This post is now incorporated with 22 other similar ‘reflections’ in my book, Facing Cancer with Faith.
In the ‘Cancer and Me’ chapter I posted back in August 2015 (No 37), I finished by referring to the anxiety that was afflicting me at the time. I took the decision to defer publication of this follow-on piece (which I wrote not long afterwards) to avoid making too much of my worries in public. I want people to know that I’m sometimes not as strong as I make out, but I don’t want to come across as emotionally needy, or seem like I’m pleading for help or support. So I’ve scheduled this to post on a date when I’ll have forgotten that I wrote it and the situation will be different (the source of my anxiety will largely be behind me).
As I write I’m in the midst of a third battle with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. At the moment it involves some mild chemo, which I’m mainly coping ok with physically, but in a few months time I will have to have a stem cell transplant.
In case you haven’t read the August 2015 entry, here’s an extract:
“I try to look on the bright side. I’m not laid in a hospital bed permanently connected to drips, sensors and tubes. I’m not housebound. I’m not fighting infections and having blood transfusions. Most people have physical niggles and limitations, especially at the age of 45, so I’m not unusual (or special).
“The only thing that I can point to that makes this whole episode something tough is the stem cell transplant coming up. I still don’t know when that will be, and haven’t even got an appointment with the team in Southampton to talk about it yet. Until that treatment becomes imminent I’ll continue to appear to everyone as if I’m coping, doing well even….
“But the thought of the stem cell transplant makes me anxious to be perfectly honest with you. I worry about the physical side, being made very ill by the treatment, and then taking months to feel normal again (will I ever know what normal actually is?). I worry about being out of action for the initial month or so of the treatment, locked away unable to help Heidi and the kids with the things they rely on me for. I worry about my income stopping for 6 months, when we have no other income. I don’t know how we will get through it, so I have a mental block in preparing for it.
“But anxiety is something I must get over. ‘I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”’ (Psalm 91:2)”
I intended to end that piece with a note of determination. But there is also frustration. Through the times of unemployment and illness over the last 15 years I thought I’d learnt a lot about trusting God. And whatever else I’ve learnt, I know that hardships are times that test whether I really do trust God, and whether I really do seek His kingdom first. The problem is that these hardships always find me out! And this time I must dig deeper. I really want to come to a position where I can, in every hardship, say with the psalmist, that I “will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” (Psalm 46:2)
So I’m going to ask two questions to try and move forward:
- Why does the Bible tell God’s people not to worry?
- What is at the root of my anxiety?
Why does the Bible tell us not to worry?
Let’s take a few Bible passages that speak about anxiety and worry, and see what they say.
1 Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety on him…” Why? “…because he cares for you.”
Joshua was told: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” in the face of big, strong Canaanites who would fight tooth and nail to try and prevent the land being taken by the Israelites. Why? “…For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
Jesus told the disciples (Luke 21:14), “make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves” when brought before kings and governors on account of Jesus’ name. Why? “For I will give you words and wisdom…”
In Acts 27:22-24, Paul was on a ship in the middle of a massive storm. The crew was starting to panic. An angel appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid, Paul.” Why? Because, “you must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.”
God cares for us, he will be with us. Why is that such a comfort that it would cause us to lose our worry and anxiety? Because he is God, and therefore he has power to change things. He has power to give words and wisdom when we need, so that we need not worry when we come up on trial before important people. He has power to save lives and control storms, and to change the outcome of any situation, so that his purpose will be fulfilled. And that’s why Paul did not need to be afraid of the storm.
In Matthew 6:25ff, Jesus tells his followers not to worry about life, about what they will eat or drink or wear. Why? Because our heavenly Father cares for us and will feed and clothe us.
“‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’”
God cares for his people, is constantly with them, and has power to protect them, provide them with what they need, and carry through his plan for them.
It’s not just the fact that worrying doesn’t achieve anything (as Jesus said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (v27)). It’s more than that. We shouldn’t worry, because God is our heavenly Father and he cares for us.
God has power over everything. He created everything. Just imagine if Queen Elizabeth were your mother, and you knew she cared about you as her child. Would you ever worry about food and clothes? No! But we have an even greater Father – the creator and ruler of the entire universe. If he cares for us, then we need not worry about anything.
Jesus puts it the other way to emphasise God’s care for us as his children. God sustains and cares for the “birds of the air” (v26) and the “flowers of the field” (v28). “Are you not much more valuable than they?” Jesus says (v26). “… Will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” (v30)
None of this is new to me. So why do I still worry, oh me of little faith?
What’s the root of my worry?
My problem is that I have always felt a weight of responsibility to do my best work all the time, to help my wife and provide for my family. If I am to be incapacitated it is still my responsibility to provide, by identifying and putting in place the contingency plans that will cover my absence from duty. Until I know what the contingency plans are and can see them falling into place I worry.
And that does not necessarily conflict with a strong view of God’s sovereignty and control over all things. As Jerry Bridges says in his book, Trusting God, “Just as God’s sovereignty does not set aside our responsibility to pray, it also does not negate our responsibility to act prudently. To act prudently, in this context, means to use all legitimate, biblical means at our disposal to avoid harm to ourselves or others and to bring about what we believe to be the right course of events.” (p114)
So I am caught between a Biblical command not to worry and an equally Biblical responsibility to provide and care for my family.
Don’t I trust God that he will put food on the table as he’s promised? I say I believe God is sovereign and controls everything. I say I believe that God loves me because of my faith in Christ. But what is faith in Christ? Faith is believing in the ability of Jesus to save me as he promised. Faith is believing that I am God’s child in Christ. Faith is believing what God says to me as his child.
Yes I do believe…
But I guess where I falter sometimes is that I worry I am not doing enough to ensure there is food on the table. Often I am able to be content when I know what is the right thing to do, I know I can do no more, and then I can trust God to either make it successful or not. I don’t worry about the outcome. I just do what I know to be right, and then react to the outcome whenever it becomes clear, and pray in the meantime that God would give me the outcome that I need.
So I submit to the chemo treatment and stem cell transplant, because I know that is the right thing to do. I have sought advice from those who are experts, and I have no reason not to trust what they say. I pray that the Lord would make it successful. I know that God is in control of the outcome. And I genuinely don’t worry about what the outcome of the treatment will be in 6 months or 9 months. I worry even less about whether the cancer will come back again assuming that the treatment will be successful this time.
But do I not worry about the outcome of the treatment because I’ve read enough research to know that it’s likely to be effective, even if just for a few years? Would my attitude be different if the short term outcome was more uncertain? Maybe there’ll opportunity to test that in future (I hope not), and maybe this is the training leading up to that test. But for now I think I find it easier when I know I’m doing all that I can.
My main worry at the moment seems to come from the fact that I don’t know what I should do in the face of this upcoming stem cell transplant. I have a responsibility to try my best to put in place alternative sources of income and provision. But I am stumped. I have almost run out of options.
But that’s where the problem is. I am worrying because of my need to control the situation. I have to realise that I have never had control of anything. God graciously allowed some of my plans to succeed and my income to flow, and the food to arrive on the table, and blessed us with lots of good things as well. God is and always was in control, whether my plans are succeeding or not. And he has decided that it’s time that we relied more directly on him for a while. His means of providing for my family is normally my income from my job (which he provided). In his wisdom he has decided to take me out of action and stop my normal income for a while, but has not revealed to me fully how his provision will continue.
There are those who have been considered “men of faith” in times past – mainly missionaries (and the likes of George Muller, who built orphanages), who have had to trust in the Lord daily for their basic needs. They have entered some days not knowing where the food was going to come from, and yet in response to prayer they were miraculously provided for – for that day, and then again the following days.
I used to think they were special, but thinking about it now, I don’t think Jesus wants them to be special. I think he wants all his disciples to have that kind of faith, the kind of faith that trusts God for everything, big and small; the kind of faith that obeys God whether it seems ‘safe’ or not.
There will be times when our calling is to plan large tasks, build barns, store grain, live off big successes. In those times we are to thank the Lord for those successes, recognise he is the one who gives those successes, and love our neighbour by sharing with them.
There will be times when our calling is to have a stable and secure job which provides a stable income. In those times we are to thank the Lord for the security and stability he has provided, and be wise stewards and hard workers.
And there will be times when our calling is to be like the Israelites in the wilderness, eating the manna collected in the morning, trusting that there will be more tomorrow. In those times we are to thank the Lord for his loving, daily provision, and for the fact our names are written in the Book of Life, and I guess we should look for ways we can trust God for bigger things.
We need to learn to have the same attitude as the apostle Paul: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
What is this secret? Paul has already mentioned it earlier on in Philippians 4: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (vv6-7)
I want that peace. I want that contentment. It comes through prayer to “him who gives me strength”. It’s not easy. That’s part of why we call it hardship! So I’ll finish where I started, with that note of determination: “I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (Psalm 91:2) And I’ll pray for the “grace of faith” (as George Muller called it) to trust God’s provision for our every need.