Cancer

How do we suffer well?

[This is the abridged version of a cancer update I emailed to friends yesterday.]

It’s a strange thing—writing of “suffering” in our first-world American context. What really qualifies as suffering? In your own life, what would you categorize as merely a difficulty and what would you consider full-blown suffering?

I feel like I know so little of suffering when I think of people like Helen Roseveare, Madame Guyon, and Olaudah Equiano—or when I hear about modern-day victims of persecution, trafficking, and enslavement. I’m tempted to despair over my own “softness.” So when people tell me they’re amazed at how I’m handling a terminal diagnosis, I’m deeply encouraged, but I also cringe a little at the compliment. I know myself far too well to be impressed with ME. I’m constantly, keenly aware that GOD is sustaining me, HE is pouring out his Spirit on me (in equal measure to the pain he’s inflicted), HE has been working on me little by little for many, many years. 

Last night I lay in bed thinking back on my early to mid 30s when I thought I might end up in an asylum, I felt so crazy with anxiety and depression. I recalled the many times I’ve curled up in the fetal position and wept before God, “I can’t do this one more day!”—through long years of singleness; through my son’s worst years of illness when he struggled to breathe at night or he lay limp in my arms with unrelenting fever and pain; through my own twelve years of chronic pain and illness….

And here’s the thing about suffering (at least in my own limited experience): none of us are good at it. None of us have the capacity to suffer well with hope and joy. But the secret to slowly growing into a hope-filled, joyful sufferer has been shockingly simple: Go to God. Again and again and again

I go to him when I’m angry at his will for me. 
I go to him in the middle of the night when grief threatens to undo me.
I go to him when I’m weary to the bone, or when I’m throwing myself an epic pity party. 

And by “going to him” I mean I turn my thoughts to him and tell him exactly what I’m feeling, all the nitty gritty gory details. I “pour out my heart like water in the Lord’s presence” (Lamentations 2:19)—and with the smallest mustard seed of faith, I believe that he’s listening to me and that he will be able to do something about my suffering (Isaiah 64:4). 

That rhythmic act of going to him softens my heart to listen to him, to hear his voice, to end my self-absorbed monologue and begin a beautiful dialogue with him. 

And here’s what I’ve become increasingly convinced of through this process over decades now: I cannot hear from him or dialogue with him (and thus cannot suffer well) apart from his Word. Through the pages of Scripture he speaks exactly what my heart needs to hear. He reveals himself (sometimes in ways I don’t immediately recognize), and those revelations change everything—my thoughts and desires and perspective and all. And herein lies one of the most sacred gifts of suffering: the sufferer has a unique capacity to experience God through his Word in ways that cannot be experienced through days of comfort and ease. Spurgeon put it this way:

Prosperity is a painted window that shuts out much of God’s clear light. Only when the blue, crimson, and gold tinge is removed will the glass be restored to transparency. Adversity takes away the tinge, the color, and the dimness, and then we see our God. In the absence of other goods, the good God is better seen.*

And Robert Hawker put it this way:

Your words are sweet and perfect for my weary soul, and my sense of nothingness makes your fullness even more precious.**

I know I sound like a broken record, but I’ll sing this song to my last day: in the hands of a good God, suffering is a gift. It’s the “cords of kindness and ropes of love” that bind us fast to Jesus (Hosea 11:4). It’s the acetone and rag that clean the painted window blocking our view of him. And there is nothing on earth more precious than seeing and knowing and loving Jesus through suffering (Philippians 3:10). Slowly, awkwardly, over time, our joy and hope and peace grow deep and wide because we are pressed into his presence, into his Love, and it ruins us for all other substitute comforts. 

Over the past several months our family has been hard pressed on every side, with cancer being only one of many stressors and heartaches. (Jeremiah Burroughs so aptly wrote, “It is very rarely that one affliction comes alone; commonly, afflictions are not single things, but they come one upon the neck of another.”***) Yesterday I was both sad and angry over the unrelenting hardships, and I felt weak, desperately needy—but I went to God again and again throughout the day and he spoke to my hurting heart and revealed his nearness and goodness for the millionth time.

So from one weak person to another, here is my strong encouragement, especially if you feel like today’s sufferings are far beyond your capacity: Keep going to God. Tell him everything you’re feeling, raw and unedited. He can take it. Pray through Psalm 40 or Isaiah 35 or Lamentations 3. Trust that he never belittles us for our kindergarten capacity to suffer (or for our struggle to get to the place where we can “consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds”). He never says, “Well, Susie could handle this so much better than you!” On the contrary, he is compassionate and tender and infinitely forbearing, happy to be with you and me right where we’re at today—and happy to continue his good work of making us more and more like his Son. 

~ ~ ~
As always, friends, thank you for your encouragement, generosity, kindness, prayers, and love. As I continue “going to God,” he smiles big and says, “Do you see who I’ve put around you to love you through this? You are not alone.” 

Thank you for being our friends, for loving all three of us so beautifully even in the midst of your own sufferings. We are forever grateful—

Colleen 

*C.H. Spurgeon. Beside Still Waters. 
**Robert Hawker. Piercing Heaven. Page 48.
***Jeremiah Burroughs. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. Page 15.