I knock on the door expectantly. My friend Debbie greets me in sweatpants that hang loosely on her diminishing frame. Her face is slightly paler than the last time I saw her, and soft peach fuzz graces the top of her head.
She is the most beautiful woman I know.
I hug her tightly, not wanting to let go, wanting somehow to freeze this moment in time. The cancer that began in her breast continues to spread throughout the rest of her body. She has more tumors than the doctors can count, rapidly overtaking her brain. Daily she faces agonizing stomach pains and discomfort. In the midst of the physical pain is the emotional heartache of saying goodbye to her husband and two young children.
Deep waves of suffering have come to my sweet friend, whose faith is still so fresh and new. Her journey with cancer four years ago was the beginning of her journey to faith. Debbie describes God's work in her life:
I was struggling with my faith in Christ for several years before my diagnosis. I prayed to have the faith of a little child again, I read, I researched, and I tried to make myself believe. The problem is that you cannot make yourself believe in Christ. It is purely a gift, and God gave me that gift with my first cancer diagnosis in December 2008, and the following chemotherapy treatments and radiation through 2009. Then, in July 2010, during my battle with my first brain tumor and first set of partial brain radiation treatments, he spoke to me, told me that I was his, and filled me with the Holy Spirit. I learned more about finding true joy and contentment in all circumstances, and I gained new spiritual gifts as he continued to work to transform me. In November 2011, with the diagnosis of a second brain tumor, followed by two brain surgeries and a second round of partial brain radiation treatments, along with surgery to remove a tumor in my lung, he taught me yet more dependence on him. But still this wouldn't be enough to bring me to where my soul needed to be. This past April, I got the diagnosis of four more brain tumors, now on the left side of my brain, followed by 12 whole-brain radiation treatments. It took this last battle to completely humble me, to make me understand my complete dependence on God. I finally feel like I'm on the road to the daily conversational relationship with my heavenly Father that I've always strongly desired and envied in the few people I've seen who truly have it. It's been worth every day I have suffered. God has been weaving a story in my life. When I thought he was refusing to answer my prayers and refusing to show himself to me, he was just standing on the edges, but never gone. He knew the full picture. He cares about my soul.
Debbie was a seeker when she came to our outreach Bible study four years ago. Now, through her example, she is teaching all of us the beauty of faithful suffering. In the midst of losing hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows, she glows with indescribable radiance. The dark depths of her affliction make her faith shine all the more clearly. She believes her suffering has value because she treasures the growth it brings to her spiritual life. She knows her soul will live, even if her body fails.
Her four-year-old faith puts my 25-year-old faith to shame.
Her example reminds me that I am called to suffer well while walking in the brokenness this world presents. I am not to succumb to the despair I often feel. I am to faithfully accept the difficult circumstances the Lord weaves into my story. I am to value my soul's health more than earthly comforts. My greatest hope should be for God's glory, not my ease.
No Denying Reality
In this struggle Debbie has fought cancer with every ounce of her being. She wants to live and see her children grow up. She wants to be able to tell others about Jesus. She has honestly shared her struggles and the pain she experiences. On this road, there have been dark days of affliction when God seems distant and the fear of greater suffering is paralyzing. Together we have prayed, wept, grieved, and asked hard questions. For Debbie, suffering well has not been a denial of reality. It has been an embracing of a deeper reality. She knows that all things must be working for her good. Embracing God's Word has been a healing balm for her soul; an active experience of the truth found in Psalm 119:50: “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.”
Just before his death, Jesus told his disciples, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We are promised trouble in this life. Why, then, are we so often surprised by it? Why do we seek our peace in circumstances rather than in Christ? Even if physical healing comes tomorrow for Debbie, death will eventually come. It comes to each of us. All that matters is knowing Jesus. Some lives are dead long before they die. In facing death, Debbie gives life to others by witnessing to the hope found in Christ alone.
Does it matter how we walk in the face of suffering? The Bible makes unapologetic claims about how we should face suffering: “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:13). Allowing us to experience the brokenness of this world keeps us thirsty for the next. The reality of death forces us to consider carefully how we live. Only by believing that a better home awaits can we experience any sort of light in this land of shadows.
Debbie would not choose her situation. She has, however, chosen how to live in it. She lives as a servant of God.
Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Cor. 6:4-10)
There is no more beautiful way to live.