When you get a cancer diagnosis, or face an operating room, your emotions can go wild. Most of the time I can act pretty stoic about my situation in public, but I haven't always been as brave and confident as I should be, knowing Biblical theology about salvation, sanctification, and grace. One of the curve balls Satan tries to throw at you is the guilt trip. "God is punishing you for your sins," he whispers. Even though I know that my sins are under the blood of Christ, and there is no one, not even among the finest Christ followers, who never sins, that guilt trip can try to snag you, especially when the devil quotes Scripture to make his point. He reminds me that God judges even Christ followers with sickness and death, as I Corinthians 11:29-31 teaches. Then there's the "sin unto death" John warned about in I John 5:16-17. Like JPL's lawyers, Satan is really good at hunting and pecking for evidence to use against me.
Intellectually, I can tell him, "Begone, Satan! My sins are under the blood of Christ." I can also point to Christ followers far more saintly than me who also got cancer. Scientifically I know that cancer is common and afflicts people of all ages and backgrounds; God is not picking them out to judge them with cancer, is he? But when I was having a particularly hard time with this mental battle some weeks ago, shortly after the diagnosis before many people knew, I asked the Lord for some sign that this cancer was not punishment for my sins. It was a Saturday night and I went to bed with that hope.
Next morning I walked into the church lobby, a few minutes late after the service had begun. In the lobby are screens where the words for the congregational singing are projected. The choir director was leading the audience in the familiar hymn, "How Firm a Foundation." At the exact moment I entered, I heard the music and saw these words on the screen:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flames will not hurt Thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
I stood there, amazed at the timing! I followed as they sang the third verse:
When through the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my gracious omnipotent hand.
Tears started flowing as I walked quietly up to the balcony, as the words I knew by heart continued to echo through the halls:
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!
I took a seat against the far right wall, trying to hide my tears—tears of relief and comfort that this hymn, such a perfect answer to prayer, was the first thing to greet me. But that wasn't the only sign of God's comfort that morning. The next congregational hymn was "It Is Well With My Soul." I could hardly sing, so I just listened and sang it in my heart.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Good old usher Bob could not help noticing my sniffling. He came over and asked with a smile, "Everything all right?" I forced a smile and we smacked fists.
The Lord must have wanted to make sure I was not going to fall for Satan's guilt trip. It "just so happened" that the pastor's series on I Peter landed on chapter 1, verses 6 to 9:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Comforted by this rapid-fire series of answers to my prayer, I remember the pastor quoting Psalm 23 with a comment; "The fact that you walk through the valley of the shadow of death does not necessarily mean you will leave it; just that He will be with you."
The Lord came through that morning for me with the assurance I needed, and He has continued to bless me with encouragement from friends far and wide. Just last night, for instance, I lady I had not seen for some time walked up to me during a break in a meeting and went on and on about how much I had blessed her life and influenced many others. I was reluctant to tell her about the cancer, but when she sensed "something else was going on," I told her. She stopped and prayed fervently for me right then and there, asking for healing. And tonight, my sister's family held a rich, sincere round of prayer for me.
I could tell more about God's comfort during this my new trial, but it's time to sleep and get ready for the hospital tomorrow. I hope you will take heart at how God met me when I really needed hope. When you face your next trial, and intellectual knowledge alone is not enough, will you lay it before the Lord and ask Him for guidance? God is eager and willing to give wisdom to those who lack it, and ask without doubting (James 1:2-5). You may not get an answer from an angel at the foot of your bed, but God has other "angels" (other believers) He can bring alongside you to pray for and encourage you. Trust Him and see His perfect timing!
O, what peace we often forfeit,
O, what needless pain we bear;
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
--Joseph Scriven, a man who knew a lot about trials
(see his story in the video Amazing Grace: Hymns That Changed the World).
Footnote: Tonight I ended a several-year chronological Bible study using the English Standard Version and Greek. "It just so happened" that tonight's final text was Revelation 22: No more sorrow, no more tears, no more pain; the curse is gone, and the river of life flows by the tree of life. Yes, come Lord Jesus!