Few understand cancer better than pastors. They regularly visit hospitals and counsel church members who suffer from this devastating illness. Cancer strikes nearly every family at some point. But for pastors caring for multiple families at all times, cancer is a never-ending fight. They watch beloved friends who formerly looked so healthy begin to whither away as they withstand bouts of chemotherapy treatments. In the worst cases, pastors are left to comfort the grieving family and conduct the funeral.
But who is left to comfort pastors when they get the dreaded diagnosis? Cancer doesn't exempt pastors, either, no matter how sizable their influence. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis announced in January 2006 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Then on Thanksgiving last month, rising young pastor Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Dallas suffered a seizure and hit his head. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where doctors eventually discovered a tumor in the frontal lobe of his brain. Surgeons removed the tumor on December 4, but the pathology report has not yet returned. Meanwhile, the rapidly growing church that draws about 6,000 each week waits anxiously to learn the diagnosis.
The spotlight turns on pastors in these cases because we're accustomed to them offering words of comfort and wisdom to the suffering. Perhaps we wonder if they will heed their own advice to trust God despite the circumstances. Maybe they will forsake what they have been telling the grieving all these years and forsake God. But good shepherds don't stop shepherding when danger threatens. That's when their work really begins. Both Piper and Chandler have modeled for their congregations how to turn the dreaded diagnosis into cause for thanksgiving, praise, and sanctification.
Chandler wrote shortly before his surgery that he felt "anxiety, fear, sadness and a deep and unmovable joy simultaneously and in deeper ways than I have felt before." In the aftermath of his Thanksgiving seizure, he expressed gratitude for a "heightened sense of things." Then he offered a list of 10 things for which he gives thanks. The list included health insurance, his friends on the pastoral staff, his wife Lauren, his three children, the doctors, and the people of Village Church. Chandler acknowledged the support from thousands who heard of his condition through the Internet. Their prayer and fasting "has brought far more tears to Lauren's and my eyes to receive this kind of attention from the Church universal than this tumor has."
Then in a widely distributed video recorded between the seizure and surgery, Chandler shared reflections on his career and future. Chandler has been preaching lately about the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, the moving description of leaders such as Samson, David, and Samuel who stopped the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight (Heb. 11:32-34).
"I'm 35 years old, and up until this point in my life, we've shut the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight and we've fought against injustice," Chandler said. "Nothing but good has come."
But Chandler observed how the passage's tone abruptly changes in 11:35. Some of these champions of faith were tortured. Some were sawn in two. Some were destitute. How did they still walk by faith? Chandler is learning, because God has now counted him worthy to suffer. If God should allow Chandler to preach from Hebrews 11 again, no one will ever wonder if he truly understands the implications of God's Word. Speaking as a "guy who could lose everything," Chandler promised that he would demonstrate through his suffering that God is enough, come what may.
"For those of you who keep living in fear and would try to use this as an excuse to continue in that fear, don't you dare use me as an excuse to continue in your lies," Chandler told his church. "My hope would be that you would see that he is good in all things, and he would never send any of us things he does not provide strength for."
Chandler's message resembles what Piper wrote in February 2006 when he urged Christians, "Don't Waste Your Cancer." Chandler explicitly credited Piper for teaching him to hold his life cheap as he trusts in a "strong view of God's sovereign will." Piper is no stranger to suffering, either. The implications of his theology hit home in a powerful new way after his cancer diagnosis. Yet Piper did not back off.
"It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but does not design it," Piper said. "What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design."
Piper urged Christians suffering from cancer not to look for comfort by calculating their odds. Invoking Psalm 20:7, Piper likened taking comfort in the percentages of survival to trusting in chariots, and weighing the side effects of treatment to counting horses. But as for Christians, they trust in the name of the Lord alone, even as they submit to treatment. This trust transcends even the worst cancer can bring.
"Cancer does not win if you die," Piper said. "It wins if you fail to cherish Christ. God's design is to wean you off the breast of the world and feast you on the sufficiency of Christ."
Cancer quickly reveals who and what we ultimately trust. It can bring life into eternal perspective, so long as we don't despair in our illness. If we feast on Christ, we will find our sins don't taste so rich any longer. Even well-known pastors must fight this battle. They might appear to have it all, but they actually have more cause for despair that we usually imagine. Thousands turn out to hear them speak in conferences. Thousands more buy their books. Megachurches sprout where they serve. But cancer threatens to end that influence. Of all people, they are tempted to think they are too important for God to take.
Yet God wants us to count all fear and pride as loss so we may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8). After all, the God we worship did not spare his own Son the suffering of the Cross (Rom. 8:32). And he did not spare his servant Paul the thorn in his flesh. Still, God's grace was sufficient for him, as it is for all who believe.
"For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10).
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today also wrote about Chandler's seizure on Liveblog.
Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site, including:
'All Israel Will Be Saved' | God's 'first love' awaits Jesus' second advent. (November 30, 2009)
Christ-Centered Cautions | How do we be good, be disciplined, and be like Jesus? (November 16, 2009)
A Violent, Vicious Cycle | Who will deliver us from despair and death? (November 2, 2009)
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