John Piper (1946- )
By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source: desiringGod.org
Two hours before writing this sentence, I received a phone call from a friend whose adult son was just told by the doctor that the medical professionals have done all they can do, and that barring a miracle, his cancer will be fatal. This would be the second child my friend has lost to cancer. I mention this because I am painfully aware that not everyone gets a reprieve from the cancer diagnosis the way I did—so far…
Let me set the stage. It was a routine checkup with my urologist, after years of dealing with the troubling effects of an enlarged prostate. I was sixty years old and, I thought, in good health. Strange, isn’t it, how we presume we are in good health when, in fact, we have no idea what is growing inside of us.
When people ask me now, “How’s your health?” I never say, “Fine,” like I used to. I say, “I feel fine.” Which, being translated, means, “I don’t know how I am. Only God knows. For all I know, I could have fatal cancer, or an aortic aneurysm that will burst tomorrow, or a blood clot in my leg that will release tonight and cause a fatal stroke as I sleep.”
Here’s what changed that simple habit of saying, “Fine.” My routine exam is over. But the doctor says, “I felt some irregularities. I’d like to do a biopsy.” Pause. I say, “Okay, if you say so. When?” “Now,” he says, “if you have time.” Pause again, as this sinks in. “Sure.”
He takes me to another examination room, tells me to change into the robe hanging on the hook, and says he will be back in a few minutes with the machine for the biopsy. He goes out and leaves me alone.
At this point, you remember your best friends—the ones you spend the most time with and who tell you what you most need to hear, when you need to hear it. Well, I had spent significant time early that morning with my friend the apostle Paul. In fact, I had loved his words so much that morning that I had committed two verses to memory.
As I sat there on the examination table with my legs dangling over the end, wearing my open-backed hospital gown, and waiting for I knew not what, Paul’s words came back to me (I Thessalonians 5:9-10):
God has not destined [you] for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for [you] so that whether [you] are awake or asleep [you] might live with him.
This was a gift to me. Perfectly timed. Perfectly expressed. Paul had spoken the words that morning. But God had arranged for me to read them during my devotions. God had put it in my heart to memorize them. God had brought them to my mind in the examination room. And God had given me the faith to embrace them as the sweetest gift he could give in that moment. Yes, even sweeter than “You will be healed.” Here’s the tailor-made news God spoke to me:
First, he told me, “What you are about to experience—cancer or not—is not wrath! If you have cancer, it is not owing to God’s punishment.”
To feel the full force of this, you need to realize that I share Paul’s unshakable conviction that God is absolutely in control of whether anyone gets cancer. Paul said, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). He said, “[God] works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
So when Paul said to me, “This is not the wrath of God,” he did not mean, “If you have cancer, it’s not from God.” No. If I have cancer (which I did), it is most certainly owing to God’s ultimate purposes. God controls every molecule in the universe. He is God! There are no maverick cells outside his control.
What Paul meant when he said, “This is not the wrath of God,” is that, cancer or not, “God is not punishing you.” This is not punitive. God has his purposes, but they do not include punishment for my sin. They are all mercy. All love. (continued…)