Last September I shared about being diagnosed with kidney cancer. I waited more than a month before posting, mostly to avoid anyone’s pity. (Come on, I can’t be the only one who dodges pity.) But I shared to be honest about my response to my cancer.
Many readers emailed me with words of sympathy, encouragement, prayers, and a few good jokes. Instead of the pity I dreaded, the emails encouraged me.
But I was astounded by the firestorm of emails lecturing me on faith and censoring me on language; many tutored me precisely on which words God allows and prohibits when we share. I’ll probably get another storm of emails because I used those forbidden words above: my cancer.
I know people meant well, but honestly, they felt like Job’s miserable counselors. I had simply wanted to share—actually, I hadn’t wanted to share—my situation … and there I go again with “my situation.” I received real emails that contained sentences like these:
- By saying “my cancer” you are disowning God and taking ownership of something evil.
- Never say that you are sick because if you do you are speaking without faith.
- When you write “my cancer” you have invited Satan into the temple of your body.
- Just rebuke the illness and it will be gone; if it remains, you are without faith.
- I can’t believe in a God who wills an illness. Have faith! Never admit cancer again.
I dreaded sympathy for my hospital bed; I never expected scolding for my illicit language.
Let’s Start with Honesty
In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking. It was an instant hit and sold millions of copies. Unfortunately, it also created a disingenuous culture of spiritual stiff upper lip-ism coupled with a spiritual censorship that stresses blustering bravado over honesty.
When Job suffers the death of loved ones and illness and loss of a fortune, he tears his robes, shaves his head, and screams. Modern Christians would say, “Tsk, tsk! Get a grip and visualize success.” But God values candor over swagger and declares, “In all of this Job sinned not.”
Job is not the only biblical book that encourages authentic expression. About a third of the Psalms are soul-screaming laments; the entire book of Lamentations shrieks at the brutality of life; Ecclesiastes questions all kinds of theology; and the book of Jonah revolves around a brutish, bigoted prophet angry at God.
So why do so many modern Christians race to rebuke words of honesty? Instead of chasing after worldly, shallow, Facebook self-promotions, we Christians should trumpet authentic transparency. It’s not prissy showiness we need but brutal honesty. Someone said it this way,
“Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”
Let’s Move on to Faith
Only American spirituality would supersize the quantity of faith, but that’s exactly the heresy the self-help movement served to twentieth-century Christianity. It offered us a kind of “faith in our faith,” and it fed us phrases like:
- If you believe it, you can achieve it. (William Arthur Ward)
- If you dream it, you can do it (Robert Schuller)
- Letting go of negative energy … will give infinite energy through God (Norman V. Peale)
Jesus never says, “Shucks, you only had 40 units of faith. Too bad. You lose.” Instead he taught that faith as small as a seed can move a mountain. And Jesus always preferred authentic expression over faultless phrasing. A father says, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Jesus doesn’t scold him for owning “my unbelief.” Instead Jesus rewards him.
The point of faith is its object, not its quantity or watertight wording. I once heard this story:
Two mountain climbers slip, fall, and land on a tiny ledge hundreds of feet above a canyon floor. One says, “I know without a doubt that the way down is to the right.” The other says, “Gosh, golly, gee, I’m not sure, but I think maybe we should go to the left.”
The first boldly steps to the right and crashes to her death. The second tentatively, fearfully, cautiously heads to the left, and climbs all the way down safely.
It’s not the measure of our faith that matters. It’s faith in the right rock.
God doesn’t heal us because of our super-sized faith but because of his super-sized love. Even when we forget to say “Abracadabra” or “Hokus pokus.”
One puts faith in themselves, conforming the Lord’s teachings and grace to their understanding and desires. The other puts faith in the Lord, handing over their understanding and desires for molding. One uses Scripture as a tool; the other becomes an instrument in the Master’s hand. One is a miserable counselor; the other is refreshment. Keep on being refreshment Sam.
I love your line, “One uses Scripture as a tool … and the other as an instrument in the Master’s hand.”
I love your praise of the Lord as “Master” over our lives; he always knows more than we do.
Great timing on how we should approach faith in these uncertain times. One of the reasons I love your blog is that you combine sound Biblical principles with truth, humility, and humor. Don’t bend to conform–keep being you.
Well put! Amen!
I know what you really like. We both have the same warped humor! (I know because I love your humor too.)
I am sorry you were scolded. You are correct, loving Jesus and our fellow man (woman) is the most important goal of our faith. The positive response, the negative response… it’s all just chaff.
You shared, someone (many someones) needed to hear it. We can’t live in positive vacuums. We are DOING life together and need each other without judging…
Thank you for your honesty!
Kelly, what’s really cool about these beliefs (for those who legalistically want to look down on others) is that if something does NOT happen, it’s the person’s fault for not believing or having enough faith, so satan wins either way.
Thanks! Actually, I don’t think I was hurt by the scolding as much as I was spiritually puzzled. Can ANYTHING good from God depend on anything good in me? God is merciful and gracious, not a vending machine.
I appreciate your encouragement.
Absolutely biblical, Sam!!! (I received a video from another friend showing a Tulsa-based TV preacher rebuking Corona. Wow! Did he have faith and emotion! However in spite of using the right words and gestures Corona is still killing people.)
I wonder if those ppl have read in the Bible, how many different disasters and illnesses there were then and how it is part of this world…so I agree with you, Steve
Agreed Cris, I don’t think they conceptualize the spiritual battlefield that we live in. This war makes D-Day and the trenches of WWI look like childs play by comparison.
I am SO glad that healings and blessings don’t depend on me having everything right. If I had to do it right, I’d have not hope.
Thanks for sharing,
Thanks, Sam. Again you’ve nailed it. I came up under a teaching in which it’s all up to the believer to maintain a positive confession. One slip-up, one admission of fear or doubt or tentativeness or what-if, and you’ve nullified your confession. If your loved one dies, it’s their fault or yours for not having enough faith. Instead of ministering comfort and hope in times of desperate need, that message ministers bondage and shame. How does that align with the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Do I believe in healing and miracles? Yes. I also believe there is such a thing as faith for healing. But I also believe it’s a gift sovereignly given by the Holy Spirit. It can’t be faked or worked up. And it’s only one form of faith. Without it, I continue to pray and to ask God, and that is the norm for me. What I do not believe in is sticking a dollar’s worth of positive confession into the slot machine and getting a chip bag of healing in return. God doesn’t work that way, and he’s not legally obligated (in the language I’ve heard used) to deliver the goods we hope for if we just work the right proof texts. I believe you wrote, in one of your posts not all that long ago, about mystery. I think that’s the ticket–mystery. It’s about relationship, not formula, and I think it’s key to our understanding of faith for healing, finances, and practical living in general.
I will add that in my email box, just prior to your own message, Sam, was an update from Ravi Zacharias on his own cancer treatment, which he is just now beginning subsequent to an excruciating recovery from back surgery. His words…that man lives for God’s kingdom. I am sure that in his humanity there is much wrestling with the angel that only his family and close friends know of. But what I see in him is unfeigned, real-world faith, and love both for the body of Christ and for people who need to know the Savior.
As always, I love your contributions, especially the “slot machine” and “chip bag of healing.”
In the final analysis, faith is more about my love and hope in a person than it is for anything I get in return.
Thanks Sam, exactly what I’ve been thinking. Opinions vastly differing from “God sent this to purge the earth” to “take communion every day at 10am and we’ll see the end of Covid 19 by 16th April” and everything in between… The simple fact is We. Don’t. Know.
Thought you might like this article from NT Wright.
Oh yes, and sorry to hear about the cancer – think that passed me by when you posted originally. Ignore the super religious ones who think they know best.
I really enjoy your articles, keep them coming.
Stay home and stay safe
Elizabeth from England
Thanks for your encouragement. And shucks, I was going to take communion at 10am hoping it would bring rain; no wait, I think I do the rain dance for rain. Hmmm, and what happens if I take it at 10:01?
Actually, I should have given an update on “my” cancer. I had four procedures between October and January. The doctors now think they got it all, and it is the type that usually doesn’t return; and no chemo or radiation. So, the prognosis is excellent!
Thanks for your kind words.
Sam, I’d like to thank you for your honesty as well as your spiritual wisdom. No one wants to face death or disability, and a stoic American response doesn’t get it done. God really isn’t a cosmic slot-machine; He’s a loving Father who cares for us and loves us.
I’m sorry you have experienced Job’s friends. At the risk of being one of them, I have to say that God has been teaching me in the last five years or so about Romans 5:28 – All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. What we see down here often isn’t the full picture. He sees it all and is working it out for the best for all of us. And this isn’t just being stoic; I’m really trying to grab hold that He really does know what is best and is making it happen. I may not be able to see it, but I keep trying to see that He does.
May God grant you healing and the ability to keep serving Him.
Hi Mike! I always wonder, if the verse firstly applies to our spiritual wellbeing and other stuff follows.
It is not Stoic at all to quote that passage. God gave it to us partly for that encouragement. I think he also gave it to us so we get a picture of Him in all his brilliance and glory. And when I see him more in all his glory … I actually begin to have more faith.
By the way other readers, Mike’s wife was my neighbor when I was growing up in Detroit. She lived exactly behind me, her back yard and mine met in the middle. She probably knows all kinds of things about me that I’d rather not be known :-).
Mike, say “Hi” to her for me.
Wow! Again another post which I needed and with which I agree. I have had the same issue in our small group. I wanted to share about my current hardships and I was hushed with the same words. But this only happened once. Usually they are very supportive. And then, I realized I do it to myself, too. Somehow, I feel like I have to disown any negative thoughts. I started analyzing, why that is. And I realized that it is because I don’t want to whine like the Israelites did in the desert. But now I know that God wants us to be authentic with Him. That means, He expects us to come to Him with every need and want and sorrow. Still I feel bad when I vent to unbelievers. Then I feel as if I was not showing the joy a Christian is meant (?) To have in every situation. So I still feel bad about telling others. So you can say I do nit have all the answers in this matter. Well, unlike you, I like sympathy. Then I feel like I matter to someone…
You just gave me a great idea to write about, praying our grumbles (and fears and anger and joys, etc.) to God. Thanks.
I’m not sure why so many Christians censor other Christians, but I love your self-reflection when you say you censor yourself. That was very astute of you.
Thank you for your words Sam. I’m sorry you had to deal with “Job’s friends.” My experience during my husband’s cancer diagnosis and treatment was that those who had never gone through a devastating diagnosis themselves were quick to correct and condemn, while those who had had their own bout with sorrow and questioning showed the most compassion. Sometimes I think that we as Christians can be our own worst enemies. I appreciate your openness and the consistent truth or your messages, and look forward to your posts. May God continue to bless you and your family as you minister.
Once backed into a corner Biblically in “faith” discussions, I’ve heard many a brother or sister say something like, “Well, I don’t want to get too hung up on theology…”
Well, I’m sorry but THEOLOGY MATTERS.
Very, very well said, Sam!! I especially love your use of the word super-size. Only in America ?
Amen! It does matter. The funny thing is, most people who disparage theology, usually say something like, “I don’t like all the dogma and doctrine. I just think we should love each other.”
The problem with that statement (“I think we should just love each other”) is that it itself IS doctrine, it even has a name: the doctrine of salvation by works.
We can’t get away from theology and doctrine, so we might as well try to get it right.
I think we learn more by experience than by head knowledge. It’s so easy for us Christians to criticize others for their lack of faith, until we walk in their shoes.
Why are we so especially bad? I don’t get it. I mean, Christ came precisely because we so desperately need a savior, a savior from ourselves (and our sin, stupidity, etc.). To be a Christian is to admit I’m a spiritual fool. So why do I look down on others?
What your critics are talking about is a very old heresy. Mind science, New Thought, now repackaged as the “Laws of Attraction.” All of those things talk about belief (faith) and all distort it. Too many Christians take awful things into their lives, not realizing how harmful they are to their walk with God. If you believe in laws of attraction, you don’t need God, you just need to think positive thinking. They argue “it’s a law of the universe”, so if it is, who set up that law?
I imagine most of your critics are espousing some variation of that thought process, even if they’ve never heard of paid attention to “Law of Attraction” or Mind Science, etc.
Jesus help them to move toward your thoughts.
I love that phrase “Mind Science.” It reminds me of the old joke: Mind Science is like Grape Nuts, neither grape nor nuts.
Mary Beth Wenger
Brother, thank you for your boldness in speaking the truth. May the Lord continue to give you wisdom and boldness in speaking the mystery of the Gospel and Who God is (Ephesians 6:19). May He be glorified and magnified through all you do and your witness in trusting Him in the midst of a medical diagnosis of cancer and the pandemic.
Exactly: May He Be Glorified.
Amen to this, Sam. I’m so sorry you have had to suffer fools. As probably know, I wrote about this recently in my own blog. Good thing we have grace.
You two have had to suffer fools far worse than I have.
Here is a great article Cynthia wrote: https://cynthiatews.com/10-ways-to-support-someone-with-cancer/
My, oh my! Having cancer, or any disease or affliction, is not an indication of a lack of faith. It is simply a reminder that we live in mortal bodies, existing temporarily in a broken and evil world. The responses you received are indicative of the falsehood of “positive thinking” (which places the burden of effectiveness on oneself;not God) and the so-called “prosperity gospel” which is simply a belief in karma and self-will.
When Jesus instructed us that we MUST become like little children, He simply meant we should become dependent on God and not so self-reliant, like we adults so often default to. These little faith accusers are the same type of people Jesus had to correct with the the rich man and Lazarus parable in Luke 16. They, like the Pharisees, teach that if you are healthy and rich, then God is pleased with you. How earthly minded that is!
Actually, if my health depended on my faith or goodness, I’d be dead.
Thank God for grace!!
Katherine Scott Jones
Hear hear, Sam, well said. Every. Single. Word.
Oh, thank you, Sam! When I wrote about seeing several amazing highly unlikely healings, I heard from many angry people who were treated unkindly in their time of need. They also ran into those who chastised them for lack of faith and “owning” a medical condition by naming it or “giving in” to the symptoms. I had a hard time believing people could be so insensitive until I found myself in the same situation.
I believe God heals today because I have seen it and l look forward in hope-filled expectation to experiencing God as either my healer or my keeper. I have noticed that people who pursue healing see more of it than those who have a theology based on avoiding disappointment, but we have all experienced painful outcomes that didn’t line up with our prayers or declarations. Denying that fact doesn’t make it go away. God’s timing is part of the character-building faith process. Miraculous signs point to something, or rather Someone; knowing Him is my goal.
But I have lost friends and been chastised for saying I have stage 3B cancer and am on palliative care. Some vanished when I didn’t buy whatever cure they were selling, and others went poof because of my “lack of faith” when I was still asking for prayer two years later. When I stopped feeling shocked, shamed, and defensive, I listened. What I heard was fear — not mine, theirs. They had more faith in the devil to be conniving and evil than they did in God being gracious and good. They were afraid that honesty would empower the not-good guy.
The story I love is the one about Elisha’s servant feeling terror at the sight of surrounding enemy armies. Elisha didn’t shame him or require him to deny the evidence. He simply asked for his servant’s eyes to be opened to a greater reality. The enemy army was outnumbered by an angel army. I also love the psalms that freely express David’s raw emotions before he gets around to expressing hope. How could he move from despair to delight if he never admitted despair?
My faith sometimes looks like something I picked up at a scratch-and dent sale. Most of the time it’s adequate, but there are days… Thank God his faithfulness is so much greater than my faith. I totally agree with you: “The point of faith is its object…”
Wow, you make so many GREAT points, and I love them all. But I want to especially focus on your last paragraph. I fell over laughing (and admiring) your sentence, “My faith sometimes looks like something I picked up at a scratch-and dent sale.”
YES! It is about Him not us. And then you go on to say that His faithfulness is so much greater than ours.
Again, YES! That is the gospel, the good news, and the free (to us) gift.
I also want to commend you for the idea that this idea of perfect faith (and language) comes out of fear. Great point.
And it makes my more sympathetic.
Paula Champion Jones
Bravo for you! Those same people who are scolding you are the ones who are not social distancing right now because ‘God will protect them.’ And BTW, I’m a retired pastor who discovered more lives were changed when I was transparent with my own struggles than when I tried to preach from atop a pedestal. Those pedestals are slippery and people keep falling off. Keep up the good work.
I’m amazed at how many preachers only want to talk about their successes. I learn much more from people who struggle … like me!
Spot on, Sam! I constantly repeat to myself that the Lord has not promised each of us a soft, petal-strewn path. All of us will have hardship of some sort; some of us will have pretty extreme crosses to bear. ( I personally believe He knows exactly what is right for each of us, although we can’t see it from our earthly vantage point.) What He has promised is not ease/comfort, but “I will be with you always.” We can call upon Him, as He is present even, perhaps especially, in our suffering. Prayers for you!!!
Thanks for sharing. And YES!, God wants us to know Him and His presence. I sometimes wonder if “health” is the new prosperity gospel/heresy.
Hi Sam … reading your post regarding honesty in suffering, I was particularly struck by:
“Job is not the only biblical book that encourages authentic expression. About a third of the Psalms are soul-screaming laments; the entire book of Lamentations shrieks at the brutality of life; Ecclesiastes questions all kinds of theology; and the book of Jonah revolves around a brutish, bigoted prophet angry at God.”
I think of a sketch by “the Skit Guys” in which the one is talking to God and the other IS God. The human says to God why, when there is so much trouble on Earth, did you put only five chapters in Lamentations? “Why did you have Jeremiah only write five chapters?” God says,” I got tired of lamenting.” LOL
I think God was right (what a surprise!) “As we confess our sins to one another and pray for each other so that we may be healed, The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James 5:16.
Rather than “lamenting” over our circumstances, rather we should be praising God for the blessings we DO HAVE!.
I agree with you, Sam, (and I have done this myself) if we confess illness in our bodies and call the illness “mine” instead of an attack of the enemy, We run the risk of defining ourselves “as our illness”. Not just,” I have diabetes”, but “I AM diabetic.” I have corrected believers who use this language, and, as I recall, I even corrected you for saying “my cancer” (Sorry).
I think there is a balance in what we should confess. The father of the epileptic boy had seen the disciples fail to heal his son, even though he had faith that they could heal him. When Jesus tells him to “just believe”, He is asking the man to cast aside any doubt that his son could, and would, be healed. So when the man asks Jesus to “help me with my unbelief”, I think we ALL should refer people who suffer with doubt back to prayer and seeking wisdom from God. You are right, Sam, positive thinking alone will NOT change circumstances.
Inviting Jesus into your circumstances WILL change your circumstances. Yes?
So by all means, let us not, as “righteous believers”, get caught up in emphasizing the evil, horrible, and (I love this one ,,,) “thinking the unthinkable” about our bodies.Nor should we spend time “correcting the language of the infirm.” Rather let us be like The Lord and limit our lamentations to a small part of our day, and always pray for the healing of others, as well as ourselves. AMEN??
Thanks for your posts, SAM.
Sam, I am so sorry that you have been chided with this response. I am an oncology nurse and there’s so much I could say but just a couple of things:
People have to acknowledge what is going on in their bodies in order to receive the healing they need whether miraculous or medical – or both.
Quotes from the gospel of Matthew, ch. 8:
V3 ‘And [Jesus]stretched out his hand and touched him saying “…be clean.” ‘And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
V17 ‘This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” ‘
I inserted ** for emphasis. I think this confirms that Sam you were using a common turn of phrase even used in the Bible (Didache version quoted here) and by Isaiah no less!!
You are in my prayers. Peace be with you!