One day, almost ten years ago, as I was busy working around the house, I heard a television personality announce that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Having come from a family with an extensive history of cancer, and having had my own experience with the disease, my heart immediately went out to her because I knew something of the treatment and recovery ordeal that she was facing. Of course, I prayed for her right away but, as I continued with my housework, I became increasingly convicted that the Lord wanted me to do something more—that is, He wanted me to write her a letter of encouragement. Never haven written to a “public” person before, I balked at the idea and started coming up with all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t. However, the more I protested, the greater the sense of conviction became. Needless to say, rather than fighting a losing battle with God, I gave up and agreed to write the letter.
This presented another problem, though, because I had no idea what He wanted me to write. So, in order to gain some insight into the person I would be writing to, I bought a copy of her recently published book and read it in just a couple of days. As I did, several things came to my mind and, as I began to list them, I was surprised to find that they formed a sequence of lessons that I had learned through my own trials in life. These, then, are the seven lessons I set about sharing with her…
When undergoing testing…
1. Remember the basics of your beliefs;
2. Remember to submit to and embrace the process;
3. Remember to not be afraid;
4. Remember to deny death;
5. Remember that you are your mother’s daughter;
6. Remember to refill your grace prescription as often as necessary; and,
7. Remember to always be thankful.
- Remember the Basics of Your Beliefs
Several years ago my husband came to the realization that I had a “unique gift” (his words, not mine). When I asked what it was, he said that I had the ability to take things which were very complex and make them simple. Even though I hadn’t been aware of doing that before, once I thought about it, I could see that he was right. Throughout my life I had unwittingly analyzed everything, then reduced that analysis to as few points as possible in order to store as much information as possible in my brain. Completely unaware of doing it at the time, I had also reduced all of the deep theological doctrines of the Christian faith down to three manageable principles (which I affectionately called “Judy-isms”), with these becoming the basics of my belief system. Briefly, they are…
- All the events in our lives fall into one of two categories: they are designed to either bring us to Christ or to make us like Christ (so once you come to Christ, it’s easy to determine what all the others are for).
- After we have come to Christ, our sole responsibility becomes obedience. The resources for and the consequences of that obedience belong to God. We don’t need to worry about “how can I?” or “what if?”—that’s God’s job; all we are responsible for is doing the task He has given us to do.
- Since that is a lot easier said than done, I have found it helpful to remember Judy-ism #3—which is, if we live like the devil (the originator of the whole disobedience thing), we are going to look like hell; but if we live like God, we are going to look like Jesus. This principle has proven to be one of the best motivators for obedience in my life.
I don’t know what the basics of your beliefs are, but I would encourage you to identify them (if you haven’t done so already) and hold them close to your heart, now and anytime you are undergoing testing. They will prove to be a steadfast anchor when you are in the deep seas of life, with darkness obscuring your view of the land, and the waves of adversity threatening to capsize your ship of faith. In that moment, they will have the same effect on your storm that Jesus had when He spoke to the winds and the waves, saying, “Peace, be still!”
- Remember to Submit to and Embrace the Process
Although I am not at all athletic, I used to walk between four and five miles a day. This gave me time to think and pray while I listened to my favorite praise music—plus, it was a pretty successful means of weight control. However, soon after my husband and I were married, we moved to the panhandle of Texas; and it wasn’t long after that that I discovered I was pregnant with our son Andrew. The combination of the spring winds (40-50 mph in the afternoons), more than half of the days in June over 100º, swollen feet that wouldn’t fit into any of my shoes, and a baby that didn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time during his first six months of life kept me from walking for more than a year. Once these issues had been resolved, though, and I was able to get back to walking, I was eager to attack that walking track; and, as a true task-oriented person, all I could think of was finishing the walk—even before I had begun it. But, as I began walking, the Spirit of the Lord spoke to me, saying…
Your focus is all wrong. Instead of the goal, you need to focus on the process—you need to submit to the process, to embrace the process. If you don’t, you won’t be able to fully appreciate the goal.
I must admit I was taken aback by that word. It seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom which tells us that we must visualize the goal, pursue the goal, and become the goal. The more I thought about it, though, the more I could see God’s point. Since He tells us in Isaiah 55: 8-9 that…
…My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways…for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and My thoughts higher than your thoughts…
…then it would stand to reason that if the world tells us to focus on the goal, God’s method of doing things would be to focus on the process.
If we go back to the first of my basic beliefs—that everything that happens to us after we come to Christ is designed to make us like Christ—then we can be assured that whatever challenges we face in life are all part of God’s plan to reproduce the person and work of His Son in us. He accomplishes this within us as the Holy Spirit brings forth the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into our lives; while, at the same time, He carries on the work of Christ in the world outside of us through the grace gifts He gives us when we come to faith in Christ.
In much the same way that a potter takes a lifeless lump of clay and molds it into a beautiful work of art, God takes us, once we come to Christ, places us on His potter’s wheel, and begins the lifelong process of remolding us into earthly vessels that look, think, and act like Jesus. As part of this process, He subjects us to a number of firings, none of which is pleasant, but with each one being necessary to bring forth the beauty of our vessels–and, with the final firing taking place as we pass from this life to the next through death, “setting” forever the character which has been developed in us throughout the process. It is then that God’s ultimate purpose for us will finally be realized.
Hopefully, this analogy helps us understand that, because God’s ultimate objective for us will not be realized in this lifetime, His more immediate goal must be the process by which he is transforming us into these eternal vessels of honor. And, knowing this should help us submit to and embrace any process He ordains because, as the apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4: 17-18:
For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Ephesians 2: 10).
We see the supreme example of this in the life of Jesus Himself…
…who for the [ultimate] joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself so that you will not grow weary and lose heart…It is for discipline that you endure: God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?…All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful, yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12: 2, 3, 7, 11).
…although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation…(Hebrews 5: 8-9).
If God’s prescribed process for His own sinless Son was one of endurance in the face of trial and temptation, and obedience learned through suffering, can we expect our processes to involve anything less? It is obvious from the example of Christ that such a process is God’s goal because it not only prepares us for service in this life, but also for the enjoyment of the blessings of God’s glory in eternity.
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8: 16-18).
Or, as Oswald Chambers explains so clearly in his devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest:
God gives us the vision, then He takes us down to the valley to batter us into the shape of the vision, and it is in the valley that so many of us faint and give way. Every vision will be made real if we will have patience. Think of the enormous leisure of God! He is never in a hurry. In the light of the glory of the vision we go forth to do things, but the vision is not real in us yet; and God has to take us into the valley, and put us through fires and floods to batter us into shape, until we get to the place where He can trust us with the veritable reality. Ever since we had the vision God has been at work, getting us into the shape of the ideal, and over and over again we escape from His hand and try to batter us into our own shape.
The vision is not a castle in the air, but a vision of what God wants you to be. Let Him put you on His wheel and whirl you as He likes, and as sure as God is God and you are you, you will turn out exactly in accordance with the vision. Don’t lose heart in the process. If you have ever had the vision of God, you may try as you like to be satisfied on a lower level, but God will never let you (July 6th selection).
- Remember to Not Be Afraid
I don’t know whether it is still true, but at one time my family had the dubious distinction of being the family with the highest incidences of cancer in our area. My mother’s mother had eleven children, and all but one of them either had or have died from cancer. The one who “escaped” the scourge did so because he was killed (MIA) in Korea. There were seven children in my father’s family who are all gone now; and, as far as I know, my father was the only one who did not die a cancer-related death because he died of a heart attack at the age of 58.
I had my own encounter with cancer in 2005 when a lump on the left side of my neck turned out to be malignant. It had been diagnosed as a “Warthin’s Tumor”—that is, a tumor on the parotid or salivary gland; and, since most of them (90%) are benign, my doctor was pretty sure that mine would be, too. I was scheduled for surgery and even though it was to be done on an out-patient basis, the surgery was still expected to take at least three hours. The reason the surgery takes so long is because the nerve that controls movement on that side of the face runs right through that gland, so great care must be exercised to avoid damage to the nerve. Although I was supposed to be my doctor’s third surgery that day, when the two other surgeries cancelled at the last moment, I was called to come in early. (I later told my doctor that since God knew he was going to need the extra time with me, He took the liberty of canceling his other appointments.)
Halfway through the surgery, the pathology report showed that the tumor was malignant, which meant another three and a half hours of surgery. The doctor had to painstakingly remove the tumor, as well as the gland and the lymph nodes in the area. When I awoke, my husband and doctor were standing at the end of my bed, telling me that I had had cancer. In my groggy state, all I could think of was, “Wow, that’s different—but does my face move?” As I was lying in my hospital bed during the next three days, trying to take in the fact that I had had cancer, once again, all I could think of was, “Wow, that’s different!” But amazingly, I was not afraid; and there was a very good reason for that. You see, about a month before my surgery, the Lord had spoken to me, saying, “Don’t be afraid, I have a plan in all of this—great will be your deliverance. You just be busy about the business of being you, and let me take care of the rest.”
The surgery was just the beginning of the ordeal, though; for, although the cancer was slow-growing and all of the lymph nodes were clear, it was still necessary for me to undergo six weeks of radiation to kill off any cancer cells that may have scattered during the surgery. When I visited the oncologist a month after my surgery, I was informed that I would also have to see my dentist before beginning the treatments, to make sure that my teeth were in good enough shape to withstand the radiation. I was told that afterward, if I had to have any teeth pulled, I might have to undergo up to thirty hyperbaric treatments in preparation, and even then, the area might not heal. So, to avoid that, I would need to get any necessary dental work done before the radiation.
When I saw the dentist, he recommended that I have all four of my wisdom teeth removed—so, off I went to the oral surgeon who pulled them all in one day. After waiting three weeks for them to heal, I went back to the dentist. With the wisdom teeth removed, he could see a crack in the back of one tooth, which meant having a crown put in. After waiting a week for that to heal, I went back to the oncologist, and was at last able to begin the treatments.
I don’t know how they radiate for other types of cancers, but for mine, a mask was made of my face which was fastened to the table each time I had a treatment. This was to make sure I didn’t move and get zapped in the wrong place. The treatments didn’t last long—only a few minutes each day, Monday through Friday–so, I was in and out in no time. The only discomfort I experienced was in being fastened to the table, and that was more mental than physical—I mean, who likes the thought of having your head fastened to a table? The biggest problems I had with the radiation were the aftereffects, but that is something I will deal with later.
Some time after my surgery, my brother asked me if I was ever afraid, and I could honestly tell him, “no.” Even if I wasn’t afraid initially, because I didn’t know the tumor was going to be malignant, I wasn’t afraid afterward either—and, that’s because God is a good God, and He always has a good plan; even when I don’t know what it is, it is still a good plan! I didn’t feel the need to ask “why?”—because He had already told me he had a plan in all of it. Even as I thought in the hospital, “Wow, this is different!” what I was really saying to myself was that this was certainly a different path than I thought I would be taking. And, though I didn’t know I would be taking it, God did—He had marked it out for me beforehand. He knew this was the path I would need to take in order to get to the place I needed to be in my faith.
So, in the midst of testing, even if you can’t see where your path is leading you, don’t be afraid—trust in the goodness of God. Remember that He knows the way, He has it all marked out. He has a good plan worked out, too—not only for you, but for all of those that He will bless through your faithfulness. Then, we will be able to say, along with the apostle Paul…
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1: 2-4).
Many years ago, I same across a cross-stitch sampler offering a very encouraging word…
Fear knocked at the door; Faith answered; No One was there.
- Remember to Deny Death
After having cancer, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. At times there seemed to be what I would call a “specter of death” hovering around me, just looking for an opportunity to attach itself to me. When a new medical test became necessary, or I had an unusual ache or pain, it seemed to whisper in my ear, “Aha! The cancer is back, you are going to die!” One such episode occurred when I went to see the doctor for my regular three-month evaluation. When he noticed that my thyroid was enlarged, he immediately did a needle biopsy. It took a week for the results to come in and even then, they were inconclusive. However, because my doctor had gone out of town on vacation, I had to wait an additional two weeks before I could get the test redone.
During those three weeks, I often sensed the specter hovering, just looking for an entry point—a place where fear had replaced faith. It was on one of those occasions that I heard the Lord say, “Deny death!” I had never heard Him say that before, but He said it with such force and authority that I immediately did what He commanded. Then, during that period of waiting, whenever I sensed death drawing near, I would say out loud, “Death, I deny you access to me. Disease I deny you access to me. I am off limits to you, and if you have any problems with that, take it up with Christ.” When the results of the second biopsy finally came in, everything was fine, praise God!
I had a somewhat similar experience during the last summer we were in Texas. Due to my family’s history of cancer, my gynecologist used to see me every six months. That summer, the blood test which would indicate the possible presence of cancer came back positive. My doctor checked with one doctor, who told him that I should have a hysterectomy right away. But, when he wisely asked another doctor for advice, he was told that if we hadn’t finishing having children, I should be left alone. While all of this was going on, the realization suddenly came to me that since the two promises God had made to me years before hadn’t come to pass—one being that I was going to have two more children—then I couldn’t possibly have cancer! So, I chose to not worry about it and moved on, and within months I was pregnant with twins. If I had given in to fear, they wouldn’t be here now!
I especially like what Watchman Nee had to say about this in his book, The Spiritual Man:
Unless a Christian plainly knows his work is finished, he should by all means resist death. If the symptoms of death have been seen already in his body before his work is done, he positively should resist it and its symptoms. He should believe that the Lord will undertake in what he has resisted, for He has work for him yet to do. Hence before our appointed task is discharged we can trust in the Lord restfully even in the face of dangerous physical signs. In cooperating with the Lord and resisting death we will soon see Him work towards the swallowing up of it by His life (Book Three, page 218).
So, somewhere down the road, if you sense that specter hovering around you and you know in your spirit that God’s work for you remains unfinished, remember to “Deny Death”—for he has no right or authority over you–and, also remember that…
…since the children [of God] share in flesh and blood, He Himself [Jesus Christ] likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all of their lives (Hebrews 2: 14-15)…
…and, through the death and resurrection of Christ, you are free to deny death.
- Remember that You Are Your Mother’s Daughter
I was truly blessed to have had a remarkable mother. During her eighty-five years on this earth, she battled cancer for thirty-three of them–surviving breast cancer twice, colon cancer, more skin cancers than I can count—with some requiring the removal of tissue down to her skull, and skin grafts to replace the tissue that was removed. Later, when the breast cancer metastasized and went to her lung, she underwent eleven months of chemotherapy which, while reducing the tumor in size, left her with a slow-growing cancer that later morphed into a rapidly growing one sending tumors to her brain.
In between all of her bouts with cancer, she underwent what was, at the time, experimental kidney surgery–followed by twelve years of living on experimental medicine; a hysterectomy, two knee replacements–and, she suffered the loss of her husband at the early age of forty-eight. Through everything, she held down a full-time job, took care of her aged mother, cared for her sick and dying brothers and sisters, helped me raise my two older sons, and helped take care of all of her friends at one time or another. Plus, she did it all with grace. Even when she was in pain, she didn’t complain because she didn’t like whiners; instead, she always managed to lift everyone else’s spirits. In all the years that I knew my mother, I never heard anyone speak a bad word about her. She was an inspiration to so many, and set an incredibly high standard for my brothers and me to try to meet.
That standard was a great help to me while I was undergoing my radiation treatments. As I mentioned earlier, the problems that I experienced with the treatment were the side effects. At first, everything was going along OK, and even though I was losing my taste, I thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” But, about halfway through the treatments, it was as if someone pulled out a stopper and all of my life force drained out of me. It didn’t help that, after a while, the radiation to my neck fried my taste buds, making everything taste like cardboard, metal, or paste–and, making eating more trouble than it was worth. I was so wiped out that when I took a shower, I had to lean against the wall, and had to rest two or three times while doing my hair and make-up. Looking around, I could see plenty of things that needed doing but I just had no strength to do them. Even washing dishes was exhausting, so I would fill the sink with very hot water, let the dishes soak, and then sit down and rest. It would take two or three rest periods just to get the dishes done.
During the first couple of weeks, while still feeling pretty good, I started painting my son’s bedroom. Please keep in mind that painting for me is like falling off a log—I can knock out a room in no time! But, soon after finishing the walls, my energy disappeared–and, I still had the doors and woodwork to do. I would stare at the trim work, with eyes glazed over, unable to do anything. Then, one day as I was lying in bed, thinking about finishing the painting, the thought popped into my mind, “You are your mother’s daughter, after all—what would she do?” Immediately, I sat up in bed, swung my legs over the side, and stood up. I went into my son’s room, got out a brush and started painting. I took one stroke and rested, then another and rested, and before long, the job was done—all because I remembered that I was my mother’s daughter!
Even after I finished the treatments, my sense of taste and my strength didn’t return right away; it actually took about six to eight months for that to happen. In the meantime, though, I was able to draw strength from the example of graceful endurance that my mother had modeled for me throughout my life. And, during many of the struggles I have faced since then, I have been able to endure them with more grace just by remembering whose child I was.
- Remember to Fill Your Grace Prescriptions as Often as Necessary
Before I began the radiation, I had no idea what to expect; even though I had read all of the literature the doctor had given me, I didn’t know how it would affect me personally. So, I laid all of my concerns and uncertainties before the Lord and, when I did, He gave me a prescription that carried me through all of my treatments, and beyond…
…He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses…for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12; 9-10).
I found that during those times when I just couldn’t put one foot in front of another, if I cried out, “Lord, more grace!”—He would always come through. So, if you ever find yourself at a place where you just can’t summon up the strength to get out of bed, take a shower, go to work, be nice when you feel awful, or even pray, remember to call for your grace prescription to be refilled, and He will deliver it.
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; be gracious to me and hear my prayer…But know that the Lord has set apart the godly man for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him (Psalm 4: 1, 3).
- Remember to Always Be Thankful
Oh give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples. Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; speak of all His wonders. Glory in His holy name; let the heart of those who seek the Lord be glad. Seek the Lord and His strength; seek His face continually.
Remember His wonderful deeds which He has done…Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples…For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised…ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name…O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His loving-kindness is everlasting (1 Chronicles 16: 8-12, 24, 25, 29, 34).
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men, The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4: 4-7).
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18).
These, and many other passages in the Bible, command us to be thankful; however, during times of testing, this is often hard to do. I think the reason it is so important, though, is that in giving thanks, we are actually telling God that we trust Him; we are looking to Him, as children look to their father, relying on Him to do what is best for them, even when they can’t see the reality of it in their present circumstances. So…
- When trials come, causing us to question the basics of our beliefs, and our Father reminds us of the things that are true—we can say thanks;
- When we need to grow, even if it means enduring suffering, and our Father backs off and lets us go through the suffering without rescuing us—we can say thanks;
- When we are confronted by things which make us afraid, and we choose to overcome our fears through faith in our Father’s Word—we can say thanks;
- When death tries to take us out prematurely, we can remember that we still have a work to do for our Father, and denying death—we can say thanks;
- When we don’t know how to walk the pathway of testing set before us, and our Father places faithful mentors along the way to be our guides—we can say thanks; and,
- When every ounce of our strength is gone, and our Father sends mega doses of His grace to renew us—we can say thanks.
This is the very least we can do for such a wonderful Father!
Well, these are the seven lessons that I shared in the letter that I wrote and sent almost ten years ago. And, although I never received a response to it, judging from some of the recipient’s comments on the air soon afterward, I am certain that she read it and was blessed by it. In retrospect, though, the person who seems to have benefited by it the most has been me. That’s because, since writing it, I have been put back in the Potter’s kiln so many times, and been called on to endure such ever-increasing levels of heat, that I have often found myself returning to the letter in an effort to draw encouragement from the lessons recorded in it. So, should you find yourself in the furnace of trial and testing now or sometime in the future, maybe these lessons can also be a source of encouragement to you. It certainly can’t hurt to give them a try.