I currently have two close friends in my life who are struggling with cancer. Even as I write those words, they seem so insufficient. Struggling with cancer. In the same way that I would say to someone that I am struggling with a cold. No, what is actually happening is they are engaged in a fight for their very life.
And I have no words. For those of you who know me well, that probably comes as quite a surprise. I am never at a loss for words. But when I think of my two friends, and what they are going through, it seems as if anything that I could say would sound like empty platitudes.
Both of my friends are mothers who still have young children in the house. One of them has been battling various forms of cancer for 17 years. Five of her eight children have had cancer at one point or another due to a shared genetic marker that both she and her husband have. My other friend was diagnosed much more recently with cancer, but it is in her brain, in her bones, in the very adrenal glands of her body.
And they are both wonderful people. Much better individuals than I am. And I am left without words, because what can you say about such senseless, meaningless suffering?
Except, that it’s not. Meaningless or senseless.
You see, our society has told us a lie and we have come to believe it. We have been told that suffering is meaningless, that it has no value. We have been told that it is merely something to endure. Something that you should try and put up with as best as you can and without complaint. And ultimately, if it is something that can’t be dealt with and wont go away, perhaps we should end the life of the individual who is suffering. Because that is the compassionate thing to do. Because suffering is meaningless and without value.
But the Christian perspective on suffering is far different than that of our societies.
“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”1
You see, the Christian response is to look suffering right in the face and greet it with a smile. Why? Perhaps in imitation of our master, “Who for the joy set before him endured the cross despising its shame.”2
This joy in the face of suffering? It’s who we are as a people. It is built into our very DNA. At a fundamental level we realize that out of the greatest evil the world ever saw came the greatest good. Unbelievable suffering had the effect of causing an unimaginable good. Truly there is great value in suffering – and as Christians we know it at our very core. Dr. Viktor E. Frankl once wrote, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” And he’s right. (As a side note I highly recommend his book Man’s Search for Meaning which highlights his personal experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and his own search for meaning within that environment)
Ironically (or perhaps not) one of my friends is named Joy, and it describes her perfectly. I’ve known her since I was a teenager and she is one of the most vivacious, joyful people I have ever met. Her love for God and for her family overflows into all that she does and says. She has lived her life full of love and joy, and as far as I can see nothing has changed since she received her diagnosis.
If I had to guess, I would say that this is probably because the joy that she possesses is not based on her circumstances.
My other friend Christine exemplifies the virtues of service and giving. She is constantly serving others whether it’s her friends and family, the elderly and mentally handicapped men whom she cares for, or other individuals in the church.
Her family has experienced what it is like to receive the love and support of others when they were going through some very difficult times. Make-A-Wish trips to Disneyland, thoughtful gifts for her children, and people who have taken care of them in their times of need, have taught Christine and her family a very simple lesson: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”3
It is a lesson which she has passed on faithfully to her children. They volunteer constantly, working with the homeless, helping with weddings and funerals at the Church, and weekly inviting others into their home to share their Faith with them – and a meal.
It is not my intent to put my friends on a pedestal. They are only human, and have their moments of doubt and despair the same as the rest of us. I guess what I am suggesting is that as Christians, such joy in the face of suffering shouldn’t be considered heroic – rather it should be something that we all strive for. Yes, even if the barista messes up your latte. I’ll be honest, I’m not there yet – but I deeply appreciate the example of my friends.
We are one body. “If one member suffers, all suffer together.”4 Because we are all part of one body, we share in their suffering.
But, it is also true to say that because we are all part of one body, they suffer for us. With St. Paul they can say, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,”5 In other words, their suffering can have value not only for them, but also for all of us who are joined together with them in one body – the body of Christ.
And, as a part of that body, I would like to say thank you to my dear friends. I would like to tell them that I understand that in some way what they endure is for us who are joined together in the same body; and that I am profoundly grateful. We suffer with you. We love you, and you are not alone.
I began this post by saying that my friends are in a battle for their very lives. And while that is true, the battle that they fight is not nearly as important as the overall war that we are all engaged in. Jesus tells us, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”6
The war that we all wage is a war for our very souls. And regardless of the outcome of these individual battles, I am pleased to announce that my friends – buoyed by the love of Christ – are winning the war!
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose…
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? …Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”7
Amen! Please keep my friends Christine and Joy in your prayers and please ask for the intercessions of the other Christians who fellowship with you. Thank you.
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