Reflections After The Tree Came Down

Have you ever found an unexpected gift under the Christmas tree? A diagnosis of cancer, received just before Christmas Day last year, was not a welcome addition to the packages which filled the corner of the living room with festive colour. In a few weeks I went from being busy with the interminable tasks of marketing, and preparing to teach Bible College courses in the next semester, to admitting I could no longer stand without assistance, and phoning 911. Radiation, chemotherapy, and long days and nights have followed in their due course, and I have been given the gift, surprisingly, of time for reflection. I have also been overwhelmed with the many cards, calls, visits, and expressions of love and concern from so many, not to mention the care I receive from my wife.

One of the first realizations to dawn on my morphine-saturated system in hospital was that I needed help to unwrap this particular gift. (Odd, usually I can rip the wrapping off without any problem!) This gift however, marked simply "To Ian," from "Your Heavenly Father" was impossible to unwrap alone. Where to take it for help to discover what lay in this strange and unwanted present?

One evening early in my hospital stay, while I felt very sick, a clergyman slipped quietly into the room to pray with my roommate. This gentleman's name sounded very much like my own. I became aware simply that the visitor was reciting the "Last Rites," except it seemed he was speaking to God for me, using what sounded like my name in all the right places. When he was leaving I thanked him for his prayer and told him, "His yoke is easy and his burden is light."

But as further pastoral visits made clear, my roommate sadly heard nothing of the comfort of the Gospel. His spiritual guides could only offer him: "Do you want to be good? Don't you want to live a better life? Shall we bring you the Blessed Sacrament?" Trying to pour Jesus into sinners, instead of pointing them to receive him who "justifies the ungodly." What a different message my pastoral visitors brought me — a Gospel of grace, which looks on the ordinances for no other comfort than that free promise of salvation through faith alone. But how sad to see the truth so twisted at such a critical time by such loving and sincere people.

Where to take my difficult present? Many Christian friends have offered, along with their much-appreciated prayers, a variety of remedies and regimens designed to speed my return to health. I have been showered with vitamin formulas (I take one of those), audio and video lectures on nutrition, miracle-working tropical juices, tree extract another (initially free) samples of various products, articles on the benefits of Tai Chi meditation, not to mention exhortations to absorb the energy of the sky, sun and trees, and to expect a special angel to guide me. I have been cautioned that I must maintain a very "positive mental attitude" if I expect to improve, or even to be considered for the most effective medical treatments.

My reaction to these expressions of genuine care and concern was one of confusion. The message I seemed to be getting was that: "here are some straws to grasp at before it's too late — but try almost anything!"

    …all the circumstances of thy sickness are ordered by Him, the degree and time are limited by Him, He knows what is needful and fitting, He is Lord of life and death, resign thyself therefore to Him…

Sibbes adds a positive note often missing in contemporary explanations of serious disease: …"consider it comes from God, Who is the father, and therefore loves thee…."

This is the note I found most helpful, and needed to hear. My loving Father in heaven sent me a Christmas present unlike any received before, but it comes from him, and my privilege is to unwrap it and discover in a new way that every good and perfect gift comes from above.

Of course, I hear other voices suggesting a very different source for sickness. In The Agony of Deceit, edited by Michael Horton, Dr. C. Everett Koop writes:

    As I tried to evaluate all this, I was reminded of a quote I read recently by Dr. J.I. Packer in which he comments that no age in church history has witnessed anything like our modern preoccupation with physical health. We may still occasionally sing "Brief life is here our portion," but we must avoid the "brevity" aspect at any cost is seems. Our culture seems to be grateful for two great blessings: the forgiveness of sins, [after all that's God's job], and the gift of a healthy body.

Now of course there is no biblical reason to "celebrate" having a bad disease, nor any excuse for poor nutrition on our rich culture. the blessing of good health tends to follow a discipline of moderation in bodily appetites, and bodily exercise is indeed of "some value." (My years as a volunteer firefighter taught me the importance of keeping up my exercises!) But sincere voices were insisting I find any way to kick this present back under the tree and mark it "Return to Sender." I needed to discover what my heavenly Father wants for me in it.

After returning home to continue chemotherapy as an outpatient, I picked out some old friends from my library who have become a great blessing amid a sea of confusing voices. A few of these in particular have been a great help in understanding what God has sent into my life. Murdoch Campbell's little book of sermons In All Their Affliction is one, available from the Free Church Bookshop, Edinburgh. And I read English Puritan William Bridge's A Lifting Up for the Downcast, dealing with depression. Bridge shows the comfort of the accomplishment of the Cross for believers, linking the comfort of Christ's heavenly intercession to his death for the elect (Rom. 8:33ff).

Other great blessings have been Banner of Truth Editor Maurice Robert's wonderful little paperback The Thought of God, as well as Thomas Boston's Crook in the Lot. Boston offers a very different perspective from some modern spiritual advisors:

    The lowly spirit extracts this sweet out of the bitterness in his lot (difficult circumstance), considering how the Lord, buy means of that afflicting lot, stops the provision of unruly lusts, that they be starved; how He cuts off the by-channel, that the whole stream of the soul's love may run toward Himself; how He pulls off…the man's burden…of earthly comforts, that he may run the more expeditiously toward heaven. (p. 73)

Here in the Puritans (and their spiritual heirs) I have found a somewhat different and refreshing focus, and new encouragement.

I picked up Richard Sibbes' Exposition of St. Paul and went to his treatment, preached in London in 1639, on the illness of Epaphroditus from Philippians 2. For the believer who is sick, Sibbes makes a remarkable and refreshing appeal. He calls for self-examination, a judging of ourselves that we "be not judged of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:31). He writes that sickness is a time to discover fresh signs of God's love and comfort, to develop love and patience, and to consider that:

    All sickness and suffering are spoken of by faith healers as though they come from Satan, or as if they were surely the result of God's displeasure…But the Bible says, "Whom the Lord loves He chastens…." (Heb. 12:6)

    …Sickness is often the proof of God's special favour…. (p. 178)

Some days this seems very difficult to believe, except in some very stoic, Presbyterian fashion. After a long sleepless night when all I can do is sob and feel sorry for myself, cancer and chemo don't strike me as "signs of favour." I have recalled how my cat likes to catch a mouse and bring it to the front lawn for a public display of her favourite summer game — Dead Mouse Walking. An invisible circle around the mouse circumscribes the area in which the wee timorous (doomed) beastie is allowed to flee, first one way, and then another. But a swift paw rolls it back inside the "play zone" every time. Finally the cat tires of the game, or the mouse gets a bit too far outside the circle, and the game ends swiftly.

Is that how I should think of my disease? Despite my Heavenly Father's best plans, the Enemy (the Cat) has seized me for his own nefarious purposes. Now the issue is: do I have enough faith to escape the circle before it's too late?

In his little book The Healing Epidemic, Dr. Peter Masters of London discusses the whole phenomenon of healing today. His treatment of James 5 is practical and helpful. Equally so is the discussion of the role of faith in healing in Dr. Franklin Payne Jr.'s Biblical Healing for Modern Medicine (Covenant Books, 1993).

Both treatments demonstrate that healing in the New Testament, while not unrelated to the sick person's faith, is not dependent on it:

    A cruel burden is placed upon the sick person when his healing is made conditional upon his degree of faith. If he is not healed, he bears the devastating reality of insufficient faith. His continued illness is his own fault. (Payne, p. 160)

In Healing and Holiness, far and away the best single book to come across my path on this topic, C. Samuel Storms notes:

    …faith is first and fundamentally a divine gift. It is a work of grace, not a result of our own efforts. (p. 114)

The well-known passage in James 5:14-18 (Is any among you sick…?), offers a promise and a provision for every Christian dealing with serious illness. There is nothing here of the appeal to find a person with the gift of healing and reach out with faith to be healed. The provision of James 5 in fact says nothing about the exercise of any "miraculous gifts," which were restricted to the apostolic age as attestations of the authority of Jesus and the apostles.

Rather we find:

a) the provision for the sick believer, whether or not he has "enough" faith to be healed; all that is required of the sick believer is enough faith to call for the church elders (and as I am an elder, that in itself is no small act of faith!);

b) the background allusion may be to the Old Testament provision for the healing of the Israelite leper, in which anointing oil was placed on the head of the leper who was to be "cleansed" (Lev. 14:29). In this case the provision in James is for cases of medical extremity, beyond the everyday cold or flu;

c) there is also the possibility that sin may be a factor in the situation. James states:
And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another…
This does not assume sin is a factor in every case, but the elders should be willing to gently investigate along these lines;

d) The role of the elders is in relation to "the prayer of faith." There is no explicit statement that the sick believer must exercise any particular kind of faith, but a universal promise is attached to the elder's prayer:
The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.
This promise is attached to an act of the church, not an individual faith healer; it is attached to the request of the sick believer directed towards the local elders, not to his or her personal degree of faith or level of confidence in receiving divine healing; and it is attached to an act of covenant consecration which involves confession of sin and an act of dedication of the sick believer to the perfect will of God. Attention is drawn to the power of God to work supernaturally in answer to believing prayer in the church, not to some "miraculous" or apostolic-era-type spiritual gift;

e) The result is not in doubt. The promise of verse 15 extends to every case in which the prayer of faith is offered.

Ronald S. Wallace comments on the prayer of Elijah, the model for the prayer of faith:

    …Elijah worked wonders in his day not simply because he was a man caught up in a special relationship with God, but also because he was a man who learned to pray as we ourselves can learn to pray, and who out of love could throw himself on his face and make intercession for men who were either too weary or too unbelieving or too preoccupied to pray for their own dire needs. The privilege of being able to win God's blessing for men is beyond none of us who will have it (Readings in 1 Kings, Eerdmans: 1995 p. 126).

Christ lays no heavy burden on the seriously ill believer beyond the faith to call for help. And the language attached to the prayer of faith takes us to the heart of God's covenant action in Jesus' great salvation: the verbs of "saving" and "raising up" point us to the Cross and a resurrection hope. There are no cases in which the prayer of faith may fail. Every sick believer may look confidently to being "raised up" in resurrection power one day, if not partially through restored health here and now.

When tempted to wonder whether the outcome of my illness depends on the strength of my faith, I recall the ways my Father has showed me with signs of his love. I remember the time when just when I thought. "I can't take any more," I heard the song:

    Only believe, only believe…
    Your Shepherd selecteth the path you must tread.

No, I would never choose this path, but this is my Father's choice for me. My Good Shepherd's hand still holds me, and I know his love is all I need to go through. And there is a promise of healing, despite what the medical literature says about my cancer (non-curable, fatal).

I will call for my local elders when I have finished my chemo, D.V., and before I go for a "stem cell transplant" procedure in Edmonton this May-June. I am told if all goes well I may expect a "five-year remission." But my hope goes far beyond that.

I am resting in the promises of a loving Father. I am learning new aspects of what it means to be baptized into the Triune Name, passed through the waters of both blessing and judgment (1 Cor. 10:2; Gal. 3:27). I know that my earthly tent is not my permanent home (2 Cor. 5:1), and that covenant life since Isaac's consecration on the altar has always been one of "willing to live and willing to die" (cf. Rom. 12:1-2).

We are all of us, as baptized into Christ Jesus, called to be ready to give an answer without warning, whether to the "Emperor" with his sword — as Christians face in other places, or to some accident, disease, or other common earthly woe. We follow the Lamb who was slain for us, and we love not our lives to death (Rev. 12:11). I look forward to seeing the prayer of faith become a reality in my healing, but whatever the immediate outcome, I only ask for grace so that his will may be perfected in my life, and his praise be continually on my lips.