I have hesitated to write this entry, precisely because it is about a miracle.
But the miracle is nearly the exact opposite of the point.
A few weeks ago, my mother received a cancer diagnosis from her oncologist that, in nearly every way, was as bad as it could have been: Stage IV. Metastasis. Surgery was ruled out as an option. We heard the phrase “treatable, but not curable.”
Then, last Friday, Mom had a few additional scans to help her doctors define out her chemotherapy and treatment plan. We had prayed that the scans might show that there had been no metastasis; the oncologist indicated there might be a small chance this was the case. But after the scan, a tech politely but gently told Mom, “You’re being turned over to your oncologist now for treatment. You won’t need to see your other physicians after this anymore.”
We prayed desperately, hoping against all hope for a different outcome. We grieved, each of us, privately. We could read between the lines of the technician’s words. So when my mother went to see her oncologist again this week, we were all settled and ready for words that would confirm what we all dreaded was coming. But instead, the oncologist leaned forward and grasped my mother’s hands. The pathology had shown no signs of cancer in the other organ where it was suspected; Mom would be seeing her surgeon again; she was, in fact, having surgery November 17 to remove the cancer.
In the course of a day, we moved from death to life.
It was, and is, a miracle, of the sort that is so astonishing and enormous one can only compare it to other Biblical healings and turns of circumstance. A hopeless prognosis became a hopeful one. A cancer that was said to have spread now appears to be containable enough for surgery. The prospect of no treatment has transformed into the prospect of lifesaving treatment. It was a Red Sea, loaves-and-fishes moment that I will never forget. When my mother frantically texted me the good news—from inside her doctor’s office where she, too, was blown away by amazement—I lost my head so completely with joy and shock I sat at the kitchen table and sobbed over my lunch.
But the miracle is not the point. That it’s difficult to look past the miracle is the point. Let me explain.
In the days prior to this wonder, I had been spending a lot of time in frustrating, struggling, halting prayer with God. Because I know that Christians suffer. I know that miracles and wonders and healings aren’t the point. I know that everyone wants loaves and fishes but hardly anyone seems to want God without them. And yet I also love my mother, and God tell us to ask for our desires, and I know God can heal. As many believers before me, I was caught in the tension between my knowledge of God’s power and my understanding that He does not always use it as I would prefer: that sometimes suffering is ordained or permitted, and sometimes it is not. In my praying, I asked for two things: a) my mother’s healing, and b) for God to give me the strength I needed if my mother’s healing was not ordained.
At the moment of my mother’s wonderful good news, I did not forget that for others, it doesn’t always turn out like this this. It isn’t lost on me that, as I sat at my table rejoicing, other believers who prayed just as fervently for similar outcomes never saw them come to fulfillment. Husbands prayed for wives; mothers prayed for sons; diagnoses went unchanged. Where others have mourned, my family has instead have stumbled into manifest grace.
God is amazing. Everything was dark and horrible and hopeless and then God performed a miracle and in His love and grace He changed everything. But—and this is the critical part—God was no less present in the dark and horrible and hopeless place than he was in the moment when our dreams came true. God was as loving and graceful and good before the miracle as after.
The miracle was a gift from God. But I must take care to worship the Giver, not the gift, and I must take care not to only worship the Giver for the gift.
That feels strange to write after such a wonder. But maybe it’s because I am so aware right now of the distinct fractures in my own faith, my own frailty and tendencies. Maybe because, in the moment I found out that my mother’s cancer diagnosis was not so bad as feared, my first instinct was to feel as though God had finally shown up, as though he had finally listened, as though he finally cared, when in truth I know he was there, listening, and caring deeply all along. Would I have felt differently, if the opposite had turned out to be true? In the absence of a miracle and a gift, would I have felt as though God was distant, uncaring, unkind?
I don’t know. But I am not sure I trust myself much.
After my mother’s jubilant call, I went for a long walk down a familiar neighborhood street. I have walked that street many, many times in the past few weeks: praying, sometimes sniffling, sometimes trying to silence my own thoughts. On that particular night, I babbled at God and thanked God and tried to burn off some of the skittering excitement of the whole glorious day. But I recalled a previous walk I had taken down that same road just before Mom got her diagnosis—when she was very sick, but the cause was still uncertain.
At that time, in dreams and what felt like distinct messages from God that I have detailed here previously, I had the distinct sense I was being taken by the hand and prepared for what was coming. I did not know what was going to happen, but I had the firm sense that something would—something bigger than me and scary and dark, and I felt that God was impressing His presence upon me as though to remind me that He would guide me through what was to come. Look only at me, I heard clearly.
On that lonely walk, with my mother in the hospital and COVID protocols rendering communication impossible—while I wondered if I’d ever see her again, what was wrong, or what was coming—God’s presence was there. I woke every morning with the distinct impression that God had entered the room, laid out my clothes before me, and stood waiting patiently. Come. We must enter the day.
But how changeable our affections are, and can be. How easy it is to value the gift over the Giver. To hold the Giver hostage with His gift: give me what I want, and I’ll believe what you say. But without gifts, what are you?
God’s sorrow must be endless.
It’s not that I disregard the miracle of my mother’s new, more hopeful diagnosis: far from it! It was right and good to celebrate, to babble and dance around my house, to explode in jubilant incoherent joy at God, to run around and tell every single person I knew before I leaked tears everywhere and laughed at the same time. I believe God, too, celebrated. God is a joyous gift-giver. He loves giving. I am certain, with every bone in my body, that God rejoiced seeing our joy. That He delighted in the surprise and the wonder of it. These moments are the tiniest foretaste of what will one day come.
But I am more conscious of what a tenuous place we are in, we believers. I am uncomfortably aware of the soft prosperity gospel that has permeated almost all of our churches, and that has made us believe—consciously or unconsciously—that when we do our best for God and love him a lot and obey, He’ll give us only good things, we’ll reap earthly benefits and rewards. Or, perhaps more insidious: that if we suffer, He doesn’t care, or isn’t present, or we have failed. That God is with us when we’re blessed and absent when we’re not.
And none of that is true.
Look only at me, God said, and step by step he helped me pick my way through dark places that were unfamiliar, over creeping vines and sorrowful shadows. And then He set up for a surprise right in the middle of that dark place, and we stumbled into sunshine and laughter blinking and wide-eyed.
I am grateful. I’m so grateful. I could cry every time I think about it I’m so grateful.
But I want to keep my eyes where they belong.
Always and ever, I want to keep my eyes where they belong.