Do you ever wonder what God is up to? I do. I grew up in a predominately Christian community—lifelong weekly church attendance, Christian private schools, youth groups and mission trips, even my professional experience has only been in faith-based organizations. And because that’s all we’ve known, my husband and I also raised our family in this same system.
Then I was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, setting into motion a series of events that would cause me to question everything I was told to believe.
Standard Christian Encouragements
Cancer, like each of my other traumas before, was met with the standard encouragements from my community: “God only gives His hardest battles to His strongest soldiers” and “This is God’s plan” and “To suffer is to know Jesus so rejoice in your suffering.” I nodded along, trying to make sense of everything, engulfed in the system, and overwhelmed by the confronting of my own mortality.
The week prior to my bilateral mastectomy a friend had organized a prayer service for me and my family—100 some church-goers gathered around us while we sat in a little pew in a little chapel, their hands extended out toward us while a microphone was passed around. Many said things like “God, we implore Your favor on this faithful family” and “God, that Your Will would be a miracle and Amber would wake up cancer free and not need surgery” and “God, let it be so that her doctors would be so in awe of Your goodness because You healed her.” Nodding along, I expected my healing. I was faithful. I believed in the miracle. I wanted my doctors in awe of God’s goodness.
Waiting on a Miracle
But the next day came. No miracle. Then came the next day and the one after that. No miracle. And then came the day of surgery. And then came the surgery check in. And then came the surgery. And then nine hours later I woke up missing parts of my body. No miracle. And then bad became worse and worse became terrible.
The physical, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual price I’ve had to pay to stay alive is devastating.
From diagnosis, through active treatment, and here in survivorship, those trite cliches confuse my head and those earnest prayers rattle my heart. I wrestle and I struggle. For a long time I went to church every single week striving to understand what God was doing, what this plan of His was, hoping to earn favor. But all I got was more of the same. People laid hands on me and prayed earnest prayers for God’s will to be my healing. People came over to where I was sitting and held my arms up for me so I could “properly” worship. People reminded me that Jesus suffered the ultimate suffering and even He was able to rejoice.
Living in Slow Motion
I’ve also had a lot of time to think (recovering from 15 separate surgeries and 18 rounds of chemo and 29 radiation treatments and countless hours spent unable to sleep will do that). Cancer slows time down. It creates space to challenge the status quo, to converse with death and to confront the empty phrases that fall so easily off our tongues, to question why and to wonder, a lot, about God and the meaning of it all:
What is it to have faith? Is it really that God made me fight this battle to test me? Must I prove my resilience? Must I prove my worthiness? If everything happens for a reason, I must have some big lessons to learn. And clearly I haven’t been a very good student. Why do I have to be compared to Jesus? Is that even fair? What’s wrong with me that I feel such pain? Who is God anyway? Where is He really? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why must I endure suffering to prove my love for God? If God really can do whatever He wants because He’s all powerful, why didn’t He choose me for miraculous healing?
When taken in the context of life’s difficulties, these questions are justified. Maybe even you yourself have asked some of them in your own life story. It’s human to wonder, to try and reconcile pain and grief and loss.
And yet, I’ve been told by my faith leaders all my life, and here in cancer as well, that I’m not supposed to ask them and instead I’m supposed to “just have faith as small as a mustard seed”; that “even the smallest faith can move mountains”; that “with God, nothing is impossible.” Apparently all I have to do is believe better and pray harder.
In other words, I’m not worthy, God doesn’t have room for my questions because He just wants my compliance, God is offended by my confusion, and shame on me for asking because all it does is reflect my doubt.
It is here where the system fails. It presents a version of God that is small and inaccessible. It contradicts itself. And it perpetuates an undermining, stifling theology.
Relationship in Progress
This moment is a real piece of my spiritual journey, and my church-going habits have changed. Not because God doesn’t still have things to teach me, but because I need time to heal from the hurt I’ve experienced.
Some days I strive for answers by asking questions because I believe God is big enough and wants to hear them. Some days I rest in the peace that He’s simply a mystery and it’s okay that there is much I won’t know this side of heaven. Some days I’m angry, some days I’m sad, some days I’m grateful. Some days I’m triggered, and some I’m steady. Some days I read my Bible, and some I keep it shut. Some days I pray, and some I don’t. But every day I’m authentic, trusting that God wants me there rather than reciting rote phrases and pretending in a pew.
And thankfully, despite my church telling me He wouldn’t, God always meets me wherever and however I am.