If ever a title needed clarification, this is it. The GIFT of cancer? Don’t I mean CURSE of cancer? No, I mean gift. Cancer is a gift. How could that possibly be true?
1) Cancer is a gift because it is a kind warning that death is coming. We are all dead men walking. As soon as we are born, we start dying. We have always been dying. The problem is that very few of us believe it. We have many plans for our lives, but death is not part of them. Why? Do we think we shall escape what no one else has? Do we think that a cure for cancer and every other terminal disease shall be soon found and we shall live forever? Does everyone live to old age? When such questions are posed, we immediately see the absurdity. Of course, we know we are going to die. But still we are not planning on it. We are practical atheists when it comes to death. We would never be so foolish as to SAY that we won’t die; yet, we act as though we won’t die. This is why we are so shocked when the doctor tells us we have cancer. This is also the real source of our pain and devastation. This is why we are depressed. Cancer can be very painful, but what is even more painful than the cancer itself is the shock that we actually have it. Our shock comes from our unbelief regarding death. We have not taken God and His Word seriously. God has taken great care in His Word to prepare us for the inevitability of death, but we have not listened.
After Adam sinned, God said to him, “By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, And to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:19). In Ecclesiastes, we are warned over and over that death is coming: “All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” (Eccl. 3:20). God gave the same warning through David: "LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; Surely every man at his best is a mere breath.” (Ps. 39:4-5. David had to ask God to MAKE him know how transient he was. Why? Because David understood that he, too, was a practical atheist when it came to death. We, too, should pray and ask God to make us know how transient we are.
2) Cancer is a gift because it is a friendly reminder that we are sinners. Why do we get cancer? Why do we get any disease? The real question is, “Why do human beings die at all?” The answer is sin. Death is a consequence and penalty for being a sinner. When God told Adam he would die and return to the dust, He was telling him the consequences of his disobedience.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). The reason we die is because we are sinners. We have broken God’s law times without number. The penalty of sin is death. Sin is the “work” we have done and death is the “wage” we have earned. Even if you are a Christian, the penalty of physical death will not be removed (unless you're here when Christ returns). Christ’s death on the cross takes away (for true believers) the sting of death, the fear of death and the curse of the second death (hell), but it does not remove the penalty of physical death. Sin is serious. It does not warrant community service, a slap on the wrist or a 20-year prison sentence. It warrants the death penalty.
Cancer is a friendly reminder that we are sinners. We need to be reminded of this, because we are prone to forget. God is a friend to us when He tells us we are sinners and that we are dying. We need this diagnosis. We cannot be saved without this knowledge. We will not seek a cure for sin unless we know we have the disease. Disease and death is God’s reminder that we all have the disease of sin. Furthermore, the knowledge of our sin saves us from the disease of self pity. Self pity is a debilitating disease of its own, far more harmful and deadly than cancer. We feel sorry for ourselves because we are dying, but that betrays our ignorance of our sin and the just consequences of that sin. We wallow in self pity, and even become angry with God, because we don’t believe we deserve to die. We are in denial. We need to remember that we are sinners, that we have broken God’s law repeatedly and that we deserve to die. Self pity ranks right up there with unbelief as the greatest source of our trouble. Cancer and heart disease are small problems compared to the bigger problems of unbelief and self pity. These are the real diseases from which we need salvation.
3) Cancer is a gift that helps us get our priorities in order. Many people die suddenly without any notice from a doctor that they are nearing death. Some die in car wrecks; some in explosions; some by heart attacks; some by other causes. Those who get cancer, however, usually get a warning with time attached to it. They get time to set things in order. This is a gift.
Cancer is a reminder that we have just a short time left and the time to get things in perspective is now. Cancer is a gift that helps us realize there is no time like the present for seeking the Lord.
“Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (Isa 55:6-7)
Cancer tells us that we must seek the Lord without delay. Now is the time to read the Scriptures. Now is the time to pray and plead with God. Now is the time to be part ofa church where God is revered and the scriptures are faithfully taught. Now is the time to seek spiritual counsel from someone who knows the Word of God. Sadly, most people receive the gift of cancer in vain. They do not make use of the warning or the time they have.
4) Cancer is a gift because it is an opportunity to repair relationships. Because of pride, we do not like to forgive those who have hurt us or ask forgiveness of people we have hurt. We may think about reconciling with others, but we tend to procrastinate when it comes to difficult things. Cancer is a gift because it tells us that the time is now -- or never!
5) Cancer is a gift because it mortifies the pride that presumes on the future. According to James 4:13-15, our future plans are often rooted in pride and boastfulness.
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.’" (James 4:13-15)
God considers it a proud and arrogant thing for us to assume our own future. We have no idea whether we will live another hour, much less another year. So, when we confidently proclaim what we are going to do in the future without even a passing acknowledgement that such things will only happen if God wills them to happen. God is not pleased. When we speak so confidently of the future, we act as though we are God and have the power to guarantee future events. Cancer is a gift because it humbles our pride. It reminds us that we are not God. We don’t know how long we will live and whether we will be able to carry out any of our plans. Cancer teaches us to say, “If the Lord wills, I will live and also do this or that.”
6) Cancer is a gift because God’s strength can be revealed through our weakness. Cancer drains our energy away. Treatments sap our strength and leave us unable to do much. How can this be good? It can be good because God chooses to reveal His strength when we are weakest. When we are strong, we often do not recognize God’s grace and help in our lives. We think we are doing things by our own power. It is only when :our strength" is gone that we realize where the strength is truly coming from and glorify God, not ourselves. Consider the experience of the apostle Paul. Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from exalting himself.
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me--to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
We do not know exactly what the thorn in the flesh was. What we do know is that it was painful, it was in the flesh, it made Paul weak, and he wanted to get rid of it. Paul was not satisfied by asking once for God to remove the thorn. He asked three times. Actually, he implored the Lord three times. In other words, he was begging. He was desperate. After the third time praying, God told Paul he could quit praying about the thorn’s removal because God wasn’t going to remove it. God had a loving, good and holy purpose for it. The thorn was not an accident. It was ordained by God Himself for Paul’s benefit. What God gave Paul was grace to deal with the thorn. “My grace is sufficient for you.” What is grace? And what good is grace if it does not remove the thorn? Grace was the gift of knowledge. God let Paul know the purpose of the thorn and this made it much easier to bear. Grace was the gift of a submissive attitude to gratefully receive something so painful. Without God’s grace, he never could have received the thorn. But because of grace, Paul gladly boasted about his weaknesses. Because of grace, Paul was well content with weaknesses. Because of grace, Paul was satisfied with God’s power being shown, instead of Paul’s power being shown. Paul did not curse God. Instead, he accepted and received the thorn and boasted in his weaknesses. Paul welcomed the opportunity to have God’s strength glorified in his own weakened condition.
I doubt that Paul's thorn was cancer, but surely you can see the application. Cancer is a thorn in the flesh. Cancer makes you weak. Cancer takes away your self sufficiency. Cancer is painful and something you want God to remove. You pray that God will remove it multiple times. And yet, sometimes, God does not remove the cancer. He gives you grace to receive the thorn; grace to boast in your weakness and rely on God’s strength; grace to be content with cancer. In no way am I suggesting that cancer is easy to deal with. It is not. I am also not suggesting that those who get cancer should wear a plastic smile and never weep. There is a place for weeping and sorrow. I am suggesting, however, that there is a reason to have hope and joy as well. That hope comes from knowing God's good and loving purpose in it. Cancer is a gift of God. May grace, mercy and peace be multiplied to you so that you can receive this gift, even while you seek medical treatment to remove it.