Woodmen Valley Chapel: Evil, Suffering, and the Goodness of God

imageWe have attended Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs since we arrived here three years ago, and have truly fallen in love with it. Pastor Josh Lindstrom is likely the best teaching pastor we have ever heard, and we look forward to his message every week. Pastor Andrew Reichart, a fellow theologian and basketball player, became our Campus Pastor a few months ago, and we’ve grown in friendship ever since. A few months ago, Pastor Andrew asked me to give the Sunday morning message while Pastor Josh was on sabbatical. We agreed on the topic that I have recently become all-too-familiar with — God, evil, and suffering. The text of that sermon is below, and you can watch the video here (Click on “Summer 2018”):

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How has your year been so far? Anyone having a rough one? Internationally, the news is not generally good…our economy is rebounding, but we are still in great debt. Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and others continue to create conflict on the world stage. Domestically, we are probably as divided as we have ever been, with both our families and our faith under attack like never before. Last week, I had lunch with Mo, a good friend and an old co-worker of mine. This man knows suffering, a kind of suffering I hope I will never know. His brother was killed in Afghanistan, and when his sister heard of his death, she committed suicide. When Mo’s mother heard that she had lost two children in basically 24 hours, she had a heart attack. My dear friend Mo lost his brother, sister, and mother within days of each other, then two months later his 6-year old drowned in a tragic accident. Closer to home, almost two million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and almost half will die from it. I was a part of that diagnosis statistic in 1999, and I’m still fighting – hoping and praying not to add myself to the other statistic for quite some time.

But it’s been a tough year! After 8 years of remission, my cancer came back this last year, and it’s been a rough go ever since. Since my cancer diagnosis in 1999, I have often struggled with the why question – why does God allow this to happen? Why me? What did I do wrong? Why do I have to suffer to greatly? But, can you imagine the prayers Mo must have prayed? How can God allow so much suffering? I like the way Josh put it in his sermon on Mark 6 last month: “There’s no way Jesus understands what I’m going through. If He did, He wouldn’t allow it.” I’ve felt that way before, and I’ll tell you a bit about it. Perhaps you’ve felt that way too – maybe for you, it isn’t cancer. It could be anything – cancer, diabetes, addiction, depression, dependency, obesity, whatever else – we are all facing something, and we are all suffering. There is comfort that we aren’t the only ones. You not only have fellow sufferers here with you, but Jesus also knows what you’re going through. He’s been there. In fact, there is great comfort in knowing that there is no pain that you are experiencing that is worse than the pain Jesus felt when He was beaten and crucified; no grief that you are facing that is worse than the grief He felt when He was momentarily abandoned on the cross; and no burden you are bearing that is heavier than the burden of every sin that has ever or ever will be committed. Jesus knows what you’re going through. Paul comforts us in this regard as well.

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1, starting in verse 8. The context here is that Paul has already visited Corinth at least once, and there is a strong and developing church there. During his travels throughout Macedonia and Asia Minor, he hears from Timothy that there are divisions and struggles in the church, and in Macedonia (probably at Philippi) Paul writes Second Corinthians to get the church back on track. In that letter, he describes to the Corinthians the trouble he has endured during his travels.

1. Pressure or stress beyond our ability to endure.

Paul says that he was facing pressure or stress “beyond his ability to endure.”

But Paul was a pretty tough guy – probably an athlete, I like to think he was a runner (physical training is of some value (1 Tim 4:8), run with perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-2), run in such a way as to win the prize (1 Cor 9:24), I have run the race and kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7), etc. He had developed endurance far beyond most people. In 2 Cor 11:23 – 28, Paul essentially gives us his credentials, his ͞race rag͟ to match all others. Imprisoned, flogged severely, exposed to death over and over again, whipped with 39 lashes five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned, shipwrecked three times, sleepless, hungry, thirsty, and more. These are the circumstances that Paul is referring to when he says he was “…under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure.” Let’s look at just one example.

In Acts 14, Luke records just one of these instances that Paul endured. In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time preaching the gospel, but they angered both the Jews and the Gentiles who were there, such that Paul and Barnabas had to flee for their lives to Lystra. In this city, in Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas were again preaching the gospel and healing the sick, when Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived, likely having followed them. In verse 19 we read that ͞They stoned Paul, and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.͟ Stoned and left for dead — now, I know this is Colorado, but this isn’t THAT kind of ͞stoned.͟ Can you imagine the pain, the misery, the bleeding and bruising? Think about that next time you’re complaining about being stuck in traffic on Powers, or when that promotion or raise doesn’t come through, or when your 10-year-old daughter just WILL NOT go to bed, or any time you’ve convinced yourself that you’re having a really bad day. Stoned, and left for dead. And this was just one of the many encounters Paul describes in 2 Cor 11, a list that he considers ͞boasting about things that show his weakness.

Reading Paul, I sometimes think I have a few things to boast about. But I’m pretty tough too. Perseverance and endurance are my calling cards. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, infections and more…but also marathons, triathlons, adventure races, you name it – I’ll do it. I tell some people about the races I’ve run or the endurance events I’ve competed in, and I get responses like, ͞Twenty-six miles? You ran? I don’t even like driving 26 miles! There is no race too difficult, no race too long, no weather too bad, no condition that is beyond my ability to endure. We looked at one example from Paul, let me give you one from my own life.

I was diagnosed with brain cancer a long time ago – December 9th, 1999 [SLIDE]. I’d never had any symptoms, on the contrary, I was the picture of health. I don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, eat right, exercise six days a week, no history of cancer in the family, literally in the lowest risk group on the planet. Twenty-seven years old, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. What do you think is the first question that plagued my mind? Yes…how long do I have? Five years. Maybe six, with aggressive treatment. And that was 19 years ago! I figured I’d better get that bucket list started. One of the first things on the list was running a marathon. Sure, I can do that! Little did I know that the initial diagnosis would turn into a major brain surgery, followed by another surgery and then chemotherapy. As timing turned out, I ran my first marathon in between my 10th and 11th rounds of chemotherapy, which means that I did allmy marathon training while going through chemotherapy. Training during chemo was difficult, no doubt – but certainly not ͞beyond my ability to endure. Sure, there were times when I didn’t want to run. But everything I could think of – it’s too dark, too cold, too early, too windy, too rainy, I feel too sick, I’m too tired, the list is long – and every single one of them is nothing more than an excuse. This little voice in my head began to grow, saying, “Shut up, get your shoes on, and get out the door.”

My reasoning was simple, but on the border of what some (like my wife…) would consider insane. I began to equate running (or training) with beating cancer. If I didn’t go out and run, it meant that cancer had kept me inside that day. It meant that cancer had won that round, and I vowed to never let that happen. Then I got out of bed, put my shoes on, and started my run. There were times it sucked. There were times I had to stop to get sick, then get back on my feet and finish the run. But let me tell you my ͞Lystra͟ story. Once, at the Seattle Marathon in 2010, I was struck with horrible leg cramps, about nine miles into the race. I couldn’t even bend my knees, or my hamstrings and calves would cramp horribly. An experienced marathoner by this time, I’m wracking my brain for the cause – dehydration? Malnutrition? Hills? Cold? Went out too fast? I made it to the next aid station and, for the first time in my life, I quit. I just sat down, struggling with my decision to DNF. It was going to be a long wait for the bus. I had never before failed to finish a race of any distance…but after a few minutes, I decided that I wasn’t going to fail this time either. I slowly stood up, careful not to bend my legs too far and start cramping…then walked 17 miles to the finish line.

Now, before you get impressed with my petty achievements, let’s return to Paul’s story. When we left the story in Acts 14:19, Paul and Barnabas had fled Iconium for fear of being killed, then Paul was stoned in Lystra, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. Driven out of Iconium and forced to flee to Lystra, then stoned and left for dead, you’d think Paul would get a clue. You’d think he’d get the message. But read on, to verse 20. What does Paul do? He gets up and goes back into the city!! He went back to the very people who pursued him from Iconium, stoned him, and left him for dead. What would you do? Would you go back? I’m probably Barnabas in this situation. Um, Paul…I hate to be difficult, but…Keep reading, now on to verse 21. After spreading the gospel to Derbe, he goes back AGAIN, and not just to Lystra where he was stoned and left for dead – back to Iconium as well, where the mob pursued him. Why? To ͞strengthen the souls of the disciples, and encourage them to continue in the faith. Who are these disciples that he wants to strengthen? Who is he setting an example for? It’s not just those he left in Jerusalem. It’s you and me. And what an example he sets.

For me, Paul’s persistence in sharing the gospel despite considerable pressures and numerous threats is a tremendous encouragement. But now, my confession. I’m pretty tough, but once…only once…I felt the pain that Paul felt as he wrote to Corinth. I felt a stress, a pressure, a burden far beyond my ability to bear. After 18 years of fighting cancer, and after enduring three brain surgeries, two reconstructive surgeries, 42 rounds of radiation, 29 rounds of chemotherapy, and countless other treatments, Angie and I finally thought we were done. DONE. The cancer was in full remission, and we had thrown at it every treatment we could find. I was having routine brain scans every 90 days or so, just to make sure everything was still fine. Unexpectedly, devastatingly, in October 2016, the cancer was back for a fifth time (brief explanation of what the slide shows). I vividly remember driving home from the Cancer Center in Denver, rehearsing in my head how I was going to tell Angie. I came up empty. I had nothing. I got home, and for the first time in my life, I collapsed at her feet, completely broken. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically broken. I curled up on the ottoman (which likely wasn’t built to accommodate a 6-footer), and just sobbed. My friends, I was experiencing first-hand a “burden beyond my ability to endure.”

2. We felt we had received the sentence of death.

Not only was I stressed beyond my ability to bear, the cancer had upgraded. Higher grade, larger, more malignant, more aggressive, and faster growing – the prognosis was not good. Continuing our walk through this verse, what had I received? I had received, like Paul, the sentence of death. So I had received news like this before, and normally these prognoses mean nothing to me. But it did this time. The cancer had recurred as Grade IV, a significant upgrade from the prior Grade II, and was now a massive tumor called a Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most fatal of all cancers. Nicknamed “The Terminator,” its median survival rate is only 9 – 11 months. You’ve probably already done the math in your head – that prognosis was in October 2016. My time was up more than six months ago. To make matters worse, the five-year mortality rate is 99.8%. That means that I have a 0.2% chance of living five years after diagnosis – a 0.2% chance of seeing my daughter graduate from high school, go to college, get married, and a 0.2% chance of celebrating our 25-year wedding anniversary. The news of another recurrence was bad enough, but a recurrence, plus an upgrade, plus an increase in size and aggressiveness, was more than I could bear. This was it. It’s over. This is not only beyond my ability to bear, the sentence of death has been passed, I’ve fought the good fight for 19 years, time to turn it in. No. NO. Did Paul? Even with what I’ve been through, my suffering doesn’t come close to what Paul endured, let alone Jesus Himself, and they NEVER gave up. Paul endured that he might strengthen and encourage the disciples, Jesus endured so that He might conquer sin and death, and I must endure as well. Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt stressed beyond your ability to bear? Maybe it’s not stonings and beatings. Maybe it’s not cancer.  Maybe it’s just getting your 10-year-old daughter to go to bed. Maybe it’s one more day at work. Maybe it’s just getting out of bed in the morning. In those situations, I encourage you to think of Jesus. Think of Paul. Think of me, if you need to. But whatever it is, get it done. Get your shoes on, and get out the door.

For me, one thing that made this part of endurance so difficult was facing the hardest question of all – WHY. I waffled between ͞Why me?͟ and ͞Why, God?͟ Maybe you’ve asked similar questions at some time in your life, maybe you’re asking them now. Why this suffering? Why must I endure, again? Is this punishment for some sin I’ve committed? Is this making me an example to other sufferers? Is this the refiner’s fire that Zecharaiah and Malachi prophesied, or is God testing my devotion like Job? Can I even ask the question, and do I even deserve an answer? He declined to answer Paul, simply telling him “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” His sovereignty ruled against removing Jesus’ suffering. He answered Job, but it’s not the kind of answer I ever want to receive. “Where were YOU when I laid the foundations of the world…” then spend FIVE CHAPTERS rebuking Job for questioning God’s omniscience, power, and sovereignty. God forbid I ever be guilty of the same. Still, I struggled with what I called the ͞Law of Diminishing Returns.” With each recurrence of cancer, my testimony actually wasn’t getting a lot stronger. I was suffering a lot more, without a concurrent return on that investment. ͞Okay, boss, I’m starting to lose the big picture here. Why must I go through this again? What possibly could I gain, or could I learn, that I haven’t already learned or gained in the last 19 years? I have already committed the rest of my life to serving you full-time, what more do you want? My testimony is already tremendously powerful as a four-time brain cancer survivor, will making me a five-time cancer survivor really gain that much? 19 more rounds of chemotherapy, really?  For decades I had been able to avoid the “why” question, but now it just weighed me down to the point where I could barely stand. I think it’s time for this cosmic bully to pick on someone else. But a great conviction followed this struggle, this time of spiritual brokenness. I was reminded of a book I read years ago called “Days of Anguish, Days of Hope.” It is about Chaplain Robert Preston Taylor, and his struggle to survive World War II. He survived the Bataan Death March, only to be imprisoned in camps in Japan, Okinawa, and Manchuria. In his three years as a POW, he spent more time in solitary confinement than any other prisoner on record. This solitary confinement was a 4×5 bamboo box, just small enough that you cannot stand up or lie down. It’s impossible to get comfortable. There is a pint of water and a cup of rice a day, if you’re fortunate. No bathroom facilities. No cot. Nothing. Most were driven insane or died from malaria and dengue fever within the first 10 days. As Chaplain Taylor entered his fourth month in the ͞hot box,͟ he heard guards outside his door. The door opened only briefly enough for them to throw another prisoner into the cell with him, a young man he nicknamed Benny. It seems the Japanese had underestimated the number of POWs in the camp, and had run out of room – so they decided to fit two prisoners in cells not even large enough for one man to stand. Incredibly, Chaplain Taylor tells the story of how he praised God for the company, because now he had someone with which to share the gospel, as “Benny” was not a believer. As the war drew to a close, Chaplain Taylor was placed back into general population, and gave a sermon that Sunday.

“In solitary, I knew I had to keep my mind busy if I was going to stay sane. My Bible. That is the best tool.͟ As he picked up his Bible, he felt a calm that he had not felt in months, and he prayed that God would forgive him for being afraid. If god has a purpose for him, then surely he will survive.  “But dying,” thought Chaplain Taylor, “…dying would be so much easier.”  Bible in hand, Chaplain Taylor leaned on a bamboo cane for stability as he preached, ͞If you could turn me inside out and look at my heart, you would see a man who still believes in the power of God.  We have been subjected to the most depraved tortures, and seen our captors violate every civilized code in the free world. They force us to dig our own graves, and carry our buddies out of Zero Ward on bamboo stretchers. The food – meager in quantity, inferior in grade – would poison my pigs back in east Texas. Open latrines cause major sanitation issues. We have no utensils. Our clothes are so dirty that our captors won’t even touch them. We are subjected to constant abuse. If we walk within 20 yards of the fence, we are shot. Many men have been taken into headquarters, and have never returned. And if not our captors, the flies and mosquitoes will annihilate us all. But we will not give up. We will live, and we will make this world a better place. This will not become a graveyard for the nameless dead, because God is with us. I’m sick, I’m dirty, I’m nasty, and all I have is my Bible and my underwear. I can smell my own rotting teeth, but listen to me – I WILL NOT DIE. I am going to live, and you are too, because God is going to give us the strength.”

Chaplain Taylor lived [SLIDE], and in 1962 – at the recommendation of General Curt LeMay – President John F. Kennedy appointed him Major General Taylor, the US Air Force Chief of Chaplains. And Benny accepted Christ in that hot box, in his underwear, surrounded by flies and mosquitos. Chaplain Taylor believed that the reason he was in solitary confinement for four months was to lead Benny to Christ. So, here is the spiritual awakening I experienced when thinking about that sermon, and about Chaplain Taylor in the hot box with Benny. Why must I endure a fifth recurrence, with the associated surgeries and chemotherapy? There will be people I meet during this fifth battle that I didn’t meet before. Nurses, doctors, orderlies, fellow patients, whomever – but every one of these new people is a new opportunity to share the gospel, a new opportunity to allow God to use my testimony to change their life. Any one of them, could be my “Benny.”  Here was the revelation, the realization that changed my life: if everything I’ve been through – 4 brain surgeries, 4 reconstructive surgeries, 29 rounds of chemotherapy, and 42 rounds of radiation – if all of that reaches ONE person, it is worth it. It has to be. Why? Because of Jesus. He would have endured everything He went through – far worse than even Chaplain Taylor – for only you. For one person.

Returning to our key verse, the next phrase is a big blow to those of you, like me, who are self-reliant and think you can handle anything. You think you can do it all.

3. This happened that we might rely not on ourselves, but on God.

I am terrible, just terrible, at relying on other people, and at asking for help. I ran that marathon. I walked those 17 miles. I endured 29 rounds of chemotherapy. I can beat it again. I can run any race. I can take anything cancer can dish out. NO. YOU. CAN’T. At least, not alone. I was still relying on myself, still taking the credit, and God was still teaching me a hard lesson. He taught it to Paul as well. Why endure beatings and stonings? Why go back? To strengthen the disciples and encourage them in the faith. Chaplain Taylor said he will not give up – why? Because God is with us. He refused to die, why? Because God is going to give us strength. If these examples are any indication, it seems that some of His hardest lessons are taught through suffering. One thing I know: God is sovereign. That means that there is nothing in His creation that He does not either cause or allow. We are also promised that as Christians, we will suffer (1 Tim 3:12 and elsewhere). God both causes and allows suffering into our lives for a number of reasons. In my two decades of suffering through terminal brain cancer, I’ve discovered three insights into why God allows suffering.

a. Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness. Why does God let us suffer? Why does He bring suffering into our lives? We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18). God has predestined us all to conform to the likeness of His Son, but we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well. This doesn’t make it easy – even Christ begged for the suffering to be taken from him, and so did Paul. But like a good parent, God knows that sometimes the greatest medium for communicating His message is suffering. Fortunately, that’s not all….

b. Suffering brings us closer to God. As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might rely not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him. I believe this is the case in my own life. In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.” And, like Paul, I think this forced me to rely on God rather than myself. C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.

c. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool. Simply stated, suffering reaches unbelievers. It reached Benny, and we see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man. He didn’t cure leprosy, He cured the leper. He didn’t eradicate lust or adultery, He forgave the adulteress. Why?  Because in all three cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done. Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries. His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock the props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him. It has worked for me! I’ve beaten brain cancer five times, and I will continue to fight. What does “beating cancer” look like? Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway. Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ, and it will never succeed. Beating cancer, you see, simply means remaining committed to Christ. This profound truth leads me to our final point.

4. He has delivered us, and he will deliver us again.

The cancer is coming back. It has nearly a 100% recurrence rate, and I’ve exhausted almost every option known to medicine. But look at how today’s verse ends – He has delivered me, and He will deliver me again. This is how Paul could get up, walk back into the city that just stoned him and left him for dead, and continue to preach the gospel – then come back and do it again. He knew that God would deliver him. In the words of Chaplain Taylor, ͞We will not give up…because God is with us. I am going to live because God will give me the strength.͟ He may want me serving Him and teaching His Word here on Earth for another 45 years…or, He may want me by His side, praising him in His presence. We never know if God is going to walk with us in the Garden of Eden or cry with us in the Garden of Gethsemane, but we know that He will be there. My friends, I do not know what you are facing today, but I know that every one of you is facing something. Maybe it’s not cancer, maybe it’s a kind of suffering that I may never know and cannot even understand. You may be burdened beyond your ability to bear, you may have even received the sentence of death – but I assure you this: rely on God, and He will deliver you, just like He delivered Jesus, Paul, Chaplain Taylor, and me. In Him alone is our hope.

2 thoughts on “Woodmen Valley Chapel: Evil, Suffering, and the Goodness of God

  1. Brother Brother Brother, my Brother. I’ve said it once, twice, three times … I’m saying it yet again, “YOU ARE THE MIRACLE.” This sermon had me undone no less than three times. Praising God for NPS and Space Fundamentals. Praising God to have had the blessing the past ten years to pray for you, your family, and your unending testimony. Agape.

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