How would you handle physical suffering if it persisted for years? What would you learn? What would happen to your joy? Your prayers? Your faith?
These questions became deeply real to Connie Dever, wife of pastor and TGC Council member Mark Dever, when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in December 2013. That began a years-long journey with God that isn’t over—even now. The journey has taken her through multiple operations, radiation, hormone changes resulting in extreme body temperature and mood swings, back pain, and insomnia. A formerly healthy person able to “troubleshoot” physical problems and maintain control over her body, Connie suddenly found herself amid a trial that exposed a gap between what she believed and how she trusted God.
From 2014 to 2016, Connie kept a digital diary of her daily battle with the spiritual side of physical suffering. She recorded her thanks, over and over again, for God’s purpose. She begged for prayer from friends and readers. She copied excerpts of Scripture, classic hymns, and writers like Charles Spurgeon and C. S. Lewis, reflecting on how they were helping her get through each affliction.
Now these writings have been compiled in an excellent book, He Will Hold Me Fast: A Journey with Grace through Cancer (Christian Focus, 2017). I corresponded with Connie about the book, her first foray into print publishing.
Why did you start blogging about your cancer journey, and who did you have in mind when you were writing?
The answers to these questions are closely related. As I went through the tests, diagnosis, and surgery, it was quickly apparent I was really going to struggle with this trial. As it was my turn to be escorted from the shallow end of the pool (where I could safely touch bottom) to the 16-foot diving wall area, I was panicking. Others looked like synchronized swimmers as they encountered similar waters, calmly and gracefully keeping in step with the Spirit. But I was thrashing my arms and gasping for air. This wasn’t going to be pretty, as much as I would’ve liked it to be. Where was the beautiful “victory in Jesus” in my life?
But God, in great kindness, did give me the grace to trust his purposes were good. He wasn’t going to let me drown, but he definitely was going to give me a swimming lesson—a big one. I got the sense that perhaps there were others out there who might feel like I did. By sharing my honest weakness and failure, perhaps they’d be encouraged to see God’s sure rescue. So off went the “makeup” and online went the posts.
I also hoped others who didn’t yet know Jesus might see God’s goodness and strength and seek after him themselves. There were a number of beloved non-Christians following my posts; people for whom I’ve prayed for years. These posts allowed me to share on a level I rarely could in person. I hope God’s Word will not return void, as concerns them. I hope they respond like the disciples as they watch Jesus help me through my storms: “The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the sea obey him!’” (Matt. 8:27).
Lastly, I wrote because I needed the help of God’s people. When I asked them for prayer in my posts, people responded generously, and God answered powerfully. What a wonderful thing it is to be part of the body of Christ!
At times, your writing is reminiscent of one of the classic Christian memoirs. It was encouraging to hear you talk honestly about your feelings and then hear you preaching truth to yourself in the next breath. Did you have practice doing this during more ordinary trials?
I suppose I came out of the “spiritual womb” practicing. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” the saying goes. I became a Christian at a summer camp as a child. I went home with my Bible, my camp songbook, and a few other devotional goodies to keep me going. My family, though churchgoing, wasn’t a deliberate Christian family. The church we attended was very liberal; instead of classic lessons on biblical truths and the gospel, I learned concepts in Sunday school like JEPD text criticism. So I read my Bible and prayed on my own; I guess that started me digesting Bible truths and speaking them to myself, as best I could.
When I went to college, there was a fantastic, biblically grounded, passionate group of believers in the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on campus and a good, expositional-preaching church right off campus. Add to that the rich books, like Knowing God, coming out at that time (late ’70s/early ’80s). The combination of godly people in person and godly writers in print helped me watch others speak truth to themselves, and better learn to do so myself.
The parade of faithful witnesses has continued in the decades since those college days: good churches, godly Christians, and great books. God has encouraged me to not take trials at face value, but to keep returning to his Word. I’m reminded of his faithful promises to use every trial for our good and his glory and to find their true, eternal value there. I’m especially indebted to my husband, Mark, and the fellow members here at Capitol Hill Baptist Church for reminding me to view the events of each day through a gospel lens.
How have you seen the Lord working in your husband’s life through your cancer? What about your two adult children?
On your wedding day, you make huge vows to each other before God: “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death do us part.” They stand like a great slab of marble, and you carve your life out of that marble together. How you respond to each joy and blessing, each heartache and trial, reveals more of the testament of your lives, joined together, for all to see. It’s hard work, but it can be beautiful work. There will inevitably be slips of the chisel, but no matter how it goes, you’re making it together.
While Mark and I have both had plenty of chisel-slips that put ugly dents in the marble, I’m so blessed to have had such a wonderful partner over the past 35 years. And really, these last few years have been especially rich. I’ve loved watching how God has used them in Mark’s life.
Mark’s tenderness and compassion toward me have been so sweet. I think others would say the fruit of it shows up in his preaching and his counseling, too. His confidence in the Lord’s goodness in trials has only grown stronger these last few years. Mark’s “aggressive contentedness” (as he likes to call it) to be satisfied in God and happy with me as I am—whatever trials may bring or take away—has shone brighter. And his longing for heaven—when we set aside these trials to be with the Lord—is greater than ever.
Mark has lived out well the call to love me like Christ loves the church. He has made this trial so much more bearable than it could’ve been. There have been many aggravating aspects of my illness: dirty dishes yet again in the sink, coming home yet again to an anguished wife, having fewer ministry opportunities together in our home. But Mark has made it all a beautiful gift of his love to me.
As for the kids, they’ve been affected much as you’d expect. They’ve been supportive and concerned, kind and helpful. Sometimes they have secret powwows with Mark about how best to help me. Sometimes I have secret powwows with Mark about how best to help them. It’s never easy to go through something like this, especially when it’s your parent, spouse, or child involved.
We pray God will use this trial for good in our children’s lives. We hope that they’ll be encouraged to seek the Lord and find him trustworthy in their trials, just as he has been faithful to care for me through mine.
How are you doing now, physically? What’s the latest chapter in the cancer journey?
Life is still really rough. Sometimes people have this thyroid surgery and radiation, start taking their little hormone replacement pills, and call it a day. I’ve not been one of those. There have been many permanent changes, both physically and mentally. I still have suspicious growths in my neck that they’re monitoring for more cancer.
And unfortunately, this summer I was diagnosed with a rare disorder that occurs in only 0.5 percent of all people who have thyroid surgery. It’s called hypoparathyroidism. Parathyroids are four rice-grain-sized glands that sit near the thyroid and regulate calcium and phosphate in the body. Many people get temporary damage to these glands after neck surgery. My damage has turned out to be permanent, and it’s getting worse. It takes monitoring throughout the day (and night), sort of like diabetes.
I’m just beginning to learn how to manage this condition. Doctors say it can take quite a while to get under control. Since so many things affect your calcium levels and my parathyroids are “off duty,” I never know exactly what will trigger the next low-calcium event and how bad it will be. It makes me think twice every time I leave the house, even for a walk around the block or to weed the garden. At this point, even small things can trigger muscle spasms or heart palpitations, if I sweat too much and lose too much calcium. I’m being stretched to trust God even with the adventure of pulling dandelions. Who knew that day would come! Please pray for me! It should get better as I learn more.
You wrote in the introduction of He Will Hold Me Fast that you didn’t want to “waste a speck of this trial,” and that you wanted to “know God so intimately that I could laugh at the days ahead, looking to God’s bountiful resources instead of my puny ones to meet them.” What do you think God has done already through your cancer journey?
I’m so grateful people have been encouraged, both in my weakness and also in God’s faithfulness to carry me. I’m happy to think someone else might be helped by anything they’ve seen in my life. That’s been a wonderful way God has not let these sorrows be wasted.
And—as hard as it’s been for me to carry on through this trial (which is looking to be a lifetime event now)—God has been answering my prayers to not waste these sorrows in my soul, and doing it in his typical “pressed down and overflowing” way. He’s taught me I most assuredly do not have what it takes to cope with my trials on my own, and I was never meant to. He’s taught me to not be so scared when I see huge unknowns ahead. I’m not sure I’m doing much laughing about the days ahead yet, but there’s a growing, quiet confidence that runs deeper than ever. God has planned this journey, and he loves me. He’s doing more than I can know. And he is holding me fast, right in his everlasting arms.