God’s Providence: Applied to Cancer and Human Suffering

I have just been reading Scottish theologian, David Fergusson on the topic of Divine Providence; and he broaches (and develops) the reality of a God-world relation wherein we must take serious how it is that it ‘appears’ (and 184862_1895595029145_1219653647_2300170_3295680_nin point of fact is) that evil—in all of its malevolent expression—(as if we live in a Manichaean dualism) is winning. One of the things that Fergusson lists as an evil that is apparently ruing the day is sicknesses, diseases, untimely death, and what simply appear as brutal arbitrary ad-hoc sufferings being realized on a daily basis, encompassing all peoples from the four corners of earth. [I have my own personal experience with this, cancer seems to be an irremediable form of evil that haunts the psyches of most.] Here is what Fergusson writes:

[T]he biblical account of “creation as Yahweh’s partner” depicts the world as blessed. It is a fitting home for human and other creatures in which to flourish and multiply (e.g., Pss. 24 and 104). This flourishing requires wisdom to discern, attention to maintain, and worship that celebrates and reminds the people of the character of the world and God’s rule. The affirmation of providence is less a philosophical hypothesis (although philosophical elements are present in the Wisdom literature) and more an act of faith set in the context of worship and ethics. At the same time, God’s rule is threatened by forces of chaos that manifest themselves in a variety of forms, including sickness, injustice, misfortune, and untimely death. The language of combat, victory, and enthronement cannot be understood except in terms of forces active in creation that jeopardize God’s reign and call forth resistance. It is a recurrent criticism that Christian theology has for too long ignored this central feature of the configuration of the God-world relationship in the Hebrew Bible. The psalms of lament, Job, and passages from prophets inter alia (among other things) return to the theme that there is resistance to God’s reign. This resistance is not constructed in a Manichaean sense since there is no other creator. God ultimately commands the world order. Nonetheless, God is inexplicably delayed and too often silent in dealing with these palpable threats to the divine rule. This delay and silence are frequent sources of Israel’s complaint that are resolved only by the action of God in reasserting the order of the world through the vindication of the righteous. It can hardly be stressed too often here that there is no attempt to expound a theodicy that explains why the world is the way it is. The solution rests in divine action that obliterates evil. Even in Jeremiah 12:1-3, where something like the classical dilemma of evil is posed, the desire of the prophet is not for explanation. It is for God’s banishing the “workers of treachery.” [David Fergusson, Chapter 11, Divine Providence and Action in, God’s Life In Trinity, edited by Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, 154-55.]

When I was walking through my cancer (Desmoplatic Small Round Cell Tumor, sarcoma), I often wondered at God’s delay; he seemed silent and un-present. Yet this piece of chaos (cancer) that interrupted our lives (my life and my families’ life) did not threaten God’s rule in my life, indeed, it was through this season that I found comfort in the fact that God is ruler, and not an anarchist mass of cells in my body. Nevertheless, I had frequent moments of anxiety (the whole time I had cancer); I had times where the silence of God, and his apparent slowness to work caused me to cry out in bewilderment and desperation. But the point I take away from this is that the evil imposed upon my body did not cause me to want to look away from God, instead it caused me to desperately depend upon him (and his body, the church … my wife included in that, especially!) in ways that I never would have lest faced with my mortality and an “untimely death.”

As Fergusson rightly notes; how we understand God’s providence is grounded more in faith than it is in analytics. And of course there is more to this story (which Fergusson gets to later); how can a Christian conceive of God’s providence without interpreting that through the lens that he himself provided for us to interpret that through? That is, through the cross of Jesus Christ, and the cruciform life of God on display in Jesus’ humility for us. God wants us to wait and depend on him; this is his wisdom, and the wisdom of the cross. What is intended to destroy us, God turns on its head and uses it as the occasion for us to grow in intimacy and ecstatic dependency upon him. And these trials and tribulations won’t disappoint, they aren’t an end in themselves; they will be swallowed up (death will) finally as it is put under Jesus’ feet in the consummation. It is in the consummation where the existential realization finally comes. As the Revelator writes,

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” ~Revelation 21:3-4

We walk by faith, not sight.

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2 comments

  1. Wow! Bobby, I’ll be bookmarking this to send people to later. Your having lived this out makes it even more real. Thanks for giving us some context and showing that theology doesn’t belong in the ivory tower but in the dusty paths of life.

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  2. Thanks, Michael. I like to stop and reflect on my cancer, I need to do that more often. It definitely has provided a perspective for me that I never had before I had cancer … I wish I didn’t have this perspective, but it is a blessing at the same time, and wouldn’t trade what the Lord has given me through it! Thanks for the encouragement, Michael!! And yes, I think ivory tower type of theology is anathema in heaven!

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