Monday, June 04, 2007

June 4, 2007 - God and Cancer

A few days ago, a blog reader named Vicky sent me a link to an article written by John Piper, who's a Baptist megachurch pastor and also a prostate cancer survivor. It's called "Don't Waste Your Cancer."

With a title like that, how could I resist reading it? The article's got ten points, each one beginning with "You will waste your cancer if..."

Most of Dr. Piper's points I agree with:

"You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God" (I've never been a gambling man, anyway).

"You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death" (No problem there – I was a philosophy major).

"You will waste your cancer if you think that ‘beating' cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ." (I'm already on record as opposing violent imagery – "winning courageous battles against cancer," and similar expressions – when it comes to dealing with this disease. It may work for others; it just doesn't work for me. And, of course I believe eternal life in Christ is more important than mortal life on our own – that's a no-brainer).

"You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God." (This point's pretty much a repeat of the preceding one.)

"You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection." (Bravo, Dr. Piper, on this one! I tried going it alone, during those long months of diagnosis, when I didn't share my worries with anyone else, except Claire. It didn't work very well. The support of a community is critical.)

"You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope." (Hope is what it's all about – but, that's a no-brainer, too. Even Lance Armstrong and others like him, who come at cancer with a purely secular approach, aren't afraid to talk about hope. Lose hope on this grim and arduous journey, and you've got little else left except grieving.)

"You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ." (How could I argue with that? I hope my life – at least, in its better moments – is all about witnessing to Christ. I hope and pray this blog has been about that, as well, for at least some of my readers.)

In case you're counting, that's seven points. Much as I'm able to affirm the foregoing, Dr. Piper's three remaining points make me gag. They are:

"You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God."

OK, I'm a Presbyterian. I believe that predestination is a viable concept to use in describing a God who is sovereign, all-knowing and all-powerful. But even I respond with revulsion at this glib assertion that God went into my DNA blueprint before birth, erasing a chromosome here, adding one there, all to create a genetic time bomb that would go off when I turned 49.

Does Dr. Piper actually believe his prostate cancer was custom-designed for him by God – that God went down the rows of souls waiting to be born, and said of the one who would be baptized "John Piper," "this one gets a rotten prostate, it will make him a better person"?

Here's what Dr. Piper says, explaining his rather provocative statement (which is number one on his list of ten):

"It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but does not design it. What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design."

Well, the people who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center had a design, too. They imagined, in the fried moral circuits of their terrorist brains, that the evil they were doing was justified because it would yield a greater good: the humbling of the United States of America – a nation they had demonized, in those same fried brain-circuits, as the nexus of all human evil. I'm sorry, but Dr. Piper's image of God does not differ substantially, as I see it, from that of a terrorist.

Did God fail to prevent my cancer, as well as Dr. Piper's? Of course. Yet, to me, that's a far cry from saying God actively designed our respective cases of cancer, smiting us with custom-made strands of defective DNA.

The question of why God permits human suffering is among the toughest of all theological dilemmas. I tend to come down on the side of God's having withdrawn from active manipulation of human events, in order to allow space for a greater good to flourish: human freedom. There are a whole lot of ancillary consequences to that withdrawal, one of which is cancer. But, did God specifically design this or that particular consequence, for my life or Dr. Piper's? I don't think so. I don't think "design" is a meaningful word to use, in such an instance.

A little analogy may be in order. Fans of the various Star Trek television series and movies are familiar with a standing order called “The Prime Directive” that starship crews must follow, when visiting planets more primitive than their own. Basically, the Prime Directive boils down to “hands off.” Crew members who beam down to the planet must avoid doing anything – like leaving an advanced space gadget behind – that would interfere with that culture’s normal process of development. God has voluntarily adopted a sort of Prime Directive when it comes to human illness, and other forms of suffering. It’s not that God can’t intervene. It’s that God generally won’t, because to do so on a regular basis would undermine human freedom.

I do believe God sees, and knows about, my cancer. Yet, God also knows that, in order to preserve the greater gift of free will, God must lay aside the marionette-strings and let the human experiment spin itself out, in all its beauty and agony. One day, we are promised a place where "mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away" (Revelation 21.4). But, sadly, not today.

Dr. Piper's point #2 is, "You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift."

My objection to this one lies in the false dichotomy Dr. Piper sets up, between a curse and a gift. I think my cancer is both. I would never describe it as anything other than a curse – yet, I would also say that the experience of having cancer has been a surprising gift, in many ways. It's led me to new sources of strength, opened up new relationships, forced me to think more about others, centered my mind on higher things.

I would agree with Dr. Piper if he were saying, "cancer is not only a curse, it can also be a gift." But, set it up as an either-or, and I have to cry foul.

The final point where I differ from Dr. Piper is #9: "You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before."

Here's his further explanation:

"Are your besetting sins as attractive as they were before you had cancer? If so you are wasting your cancer. Cancer is designed to destroy the appetite for sin. Pride, greed, lust, hatred, unforgiveness, impatience, laziness, procrastination – all these are the adversaries that cancer is meant to attack. Don't just think of battling against cancer. Also think of battling with cancer. All these things are worse enemies than cancer. Don't waste the power of cancer to crush these foes."

Oh, pull-eeeze! Do you actually expect me to swallow the line that cancer is just another means God uses to smite sinners? If that's true, then what does it imply for those who don't have cancer – that God doesn't think they're as bad sinners as the people who do have it? Or – stranger still – maybe God doesn't care about those people enough, not to have supplied them with their own, custom-designed bitter pill that's necessary for full spiritual health?

In the course of my pastoral ministry, I've encountered way too many sick people who are laboring under the misapprehension that their illness is a form of divine chastisement visited upon them by God. I try to free them of that particular monkey-on-the-back. I won't deny that some illnesses have a psychosomatic element, through which, say, unresolved guilt or suppressed anger can manifest itself as physical illness. Such illnesses can, indeed, be seen as a result of human sin – but they're a causal outcome that grows out of the sin itself, not a divine punishment imposed from above.

I don't think cancer is God's design for any person. It just is. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say it just isn't. What do I mean by that? Genesis 1:2 says the earth, before creation, was "a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep." When God spoke into the void, creating the universe, the forces of chaos were pushed back, but not obliterated. Some of that formlessness and void is still hanging around, just beyond creation's ragged edge, causing havoc. Cancer's part of that. Faith teaches that its days are numbered, but in these between-times, we are forced to deal with it.

That's what I'm thinking these days, anyway, about God and cancer. I'm just not on the same page as Dr. Piper, when it comes to the relationship between physical illness and sin, and when it comes to God's role in handing out the cancer genes to particular individuals.

As for the rest, it's all good.


Anonymous said...

Carl - I'm so glad you blogged on Piper's article! (And I don't know why, but I had it in my mind that Piper was also a Presbyterian.)

Anyway, I so appreciate your thoughts and insight into this piece - I've had some difficulty over the idea that my cancer was designed by God "just for me." And I admit to that "monkey on the back" dilemma as well - feeling that it's due to unconfessed, unrepented sin in my life.

Thanks again. By the way you have a beautiful blog here.

Peace and health to you.

Anonymous said...


...still here, still reading and also praying for you

Tom Clarke said...

Me thinks that "Dr. Piper" needs to walk through the children's ward of a cancer hospital and sit down and think before he starts writing such dribble.

And isn't that a major problem in all of society today? People use a use "facts" the way a drunk uses a light post--for support, not for illumination.


Carl said...

Thanks, Vicky, for sending it. It obviously got my thought-processes going!

I'm glad you're finding the blog helpful.

Carl said...

I find, Tom, that some forms of Christianity are a closed system. Such a rigid theological system resists being penetrated by any actual human experience.

Erect such an impregnable fortress, however, and you can perish inside it, from hunger.

Kay said...

During my first diagnosis I thought I was the Christian Poster Child for faith and believing in the healing powers of God. When my 5th year anniversary rolled around I was convinced that God had healed me. Six months later I was diagosed with a reoccurance. It wasn't so much the reoccurance itself that knocked the wind out of my lungs; I was devasted that I had not been healed (my preception of healed) by God. Since that time and several years later with a diagnosis of bone mets, my relationship with God has grown. Thank God that along the way ministries such as yours have crossed my path...I believe God hears our prayers and sometimes an answer is learning about "A Pastor's Cancer Diary". Thank you. In the midst of intense pain, I began to fall back imto the ole monkey on the back.....thank you and God bless.

Carl said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Kay. Sounds like you've had a real roller-coaster ride.

As I said in my May 21 post, I think it's a good thing if we work from as broad a definition of "healing" as possible. Most of us, when we read one of the healing stories in the New Testament, immediately focus on the physical, when in fact whatever happened that day likely involved every aspect of the person's being. I think we can still speak of experiencing God's healing, even if the physical symptoms of illness continue.

May you know God's healing, in many and varied ways.

Anonymous said...

Your writing is beautiful and your honesty is refreshing. Thank you for sharing.

I interpreted #9 differently for some reason than the way you did:
"You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before."

I though Piper meant that when faced with cancer, and along with it the fight for your life, it puts life into perspective.

Perhaps before a cancer diagnosis, the sin that so easily drains our spiritual strength, which can lead to deadness, was something we fell easily into.

But perhaps after a diagnosis and realizing life is only a fleeting flame, you realize those things that can lead to spiritual deadness should not be so easily given into.

I could be wrong, but that's how I saw it.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that someone would see cancer (or AIDS or MS or any other disease) as something designed especially for a given individual.

I think that we Christians spend too much time worrying about why evil exists (how can a good God allow cancer or a tsunami...). Since we don't know the mind of God, such worrying is a waste of energy. Better to put our energy into trying to live out our situation as best we can, which is no small task.

One other thought: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, has said that evil exists so that we can learn compassion--both for ourselves and others. Perhaps that's the reason cancer can be both curse and never stops being a curse but, at least sometimes, it can be an occasion of grace and compassion.

Peace to all.

Anonymous said...

My non-theist response.

Vance said...


I appreciate your measured remarks here. It is interesting to contrast the views of two Christian pastors who not only help others to understand life's events, but who must also try to explain it to themselves.

As a physician who takes care of cancer patients, I try not to get into these discussion. Unless patients bring it up, it is not my place to interpret events for them from a spiritual viewpoint. My job is simply to help them live longer and better.

I find that most patients want to make sense out of their illness. It seems natural to wonder why bad things happen when you are a good person and believe in a loving God. Thus I cannot blame any Christian for asking.

However, I must confess that I cannot answer the "whys", and I quit trying. I agree with Harold Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People) that the correct question to ask is, "What now?"

Your banner says you are in remission. I pray that you will continue in remission for a long, long time.

Carl said...

What amazing responses to this post! Thanks, everyone.

ben (with the link to his Eclectics Anonymous blog) has got some VERY thoughtful reflections on this whole discussion. Thanks, ben.

And, I'm just floored at the "small world" aspect of Dr. Vance Esler's post. It just so happens, Vance, that I only just discovered your blog, and based my June 7 blog entry on something you've written.

Hospice California said...

I found your blog on Google and read a few of your other posts.Keep it up the good work.From you reading more in the future.

Carl said...

Glad you found it. Keep reading - and keep commenting!