I can understand. It has been and still is a two-and-a-half year struggle with the “fairness” of this disease and its consequences.

I was originally diagnosed in September of 1999 with an exceedingly rare cancer of the adrenal gland. God blessed the hands of the surgeons and despite a seventeen-day coma, I survived the simultaneous chest and abdomen operation.

Unfortunately the cancer returned by the following spring and spread into multiple tumors, including my liver. This time it was inoperable. The subsequent twenty months of chemotherapy drugs, among other things, resulted in nerve damage to my hands and feet so that I now need the help of others to get dressed.

Didn’t I do the right things (church, family, Christian school, tithe, witness, etc.) while I was healthy? OK, I know I can do nothing to save myself, and Christ’s blood saves me, but how is it good to leave a wife and three young children alone in the world? With my limited understanding and human experience, I love the life I know, and it’s hard to want a heaven I don’t know. Trying to squeeze God’s plan into human logic was and is not working.

Like Job we cannot presume to judge God’s will even when it makes no sense. But the standard advice that others offer us seems to be of so little help or comfort in the middle of these difficult times. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” I’m told. If this is true, my wife must be able to handle a lot because this illness is over the top for me! The Bible makes this promise in regard to temptation, but I cannot find any scripture that makes the same promise about suffering and the thought does not offer me strength or comfort. At other times friends pull back because they do not know what to say.

I’ve found that I’m not looking for or expect flashes of wisdom, just words of comfort. The greatest pain is in feeling alone and the simplest phone call to check on how I’m doing, to express a little empathy (not sympathy) and to just listen lets me know that the person cares enough to take a moment out of their day to think and pray for my family and me. I’m grateful that there have been so many acquaintances, co-workers, and fellow Christians that God has been using as angels of mercy to not only say hello but also do such mundane tasks as pick up groceries, carpool the kids to a school event, cook a dinner, or shovel the snow.

I have not experienced faith as a one-time event that some seem to espouse, but a frequent, and somewhat continuous cycle, of processing my understanding through anger, grief, and a return to peace in God through faith. With the guidance and wise counsel of friends, pastors, and various authors, I think my faith has broadened and deepened to understand that God did not promise me an easy life and when He said he would take care of me, He was talking about my salvation, not my retirement.

God does not have to explain His plan to me, and frankly we’re on different thinking planes and I may not understand His purpose until eternity. My wife and I have drawn great comfort from Philippians 4:5-9 and its promise that the Lord is near and we do not need to be anxious about anything. It continues with the assurance that by giving everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, to God, His peace, which transcends all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

An analogy that I’ve found helpful is the comparison of two chess masters locked in a bitter duel. We know that God is in control and will ultimately win the match, but the devil has tremendous latitude and abilities and will destroy many of the game pieces along the way as he struggles to win. God does not stop the carnage and suffering, but uses the devil’s moves to further His plan and win the ultimate match. As one of the pawns I can’t see the human benefit through the pain, but faith enables me to trust God. The cornerstone of this faith is that I can dimly see, and know in my heart, that God is building and strengthening my family and their salvation. The earthly dreams are wasting away and what is left is truly precious.