This is the second question in our series on apologetics called Redemptive Windows, where Campus Ministers answer faith-challenging questions sent in by CC readers.
Rick Van Manen responds:
This bitter earth
Well, what fruit it bears
Oooh, this bitter earth . . .
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.
Why do children get cancer? What a question! Why does anyone become afflicted with cancer? When we or a child we love is diagnosed with this terrible disease, we naturally look for answers. There are many possible reasons offered up in our highly medicalized culture. Yet these reasons rarely provide satisfaction or solace in the face of cancer, because it, as well as a host of other terrible diseases, pushes us beyond the limits of meaning. Cancer is one of those realities that bring us to the edge of the abyss, the threshold between life and death, between darkness and light. Therefore the question of why children get cancer may be less a search for reasons and more an expression of lament. And in lament there is no reason, no explanation, no reflection. There are only tears. For beneath this question stand all the forces of chaos, of darkness and of death that threaten the very order of creation. In this question we hear the groaning of creation and the groaning of our hearts. In this question we say with the psalmist, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (Ps. 69:1-3). When confronted by cancer in us, and, most tragically, in our children, we can’t help but whisper with Dinah Washington, “This bitter earth. What fruit it bears.”
Not the last word
Yet even in this lament we can hear undertones of hope. Expressing this question is an act of hope. In hope we dare to ask the question, dare to bring the question, the lament, the cancer into the presence of God. As Allen Verhey writes in The Christian Art of Dying, “We turn toward God in the midst of death and grief and doubt and tears, and we hear God’s last words in Jesus. ‘Yes,’ God says, ‘these bones can live.’ ‘Yes,’ God says, ‘I make all things new!’ And that word echoes to all the corners of our world’s sadness, to all the niches of our despair, giving us hope” (262).
This newness of God comes to its most powerful expression in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In raising Jesus to life, this God who makes all things new has given us the grounds to hope that cancer doesn’t have the last word in creation or in our lives. While not denying the reality of cancer and the pain and loss that come with cancer, this hope affirms that the final word is God’s, and that it’s a word of life, not death. The physical resurrection of Jesus is our hope for the physical resurrection of our own bodies.
The Apostles’ Creed ends with this very declaration of hope. “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” We are embodied creatures. The gospel is no gospel unless it addresses our embodiment, our physicality (not just our ‘souls’) with the good news of God’s good future. The presence of cancer in children is a painful reminder that this good future has not yet fully come. We see it only as if through a glass darkly. We catch glimpses of it often through eyes blurred by tears. Yet this good future of God can break into our present reality in the moments we demonstrate love and compassion in the care we give to those among us suffering with cancer, especially children.
But while a voice within me cries—Dinah Washington
I’m sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Oooh may not
Oh be so bitter after all.
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