Monday, March 23, 2015

March 23, 2015 — God is Bigger

J. Todd Billings is a Reformed Church in America minister who’s on the faculty of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Like me, he’s dealing with an “incurable but treatable” blood cancer diagnosis: in his case, multiple myeloma. He’s written about his cancer experience in a new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Baker,  2015).

I intend to get the book and read it, but in the few teaser excerpts provided by the publisher, I’ve heard echoes of my own experiences of years past.

I was particularly impressed by an anecdote he tells in the opening pages, of receiving a card from a 15-year-old girl from his congregation with Down Syndrome. By way of encouragement, she wrote: “Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”

Billings identifies some pretty good theology in the girl’s words:

“While I had received many cards in the previous days, this one was different. ‘God is bigger than cancer!’ Yes. She did not say, ‘God will cure you of this cancer,’ or ‘God will suffer with you.’ God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama. The sky was closing in, enveloping my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger. The girl in my church wasn’t denying the fog or the loss but testifying to a God who was greater, the God made known in Jesus Christ, who shows us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5)….”

Billings also finds comfort in the famous first Question and Answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:

“‘What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but that I belong — in body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.’ Like the note from the fifteen-year-old girl in my church, it breaks through the fog of ‘terminal’ and ‘incurable’ and ‘cancer’ by pointing us to the bedrock of what matters: that I belong, in life and in death, to Jesus Christ. My life is not my own….”

I like this concept of the bigness of God, when it comes to living with cancer. The first tendency of many of us, as we learn of a cancer diagnosis, is to allow the cancer to grow in our minds until it crowds out everything else, even our faith. This amounts to making the cancer into an idol, an object of false worship. The god to whom that idol bears witness is a malevolent deity, indeed. But that doesn’t stop us — in horrified fascination — from ascribing to the cancer god all sorts of power over us.

A healthy understanding of the bigness of the one, true God is the way to overcome that false worship. As the teenager with the mighty heart bears witness, cancer’s big, but God is bigger.

Billings goes on to say:

“This place of not knowing is one that sometimes feels like a thick fog for me right now. I could have five years, ten years, or decades. Who knows? Not me. We belong to God — the Alpha and the Omega, who holds time In his hands — but we are not God. We are mortal, and we don’t know when we will die. There is a fog for all of us, whether we realize it or not, that as creatures we do not live in the world as individuals who own it but as temporary stewards of God’s good gifts.”

How easy it is to reduce God to the sum-total of our needs and desires! “Where are you, O God?” is so often our demand, when we learn that our expectations of a long and healthy life are threatened by a cancer diagnosis.

Yet, if God is indeed bigger than our dreams and desires — bigger, even, than our very lives — then isn’t it just a trifle audacious for us to shake our fists at the heavens, demanding an answer to that question?

It’s only human to voice such angry laments, from time to time. I don’t think God is particularly offended by that sort of thing. Because God is bigger. Yes, indeed.

(Quotations from J. Todd Billings,  Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ [Baker, 2015], selections from pp. 1-7.)