While sitting with a loved one battling cancer, God's been reminding me that our value is not dependent on our functionality. God can work through us, limitations and all.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the hospital with a loved one who’s battling cancer. The last several months have been filled with ups and downs, with the downs often overshadowing the ups. Things haven’t gone to plan. But as C.S. Lewis wrote, God “shouts in our pain,” and in these months, He’s had a lot to say about who I am and who He is, my own finitude in stark contrast to His limitlessness.
After a recent surgery, my loved one lay sleeping in the recovery room while the surgeon came to give his report. His visage beat his words to convey the bad news: This surgery, too, had not stopped the cancer. He seemed to feel he had failed either us or himself. “I’m a surgeon. I make diagnoses, and I get clean [cancer-free] margins,” he said. “Everything else is just talking.”
As a surgeon, he’s spent decades learning and perfecting his craft. No doubt God has wrought miracles through his highly skilled, highly trained hands. But he is also a Christ-follower who prays over his patients and his work, and God works through him, whether or not it’s in the ways he might expect. Over the course of many months, we have seen God work through the words he offhandedly dismissed. “Talking” may not be his specialty, but as we’ve walked through this valley, I’ve listened to him speak words of truth and encouragement, assuring my loved one that a life that’s different from the one we’d imagined doesn’t have to be a lesser life. He’s reminded and reassured us of what we already knew to be true: That one’s value is not dependent on one’s function. That God can work through us, limitations and all.
It struck me that those battling debilitating illness aren’t the only ones who struggle to take that message to heart. Those of us who want to help—from surgeons to support networks to nonprofit practitioners—bring our own ideas of how God might use us. Often, we think it will be through our gifts or training, our areas of strength. We’re prone to discouragement or disillusionment when we find ourselves in situations where our skills can’t bring solutions, no matter how desperately we want to help.
But in listing “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11, the author places shockingly little emphasis on individual skill, strength, or achievement. Each statement begins, “By faith…” and goes on to tell a story in which God is the true hero. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, since scripture is God’s story. He is the protagonist, and we, His creations, are the literary foils whose limitations reflect and amplify His greatness. The author continues in Hebrews 11, “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength” (Hebrews 11:32-34a, emphasis added).
I love that Gideon appears first on this list. When God was about to save Israel from the oppression of the Midianites, He picked the self-described “least of the weakest” to lead the charge. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). I can almost hear Gideon scoffing three verses later: “Pardon me, my lord … how can I save Israel?” But it was the Lord’s presence with Gideon that made him mighty. It was the Lord who turned Gideon’s weakness to strength.
We serve a God whose “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The apostle Paul took great comfort and found great consolation in this truth, writing, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses.”
Over these difficult months, there have been many times that I have been acutely aware of my weakness in my inability to do anything to relieve unremitting pain, ease suffering, or even hasten the speed at which appointments are scheduled or test results read. I've wrestled with and railed against these limitations, and honestly, I cannot yet join the apostle Paul in saying I boast in my weaknesses. But I am listening, learning, and discovering that it’s faith that turns weakness to strength.
Time and again I’ve said to myself and others, “All we can do is pray.” But if I believe what I say I believe, then when I pray, I’m petitioning the all-loving, omnipotent God of the universe to unleash His power in a situation in which I am powerless. That doesn’t feel like such a small thing: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
This season, support the work of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, which provides resources like the Spiritual First Aid course for pastors, church leaders, and laypeople.
Jill Heisey is a writer and consultant who's passionate about helping nonprofits share their stories. She's previously collaborated with Peter Greer and Chris Horst on Rooting for Rivals and The Gift of Disillusionment and has also written the children's book, Keza Paints a Bright Future. Jill graduated from Messiah University with degrees in politics and Spanish and now resides in Maryland.