In the fall of 2018, I spent three days in one of the most uncomfortable countries I’ve ever visited. We were on the ground with a business-as-mission team led by a dear friend, a former businessman whose family walked away from their American dream to plant the church among one of the most unreached people groups on the globe.
There are few people I respect more in the world, and this trip was no different. This guy enjoys pushing me to the ends of my comfort level, a fact that became clearer than ever when I found myself seated on the floor of a thatched hut eating rice with my hands and the remains of a goat that had been alive just an hour or so earlier.
For three days, we saw his passion for these people who desperately need Jesus and talked strategy with his team for seeing the Church planted in this arid culture (both literally and spiritually). This was God’s work and these were God’s people. So along with the family, we were gutted to get the news just a week after our encounter that this godly, self-sacrificing missionary received a devastating cancer diagnosis.
I remember texting him when we first heard the news: “I don’t know how, but I truly believe God is going to use your suffering to see Jesus exalted among these unreached people you love so dearly.”
Two Years to Live
It sounded so spiritual and noble, and yet things just continued to deteriorate. After nearly a year of debilitating treatments, the cancer chose not to retreat, but instead, to aggressively spread to his lungs. It was time to soberly accept the news and get his affairs in order. He had less than two years to live.
Why would God take a family like this, a family that had given so much and was making such an impact, remove them from ministry, and allow them to suffer? Of course we believe God is sovereign, but these are the moments that seem so illogical and unfair. These people should be rewarded for their work, not punished with a death sentence. This isn’t how I would write the story, God. Are you sure you’ve got this right?
But as we look through scripture, we never see walking with God as a free pass from suffering. In fact, we see quite the opposite. I could start to list the stories and characters, but there’s just too many of them. Paul encouraged the church to endure in their difficulties. Jesus Himself promised suffering, and He modeled it all the way to the cross. The Biblical narrative is filled with the effects of sin on all creation, including God’s people.
God’s Presence In Suffering
Strangely enough, it’s not our escape from suffering but God’s presence in our suffering that resonates most with the outside world. I have a former Muslim friend, now a follower of Jesus, who lives here in Indy. He received some tough news a few weeks ago and shared this perspective with me in a text message:
“I was with my business partner when I received the bad news last Friday. He is still a Muslim. He told me that Muslims think that other Muslims leave Islam because Christians give them money. He said ‘I worked with you for a couple of years and I see you suffering like us and struggling just like us.’ I hate the hardship I’m going through, but his words encouraged me.”
People resonate with a faith that has real implications within this sin-broken world.
First Fruits of Resurrection
And yet occasionally, we get an early taste the first fruits of God’s coming Kingdom, where Jesus will reign, suffering will end, and all that’s dead will be gloriously resurrected. Last week, after months of grueling treatments aimed at extending his life as long as the ravaging cancer would allow, my friend shared the following update with all of us:
“From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!” –Psalm 113:3
Wednesday was my scheduled 3 month scan. This time it was a PET scan in order for them to look more closely at the cancer with contrast since I am allegoric to the CT contrast. All went well with the scan (except for them digging around for 20 mins to get a vain that would work for my IV). The waiting period from the scan until the results is always an anxious time mentally and emotionally but I choose to live in thankfulness for who He is in my life.
My appointment with my doctor for the results wasn’t until today at 12:30pm at MD Anderson downtown Houston, so I spent the morning online attending my [virtual] District Council while also getting recognized for being ordained this year. I literally went straight from being online, which kept me occupied mentally, to walking into my appointment.
I will spare you the details, but as I was waiting in the room for the Doctor I prayed for a NED result (No evidence of Disease). Well may the Lord be Praised because there is NO LONGER EVIDENCE OF ACTIVE CANCER IN MY BODY! And remember I was given only 2 years or less to live just 9 months ago.
What a weird feeling it was to get that news and to be by myself because of COVID. At this point I will still continue my immunotherapy treatments until I have a few more NED PET scan results and then we will go from there and determine what’s next. But this is a huge step in the right direction.
Thanks again for all of your prayers! May God use this in my life to Glorify Himself.”
I wiped tears from my eyes as I sat at my desk and remembered our text conversation from over a year earlier: “I don’t know how, but I truly believe God is going to use your suffering to see Jesus exalted among these unreached people you love so dearly.”
Amen Lord, let it be.
I’m rejoicing with my friend this week as he and his family transition from deathwatch back to the mission field where they’ve been willfully “dying to self” among the unreached of our world for over a decade.
In This World You Will Have Trouble, But Take Heart
Creation has been broken since Genesis chapter 3. Sometimes our suffering finds its redemption on this side of eternity, and sometimes we must endure and wait. But all death will eventually be swallowed up in the victorious completion of God’s Great Story:
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’”
Life in the Shadowlands
This week, I received news from a friend who was given a clean bill of health (no evidence of disease) after being told last year his cancer was terminal and he had less than two years to live.
This week, I attended the viewing for a friend who lost his 40-year-old wife to cancer.
This week, I listened to the heartache of a friend whose marriage appears to be all but over.
This week, I attended a beautiful wedding celebration for the son of some long-time, dear friends of the family.
Life in the shadowlands can feel schizophrenic at times. It’s filled with celebrations, loss, mourning, and miracles, sometimes all at once. One day Jesus will make all things new. Until then, we “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” And we glorify God in it all.