Bad News is Important
by Dr. Larry Crabb
God’s hand seemed evident in the timing of Dr. DePaulo’s phone call. Evan and I were enjoying one of our semi-regular lunches together when my cell phone rang. My doctor’s name appeared on the screen.
Four days earlier, a medical tech had drawn blood to check levels of a substance that in healthy people falls below 100. Anything approaching 400 could indicate that the cancer a surgeon had removed 13 years earlier was back. At the same time, a nuclear MRI picture of my stomach had been taken to see if there were any signs of the tumor’s re-appearance.
Retreating to a quiet hallway, I answered the phone. “Larry, this is Dave DePaulo. Your tests just came back and I’m sorry to have to tell you this but your blood level is 364. And the MRI shows that although it’s still very small, the tumor has returned. Let’s schedule a time to discuss what needs to be done.”
I stood for a moment then returned to the lunch table and, visibly shaken, told Evan the news, bad news. He reached across the table, rested his hand on mine and asked, “What’s happening in you right now?”
His question focused me on something deeper than my fear. “One word seems alive in me at this moment,” I slowly replied, “The word is important.” Why that word occurred to me then I didn’t know. That it occurred to me was clear. It was a Holy Spirit moment.
As I write these words, there is no evidence of further growth. The numbers have dropped. I’m told that the kind of cancer that is lodged somewhere near my stomach is typically slow growing and rarely spreads. My doctor has me on a let’s-keep-our-eye-on-it program. Best case scenario? I’m now 66 years old. I’ll need surgery when I’m 90. Worst case? Uncertain.
Two questions that I’ve been asking for decades have now taken on fresh urgency. The first is, God, what are You doing? You have unlimited power. What are You doing with it? The second, God, what is my hope? I know You’re good. Exactly what is it that You’re good for?
I have no doubt that God has the power to get rid of my cancer. I have doubts that He will. The age-old theodicy question roars into my mind. “God, if You’re powerful and good, why wouldn’t You relieve all suffering, including mine? Nothing more than a snap of Your fingers is required to surprise the doctors and give me a clean bill of health. Wouldn’t that bring You glory? On the face of it, continued suffering must mean You’re either good but weak, or powerful but not so good.”
I believe neither. When my brother was killed in a plane crash, I remember Dad telling me, “We must see everything that happens in the light of the cross”. My father’s mentor, a man then in his late 90’s, had earlier written to dad, his grieving mentee, “You can always trust the Man who died for you”.
I can’t help but ask, “Trust Him to do what? What is He doing now? What will He do tomorrow, in this life, for me? God, what are you committed to doing with all Your power?” The answer is as easy to say as it is difficult to live. God is working through everything, good and bad, to put me in touch with the new life He’s already put within me that nothing can destroy, the new relational life that gives me the power to relate in a new way. All Christians are “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1: 4), the same nature that revealed divine live in human relating, in Jesus; that same nature that can now reveal divine life in how I relate.
I am now living with medical uncertainty. I’d prefer to live without it. But James tells me to “count it all joy” when trials come” (James 1: 2). Why would I do that? How can I do that? Uncertainty that threatens to take away a lot of what I want in this life has a way of focusing me on what I want most, on what life on the narrow road to becoming like Jesus is all about. That’s what I signed up for when I became a Christian, to become a “little Christ”. Or better put, that’s what God signed me up for when His Spirit gave me new life.
Spiritual formation, becoming fully alive for God’s glory, means relating to God and others like Jesus, in any circumstance. God is right now using His power to do the impossible, to enable this self-centered man to relate in a way that reveals divine life to others and releases divine love into others, even when I’m sick, broke, jealous, betrayed, criticized, or rejected.
I have miles to go. Sometimes I wonder if I’m changing at all. It’s then when Paul’s words keep me trusting: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely”. That means He’s working to make me relationally holy, just like Jesus. Paul anticipates my doubts when he adds, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (I Thessalonians 5: 23, 24, emphasis added).
That answers the first question, God, what are You doing? Now for the second, God, what is my hope? The answer to question two piggybacks on the answer to question one.
John Calvin helped me think through the answer. He wrote that the “common miseries of mankind” are in fact “a blessing from God”. Why, John? I don’t like having cancer. It might hurt. And it is scary. Calvin goes on: the miseries of life are to be welcomed, though not in themselves enjoyed, because we are all “too much taken up with the present life”; we need to be anchored through every storm in the hope of the “blessed resurrection”.
He made the same point another way. Listen.
“If the hope of resurrection is taken away, then the foundation (as it were) being rooted up, the whole structure of piety” (i.e. relational holiness) “falls to the ground. Unquestionably, if the hope of reward is taken away and extinguished, clarity in running” (i.e. relating well) “will not merely grow cold, but will be altogether destroyed.”
I say it this way: eliminate my hope of heaven, and let’s eat, drink, and be merry, now. Why? Because there’s no tomorrow that justifies sacrificing whatever I can get today.
The uncertainty that’s never far from my consciousness is redemptive. It wakes me up to realize that my hope is not the good life of all the blessings I want now. My hope is not focused on the prospect of enjoying any of those legitimately desired and enjoyable blessings. My hope anticipates every conceivable blessing with no competing trials, forever, with God. My hope centers on the “with God” part: perfect relationship with Him, an eternity of being stunned by who He is, what’s He’s done, and His display of Himself, to an eternally healthy me.
For now, in this life, my hope is that I’m being spiritually formed. Uncertainty of any kind, whether uncertain health, an uncertain marriage, uncertain hopes for children, uncertain employment, although it feels random and pointless, helps me see and value what God is doing now – forming me to relate like Jesus to reveal God’ glory. That’s what God is doing, now, and the more I willingly embrace what He’s doing now, while still not enjoying it, the more I am anchored in the hope of what He will yet do when Jesus returns and the party begins.
It’s making sense now why bad news brought the word important to my mind. The answers to my two questions seem clearer and mean more. I’d prefer to be able to answer well these two questions as a healthy man, but what amounts to a little suffering now (in comparison to what lies ahead) is helping me to focus my mind on truth and discover my heart for God. And that’s good!