My brother used to run marathons, and liked bushwalking and rock climbing. He lived in Germany, working his dream job as a biomedical engineer designing medical equipment. Then one November he got severe chest pains and went to the hospital. After running some tests, the doctors gave him the terrible news that he had Stage 4 lung cancer. It was a complete shock to us all that someone who had never smoked in their life could be diagnosed with such a thing. It was especially hard on our family because he was living in Europe at the time, and we were separated geographically and limited in how much we could support him.
He lived for another 18 months, but the situation was made more difficult because throughout his illness, he believed that God would heal him and he would not die. He could not reconcile his faith with his experience of life. For a very long time it did not allow him to accept that suffering was a part of life, or that God might not rescue him from the pain that confronted him.
Right then and there he was faced with his own mortality and the harsh reality that he was not going to be healed.
Three weeks before he died, he went for a check-up and the oncologist told him that they would not let him return home. He might only have four weeks to live, and he needed to be admitted to hospital for palliative care. Right then and there he was faced with his own mortality and the harsh reality that he was not going to be healed. I am thankful that at this point he began to feel a great sense of peace. His whole attitude changed, and he was able to say goodbye to people and plan for his death.
His firm belief that God would heal him had prevented him from returning home to Australia. We flew my mother over to be with him, and at 4pm each day I used to call him on the phone to talk. Even so, it was a difficult time for all of us. We remain thankful for the precious people from my brother’s church who took turns sitting with him 24 hours a day in the hospital and the beautiful family who looked after my mother during the last three weeks of his life. I am grateful that I was the last person he spoke to and got an opportunity to say goodbye, even though this had to happen over the phone.
Why we are so intent on believing that God needs to rescue us from great suffering?
This painful personal experience got me wondering about why we are so intent on believing that God needs to rescue us from great suffering. Holding a belief that God will heal us if we have enough faith is not an uncommon thing for Christians to think, and it’s a mystery why God heals some people and not others. But to believe in healing to the exclusion of seeing the possibility of a path of suffering can be quite unhealthy.
I miss my brother still and wish that he was part of my life. He died at the age of 41. So, I am conscious that even though he was older than me, I have already outlived him. I also recognise the impact of his faith and witness to the people around him in those last three weeks of his life. The service held after his death was a powerful opportunity to share the message of Christ with the people he worked with and the community he lived in. It reminded many of us not to take our own life for granted and to live it well. It inspired some people to return to their faith and re-join a faith community. Good came out of a terrible situation.
Unfortunately, there was also a lot of pain. When something tragic happens, it often brings out the best and worst in people. They can say the most hurtful and discouraging things. The words sting because there is usually some truth in them, and they tend to be insensitively mistimed. For example, telling me my brother had ‘gone to glory’ a couple of days after he died a scary death of suffocation did not land well in my ears. Other things that people said quite frankly took me to an even darker place, and for a time I believed that it would have been better that I died rather than my brother.
If our theology of God and suffering is poor and inadequate, we will not move forward.
While time will ultimately heal the pain of the clumsy words that other people say, what does not always leave us is the faulty thoughts that linger afterwards. If our theology of God and suffering is poor and inadequate, we will not move forward. I liken these thoughts to myths because they are like half-truths. For example, there is truth in the statement that God could heal my brother, but this did not happen. It is also true to say he had gone to be with God when he died, but the way he died was terrible and I was left in grief. These myths can be quite harmful and discouraging, and rather than making sense of our situation they usually undermine our view of God and how we see ourselves. Myths can be very destructive because they take us away from faith and our trust in God. I believe we need to confront these myths and stare them down to reclaim the faith and life that God wants for us.
This article is an excerpt from Dr Katherine Thompson’s new book The Discipline of Suffering: Redeeming Our Stories of Pain, published by Acorn Press and now available from Koorong.
Also, don’t miss out on a current giveaway of three of Katherine’s books: Christ-Centred Mindfulness, Breathe and Still.