As many of you know, I recently celebrated my 5th anniversary since being diagnosed with cancer. In spite of my protests, my wonderful wife Tricia threw me a big party. Most of my family came down from NY; my daughters and grandchildren were all there; many of my friends were there as well. I had a great time and I thank you all.
The day before the party was the annual American Cancer Society Relay for Life at Clearview High School in Mullica Hill. I have attended this event regularly since I was diagnosed with Stage 3, Level IV Melanoma in 2002.
At this year’s Relay, the list of survivors was much shorter than in years past. Many of the people that I had gotten to know thru this event had died since the last Relay. My next door neighbor, Chuck Schroeder, had been diagnosed with cancer at about the same time I was. This year marks the 4th anniversary of his death.
As you might imagine, this experience has caused me to reflect quite a bit on my life, my near-death experience and the question of “Why?”
Why did God allow me to get cancer? Why did God choose to heal me? Why am I cancer-free now for more than 5 years when others I know have died during that timeframe or are still suffering with the disease? Why?
I’ve even been feeling guilty about it. I just don’t understand. I’ve turned to others for input on this but I still don’t get it. I suppose I never will. I mean, I’m nobody special. I certainly don’t deserve this second chance that I’ve been given. So many questions…so few answers.
Why do some live? Why do others die? Why does God allow suffering to come into our lives? Why would God allow his children especially to suffer?
Life is so fragile. Life is so fleeting.
Is there anyone of us who doesn’t feel like the months and years go by faster and faster the older you get? I think Pink Floyd said it best in a song called “Time” from their groundbreaking album “Dark Side of the Moon”: (For you youngsters—that’s the title of a record from 1970. And “yes” we had electricity back then.)
(Mason, Waters, Wright, Gilmour)
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter. Never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say.
Ah, the classics. What’s not to like about “Dark Side of the Moon?”
As the song points out, when we’re young we think that we have all the time in the world. There’s no hurry. We’re young! There’s time to kill. We will live forever. Nothing can stop us. It’s usually not until you get a bit older that you are confronted with the reality that your life is passing by at a rapid rate. Not only that but you realize that you have absolutely no control over the events and circumstances of your life. It’s a frightening realization to be sure.
The Apostle James tells us in James 4:14 that our life is “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” <spray bottle> A mist that appears for a moment and then vanishes…just disappears.
David put it this way: “…my days disappear like smoke…” (Psalm 102:3)
And again “…for we are like a breath of air; our days are like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144:3)
Job said it like this;
“…my days are running out quicker than the thread of a fast moving needle…my life is just a breath…” (Job 7:6,7 CEV)
Our life “is but a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Just how long is that? If one day is as a 1000 years with the Lord, then how long is the appearance of a mist in His eyes? Are we talking about a mist like the one you sometimes see in the morning that the sun burns away by mid-morning? Or, are we talking about a mist like that of the steam from a boiling pot of water? Or, maybe even the mist from waves of the sea crashing on the shoreline? In any case, mist doesn’t have much of a lifespan. It appears for a very short while and then it is gone forever.
When I was given the bad news that I had 5 years to live, I began writing down my thoughts and feelings. (How typical! I never had the impulse to do this until I was told I was dying.) I also began writing the story of my life. I wanted to be able to pass these stories down to my children and grandchildren. Maybe they could learn from some of the mistakes I’d made. In any case, here is some of what I wrote back in 2002 right after I was told of my diagnosis:
Excerpt from “Five Years”
“Five years. Five years used to seem like a long time. Four years of high school seemed like forever. Four years of college was an eternity or so it seemed. But now, at forty-four years of age, five years was more like the blink of an eye.
My three daughters, Crystal, Heather and Meghan, had all grown up over the last twenty-two years. Or was it 22 minutes? Where had the time gone? Only yesterday, each of them had been born and now Meghan, my youngest, was eighteen. (She’s now 23.)
I had only become Alyssia’s grandfather two short years ago. (Alyssia is now 8.) A young grandfather admittedly, but I relished the job. Being a grandfather was the best thing in my life. I loved playing with Alyssia so much. I spent as much time with her as possible, just trying to keep up with her, taking in every little detail of her growth. Perhaps I was trying to make up for all that I missed or could no longer remember of my own children’s early years. Oh God. The thought of not being there for her was crushing! How would my children deal with my death? How would Tricia go on? She had married a man with a death sentence.
The thoughts of family and friends mourning my death flooded my emotions until the tears began to fall. I wasn’t worried about myself. I was much more worried about how my children…my granddaughter…my wife…would be able to cope with this horrible situation. How would my mother, father, my dear sister Colleen and my brother Shaun take it? If it were one of them instead of me, I know that it would kill me to lose one of them. I loved them all so much.
Yet, there had been many times in my life when death had been desirable; the aim; even the goal. I had wanted out of this life with its pain and trouble, and, on more than one occasion, had attempted to take my own life. It had been many, many years since, but still…how ironic now was the news of my death sentence, when at this time in my life I was the happiest I’d been in years? “How typical.” I thought, allowing some self pity for just a moment. It seemed to me for most of my life that fate was against me. I would never be truly happy. I would never be truly normal, successful or comfortable. Pain and worry would always be a part of the baggage that I carried through this miserable existence.
But now…right now…I wanted to live! I had gotten through the pain of the divorce. I had fallen in love with and married Tricia. I had a wonderful granddaughter. I had three beautiful daughters. I had just gotten a new and exciting job. My outlook was as optimistic right now as it had ever been in my entire life. Oh sure, there were problems. We couldn’t afford to keep the house so we had to put it up for sale. We struggled to pay the bills every month. But, I was happy. I was dealing with reality as a grown man and doing what I could to provide for my family. I felt good about myself for the first time in a very long time. “Why now God? Why now?”
It was easy to feel bitter at first. Like I was being robbed of something of my own. Sadness, remorse, guilt, confusion, pain, doubts; my emotions ran the gamut of all of these and more. But my attempts to feel bitter toward God failed miserably. No matter what, even though I haven’t always lived like it, my faith remained strong. I knew in my heart that I’d already had more years on this earth than I deserved. I felt a strong assurance that I would spend eternity in heaven, not because of any good thing in me, but because I had accepted Jesus Christ as my savior many years before. Still, my failures and inconsistencies to try to live the Christian life were weighing on my soul.
Soon, I started to feel the joy and gratefulness of a thankful heart again. I realized that I had been given a gift: the gift of life. If He decided to take that life away from me, it was His to take. I had accepted this truth long ago.
I had never figured out why I’m here in the first place. Why did God put me here? Does He really care for me? Is He disappointed with me? Does He have a plan for me? Did I somehow miss it? These are just some of the questions that have run through my mind over the years. Still, I had lived a very full life. I had experienced joy and pain; love and loss. I had been on top and at the bottom of the heap. I had laughed and cried equal amounts over my forty-four years it seemed. Good and bad; wealth and poverty. I had experienced all of it.”
It was right about the time that I was going thru chemotherapy that my Mom gave me a copy of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. I began reading the book and I was amazed at its clarity and simplicity. The opening sentence in chapter 1 grabbed my attention and never let me go until 40 days had passed. After 40 days, I read it again.
(For those of you who have never read the book, Rick Warren asks that you read 1 chapter a day for 40 days.) I read the book in the way he had prescribed and kept a journal of my thoughts.
That opening sentence simply said “It’s not about you.” That’s it. Four words. As simple as can be. “It’s not about you.” I sat back and thought about what that meant. “It’s not about me?” Well, if it’s not about me, then who is it about? I read on in chapter 1 as the author explained that this life that we have is all about Him. It’s all about God. We were created and have this breath in us for His purposes…for His pleasure.
Now to be sure this is not a revelatory statement. I mean, I had known this for many, many years. After all, I had graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible with a B.S. in Bible. I was Mister Bible Knowledge Hotshot. I didn’t need to be told that I was created for God’s purposes. I knew this stuff. This was all very elementary. Still, it occurred to me that somewhere along the line in my Christian life that I had forgotten this simple yet profound truth.
OK. So we were created by God and for God. But that still doesn’t answer the original question: “Why?” Why does God allow suffering? What is the purpose of suffering, especially among His children?
If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to John 9:1-7. We’ll also have the text up here on the screen for you and on the back of your program. Let’s see what the Bible can tell us about the cause and purpose of suffering.
1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7“Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
During this portion of Jesus’ ministry, He was in Jerusalem where He had been repeatedly confronting the Pharisees regarding their hypocrisy and false religious practices. This particular incident happened on the Sabbath which was the Jewish Holy Day. According to the Pharisees, no work (including healing) was to be done on the Sabbath. Jesus seems to have chosen to heal this blind man on the Sabbath to make sure that the Pharisees would take notice. Time and time again, the Pharisees noticed that Jesus “violated the Law” by healing on the Sabbath yet they failed to see that their long-awaited Messiah was being authenticated in each and every miracle!
From the rest of the passage (and we won’t deal with it here) it appears that the blind man and his family seem to have been well known in the community. This healing received quite a bit of attention which is exactly what Jesus had in mind in the first place.
Notice that Jesus’ disciples immediately assume that this man’s blindness is the result of someone’s sin. Either he or his parents must have sinned in order to cause him to have been born blind. This was a very common Jewish mindset at this particular time. In some circles, it’s a common assumption to this day.
But what does Jesus say? He immediately disagrees with them and tells them that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
What is Jesus saying here? God purposely caused this poor man to be born blind just so that this miracle could be performed in his life? <Pause> Yes. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying. As we just read, our lives are not really about us but about Him anyway. This “mist” of a life appears for a very short time in comparison to eternity.
God displays His power and glory through all sorts of means. I mean, all of creation displays the glory of God. But God sometimes chooses to display His power and glory through individual lives like that of the man who was born blind. There was no other reason that this man was born blind other than “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
So, just what is the “work of God” in a person’s life? Well, the blind man put it best a few verses later in the chapter when he was being cross-examined by the Pharisees. He simply said “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” When a man or woman’s eyes are opened so that they can “see” Jesus Christ, a change takes place in their heart. This change can go unseen and unnoticed unless that change becomes evident in their lives. It is this change in the life of a new believer that gets noticed by his or her family, friends and co-workers. This is the evidence of the work of God; the changed heart that Jesus was referring to. This evidence can lead someone else to come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through your changed life.
Does your life show evidence of a changed heart? Have your family, friends and co-workers noticed a change in you since your eyes were opened to “see” Jesus? Or, are you still living in exactly the same manner that you were before your eyes were opened? If so, how can the work of God be evidenced in your life?
God’s influence on a person’s life can sometimes be very invasive. It certainly was in my case. Rather than surrender my will and my life to Him when I received my sight 33 years ago, I went on living the life I wanted. Oh, there were some immediate changes to be sure. But over the years I slipped back into a lifestyle that was anything but “Christian”.
I held on to the things that gave me pleasure even though I knew they were in direct defiance of God’s will for my life. It took God “invading my space” in a severe way to get my attention and to turn my life around. In a short span of 2 years my first wife left me and my children after 22 years of marriage. Next, I lost my job after 10 years with the same company. Next, I was diagnosed with cancer and given 5 years to live. Lastly, I lost our family home to foreclosure because all of my benefits had run out due to my unemployment and chemotherapy. Now, I wouldn’t wish all of this on anybody but, for me, this is what it took for God to get my attention. This is what it took to get me to surrender my life to His will.
Now I’m not saying that every instance of cancer or illness or trouble that occurs is because of someone’s disobedience to God. We’ve already heard Jesus say that this is not always the case. But sometimes God does use these and other trials to bring us closer to Him and to refine our character.
The familiar metaphor of the gold refining process comes to mind. Gold is heated until the impurities rise to the surface and are removed. The intense heat purifies what was already a very precious commodity. Like gold, you and I are precious to God. He sometimes turns up the heat in our lives in order to purify us as well.
So God uses suffering to mold us and shape us into vessels that he can use to bring honor and glory to Himself. Perhaps instead of asking “Why?” we should be asking “What?” What is it that you want me to learn from this situation Lord?
In Judges 6-7, we find an amazing story about a man named Gideon and Israel’s defeat of the Midianite army. Rather than read the 2 chapters, please allow me to summarize. I would encourage you to read Judges 6, 7 when you get a chance.
There was no king is Israel at this time. Instead, Israel was governed by “judges.” After a time of prosperity and obedience to God under Deborah, we’re told that the Israelites did evil in the sight of the Lord. For a period of 7 years God gave them over to be dominated by the Midianites. Midian was a powerful kingdom and they took every opportunity to destroy Israel over the course of the 7 years. It was so bad that the Israelites barely had anything to eat and hid themselves in caves.
The Israelites (who had been worshipping the false gods of their enemies) finally cried out to the Lord for help. The Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and told him to go to war against the Midianites. He told Gideon that God had delivered the Midianites into his hand. Now mind you Gideon was from the tribe of Manasseh which was the weakest in Israel and he was the youngest in his family. He was hardly warrior material. After some consternation, a few tests to make sure that the Angel of the Lord was who he claimed to be, etc., Gideon finally believes God and obeys. He gathers 25,000 men to go to war but God tells him that 25,000 men were too big of an army. (The Midianites, Amalekites and other armies had gathered together to fight Israel. The text indicates that the number of their camels alone was like the grains of sand on the shore.)
So God begins paring down the army of Israel to a size more to His liking. In the end, only 300 men were chosen to fight the battle. In Judges 7:16 we read “Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside.” No weapons. Just trumpets, empty jars of clay and torches. Gideon was told to have the army blow the trumpets and break the clay pots at his signal. No swords. No shields. This was the army that the Lord sent to defeat the Midianites.
Now why would God do such a thing? Why would God allow Israel to suffer at the hands of their enemies for 7 years? Why would he send an army of 300 men equipped with trumpets and flower pots to defeat an army? What was God trying to teach Israel here? Well, we’re given an explanation in 7:2, 3: “The LORD said to Gideon, “You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, 3announce now to the people, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.” Now just to be sure that Israel knew that God was the one doing the fighting, he trimmed that 10,000 man army all the way down to 300.
Gideon divided the army into three equal divisions of 100. They snuck up on the camp of the Midianites at night. At Gideon’s signal they blew their horns, broke their clay pots and shouted “For the Lord and for Gideon!” While the Israelites watched, the Midianites turned their swords on one another. The Israelites were victorious without ever lifting a sword because God fought the fight for them.
Maybe we need to be broken like those clay pots so that we can be victorious? Maybe until we’ve experienced some suffering and brokenness in our lives we’re not really “usable” in God’s hands. I know I wasn’t usable to Him until I was broken. Maybe the pain and suffering we go through is to prepare us so that God can use us.
We’re made of the same clay as those flower pots. It’s “ashes to ashes; dust to dust”. Dust, mist, whatever. It’s all the same. Very, very temporary. We’re here for only one reason: to display the power of God in our lives. The power of God was clearly on display in the battle between Israel and Midian. God won the battle; not Israel.
The power of God was clearly on display in the life of the man born blind from birth. There was no mistaking the hand of God in the restoration of his sight.
Is the power of God clearly on display in your “mist” of a life? If not, why not give up the fight and surrender to Him right now.
Jesus said “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
Surrender your life to Him now and begin enjoying a life that is filled with His blessing.
Maybe you have never come face-to-face with Jesus Christ. Maybe you have never heard that you can have a personal relationship with God. Maybe your eyes remain blind today. God loves you. He sent His only Son to die for your sins so that you can have eternal life. Why not surrender to Him today? Give up the fight. Stop trying to make it on your own.
Our life is but “a mist that appears for a moment and disappears.” But the Bible tells us that if we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, God has promised to give us the gift of eternal life. Forever. Forever is a long, long time. Please don’t put it off for another minute.
If you’re not sure how to talk to God and ask Him to save you, please see Pastor Mark or myself after the service and we’ll be glad to show you how.