“Cancer creates opportunities for more profound intimacy with those around you,” Powlison knowingly observes. “People pay attention when a sufferer is being honest”. That last sentence reminds me that cancer provides Christians experiencing it an opportunity to teach the rich God-centered doctrine and lessons of faith we’ve previously learned and that have prepared us for processing suffering biblically. We’ve been given a platform for speaking into the lives of unbelievers and “prosperity gospel” adherents whom we know and love.
David Powlison is a cancer survivor four times over. He’s also a man with more than 30 years of experience in counseling others and the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. His new little booklet, When Cancer Interrupts, contains observations and wise instruction that resonated poigantly with me as a first-time cancer patient.
I’m eager to distribute it to friends and relatives concerned for me and to those who are cancer patients themselves. I only wish the brief “minibook” (as New Growth Press calls it) were available online as a free PDF.
Powlison opens the 20-page essay by noting that cancer is never expected or wanted. The person receiving a cancer diagnosis feels violated and betrayed. He or she can be disoriented, overwhelmed, and anxious (3). One’s faith in God is put to the test by the threat of what cancer might mean for him or her. Cancer tests you, says Powlison, yet “that is exactly where Christ meets you” (5). He quotes Psalm 46:1–2: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way.” He then comments, “Those are not just words in a book. When you take them to heart, you find them true” (4). The style of the essay is conversational, the tone frank but compassionate. Powlison is confident in God and reassuring of Christian readers. He knows about which—and about whom—he writes.
Powlison centers this pastoral address on the fact of God’s promises to dwell with his people, never leaving nor forsaking them. “Cancer is not an exception to [that] rule,” he says. “It is where the rule comes true” (11). Not only is the triune God with us, but he is also for us in every moment. He is the “hands-on Father,” the “Vinedresser,” and our “Good Shepherd” who designs the experience of cancer to teach us to better trust him and love others (11–12). God, unlike any human, can understand exactly what we are going through, can “get on the inside” of us, and “rewrite the script of [our] hearts” (12). Cancer is meant to “wean you away from self-absorption, unbelief, false beliefs, and sins” (21). That is the “wonderful gift” (4) of cancer that is “something far more significant” (5) than even a cure.
The essay is divided into four main parts. The point or thesis of each is as follows:
- Be candid about your trouble since what you’re experiencing matters (neither living in denial nor living as if you can beat cancer with mere willpower and medical intervention);
- Remember who God is and that the simple reality “God is with you” overarches all of his other attributes and promises (Powlison, like me, has found particular solace and hope in Psalm 23);
- Cling to Christ as you “look death in the eye” and experience both your faith and joy in God deepening;
- Let growing faith move into service of others. Your suffering is providing opportunities for love now and preparing you for the overflow of comfort to others in the future (Powlison cites 2 Cor. 1:3–11).
The middle two main sections are primarily theological. Powlison quotes and alludes to the Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles. The air in these sections is certainly “bibline,” to quote from Charles Spurgeon’s description of John Bunyan. These sections were were for me yet another means of God’s overwhelming mercy and grace in these trying days. The first and final sections are largely comprised of practical observations and pastoral admonitions, both of which evince the author’s firsthand experience of cancer and time spent listening to others. The wisdom in these observations and exhortations bear testimony to Powlison as a man who has lived, looked, listened, and learned well. He has been made a theologian, as Luther posited, by suffering as well as by study and prayer.