In celebration of my wife's third year full of being cancer free, I am posting again the article I wrote about how God saw us through that difficult trial. Of course, the focus here is on my own struggle as her husband, but the article communicates a theology of God's sovereignty over suffering and trials that is precious to her as well as to me. May God be glorified in and through our lives as I submit to you once again my personal testimony of His grace in some of the most difficult moments of my life.
Soli Deo gloria!
As the blog's regular readers know, a little over a year ago my wife, Kim, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I am glad to report at this time that she is doing very well and the prognosis is good. I praise the Lord for His mercy to my family. I am so glad that He has allowed me to keep my beloved a while longer. However, early on I wasn't so sure that things would turn out well, and we were concerned that she might not live. Now I want to share with you all the journey that I went through as a husband, father, and pastor, especially during those early fearful days. At the time there were a number of Scriptural passages that the Lord brought to mind, and I shared the way the Lord used these passages in my life with my church family while I was going through this trial last year. I also kept notes as to how the Lord spoke to me throughout that time. Today I would like to share essentially the same testimony with the blog's readers. It is my hope that God may be glorified in it.
The Initial Discovery of the Cancer
In early April of 2008 Kim began to experience severe abdominal pain, which led to a visit to the emergency room at a local hospital. We suspected it might be appendicitis, as did the ER doctor, who quickly ordered a CT scan to confirm the diagnosis. However, as it turned out, two different problems were discovered: diverticulitis and a large ovarian cyst. They admitted her to the hospital to treat her for the diverticulitis and ordered an ultrasound to look more closely at the cyst, which revealed a mass growing inside it. After a visit with my wife's OB/GYN and another ultrasound, we were next referred to a gynecological oncologist, who we saw on April 23. He told us that he had very little doubt that Kim had ovarian cancer and that, given the way the mass looked and the amount of fluid in her abdomen in conjunction with the mass, she probably had a stage of cancer that would offer her about a 30% chance of survival at best. This could only be confirmed by proper surgical staging and a removal and examination of the mass. Thankfully, due to a cancellation in the doctor's busy surgical schedule, we were able to get an early date for the the surgery on April 28.
Reacting to the Cancer Diagnosis
So there we were, waiting five days to discover just how bad the cancer was and hoping that the doctor was wrong, despite his years of experience dealing with such things. But I have to admit that I was afraid that I would lose my wife of almost 22 years. In fact, it was a quiet fear that had been in the back of my mind for many years and for a couple of reasons. First, I had always felt that I did not deserve Kim and the happiness I have had with her. I have always been overwhelmed by the fact the God would save me at all, but to pile on so much added grace, to actually bring me such undeserved happiness in this life, just seemed too good to be true. I know it may sound strange, and perhaps it has to do in part with my background and the baggage that comes with it, but I have always had this underlying fear that I would lose her somehow. And in this particular five day period in my life that fear came to the surface with surprisingly great force.
Second, since the days of our engagement to be married, I have struggled with not allowing my wife to be an idol in my life. In fact, I communicated this very thing to the pastor who provided our premarital counseling. I knew I had a tendency to look to Kim first for comfort when I was struggling, and often I would seek her out when I had a problem before I would even think to take it to the Lord in prayer. And this battle has been there for me throughout our marriage. Perhaps this was further exacerbated by the fact that my conversion came about at around the same time that I met Kim. In fact, the Lord saved me about a month before He brought Kim into my life, and this means that all the really happy years of my life have been with her (in spite of ongoing battles with depression early on, which I will address below). Anyway, I have had to constantly go to the Lord and ask forgiveness because – and I say this to my shame – I was repeatedly tempted to love Kim more than Him.
So, you can see why I feared that I might lose Kim to cancer. I feared that I had loved her too much and that I never really deserved her in the first place. Perhaps this is why one of the first passages that came to my mind was from Ezekiel, when God told him that he was going to have to lose his wife in order to serve Him:
NKJ Ezekiel 24:16 “'Son of man, behold, I take away from you the desire of your eyes with one stroke; yet you shall neither mourn nor weep, nor shall your tears run down. 17 Sigh in silence, make no mourning for the dead; bind your turban on your head, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your lips, and do not eat man's bread of sorrow.' 18 So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died; and the next morning I did as I was commanded.”
This passage settled on my heart with such power that it almost overwhelmed me. It was as though God were saying to me, “Keith, are you willing to lose your wife for my purposes? If I take her from you, will you still trust me? Will you continue to serve me without questioning my will?” And my constant answer to the continual replaying of these questions in my mind actually encouraged me. I said, “Yes, Lord,” without hesitation or equivocation. I cried out to God, “Holy Father, nothing could ever make me doubt your love for me! Or for my wife and children!” And I was conscious of a peace in my heart as I declared these things, even though it meant the realization of one of my greatest fears. Surprising, isn't it? I have to say, it certainly surprised me! I hadn't realized just how deep a work God had done in my heart until then. And I hadn't realized just how powerfully He had, indeed, kept me from the idolatry I so feared. You see, this incredible peace was not my doing; it was the evidence of His work.
This is why neither my wife nor I see those trying days as being primarily about what we were going through. No, all that has happened is not just another chapter in the "the story of us." Rather, it is another chapter in the story of how our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, has been at work in our lives both for our good and for His glory. And this is something of what I wish to share with you all, although I have struggled to know just where to begin, especially since it is so difficult to try to explain what is in some ways unexplainable. For example, how can one really explain in a fully understandable way a peace that surpasses all understanding? This is the kind of peace that Paul wrote about in his epistle to the Philippians, where he said:
NKJ Philippians 4:6-7 “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
This is the peace that I have known during this time. And it cannot really be explained. It has to be experienced. And even then it really cannot be fully understood. After all, Paul says that this peace “surpasses all understanding.” I can only testify that the Lord Jesus has indeed granted us such peace, and that it has indeed guarded our hearts and minds. For example, this peace kept me from doubting – even for a second – the love of God for me (or for my wife and children). I was and am as certain as ever that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Of course, any believer with even a modicum of maturity in the faith knows exactly what Paul is talking about, and even if we cannot fully explain such peace – especially to those who do not know Christ – we definitely can know it and experience it. It is a peace that kept me not only from questioning God's love, but it also kept me from any anger or bitterness toward Him and from fretting over the future.
I am so glad that the Lord filled me with such faith and peace during those difficult days and hours. But I would like to share a few more of the passages He used to guide me through that time. For example, He drew my attention to a significant text in Romans that deals with trials and His purposes for them:
NKJ Romans 5:1-5 “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
I was reminded by this passage that through Christ I can “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (vs. 2), and I think by this Paul means that I can rejoice in the knowledge that God will manifest His glory through me and in my life. In fact, later in this same epistle Paul describes the ultimate triumph of God's work in us as our being glorified. For example:
NKJ Romans 8:15-18 “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, 'Abba, Father.' 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs-- heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”NKJ Romans 8:28-30 “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. 29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” [Italics mine.]
All things, including tribulations and suffering, are a part of God's plan to glorify us, that is, to reveal His glory in us. Although this ultimately happens in the resurrection (as the context in Romans 8 makes clear), it is happening to some degree even now, which is what I believe Paul is saying in Romans 5. I think he is trying to tell us that, as we learn to go through trials in faith, we see God being glorified in us more and more, and this gives us a foretaste of the coming glory that will be revealed in us. When Paul tells us that “we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” in verses 3-4, the “hope” he is talking about is the “hope of the glory of God” he has mentioned in verse 2. So, the more I see God being glorified in and through me as I faithfully endure trials, the more I increase in the certainty that His promise of future glorification is, indeed, true.
This is what happened to me as I considered the possibility that my wife might die. I began to see God's work of producing patience and character in me, and it reminded me of the fact that my life – and my wife's life – are in His faithful care. He who began a good work in me – and who continues to work in me – will be faithful to complete it (Phil. 1:6)!
But this leads me to another part of the story of how the Lord shepherded me through this difficult time, and it actually began years ago. The back story – which will not be dissimilar from many of yours – took place in my early days as a believer. You see, I had come from a broken home and had suffered some significant abuse in a couple of the poor neighborhoods I had grown up in. And I also grew up believing in works salvation, which – along with these other factors – led to a constant battle with depression from the time I was a small boy. But I had no idea how bad things would get after coming to faith in Christ.
At first, I began to discover a joy I had never known, knowing that God loved me and that all my sins were forgiven through the work of Christ for me. And my joy abounded even more when God brought Kim into my life and began to take away the incredible loneliness that had plagued me for so long. However, toward the end of our first year of marriage, after having gone to Columbia Bible College, I began to experience the three worst years of depression I had ever encountered, coupled with doubting my salvation. It is hard to describe the intensity of the depression that hounded me in those days, except to say that I thought I would die. In fact, I remember getting up some days and thinking to myself, “Surely today is the day I will die of a broken heart!” I just couldn't imagine how I could keep living like this, but the Lord in His faithfulness led me through this time and to an assurance of salvation. Although He made use of many Scripture passages in the process, one of the key books He kept taking me to was Job. And it was when He enabled me to cry out as Job did that I began to experience victory over the depression that had been my almost constant companion for so long. Here are the two primary texts in Job that shaped my response to God in those days:
NKJ Job 1:20-22 “Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.' 22 In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”
I recall reading these words and making them my own prayer to God. I remember praising Him and telling Him that whatever happened I knew He intended it only for my good and that if He would be best glorified by my being miserably depressed even for the rest of my life, then so be it. I would accept whatever His gracious will was for me.
NKJ Job 13:15a "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him."
I can remember very well the day when I cried out to God with these same words! I literally prayed, “Lord, even if you slay me – even if I die of a broken heart – yet will I trust you!” That was the beginning of the end of my battle with depression, and – to make a long story short – it was also the beginning of the end of my struggle with lack of assurance. You see, the Lord showed me through those days that there was a faith in me that I couldn't take any credit for. After all, I was doubting! So where could such faith have come from if not from Jesus, the “author and finisher” of my faith (Heb. 12:2)? It could only have come as “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Well, there have of course been many trials since then, and they have all brought to mind these passages in Job as well as others such as Romans 5:1-5. And these same passages came back to me as I went through the trial of my wife having cancer. This trial was at its most acute when I was in the waiting room while Kim was having surgery. Part way through the procedure, the surgical nurse called down to tell me that the mass was indeed cancerous, and the next hour or two were a couple of the longest of my life. I went into a little prayer room where I wept so hard I didn't think I would ever be able to stop. And the words of Job came to me again, except this time with a different emphasis. This time God wasn't asking me to say, “Though you slay me, yet will I trust You.” This time He was asking me to say, “Though you slay my wife, yet will I trust You!” And I remember as I sat there dazed, weak, and weary, crying out to God, “Yes, Lord, even if you take away my precious Kimmie, yet will I trust You!” Of course, I also pleaded with the Lord for her life, but was able to say by His grace, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours be done” (Matt. 26:39).
You see, God had prepared me for this trial through all of the others. He had taken me through the Romans 5:1-5 cycle many times before, and each time I had experienced more and more the “hope of the glory of God” in my life. And He had taught me to rejoice in it! And this helped me to have hope in this struggle as well.
Perhaps an illustration would help. It comes from a time when I was just a kid, about twelve years old. I went with my family to a state park in southern Indiana that had a cave that went through a hillside and came out the other side. I think it was actually an abandoned attempt at building a railroad tunnel at one time. At any rate, the tunnel was just long enough that when you were in the middle of it you were in complete darkness and could see no light coming from either end. After having gone through the tunnel a couple of times with a flashlight, I decided – I vaguely remember a dare – to try to go through the tunnel with no light at all. Well, about half way through, as I was in the darkest part of the tunnel, feeling my way along, I remember being gripped by fear and worrying that maybe I would get lost somehow and no one would ever find me. And I thought about turning back. But what kept me going is that fact that I had been through the tunnel before, and I knew that if I just pressed on there would be a light ahead. And this is the same way with trials in my life. I have been through the tunnel before – many times – and I know that there is always a light at the end! It is the “hope of the glory of God,” and it keeps me going, just as Paul said it would. Indeed, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel of every trial for the Christian, and it is the joy set before us as we see the glory of God more fully manifested in our own lives. May we ever seek this joy in Him! And may we accept the fact that it comes with suffering.
The Revised Diagnosis and Thankfulness for God's Continued Grace
And now it is time for some more good news. Not only did the Lord lovingly guide me through yet another trial. He graciously answered my prayer that Kim would live. As I have already indicated, the surgery of April 28, 2008, confirmed that she did, indeed, have ovarian cancer. As a result, she had to undergo a complete hysterectomy, along with the removal of her omentum, appendix, and a number of lymph nodes. But the surgeon discovered that the cancer wasn't nearly as bad as he had thought it would be. You see, the fluid that had been in Kim's abdomen, which the doctor had assumed was due to the cancer and that it had thus spread and was at a later stage, had actually been due to the diverticulitis that had already been treated by that time. So, when he performed the surgery the excess fluid was not there. As it turns out, the cancer had been caught very early because of the diverticulitis. Otherwise we would almost certainly not have found out about the ovarian cancer until it was too late, as happens to so many poor women and accounts in part for the high death rate associated with this type of cancer.
So, Kim has now been through six cycles of chemotherapy, and the prognosis is quite good. We have good reason to believe that she will make a full recovery, although, of course, we can never be absolutely sure. But, then, who can? I just know this much; I know that God is first in my life. I know that He has done a far greater work of faith in me than I had realized. I know that Kim and I, and our three children, are closer to the Lord than ever. I know that our church family needed to see us go through this and to see His work in us. And I know that whatever else happens He will keep us to the end as He has promised. But it is through trials such as those I have described that such assurance is deepened in us and such rejoicing in the “hope of the glory of God” can be had. Do you want to better know Him and make Him known? Do you want to be able to see the evidence of His working of faith in you? If so, be ready to welcome the testing of your faith with the knowledge that it is always for your good and for His glory.