16th February 2006
John Piper has posted on his website an article entitled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” (HT BlogWatch). He wrote the short reflection yesterday (15 February) before having prostate surgery (his surgery reportedly went well). I too have been thinking a lot about cancer recently. My father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer two days before Christmas, a close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer early in the new year, and some of my students have family members who were recently diagnosed. In addition, this upcoming Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of my father’s death from cancer.
In his article, Piper produces a series of ten statements that begin, “You will waste your cancer if you….” Now most of the statements are meant to encourage believers to remain positive and hopeful when struggling with cancer (e.g., “You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God”; “You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection”; etc.). I have no issues with the vast majority of his points.
That being said, I do take issue with his first two statements:
- You will waste your cancer if you do not believe it is designed for you by God.
It will not do to say that God only uses our cancer but does not design it. What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming cancer, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate. So when he strikes Job with boils (Job 2:7), Job attributes it ultimately to God (2:10) and the inspired writer agrees: “They… comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). If you don’t believe your cancer is designed for you by God, you will waste it.
- You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). “There is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel” (Numbers 23:23). “The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).
Now, perhaps I am just coming from a different place theologically than Piper (actually, I know I am), but I find the notions that God “designs” people’s cancer and that cancer is a “gift from God” to be offensive. What is more, I find that Piper’s proof-texting of Scripture to be troubling. In the book of Job, God does allow “the adversary” (×”Ö·×©×‚Ö¼Ö¸×˜Ö¸Ö–×Ÿ, hasatan) to inflict Job, and his so-called friends did see his suffering as from the hands of God and due to his own sin. But, in the same way it is fallaciouss to see all suffering as the result of sin, so it is not the point of the book of Job to then attribute all suffering to the direct agency of God. Similarly, his series of proof-texts for his second point are perhaps relevant to part of his point that cancer is not a “curse.” But saying that cancer is not a “curse” is not the same as saying it is a gift.
All good things are a gift from God (James 1:17) but in my books cancer is not a good thing. Cancer is an all too frequent reminder that this world is radically fallen, that things are manifestly not the way they are supposed to be — they are hebel (×”Ö¶×‘Ö¶×œ). I do think there is a subtle, yet theologically important distinction to be made between talking about cancer (or any sickness or tragedy) as being used by God over against cancer being caused or designed by God.
Perhaps I am wrong, or at least biased by my own personal experiences. Whether or not you agree with my perspective (which I would readily admit I have not developed in any detail in this post), one thing we can all agree on is that we should pray. We should pray for John Piper and all who are struggling with cancer. I covet your prayers for my father-in-law and my friend, as well as for the others I have mentioned.
In addition, I encourage you to consider supporting one of the many agencies or foundations who work towards cures and more effective cancer treatments, such as the Canadian Cancer Society or the American Cancer Society.