Lessons from My Cancer-Induced Quarantine

Here’s what I learned during my year-long, cancer-induced quarantine a few years back. Even if you’re one of those cross-stiched Christians who believes that God is either a co-pilot or, like State Farm, he’s always there, here’s what I guarantee will happen after you’ve been shut off from the touch of the world and are exhausted from the worry that the smallest of neighborly gestures will mean the death of you.

You’re going to get pissed off.

You’re going to complain.

And you’re going to wonder whether or not the Almighty should be let go for his poor job performance.

There’s nothing at all wrong with griping to God; in fact, there may be no better illustration of biblical faith than that of a fist shaking at the underperforming Almighty.

Israel’s language of faith most often spills this far more disorienting confession: our lives are exactly how they feel, out of control, because—follow the dot, dot, dot of Israel’s faith logic—God is not in control. Or God is not in control in the way we’d counted on. For Israel, the result of such recognition rides the roller-coaster from anger to despair to betrayal. Laments. Complaints. Prayers that sound more like divorce decrees than love letters. Of course, it’s not all bad news. A God at whom you’re royally POed is not yet a God you don’t believe in.

Christianity is riddled with paradoxes—the eternal made flesh, the virgin bearing a son, the dead risen. When I went through my year-long cancer-induced quarrantine, I discovered how my faith had never so closely matched the faith I find displayed in scripture as it did in those difficult months.

More and more, in my complaints I recognized myself in the Bible’s psalms. My anger was more in tune with their music than the dull, accommodating, permission-seeking faith I’d held before my rage. If you’d tried to feed me some platitude about how this was one of the goods God was bringing out of ill (Genesis 50:20), that God was using cancer to deepen my faith, then, chances are, I would’ve punched you in the teeth. Still, it was a happening worth pondering. I was, after all, as the nurse- practitioner pointed out, a “priest,” and our skills beyond such pondering are precious few.

So here’s the go I made of it.

If so much of the Bible’s faith takes the form of complaint, then do we, who rarely address God plainly from the bowels of our pain, preferring instead the niceties of praise and petition, commit something like unbelief?

Confessionals notwithstanding (or maybe confessionals in particular), church can be the one place where we’re the least forthcoming with our actual feelings. But as I read the psalms, I wondered, Is protecting God from the indiscretions of our hearts and tongues a graver indiscretion? Have we all colluded in implying that an ungriping attitude is a corollary to amazing grace? Rarely are we so bald as to accuse God of what the Bible routinely accuses God: infidelity.

And once I got to pondering, I became curious about whether our reticence is itself a kind of infidelity. Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because—we think—God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?

Whereas the book of Psalms is rife with dirty words and blistered emotions and impolite petitions, we most often operate as though the opposite of the familiar prayer is the case. God is the one from whom every secret may be hidden and, more so than anyone else, before whom no heart should be fully known. Which is the greater slander? Submitting to God everything of yourself, even your dirty words and ungracious anger, or submitting to God someone other than yourself? Did Job discover that those of us who refuse to curse God and die, for piety’s sake, are in some sense—maybe the most important sense—already dead?

Not only does our buttoned-up language with God hide our true selves from God, it masks the real God, too. We effectively put words into God’s mouth when we so selectively emphasize those few happy providential verses (“All things work together for good for those who love God”) to the near exclusion of the preponderance of psalms that testify that s@#$ happens and that God can often seem like an absentee almighty. Hiding our pain and anger from God, we often promise more than the Bible itself does—and I’m a preacher, remember, which makes me guiltier than most.

Thinking on my anger at God in the bad times of my cancer quarantine, and reading the Psalms with eyes that never really dried, I arrived at something like a thesis statement: You only get a Bible like ours when you do not feel the need to get God off the hook. God’s people could’ve cobbled together a far different canon. In fact, if they had, it would sell better.

You don’t get a Bible like ours when you think you need to protect God from our naked emotions and most blistering of words. If you think God must be exonerated from our suffering or stood up for in the face of attack and indictments, you do not end up with a Bible like ours.

Priest that I am, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note the irony that the Psalms’ laments that God is MIA from our shit-happening lives are directed nevertheless to God. It’s not so much that the psalms contend unequivocally that God is not in control of our lives, but rather the psalms are reticent to say how God is in control, and by placing them within the canon, God’s people train us to be so uncertain.

It’s a reluctance, I’ve come to believe, that requires something closer to faith than dogmatism. Faith—that is, wait-and-see trust. Of course, to feel enraged and uncertain also makes faith like an act of protest against the not-yet way of God’s world. As Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I first cut my teeth, said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” We pray to protest the disorder of the world, and our biggest protest is to (against?) God, who made the world and who, in Jesus Christ, promised to redeem it.

When my son, Gabriel, and I left the oncologist’s office one day, we walked past a little girl, smaller than Gabriel, sitting in the waiting room. Her eyes looked bright in spite of her sallow complexion. She had only a few long strands of black hair left on her head, tied back nonetheless into a ponytail. She was pretending to read a flier, from a stack on the desk, advertising an upcoming 5K for cancer.

Gabriel’s hand was in mine, so I didn’t clasp my hands in prayer, but I did mutter a word of protest: “God damn you, God.” Only a God whose power is suffering love could appreciate the irony: faith that looks to any outsider like doubt, despair, or sometimes even rage. Perhaps this is why Jesus, before we kill him, gives us not a cross-stitched slogan about God being in control or everything happening for a reason or everything working out for good or how God won’t give you more than you can handle. He gives us bread and wine—his body and blood, broken and poured out.

God, forsaken by God. Tangible reminders that whatever else we have to lament, come what may, our pain is forever joined to his. Or in the words of novelist Peter De Vries, himself no stranger to lament, having lost his daughter to leukemia: “The only alternative to the muzzle of a shotgun is the foot of the cross.”

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