Asking the Right Questions About Suffering, Cancer, and the Gospel

The world tells us that our heart is good, but it's all a lie, and we know it.

The hard truth is that all of us are under the sentence of death. We’re dying. The root cause of all the hardships in this life is sin. Sin is a departure from God’s will; a rejection of his purpose in creating us that we might glorify him and enjoy him forever. Until this root problem is addressed, every attempt to alleviate the symptoms that follow, in whatever form they come, only mask the real problem, just as pain pills do a disease.

 

My father was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They performed the Whipple procedure in an attempt to cut it out of the pancreas. Nothing has gone well post-surgery and he continues to lose weight, down to a skeletal 120 pounds from a robust 200. We had a list of questions for the doctor as to why this and that is happening and why he is suffering.

We were clearly on a different page than the doctor in the way we were evaluating my father’s present condition. The doctor said the following: “I’m giving you the hard truth. In dealing with what we are, we don’t work to solve the problem of symptoms. We always work from the disease to the symptoms. If the disease is treated, the symptoms will be addressed.” In other words, we need to know what’s happening with the cancer, for if the cancer has returned, that is often the root cause of all these other complications.

I share this with you as a pastor to make a larger point about our own lives. People face a variety of problems every day–struggles in marriage, alcohol abuse, eating disorders, financial woes, injustices, failing health, and a general discontentment with life. We have our lists of how to address these problems. All of our answers are attempts to achieve in this life some temporary relief from the sorrows we face. But we’re not being honest with ourselves or God until we address the root cause of these “symptoms,” the heart “disease” that brings a million woes in this life. The world tells us that our heart is good, but it’s all a lie, and we know it.

The hard truth is that all of us are under the sentence of death. We’re dying. The root cause of all the hardships in this life is sin. Sin is a departure from God’s will; a rejection of his purpose in creating us that we might glorify him and enjoy him forever. Until this root problem is addressed, every attempt to alleviate the symptoms that follow, in whatever form they come, only mask the real problem, just as pain pills do a disease.

Sadly, this is where so many, including pastors and counselors, fail to help people address what matters most. Their help can become a dishonest attempt to appease people by only lessening their painful symptoms in life. Such an approach to people’s lives in the medical world would be like the doctor only handing my father a morphine patch to address his cancer. While we’re thankful for the temporary relief from pain, it did nothing to address the real issue in his body.

Every woe we face in life is a symptom telling us that the cancer of sin needs to be cut away. This is what Christian baptism signifies and why we are called to identify with Christ through this washing. We need new hearts, washed and cleansed. We need purity, a righteousness that can appear before God’s majestic presence. We need forgiveness for our offenses against him. And we need a resurrection to address the reality of the grave that awaits us all.

If we acknowledge this need, then we begin to realize that the cure must be as radical as the disease, and nothing we can do is radical enough to address such a misery. Here the Christian gospel offers real hope: “Jesus came into this world to save sinners. He is the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in him, even though he dies, yet he shall live.” Jesus lived to provide us righteousness, he died to pay our debt, and he rose from the dead to assure us that he overcame the root problem in our nature to reconcile us to God.

But we must be honest before Christ about our condition and turn to him for the answer. Jesus has specifically said he has come to lay down his life only for the sick, that is, those who have fallen at his feet for help acknowledging their awful condition.

At Jesus’ feet, we are picked up and satisfied with mercy. At his feet, our darkness is made light and we are given real hope. Here he assures our hearts before him that nothing can separate us from his love and that soon, very soon he will make all things new in the consummation.

I hope everyone reading this has come to this great physician while he still may be found. Jesus gives true eternal comfort in life and in death as he already has to my father, no matter the earthly outcome.

Christopher J. Gordon is a minister in the United Reformed Church and is pastor of the Escondido URC in Escondido, Calif.



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