Blindsided by God … But Never Betrayed
I realized then that I didn't really believe what I thought I believed, what I said I believed. My conscious theology had been overridden by a subconscious theology: the gospel of health and wealth, or the idea that following God ensures blessings in this life. Had anyone accused me of subscribing to such ideas, I would have denied it vehemently. But it became abundantly clear that I had subconsciously absorbed them, in at least some subtle form, from countless sources.
I absorbed this mentality from the pervasive culture of the American dream, which teaches that everyone gets what they deserve. I inherited it from my parents, who believed that success could prevent their children from suffering in the same ways they had. It seeped into my mind through countless books, television shows, and movies, in which the good guy always gets the girl and the bad guy, his just deserts.
But I never realized how deeply I subscribed to these ideas until Carol's diagnosis. Suffering shakes you with such force that it separates your true thoughts and beliefs from anything to which you simply pay lip service. This process is painful, no doubt. But without it, it is impossible to know where our beliefs fall short of what Scripture truly teaches.
I was forced to acknowledge that God had never promised me that my life would be pain free, or that I would never endure the common hardships of being human in a broken world. I realized it would not be fair to hold God accountable to promises he never actually made.
Not the Promise We Think
But that is not to say that God makes no promises to those who love and follow him. Consider Isaiah 43:1-2:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
This passage contains a promise, but not the one we think. It is not a promise that we will never suffer. In fact, the passage implies that we will pass through waters, rivers, and fire—elements that could easily destroy us. The promise is that when we do, God will be with us. Those waters will not overwhelm us. Nor will the fire completely consume and set us ablaze.
Psalm 23, that famous passage of comfort and encouragement, testifies to the same certainties. Verse 4 says, "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." Again we see that God does not promise to shield us from the valley of the worst, the valley of mourning and persecution and cancer. He promises only that when we encounter these valleys, he will be right next to us. His rod and staff, the hallmarks of his presence, will comfort and encourage us.
I can say that to this promise, God was entirely faithful. Family and friends from around the world rallied around us in prayer and support. Meals were provided on a daily basis, allowing us a precious few hours for rest and recuperation. We worried constantly about the effect that my wife's diagnosis would have on our daughters, but they were a constant source of joy and laughter, both precious treasures in that period. We found beauty, peace, and grace daily: in the weather, in finding a good parking spot outside the hospital, and in one another. We had unique and powerful reminders of God's enduring love and presence. Truly, the promises of Isaiah and Psalm 23 proved true for us.