This post is a part of a series featuring an assortment of voices exploring how to think theologically about cancer and those who have it. Read the series introduction or view all posts in the series. UPDATE: The beautifully designed Cancer & Theology e-book includes the original essays as well as three new essays and a new introduction.
There are two books that are helpful which directly address the question, “Where is God in the face of the suffering and death from cancer?” David Watson’s Fear No Evil and M.R. Thompson’s Cancer and the God of Love. The theses of both these books is that God has already gone before us, experiencing suffering, agony and ultimately death so because of this we need fear no evil. The freeing part of the Christian message is we need not deny sickness and the ultimate questions of why suffering but rather the knowledge that God walks with us and when we can no longer walk God carries us. As C.S. Lewis wrote, the ultimate test of our Christian faith in the face of loss, illness, and death of loved ones is whether we believe God is a Cosmic Sadist or a loving parent. In answering this question, we are reminded that we cannot celebrate the Easter of resurrection and new life until we have passed through the Good Friday of pain and suffering.
Ultimately the theodicy question of why a good God permits suffering and is still all-powerful and -loving is veiled in mystery. Any rush to rational explanations of this paradox reduces God’s mystery to our limited knowledge and explanations which ultimately must fail.
For Christians our theology must be translated into action, deeds, and a life that makes a difference in Christ’s name. It is especially when someone is facing a slow and certain death that deeds of kindness can say more than all the theological truths. Instead of the words, “Can I help?” the more concrete words, “What do you need?” help to empower the ill person to name what would be helpful to them, from bringing food to their family, doing chores around the house, reading poetry, taking their child to school or the doctor. One of the most difficult aspects of being chronically or terminally ill is the loss of control. Where in many cases there is little you can do to wrest the progression of the disease, others can help empower you to still participate in decisions and their implementation about your treatment and life.
For people with terminal cancer the question may often be, “How should I live while I am dying?” One wise friend, whose husband died of cancer, told me her words to her husband were, “Your disease does not change who you are, and you are still the wonderful person you have always been.” On the other hand, Eric Cassell, oncologist at Cornell, wrote that illness is not like a knapsack fastened on to you, but rather it changes everything about you and your world. While it is true that the world of the dying person shrinks and the peripheral matters of life recede, still the essence which makes us who we are is always there. In other words, nothing can alter that we are a child of God, made in God’s image.
These truths should form the heart of the Christian message of hope that we share in the face of the terrible ravages of disease.
Our greatest call, however, is to stand with and by people in their illness. Sometimes in silence, sometimes with comforting words, thereby incarnating the love of Christ for them in all circumstances.
The entire Cancer & Theology series is now available as a beautifully designed e-book, featuring a new introduction and three new, e-book-only essays from Adam J. Copeland, Joshua Longbrake, and Greg Syler. It is available exclusively for Amazon Kindle devices and apps (including most smartphones, tablets, and computers) for just $5.99.*
Dr. Abigail Rian Evans has over thirty years of experience in the development of innovative approaches to health and wellness. Currently she is a senior scholar in the Center for Clinical Bioethics and an adjunct Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center. Evans is the Charlotte Newcombe Professor of Practical Theology emerita at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was also Director of the Intern and Clinical Pastoral Education programs. Earlier, Abigail was the Founder and Director of Health Ministries for the National Capital Presbytery and one of the early leaders of the Faith Community Nurses and Health Ministries Association. Her books include Redeeming Marketplace Medicine, The Healing Church, Healing Liturgies for the Seasons of Life, and Is God Still at the Bedside: Medical, Ethical and Pastoral Issues in Death and Dying.