In November of 2018, destructive wildfires tore through southern California. The same month, eight years after my first battle with cancer, I found myself in the boxing ring with the disease again.
The spring after the fires I frequently drove on the 101 freeway, going back and forth to various medical appointments. I was awestruck as spring-green grass grew like a lush carpet over the blackened hills. The vivid sight reminded me of renewal and resurrection, even in the aftermath of tragic fires. The metaphor is not lost on me, for those lovely green slopes lining the 101 reflected the story of how God brings “beauty out of ashes” (Isaiah 61:3).
In the same way, God has done beautiful things through my cancer journey. Yes, the vibrant green hills, like the mountains of Psalm 121, tell me where my resurrection-help comes from.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
As I faced cancer for a second time, God gave me fresh opportunities to discover his beauty, power, presence, and love like never before. I’d like to share some of these discoveries in hope that they might bless you as you walk through trials of your own.
Thankfulness in Trials
It may sound counterintuitive, but my trials with cancer have brought me countless spiritual blessings. My cancer made me more grateful to be alive, and to have whatever strength and stamina God gave me on any given day. Facing cancer has drawn my husband Ken and me even closer together; it’s made my friendships and connections with my family seem so much more precious. Honestly, sometimes amid my cancer treatments, I would lie in bed and have to fight back tears as I counted all my blessings.
But my cancer also troubled some people. When I was diagnosed with cancer for a second time, I received emails from Christian friends wondering if God was putting me through too much. “Quadriplegia, chronic pain, my previous cancer and now this new one?” To my friends, it appeared as though God was doing me harm instead of good. I don’t blame them for this response; it’s natural. But our natural feelings and point of view are not enough. They can leave us with a low view of God, and a bitter spirit, as we face life’s difficulties. But we are not stuck there.
As Christians, we know there is more to life than what’s natural, and that God’s thoughts and ways are higher, bigger, and better than our own. When we are naturally troubled by the trials we face, it’s time to delve into what the Bible says about suffering.
God’s View of Suffering
Our crises—cancer and other tough trials—give us an important opportunity to lean into God and learn what he has to say about our trouble and suffering. In order to be thankful in the midst of our trials, we need to carefully consider what God has to say about suffering in his Son, his saints, and in our own lives.
Let’s start with Jesus himself. In Isaiah 53, a prophecy about the coming Christ paints a picture of our Lord as a suffering savior, “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain,” (Isaiah 53:3).
In the person of Jesus, we see that God himself suffers. Not only that; he suffers with and for us. And he means for his followers to step into his example, with his help.
Eugene Peterson once described the apostle Paul as a “scarred veteran. A man who visited the extremes.” Many of Jesus’s disciples were eventually put to death for their commitment to Christ. While I would not put myself in the same class as Paul or the apostles, I am a disciple of Jesus like they were. And I do know something about scars and about visiting the extremes—the extremes of chronic pain, the rigors of cancer therapy, the difficulties of aging with quadriplegia.
Of course, you have your own scars and burdens as well. But that’s okay. Why is my suffering—my cancer, my loss, my tragedy okay? Scripture helps us to answer this difficult question:
As First Peter 2:11 says, “to this you were called because Christ Jesus suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps.”
James 1:2-3 tells us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Character Outweighs Circumstances
Harry Reader once wrote, “Circumstances do not dictate your character, they reveal it and become the opportunity to refine it.”
Cancer does not dictate who I am; it creates an opportunity for me to refine who I am and become more and more the person that God created me to be.
When we demonstrate our loyalty to the Lord Jesus through a tough trial, our faith gets confirmed and strengthened. Not only that; we also bring delight to the Lord as we draw near to him. It gives God great joy to see that we love holding tightly onto him through a hard trial.
We can glorify God by trusting him and depending on him when the stakes are high and odds against us in our lives. In this process, as the passages from James and Romans tell us, we can be deeply changed for the better.
Transformed in our Trials
I can tell you that I’m not the same Joni as I was before cancer. I know, I can feel, I sense I am becoming more like Jesus, and I love that! How does this happen? James 1 and Romans 5 give us clues. When we follow the example of Jesus in our suffering, God makes us more like his son—mature, full of hope, lacking nothing, complete, and full of the Holy Spirit.
Eugene Peterson reflects that Paul (the author of Romans), “knows that what God has done within him is far more important and lasting than anything that could be done to him.”
I say amen to that. Paul’s battles, my cancer, and your battles are all about bringing glory to God. I know that as God changes me through my cancer, I have the opportunity to glorify God.
Prayer: Lord, when I face ordeals—cancer, pain, loss, fear—help me to depend upon you and trust that my difficult circumstances are an opportunity to glorify you and become more like Jesus. Let my difficulties reveal my character and give me the occasion to depend upon your all-sufficient grace and love. Refine my character through the flames, Lord, and help me develop the character I need to hope in you.