Her death drew me to Jesus.” The comment from an acquaintance was meant to be an encouragement, but what I heard was, “My friend had to die so I could fall in love with Jesus.” It had been three weeks since my own cancer diagnosis, and at that point the unknowns were plentiful. I was continually haunted by the question, Has it spread?
Later, in the quiet of my bedroom, I reflected on the woman’s comment and wept. I cried out to Jesus, trying to submit to his will while at the same time desperately begging God for my life.
As I battled breast cancer, a friend gave me a copy of Sheldon Vanauken’s book, A Severe Mercy. It was the death of Vanauken’s wife, Davy, that solidified his relationship with Christ. In his book, Vanauken speaks of Davy’s death in those terms—as a severe mercy. As something so perfectly good and right and at the same time so painfully hard and heartbreaking.
Was I to be someone else’s severe mercy? My flesh fought the idea, but despite my desire to live, I was compelled to consider that maybe what God had in mind for me was death.
A different sort of death
It turns out that it wasn’t death from breast cancer that would become someone else’s saving grace; but that God, instead, would use my cancer as a severe mercy in my marriage—as the catalyst for a difficult death and rebirth.
My husband, Corey, and I grew incredibly close through my battle with cancer—more intimate by far than at any previous time in our 17 years of marriage. Yet at the same time we were also blindsided by a level of deep conflict neither of us could have imagined prior to diagnosis. Suddenly we were faced with countless difficult decisions that needed to be made in relatively quick succession—all as we were wrestling my mortality. Would I make it through? What treatment options should we pursue? Should I have one breast removed? Both? Should I have reconstructive surgery? If so, what type of reconstruction? What decisions would allow me to feel the most normal in the long run? Should I trust my surgeon’s recommendations or seek a second opinion?
With persistently heightened stress levels and emotions that were taking us for the ride of our lives, these decisions that neither of us even wanted to make drove a significant wedge between us. I was angry because he wasn’t immediately supportive of all my choices. He was angry because I wasn’t allowing him to truly be a part of the process. We found ourselves in a bitter struggle. Any discussion of medical decisions quickly brought anger and hurt to the surface. Painful arguments would ensue, leaving us both in tears.
In Making Marriage Beautiful, Dorothy Greco writes that suffering can be a divine mercy. “It forces us to face ugly realities, such as the fact that selfishness comes more naturally than sacrificial love. ... Particularly in the context of marriage, nothing excavates the hardened soil of our hearts like suffering.” That suffering can be caused by a myriad of things—the death of a loved one, a child born with a disability, the loss of income. Cancer was the catalyst for us, and our hard soil was being painfully excavated.
I would never have believed it possible to simultaneously be so in love and so angry—to be so close and yet so alienated from each other. I lived my life clinging to my husband to get through each day and yet there was also a divide between us that felt impossible to cross. At one point after a painful argument, I thought, This is it. We’ve had 17 great years, and now, for the rest of our lives, we will endure this brokenness. We’ll love each other, but that love will be tainted by this damage we’ll never be able to fix.
The power of brokenness
It was C. S. Lewis, a confidant to both Sheldon and Davy Vanauken, who presented Sheldon with the concept of severe mercy. Writing to Sheldon after Davy’s death, Lewis said, “I sometimes wonder whether bereavement is not, at bottom, possibly the easiest and least perilous of the ways in which men lose the happiness of youthful love. For I believe it must always be lost in some way; every merely natural love has to be crucified before it can achieve resurrection and the happy old couples have come through a difficult death and rebirth.”
Our own love was “crucified” on the bathroom floor. We had just had the worst argument of our married life, and I collapsed, spiritually exhausted and emotionally wrecked on the cold tile. The shock of coming to this point made us both realize something essential: I had to give up me and Corey had to give up him if there was any chance of a truly reconciled us.
Corey came to me, in all his broken pieces, and asked me to forgive him for not loving me like Christ loved the church. I asked his forgiveness for causing him to feel left out—for barring him from input in the decision-making process. From there our love was reborn. I was suddenly awakened to the power of broken things in marriage. I understood how hard we must sometimes fight to remain one. I became aware of the beauty of seeing that fight through to the end.
For all married couples, at times God’s mercy can feel like it is wrecking us. Just because the words “I forgive you” are spoken, or we agree upon a plan to keep our marriage strong while parenting a chronically ill child, or we try to live on a budget when our income has been slashed, it doesn’t mean everything is magically fixed. It is a day-by-day choosing of the other over self. But each selfless choice we make takes us away from the wreckage and into a deepened marriage bond.
Severe mercy in Scripture
Experiencing a mercy so painful gave me a fresh perspective into some well-loved Bible passages: Abraham placing Isaac on the altar; Mary and Martha weeping at the deathbed of Lazarus; Mary at the foot of the cross.
What was Mary thinking as she stood outside the gates of Jerusalem watching the blood and sweat drip from her son’s body? The fear, the sorrow, the physical ache must have been unbearable as she watched him die. Throughout her life as mother to our Savior, Mary faced many heavy burdens—her fear the moment Gabriel appeared; the guilt she may have felt when Herod murdered other children in an effort to kill her son; the heartbreak of Simeon’s prophesy, giving Mary a picture of the earthly destiny of Jesus and of the sword that would pierce her soul as well. That sword surely scraped at her heart continually, even as she experienced amazing joy in mothering God incarnate.
Simultaneous joy and pain—just as the love I felt for Corey deepened right alongside the growing pain of our marital brokenness. I believe the ability to fully experience these two deep and intensely contradictory emotions is evidence of the Spirit of God at work. In our human nature, brokenness tears apart. With the Holy Spirit, brokenness combines with tenderness to become something new and redeemed.
Thus, the most compassionate and beautiful act in human history was also the most painful. As her son breathed his last, Mary was devastated by the sword that indeed pierced her soul—but that final breath was necessary for her redemption.
Though the severity of most circumstances we face on this earth pales in comparison to Mary’s as she was devastated at the foot of the cross, we too may be devastated on that bench in the hospital waiting room or on the hard tile of our bathroom floor. Just as the severe mercy God bestowed upon Mary allowed for redemption for the world, I’m learning that the death of “youthful love,” as C. S. Lewis called it, can bring about rebirth in marriage—a deep, binding love that can’t be formed without the severe mercy of walking through the darkness together. Without death, there is no resurrection.
Kim Harms is an author and speaker. Her book, Life Reconstructed: A Girlfriend’s Guide to Mastectomies and Breast Reconstruction, is releasing early in 2021 from Familius Publishing. Kim writes about her life reconstructed and provides free mastectomy pillows to women in need at kimharms.net. She can also be found on Instagram and Facebook.