I can’t help but love my doctor. Any man who commits himself to serving those suffering from cancer probably has a large heart himself. He was a gracious help to my wife a few years ago, and he was a help to me today. I have had two treatments of chemotherapy to date, and the second one about did me in. Well, the irony about it did me in. You see, the way chemotherapy works is this: It’s a form of slow death. The chemicals that are sent into your body are sent on a death mission. They hunt down fast dividing cells, and kill them. Cancer cells are fast dividing cells. That’s why it works. Hair cells are likewise fast dividing cells. That’s why hair-loss is a side effect. One of the chemicals they put in me a few days ago caused agonizing pain in my veins on my right arm. It was awful. And so, right now the veins in my right arm are trying to heal from that treatment. Can you see the irony coming? Places where healing is taking place are places with fast dividing cells. The chemo, as it came in, damaged my arm. Now as my arm fights back, the chemo comes once more to damage my arm. As I met with my doctor and described my pain, I gave him a way out. “It’s alright,” I said, “if your answer is, ‘Well, R.C., that’s what chemo does to you.’” “No,” he replied, “I’d never give you an answer that hopeless.”
My cancer is eminently curable. From the time I was diagnosed, I knew enough already to know that the odds were well in my favor. I don’t go to bed at night worrying whether I will wake up the next morning. My problem is a smaller one — being cured is easy. Getting cured is a bear. Which is rather much like what we all go through in our lifetime cure.
Think about the different ways we give the answer to the problem of our sin. We are promised that we will grow in sanctification. We are encouraged to walk in the Spirit. We are told we ought to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. We are assured by the resurrection of Christ that we will follow Him, that we will be glorified. All of that sounds much more pleasant, does it not, than “mortifying the flesh.” The first list looks like life. The last one sounds like death. Worse still, it feels like death. Like chemotherapy patients, we are putting to death all that is deadly within us.
I am buffeting my body, for the sake of my body. When it comes to my sanctification, cancer likewise buffets my soul, for the sake of my soul. This, of course, is why James encourages us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:2–4). It is pain, because God is at work.
Like many Christians, it had been my brief hope that the hardships that befell this country September 11, 2001, might be an impetus for a season of corporate growth. If God sends His children hardship to help them put to death their sins, might He not do the same for us corporately? Could we not behold the judgment of God, and respond appropriately with repentance? Could the dust that billowed through the concrete caverns of Manhattan not presage spreading revival, the dust of life?
Like many Christians, that brief hope faded quickly. Corporately speaking we became emboldened in our idolatry, bowing before the safe and secular “To Whom It May Concern” god of political correctness. We clung that much more tightly to kings and princes as the source of our protection. Our leaders actually called on us to worship still more the god of consumerism, lest our enemies, we were told, score a great victory.
Now, five years later, that hope begins to come back. Not much has changed, except I may have gotten a touch wiser. As my doctor poked and prodded me this morning, he did not raise his hands in victory and do an end-zone dance. Instead he told me, “I’m glad I couldn’t feel the node under your arm. That’s a good sign.” It was a tiny little victory. It is a bigger victory when we learn to see little victories as victories. We grow discouraged, both individually and corporately, because progress is slow, because mortification is a process, because that process often happens under our skin, where it is hard to see. But our God reigns.
It’s an ugly world out there, just as it is an ugly world in here. Sin besets me, and sin besets us. But there’s a reason why it hurts when we try to cut sin away. It’s because we’re still alive. While Jesus is putting to death the sin that still haunts us, He is raising to life the new us. We are putting ourselves to death, so that we might live in Him.
During the trials of life, we would do well to recall the words from the great hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”: “In ev’ry condition — in sickness, in health, in poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth; at home or abroad, on the land, on the sea, as days may demand, shall thy strength ever be. Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God, I will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand. …When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply…I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”