In his hands

Lymphoma, leukemia, sarcoma, melanoma, myeloma – scary words, and words I have come to hate. Every week this past month I have heard one of these words from a friend, a relative or a member of my congregation. My heart gets heavier and heavier each time.

Yesterday I sat next to the hospital bed of one of those friends. She told me that in one hand she holds the truth that God loves her and in the other this horrible cancer that has taken a firm grasp of her life and she wonders how she can possibly clasp those two hands together. I looked at her hands open on the blanket in front of her and wondered too. And then we simply cried.

We try hard, don’t we, to make sense of these bad things that happen to good people because we want them to make sense. Somehow there must be a reason; there must be a logical explanation for why this happened. Because we are human we want to know why, but perhaps it is because we are human that we can never really know why. And that is so unsatisfying.

I can’t help but think of Job’s friends who were determined to help him understand why God had taken away everything he had – including his health. They believed that the world operated by a system of justice: if you were a good person, good things happened to you; if bad things happened to you, you must have done something bad. There had to be a reason within Job’s own life for Job’s tragic series of misfortunes.

‘Lies I’ve Loved’
In her book, Everything Happens For a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler tells her cancer story. It is a heartfelt, engaging and honest account of trying to come to terms with the catastrophic diagnosis that overturns her life. The part of the book I appreciated the most, however, was the part she saved for the end, Appendix 1, which she gives this title: “Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times: A Short List.” Number one is “‘Well, at least. . . .’ Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not . . . what? Stage V cancer? Don’t minimize.” Also unwise: “‘It’s going to get better, I promise.’ Well, fairy godmother, that’s going to be a rough row to hoe when things go badly,” Bowler says. All of them are our well-meaning but horribly clumsy attempts to make sense out of the sense-less. All of them try to justify what has happened.

Even as Job rejects his friend’s attempts to apply their justice to his situation, he, himself, cries out for justice. He begs for a day in a cosmic courtroom with God on trial.  But while Job’s words are a cry for justice, they are even more truly a cry for grace. Grace is really what it takes for everything that is all wrong in this world to be all right – not merely justice.

I like how Lewis Smedes puts it in his book How Can It Be All Right when Everything is All Wrong? “Grace?” he says, “It is shorthand for everything that God is and does for us in our tired and sinful broken lives.” Grace is the amazing gift God gives to us that says that even when it’s all wrong around us, that at the very core of us, where we really are the most wrong, it is all right because God loves us. Grace is the promise that on the days when we can barely cope with the circumstances of our lives, that we can carry within us the faith that tomorrow will still be okay.

We ask for justice, but isn’t it far more amazing that what we get is grace?

So how can my friend clasp together the knowledge that God loves her in one hand and the terrible cancer she is holding in the other? Maybe she can’t, but God’s grace can. 


  • Thea is the senior pastor of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. She and her husband Bob have three amazing adult children and two adorable grandchildren. 

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