Cancer, COVID-19 and the fear of God

It has taken me decades to learn the meaning of  “fear God or fear everything else.”  Here is my story.

In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, the majority of Americans finally turned against the Vietnam War, Disney World opened in Orlando, James Taylor and Janis Joplin were at the top of the charts, and I was looking for peace of mind.

At the spontaneous invite of a college acquaintance I joined a bible study. After listening and reading for several weeks, I began to believe, or so I thought, I was finally exposed to the “real Gospel.” I was told Jesus wanted to be my buddy and cheerleader; a celestial presence that would give me peace and lead me on paths of success and happiness!

Fearing the Lord, a common refrain in the scriptures, was tamed by well-meaning Christian encouragers. No need to fear God, just trust that Jesus died for my sins and then enjoy an “all good, cleared for heaven status.” Discipleship, as in learning how to live like Jesus, sounded nice but it also sounded optional and too radical. I thought I was okay with that, but guilty and confusing feelings persisted as I tried to walk the fence between my youth culture and the Christian life. Little did I realize that “fear of the Lord” was wedded to love and comfort from God. I was trying on the new clothes of a Christian commitment and not finding them very comfortable and certainly not stylish. It was grueling. Anxiety and insecurity abounded but I stubbornly persisted towards this dead end; always hoping I would get a thumbs up from Jesus for labeling myself as a Christian. Jesus would understand a young woman just wanting to be, well, cool and culturally relevant while still loving Him or so I wanted to believe. I suspected that I was eventually going to give up this fling; the cognitive dissonance was driving me nuts. My secular friends were also waiting for the penny to drop and figured it would be just a matter of time before I was brought back to my secular senses.

Slide2Before writing further, let me be clear. I had no question that I was accepted by God. I had peace with God through Christ’s sacrifice, not through any action or behavior on my part. But I did not have peace of mind.

Living a double life was becoming too stressful. I finally cried uncle. I embarked on a good old-fashioned biblical activity. I began to REPENT of my double mindedness in order to learn how to live the way Jesus wanted me to.

First, I realized that I had to circle back around to the fear of God. It wasn’t easy. I circled with trepidation; the skittish movements of a timid animal trying to get close to a compelling fierce presence that was simultaneously good and terrifying. For much of my youth fear was the compass that directed my ways and thoughts. It had worked until it didn’t!

Dale Bruner, commenting on one of the most ominous but, paradoxically, comforting sayings of Jesus (Matthew 10:26-31), concluded, “And blessedly, the one who fears God is liberated from fear of people – no little liberation…..Fear God or fear everything!” 1

Again, clear explanations are needed. We are not to be scared of God. Fear of God is not the fear a servant has for a harsh master. It is more akin to the love, reverence, awe, and, yes, fear a child might have for a loving, wise parent who has expectations of the child for her own good. Like the loving parent, nothing can separate us from his love. He will never leave or forsake us. (Romans 8:38-39; Hebrews 13:5)

As I approached the center of that terrifyingAs it turned out, as I approached the center of that terrifying, fearful, holy presence that I began to experience a beautiful, flourishing life. I experienced a power to not just want to be good but a liberation that made it possible for goodness, wisdom, love and community to begin to be part of my nature without the white knuckling attempts to be good. My deepest needs were finding the source and power to become a learner of Christ and I was being renewed and refreshed; not overnight but the trajectory was set. I had purpose and purpose that finally brought the peace.

Here I am, 47 years later with metastatic breast cancer, a compromised immune system, and a lung inflammation (side effect of cancer drug). As it turns out, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I never been more grateful for embracing the fear of God. There is an ultimate authority who reminds me of who is in charge and why and for whom I exist.

What is the Fear of God?
Psalm 34 is helpful here.

Seeking the Lord,
Embracing that God is in charge, not me or any other person, institution, or government,
Recognizing that he is the center of the universe, not me,
• Gladly accepting that He is the boss of my life, not me, and finally,
Operating as a mortal destined for immortality because of the will of the one “who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Many of you will have your own descriptors for a healthy fear of the Lord. The bottom line is that the ‘Fear of the Lord’ is a good and needful truth that grounds and encourages us in this chaotic world.

 

1. Bruner, F.D. 2004. Matthew, A Commentary, Vol 1: The Christbook. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 483 pp.

Name Your Tumor

Being known by name is significant and a comfort in the midst of difficulty.

Naming tumors is a real thing. And I don’t mean naming the specific type of cancer. No, these are pet names. Arnold, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, and disliked politicians are common tags assigned by cancer patients. Most people report that naming their tumor is an empowering exercise allowing them to wrestle back a little control from a bully.

Unfortunately for me, I would need a baby naming book in order to find names for all the little tumors that are floating around. Fortunately, I’m not attracted to the name-your-tumor game but I’m not judging those who are. Whatever helps cancer patients not feel so helpless is probably a good thing.

But I’m intrigued by the need to name a thing or person.  Assigning names, being referred to by names, labeling objects by names, Hello_my_name_is_sticker.svgand finding meaning in names fosters connection and intimacy to each other, our environment, and, apparently, our diseases. The importance of naming is found in both Testaments. Being named, having a name carries spiritual significance. God revealed his name to Moses.  Jesus was named Immanuel, ‘God with us.”  Both Peter and Paul were renamed by Jesus.

When I was first married, I complained to my husband that I wanted to hear my name spoken by him more often. Hearing my name by my beloved made me feel special to him and more connected. It capped off the special relationship we shared. No doubt he was initially perplexed by this marital complaint but happy to accommodate.

The following verses in the gospel of John at Christ’s resurrection are exceedingly meaningful and tender to me (emphasis mine):

John 20:15-16
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means ‘Teacher’).

Imagine her relief, her love, her comfort to hear her name spoken by the Lord at such a time.  It’s an image that carries me through this harrowing medical ordeal. Imagining the Lord of the universe saying,

Dona, I’m here with you.”
Dona, I’ve got this, don’t be afraid.”
Dona, you will be with me forever.”

I don’t feel a need to name a tumor or tumors to feel more empowered or in control. He knows and calls me by my name. That is enough. That is everything.

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.