I watched the clip from your interview that has made its rounds on social media and caused a stream of responses, some good, some not-so-good varying from bitterly angry to fiercely sympathetic. I have to say, I was inclined to respond earlier, but I felt I needed time to think this response through and word it properly. I know that it is unlikely you will ever actually see this, but it will be seen, so it’s important that I put it the way I mean it to sound.
You see, the thing is, I am a Christian, a Catholic even. And a practising, devout-in-inverted-commas (cause let’s face it, I get it wrong, a lot) one. And yet, at least on paper, I agree somewhat with what you said. People have been struggling with these sentiments for thousands of years, and although everyone from Thomas Aquinas to Philip Yancey have tried to explain it for us, most of us will never truly be able to satisfyingly respond to the question of suffering when it comes to faith, particularly if we have no understanding of redemption and heaven – a goal to which our suffering brings us. If you do not start with the premise of faith and an understanding that there is a point and meaning to everything, even suffering, then it is never going to be a topic we can satisfyingly answer.
But that is not why I am writing this letter. I do not pretend to have answers for you. I have been up and down about whether to write this at all, because my suffering has been so infinitesimally small compared to so so many, and I don’t feel remotely qualified to shed any light on it.
But I wanted to share that, although I may not have been a baby, at 20 I still felt like a child when I was told I had cancer (not bone cancer, perhaps, but still cancer). Have you ever seen the world stop before you? Everything kind of goes blurry, life moves so slowly, voices fade into the background. I don’t remember much of what the doctor or myself said in that moment, but I remember how it felt, that stomach-flip you usually feel just as the roller-coaster starts, the statistics that mean nothing to you as you realize that despite their best efforts to tell you that 80% of people pull through, you cannot help but hear what’s deliberately unsaid – that 20% of people don’t.
Another young cancer patient at the hospital where I was treated would later tell me that he saw me that day and knew immediately what I had just been told. He had been there, and the look on my face told him everything he needed to know.
I hope you will never need to know what that feels like, or the knife it plunged into the heart of my mother who was sitting beside me.
I could spend my life asking why. Why did the God I so loved and trusted let me go through that? Why does He let so many others endure it? Why did I survive it? Why do others not? But I know I will never have the answers to these questions. Whether God exists or not, I will never be able to fully understand why there is suffering in the world.
And here’s the thing – I will never truly forget any of the experience of cancer. I will never forget the pain of being prodded daily by needle after needle while I was being diagnosed. I will never forget the way I could actually feel the poison of the red drug in my chemotherapy cocktail running through my veins. I will never forget the way I hid – covering my head and arms so no one would look on me as “the sick girl” with thinning hair and a tube poking permanently out of my arm. I will never forget the look on the faces of the elderly people who sat beside me in the haematology ward, the one that said without words: “But she’s so young.” I will never forget the first chemotherapy treatment I had, when four nurses had to lift me onto a bed and place an oxygen mask over my mouth after everything went black, and how many visits there were to the toilet to be sick, or how I was sometimes so weak I struggled to physically lift myself out of my bed. I will never forget the nights when the pain hit and the hair came out in clumps in the shower and I looked in the mirror and could only see cancer, and the tears would come.
But the truth is, when I look back on that time, my first thought is none of these things. My first thought is of the love, the community, the support, and the faith I received in this time. People told me how strong I was, how optimistic, how inspiring. But it was not something that came from me. There was a strength in me that was not my own. The knowledge that I was supported in prayer by an army of amazing people, that is what got me through that time. Love is what got me through. God is what got me through.
Because the truth is, if you believe in God, then when suffering hits, when it really hits, you can rant and rail at Him (and sometimes you should), but in the end, most of us lean further into Him.
And so I appreciate that you were not deliberately trying to upset or anger anyone in what you were saying, but I cannot help but say: Please, Stephen, don’t try to take God from those of us who suffer. Because when suffering truly hits, when life brings us to our knees, God is all we have left. Take Him away, and we have nothing. Without God, whether you believe in Him or not, I would not have made it through that time anywhere near as well as I did. I was told I would most likely go onto heavier treatment, probably resulting in me being unable to have children. And even then, advanced as the cancer was, there was talk of possible need for further treatment in the form of radiotherapy. But 3 months in, my cancer disappeared, and lighter, preventative treatment was followed until I was given the all clear 5 years ago.
And as I hold the baby daughter I may never have been able to have in my arms today, I cannot imagine watching her go through the suffering I endured in that time. But I hope that if she ever does, she will know that God went through it (and much worse), too (Matthew 26:36-27:66), and He is with her through it all. Because even if there is a day when my faith fades (and I hope there never is), I don’t think I could ever forget that God was all I had when suffering hit. And as a parent, I finally understand both the desire to take pain on myself rather than let my daughter go through it, as Jesus did, and the truth that if I never let her experience pain, she will never truly understand joy or love, she will never truly grow or learn. God, as our Parent, is teaching me that now.
I thank you, Stephen, for not shying away from such a difficult subject, and I admire your integrity, for choosing to question rather than ignore it, make light of it, or try to explain it away, as so many of us do. Jesus Himself questioned the immense suffering His Father asked Him to endure, but He endured it all the same, for us, for me. For you. I cannot pretend for a moment that I understand the pain some people endure or why they are allowed to endure it. But I take solace in the knowledge that we, all of us (for all of us suffer in some way in our lives), are not alone in our suffering. That we have a God who has humbled Himself to the extent of enduring our suffering, humiliation and sin for our own sake.
I do not want to die. I want to grow old with my husband, to see my daughter grow up and have children of her own, if that is what she is called to. But I do not fear death. I stared it in the face once, and it looked oh-so-small. My God is bigger, my hope is stronger. And one day, when I am finally called home, be that tomorrow or in decades time, be it instantly or after much suffering, I have hope that the suffering will be over, but the joy will continue. That God will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things [will be] gone forever.” (Revelation 21:4). And, more than that, I will understand why, and actually rejoice that I was able to have some small part in it. That my faith was made stronger and my hope made surer through it. I hope one day you will have the same.