Cancer is the worst.
If you’ve never had it or known anyone suffering from this disease, know that everything you have ever heard about it is 100% true. The pain . . . the weakness . . . the wasting away . . . the helplessness . . .
And this doesn’t even take into account the treatments.
Chemotherapy is the equivalent of poisoning your entire body in the hopes that at least some of that bad stuff will eat away at some the other bad stuff eating away at your body. And this is pretty much the best that we can do.
Cancer is as bad as you have heard, but worse.
I myself am not sick, thank God. But like most of people, I have friends and family members who have come face-to-face with the big C. Some have won, some have lost, and some are currently living with it in some form or another.
My mother-in-law is one of these. For the past seven months she has been suffering with a particularly debilitating form of cancer that has sapped her of her strength and vitality. I have watched a vibrant woman turn into a skeleton that can barely muster the energy to stand up. My in-laws were supposed to move with my wife and my son and I after I got my new job last summer. Instead, this has been put on hold as we have moved in with them, focusing on keeping her alive and comfortable.
We are all just hoping and praying for the best. And as we do, it is impossible not to have that question in mind, the question that plagues everybody of faith from time to time in their lives: How can God let this happen? Why do bad things happen to good people?
It’s a fair question–and if you’ve never asked it yourself, I have my doubts–but it obscures the true nature of prayer and creation’s relationship with God. I can answer this misunderstanding in two sentences:
God is not your puppet. God is not your bitch.
Provocative, I know, especially in the context of the divine. But it got your attention, so I’ve done my job.
For people who are not religious, or who are nominally but haven’t studied the tenets of their own faith, the God-man relationship and the nature of prayer goes something like this:
- Man prays.
- God answers the prayer.
- By “answering a prayer,” it is meant “God grants the thing (usually for material or selfish gain) that he asks for.”
- When God does not do what man tells him to do, it means that God (a) doesn’t listen; (b) hates man, or (c) is just an asshole.
One and two are true, to a degree. Three and four? Not so much.
The misconception a lot of us have, me included, is that when God “listens” to us, He is changing His mind based on what we pray for, like ordering a pizza or something (“Hello, Big G’s Pizza? Yeah, I’d like some extra money on that.”). But this isn’t the nature of prayer, at least in the Christian tradition.
It sounds more like whining.
But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
We pray to worship and to supplicate God. Prayer is a means of communicating with the divine and standing in His presence. And while we do pray for answers to our questions, prayer is not an appeal to change God’s mind, but to understand it.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I’m a good [insert faith here]. Why doesn’t God listen?”
That is the wrong question. The right one is: “Am I listening?”
So with a dying family member, what’s the point of praying? It seems so silly, right? Couldn’t He just touch her sickness with His mighty finger and blast it into nothingness?
Of course he could. But in addition to not being a puppet, God is also not a puppet master.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
You might think that this all sounds like b.s. That’s fine. I’m not writing this to convince or convert anyone. I’m writing it as a way to explain something about Christianity and how it applies to the lives of a lot of believers. This is America and you have the freedom to believe or not as you see fit, and I support this right to the death. I’m just trying to clear up a common misunderstanding about what prayer is.
So my mother-in-law still has cancer. Why bother? Why do I still pray to a God that seems to refuse to cure her?
This is an excellent question. And if you are a Christian and you don’t wrestle with this throughout your life, you’re probably lying.
Here is my answer:
- First, prayer helps me understand God’s will, the meaning of life, salvation, and eternity–the why.
- Second, it helps to ask God to take care of her in her suffering, even though I know that He already is–the what.
- Third, it helps me feel closer to God, or as close as we can ever get in this world–the communication.
- Lastly, it helps me not to despair.
Despair is another kind of cancer. Despair is cancer of the soul.
Cancer is a monster, a beast, the Emperor of All Maladies. Like the meaning of life, cancer is something that humanity may never fully understand.
God is the same way. We all have our traditions. Christians and Jews know about Him through His revealed Word through the prophets. Christians also come to know God through Christ his son. Islamic tradition holds that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. The Vedas chronicle Hindu religious belief and tradition. You get the idea.
But beyond the sacred text or tradition of your choice, we’re on our own. Hence prayer.
In her distress, when my mother-in-law prays I know she has the same questions and gets the same feelings too. The worry. The doubt. But she is at a strange peace with things; while I know she is not happy about the way things have happened, she maybe understands them better, in a way that my wife and I do not yet. More importantly, I think my mother-in-law knows that death is not the end of all things. She, like all of us, is trying to learn what this thing we call life is all about. If her suffering brings her close to the truth, then that is the one good thing I can say about her cancer.
For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
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