This past week was a rough one for me at work. Most of you probably know that I work at a non-profit that funds cancer research and provides support services to patients and their families. I work specifically on a fundraising campaign that we do in schools, which means that I’m primarily focused on serving pediatric patients. Did you know that cancer is the #2 cause of death in children? Did you know that cancer "survival" is measured as being alive 5 years after diagnosis? 5-year survival is great if you’re 70. It’s not great if you’re 3. So we have all these statistics that say 80% this and 90% that… and it’s for 5 years. They rarely publish a 20- or 30-year survival rate for pediatric patients because it’s… well, it’s not 80%, that’s for sure.
As I’m sure you can imagine, things can get pretty heavy around here. There are literally times that I forget that the great majority of children do NOT have cancer… I walk through my office and see little bald faces staring back at me… some of them smiling, others decidedly not happy. It’s hard. It’s something that I’ve more or less grown accustomed to, between my personal experiences, my 2 years volunteering on the pediatric oncology floor in college, and my 10+ months working here. But, sometimes I have a week like last week and it just makes my heart ache. It just makes me sad and frustrated and upset and angry.
It makes me angry because it’s not even just the cancer. It’s the suffering. It’s the not knowing. It’s the hair and the insecurity and the loss of hope. It’s the side effects and the secondary cancers and the waiting-for-a-transplant-donor. It’s just so much, and I know enough to be aware that I don’t even know 10% of their pain. And so occasionally I get angry… because I’m helping but not enough. And I struggle with God over it. And I wonder how He can let His children suffer so…?
W and I had a friend growing up who had brain cancer. We were too young to totally understand it, but we knew she wore hats and sometimes a mask… and she had a collection of band-aids on her fridge. She was diagnosed when we were 6 and passed away at 15.
Shortly after her passing, W and I got involved in Young Life in high school, and really heard the whole story of Jesus for the first time. Someone finally told us that Jesus died for our sins and that He wanted to have a relationship with us. Pivotal moment… clearly. But then they said something else, and it sent what felt like a lightening bolt of anger through my body. "The penalty for sin is death." And here I am 16 years old, trying to make sense of my earliest friend dying from cancer… and are they trying to tell me that she deserved her death at 15? It took me a long, long time to wrestle with that one.
Now that I'm 9 years down the road in my faith journey, I have come to terms with the reality of what they were trying to express. No, our friend didn't get cancer and die young because she was somehow worse than the rest of us (very much the opposite, in my opinion)... but death IS the "pentalty" or the consequence of sin. Have you ever truly thought about the fact that before the fall, in the Garden of Eden, there was no death? Adam and Eve were created to live forever. They ate food that was endlessly provided by God and they neither saw death, nor knew of it, nor expected to experience it. Yet, the whole deal with the forbidden fruit is that these two trees in the Garden of Eden were mutually exclusive. Adam and Eve could eat from the tree of life, and be in communion with God, and live forever... or they could eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God simply says "look, you can't eat from both trees. Sorry." And we all know what happens next. In taking the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve forfeited their access to the tree of life. Death eventually came upon them (and the rest of the animals and plants and humanity) simply because they no longer were feeding upon life-giving fruit.
This isn't new information for me, but for whatever reason, I don't know that I'd ever truly thought much about the Tree of Life and what it meant. I don't know that it had actually occurred to me that Adam and Eve were created to never die. And it all makes death seem so simple doesn't it? It's just what happens when you stop living... when God stops giving you those temporary life-fruits that He still offers us, despite our sin - blood in our veins, food in our bellies, and breath in our lungs. We are not promised anything more, this side of heaven.
So I think about cancer and the unbelievable suffering that accompanies it, and I can't even pretend to understand why it's all necessary. But I find peace in the knowledge that it breaks God's heart more than it breaks mine. Because He didn't create life to be this way. His blueprint for humanity didn't include cancer. Sure, He's all-knowing, so I don't at all think it has caught Him by surprise. However, that's why He sent His savior so that, just like Christ, all of His children can have victory in death. Death is the only way for God to deliver us out of this fallen world and back into the world that He created for us. It is not pretty, but it is a gift. God has given us back our access to the Tree of Life through Jesus - the "giver of life," the "living water." It's simply a matter of getting there.
So, I pray constantly for the people I hear about in and through my work. I pray for their bodies, for their grief, for their spirits not to be shattered amidst suffering and seemingly unanswered prayers. I think I will always carry the burden of their pain, and it likely will always make me angry. However, I try with all that I have to focus my anger at the true culprit. I make sure that it does not dim my hope in a good and gracious God who is bigger and greater than death. For truly, it is only in death that He ultimately rescues us and brings us back to Him.