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Can Cancer Be Part of God’s Plan?

Written By Debra Hunt, New Zealand

The three words you never want to hear: “Unfortunately, it’s cancer.”

I was 31 when I received my shock diagnosis. My husband and I had three small children, a mortgage, and I was working as a children’s pastor at my church.

Breast cancer was not part of my five-year plan—or any plan I’d made for my life for that matter. I was a non-smoker, reasonably fit and healthy, with no family history of breast cancer.

Despite all this, I found myself sitting in a small seasick-green room, listening to my doctor explain how far my cancer had spread. It hadn’t been caught early, and was quite advanced, so she detailed a treatment plan involving surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and 10 years of endocrine therapy*. She estimated that if I went through all this treatment, I would have a 75 percent chance of being alive in five years’ time.

Over the weeks that followed, I gradually let go of the dreams and hopes I had for the immediate future. The half marathon would have to wait. So would my goals for the church I was working at.

My life was interrupted. I found myself asking, “Why God? Why would You let this happen? Why would You allow this cancer to hold me back from the things I thought You wanted me to achieve?”

My church family prayed for me. I prayed for myself, begging God to heal me.

What I felt God say in response was that I simply needed to trust Him on this path. Yes, He could heal me, but would I trust Him even if He didn’t?

It took me a couple of weeks of wrestling with the concept, but after many tears, I realized that my response was, “YES.” Yes, I could trust God, even if He didn’t take my cancer away. The Bible says He is trustworthy, and I chose to believe it. I put my faith in Him because I knew He wouldn’t be careless with me. I leaned into a long-time favorite verse, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

I appreciated The Message’s paraphrase of this verse as well: “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you” (1 Peter 5:7, MSG).

So, I decided to stop asking God to instantly fix me, and instead, to trust Him through the process of treatment.

 

Unexpected Blessings

What I found during my treatment, was that although it was hard, God wove blessings into the journey.

You see, when I really thought I might die, the world became insanely beautiful. Reminded of my own mortality, I drank in sights and sounds like I’d never see them again.

I would step through my door in the morning, and be struck by the sight of dew drops on leaves—the way the light filtered in through branches, or the way flowers closed up so tightly at night but opened themselves widely to the sun during the day. The beauty around me became so acute and intense that it almost hurt. Having my life threatened led me to a deeper appreciation of creation; I could see God’s artistic hand everywhere.

I was also blessed with a special closeness to Jesus. I was surprised, because I didn’t feel like walking with Him through this time was hard work . . . I felt like He actually carried me. I’m generally a bit of a pessimist and prone to negativity, but it seemed like Jesus helped me to feel more positive and upbeat than normal. Yes, it was still challenging a lot of the time, but I always could feel Him with me, and I had an unexpected peace deep in my heart.

Having cancer has also opened up some doors for me, and given me a platform from which I can share more about God’s love. I’ve been speaking at events and blogging, and that has not only helped me to process my experience, but has also allowed me to speak life and hope to a wide array of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.

 

Cancer Is Not a Good Plan

Do these good things mean that I think cancer is God’s good plan? No. No way.

When He makes everything new, there will be no more sickness and weeping (Revelation 21:4). Cancer was not God’s plan for mankind, and it won’t reign forever—He will put an end to it. But unfortunately for now, it’s here, and it affects roughly a third of people at some point in their lives.

As I continue in my fight against cancer, I know that God isn’t sitting up in heaven telling me to toughen up. He is right here with me, weeping with me at the brokenness of my body.

I know this because Jesus has compassion on His creation. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept at the destruction and sadness—even though He knew the story had a happy ending! He knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet He was overcome to the point of weeping (John 11:35). So, I know that it hurts God to see His creation suffering and being cut up, poisoned, and irradiated.

Cancer is not God’s plan. It is a result of our fallen world. But one day, Jesus will end cancer once and for all.

 

For now though, I believe God can use even this horrible disease to do wonderful and surprising things. While we may be shocked by a diagnosis of cancer, God is not. He already knows how He is going to bring about something beautiful from it. He is the one who replaces ashes with a crown of beauty, and turns mourning into dancing (Isaiah 61:3, Psalm 30:11). So we can stop fretting and trust Him with our lives. In fact, He tells us we must do this (see Matthew 6:25-27 and Philippians 4:6-7).

I’m one year out from treatment now, and I’m doing okay. I still struggle with my health, the ongoing side effects, and the anxiety of the cancer returning. But I am so grateful for all the good God has done, and will continue to do, on this journey.

Cancer, sickness, or suffering is not God’s plan for you or for any of His precious creations. If you’re currently going through a difficult time or battling illness, will you join me in trusting Him to use even the grimmest of circumstances for good?

 

* Endocrine Therapy is a hormonal treatment used to slow or stop the growth of cancer

 

Lisa Anderson: A Story of Grace

At 17, Lisa found herself throwing up in her bathtub, not knowing that she was pregnant. Feeling alone and angry at God, Lisa could never have imagined what plans He had for her. Watch this poignant testimony of God’s grace at work in Lisa’s life as she learns to use her life experiences to bless others.

 

When Giants of the Faith Fall: Why It Matters

“Not again!” I thought when I read that the founder and CEO of Relevant Media Group, Cameron Strang, has come under fire for creating a racially insensitive work environment.

The 43-year-old was alleged to be a toxic boss who exhibited “various levels of high-handedness, shouting fits and racially insensitive slights”.

These accusations come on the heels of a spate of news headlined by Christian influencers in respected roles who have either left the faith or fallen short of living the Christian life that they claimed to represent.

In July, author Joshua Harris denounced his faith, and a month later, Hillsong songwriter and worship leader Marty Sampson said that his faith was on shaky grounds. Earlier this month, news of Harvest Christian Fellowship Church pastor Jarrid Wilson taking his own life rattled the Christian community around the world.

And now, criticisms of Cameron’s leadership skills have emerged after former employee, Andre Henry, an African-American writer, and Relevant’s managing editor from October 2017 to July 2018, posted the following on social media about a podcast episode the publication had put out on race and the church:

Several experiences & stories from my time @RELEVANT….convince me the org is not committed at all to creating an antiracist culture internally to produce a race podcast with integrity.

Cameron has since stepped down from his role, and said he will be taking a leave of absence in order to “grow and better understand important issues, especially about race and equality”.

While I do not consider myself a Joshua Harris fan, I enjoyed reading Relevant’s articles, and had looked up to Marty Sampson. So, seeing the succession of influential Christian leaders fall like a pack of dominoes is somewhat depressing.

To add to that list, the former pastor at a church I used to attend in my home country, New Zealand, was recently charged for sexually assaulting female congregants. The offences allegedly involved three female complainants, and spanned between January 2012 and April 2019. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his case is still before the courts.

While I was not close friends with the pastor, we have chatted a few times, and connected on social media. He was like any charismatic pastor—warm, friendly, and welcoming. I remember thinking how wholesome he and his wife were. I was particularly blown away at my second visit to the church, when the pastor was on stage welcoming new visitors, and mentioned how good it was to see me back at their church.

So, imagine my disappointment and sense of betrayal when I read the news about his alleged assaults. Here was a pastor who preached about Jesus and was encouraging us to live a life worthy of Christ, but was living a double life behind closed doors.

While the news didn’t leave me disillusioned with God or the gospel, I did feel jaded to read of these giants of faith failing to live up to Christ-likeness.

 

Why We Look Up to Human Leaders

We often look up to human leaders because we crave to see Christians living out their faith in the 21st century, especially in a world where Christianity is increasingly being seen as outdated and irrelevant.

This is why I love seeing or hearing young and hip Christians like Cameron and Marty dominating the world stage or standing up against cultural norms. To me, they are proof that Christians can be in this world, but not of the world (John 18:36)—leaders I can point others to as evidence that Christians can be hip, modern, and relevant.

As a result, it’s easy to gravitate towards these cool personalities and put them on a pedestal without realizing how easily it could also lead to disappointment whenever a leader or influencer fails us.

As former Relevant editorial director, Aaron Hanbury, told The Washington Post, “We evangelicals have been far, far too quick to [equate] apparent financial-organizational success and aspirational personalities with faith leadership.”

Given the string of failures that we’ve witnessed in the past few months, perhaps it’s time for us to re-evaluate who we’re following—and why.

 

Follow the Ultimate Human Leader

As I write this, it dawned on me that regardless of how cool a leader is, or how impeccable their character might seem, or even how influential they may have been in our spiritual journey (perhaps even leading us to faith), ultimately, we cannot look to a human role model because he or she is bound to fail us at some point.

Theologian Albert Mohler, in response to Joshua Harris’ divorce and deconversion from the faith, wrote that the news was “deeply humbling to American evangelicalism”, and the “heartbreaking headlines reminds us that we can place our trust in no sinful human being, but in Christ alone, the One who alone is worthy of our trust”.

While we’re looking to hip, cool Christians to lead the world stage, what we often don’t realize is that we already have the ultimate leader to follow—in the form of Jesus, who lived 2,000 years ago, and changed the system and the beliefs of the ancient world. He walked among humans, experienced fatigue, hunger, and was tempted just like the rest of us (Matthew 4:1-11), and eventually suffered the most agonizing death mankind could ever think of.

Because of this, Scripture says we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Instead of desperately searching for the next big leader to look up to, we should all be focusing on following Jesus.

Of course, it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In fact, the Apostle Paul likens the Christian walk to running a race, and exhorts believers to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). This verse reminds me of how easy it is for me—or for any of us, whether or not we’re in a place of influence like Marty Sampson and Cameron Strang—to go off track in my own race.

It’s so much easier for us to criticize those in the spotlight, pointing out their missteps, and shaking our heads at them. But knowing how prone all of us are to falling and occasionally going off-track should cause us to reflect on our own personal lives and examine our hearts. Just because we don’t constantly live under the scrutiny of the public eye, it doesn’t make our sins or failings any less real than theirs.

And when we do so, we’re reminded to continually fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). To “fix our eyes on Jesus” is to see him as our leader, king, and inspiration, the one who has gone before us, and is calling us to follow in His footsteps.

While it can be tempting to magnify the mistakes of these faith leaders, let’s also not forget the incredible work they have done. Cameron Strang created a media space for Christian young adults, giving us a platform to read and reflect on articles relevant to our lives. In his years serving as a worship leader, I’m sure Marty Sampson has helped countless people worship God at a deeper level. In our shortsightedness, we might write them off or disqualify them from the “race”, but I have no doubt that Jesus can redeem their stories for His glory.

If you’re like me, and finding yourself a little disillusioned and jaded by the recent news of these high-profile Christian leaders, can I encourage you to look to Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8)—and to entrust all our failings to Him?

Avengers: Endgame—Is It Really the End?

Screenshot taken from Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame | Special Look

 

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

 

I remember walking out of the theatre after watching Avengers: Infinity War last year in a daze.

The good guys had lost.

One by one—Peter Parker, T’Challa, Groot, Sam Wilson, Bucky Barnes, and so, so many others—evaporated into dust, as the Mad Titan clicked his gauntleted fingers, leaving billions dead across the world, and trillions across the universe.

For days after, my mind wrestled with the “if onlys”. If only Peter Quill had kept his cool. If only Iron Man had just cut Thanos’s infinity-gloved hand off with a laser. If only Thor had gone for the head.

Western culture has not prepared me well for unhappy endings.

But Avengers: Infinity War was really only half the story, and I’d have to wait over a year for the chance at closure and catharsis.

Avengers: Endgame (2019) is the climax of “The Infinity Saga”, bringing to a close an epic 22-film series that began with Iron Man way back in 2008. In Infinity War, we saw characters we love die on-screen—will they return? Can the remaining Avengers undo the insane loss triggered by the Dark Lord Thanos?

Endgame has a sombre beginning, as we revisit the shock of half of all life disappearing from the universe. We meet a band of despondent heroes, filled with despair, struggling to cope with the unimaginable enormity of their failure. One tries to drown his sorrows in permanent drunkenness, while another takes out his rage and grief in vigilante violence. The early part of the film explores their anguish and loss. They are all grieving and overwhelmed, unsure how to continue in a world that they have failed to defend, in which they have lost so much.

 

What are you willing to sacrifice?

Human connection and relationships are central to Endgame, and many characters appear and reconnect from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, reminding me of the four types of human loves C. S. Lewis summarized in his classic The Four Loves. Examples abound in Endgame of Lewis’ loves, adding emotional depth and pathos to the story.

First, Lewis speaks of storge, a deep family love and affection, such as the love between parents and children. We revisit the relationship between Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and his father Howard Stark, we see Scott Lang (Ant-Man) reuniting with his daughter Cassie, and we witness Thor’s deep love for his stepmother Frigga. Often portrayed in comic form as a braggart and womanizer, Clint Barton (Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a loyal and loving family man, devastated by the loss of his family. And there’s also Rocket’s grieving over the loss of his surrogate family, the Guardians, and Nebula’s father-issues with the Mad Titan himself.

Lewis then speaks of philia, the love between friends, “as strong as siblings in strength and duration.” We see the close camaraderie between Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson) and Clint Barton, and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) reaches out to a hurting Thor (Chris Hemsworth), while Korg (Taika Waititi) still hangs out with his Asgardian mate playing Fortnite.

Then there is eros, romantic love. We see Stark in space, expecting to die, declaring “it’s always you” to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). And there’s Rogers, often pondering the picture he keeps of Peggy Carter, and their love that never had a chance to grow.

And finally, there is the fourth love, agape, the unconditional love of God, the love that, “is all giving, not getting.” Empire reviewer Helen O’Hara notes that if the theme of the last film was, “We don’t trade lives,” this one is “all about responsibility, and self-sacrifice, and being willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win the day.”

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13, NKJV). In Endgame, the human cost of self-sacrifice and the selflessness of heroism is front and centre.

These loving relationships emphasize the very intimate, human aspects of this epic tale, increasing the stakes for which our heroes are fighting.

 

Can the world be restored?

There is also the bigger picture, of undoing Thanos’s dark deed and making the world right again. At one point, Tony Stark shares his desire to see “families reunited” and the “world restored.” We’ve witnessed the emotional fallout and the deep sense of loss of those left behind, but what if it could be undone? Can the death of so many somehow be reversed? What if loved ones could be reunited, and the world somehow restored?

This theme particularly resonates with me, and with the Christian worldview. Like our heroes, we live in a world filled with the pain and darkness, where suffering is an all too present reality, and we know that things aren’t the way they should be. However, God seeks to renew this present world, working until it is rescued, healed, and restored. John speaks in Revelation 21-22 of the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. New Testament scholar Tom Wright tells us that God “will transform the whole world and fill it with his justice, his joy, and his love.”  And this is good news indeed.

There is also something about us as human beings that resists the reign of death. In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey ponders Christ’s resurrection, and recalls one year in which he lost three friends. He goes on to write, “Above all else, I want Easter to be true because of its promise that someday I will get my friends back. I want to abolish that word irreversible forever.”

Like Yancey, I yearn to see my loved ones again. I long to see the defeat of death. This is part of the joy that arises because of Christ’s resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55, NLT).

And this is the same theme that kept viewers anticipating Endgame’s release, each of us harboring an eager and expectant hope that good would triumph over evil, and, maybe, just maybe, if our heroes can pull it off, we might see those characters that we love so much somehow restored to life again.

Endgame is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with poignant moments of touching humanity and lashings of breathtaking action. It marks the end of an era, and what a ride it has been.

As I left the film, I found myself thankful that God continues to draw people to himself and seeks to renew and restore this world. And I look forward to the time when He will wipe every tear from every eye, and when “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).