"Cancer happens for reasons that we do not understand, but not because everything happens for a reason dictated by God. Rather, Blessed Endurance argues, God is with us in these kinds of ordeals. But I do not believe God causes them."—John Wimmer, author of Blessed Endurance: Moving Beyond Despair to Hope (Upper Room Books, 2018).
Pain, struggle, and despair are part of life, and they test our character as God's people. We can't control many things that happen to us, but we can choose our response to our circumstances. In the book Blessed Endurance, you will find practical help for enduring tough times and learn to view them as opportunities for spiritual growth. Author John Wimmer sat down with Upper Room Books editor Anne Trudel and shared insights about the book and what inspired him to write it. Read the interview here.
Anne: What inspired you to write Blessed Endurance?
John: As a pastor, and as a Christian, I have not always been happy with the literature available out there to help Christians deal with difficult times – many times it lacks theological integrity. By this I mean that sometimes our beliefs (and books) in the Christian community are more influenced by the ways society wants us to look at life’s challenges rather than the patterns of Christian tradition that come from the Bible, especially the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. How can a faith where crucifixion is central to our understanding of life imply that if you are a believer, God will protect you from harm, pain, struggle, difficulty? I wrote Blessed Endurance, in part, so that an alternative – more biblical, and with theological integrity – would be available for pastors to recommend and for Christians to read.
A: How do you handle your own experiences of pain?
J: I have had to learn over the years – and this does not come naturally – that facing up to pain (and its accompanying feelings) is essential. It is much easier and more comfortable in the short run to avoid or sidestep the pain that leads to despair. But this strategy simply does not work for long. The practices described in Blessed Endurance – prayer, participation in a community of believers, following the path of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – are all part of the way that leads from despair to hope in God through Christ.
A: How do you respond to Christians who say “Everything happens for a reason”?
J: Everything does happen for reasons. I blew the project at work because I didn’t try hard enough. I got a raise because I worked hard. My car did not start this morning because I left the headlights on and drained the battery. When many Christians say “everything happens for a reason,” they are saying God did this thing to teach me a lesson. For example, I left the headlights on because God wanted me to learn patience, or some such thing. I believe this kind of thinking trivializes God and unnecessarily magnifies events in our lives that just happen for no particular reason.
I am now struggling with a particularly virulent form of cancer. Did God “give” me cancer for a “reason”? To teach me a lesson? Did I do something wrong for which God is punishing me? Has God done this so my wife and son will be fearful because they were getting too uppity? I cannot believe the God of love Jesus came to show us would be so mean and vindictive to do such things.
Yes, cancer happens for reasons that we do not understand, but not because everything happens for a reason dictated by God. Rather, Blessed Endurance argues, God is with us in these kinds of ordeals. But I do not believe God causes them.
A: How does one step outside one’s own pain, listen to others who are suffering, and respond in a Christlike manner?
J: I believe that love – agape love – is the act of extending beyond ourselves to help others. This is what differentiates Christlike love from other kinds of love, like “I love my dog because she makes me feel so good.” Christlike love is, in fact, not a feeling. It is an action. Did Jesus feel like extending himself to the extraordinarily wide variety of people he reached out to? The Bible shows us he did not. He needed to get away from the crowds; he was disappointed at his disciples’ lack of understanding and their lack of loyalty; he lost his temper more than a few times. Yet his actions were loving.
So, for us, extending ourselves to others – especially when we do not feel like it, when we are in pain, suffering, or in despair – applies the healing balm of active love to our wounds. Reaching beyond ourselves helps us realize we are not alone in our difficulty – other people have problems too. This does not minimize our difficulties, but it helps us to feel a solidarity with others. Again, a paradox: we only find our lives by giving them away!
A: How do you believe God responds to those who cry out to him in frustration, even to the point of expressing anger or lack of faith in a God who would allow pain and suffering?
J: Nothing more needs to be said than that when we cry out to God in frustration or pain, we are following the example of the Psalms, and Jesus on the cross quoting the Psalms: “God, why have you forsaken me?” If it was okay for Jesus to cry out like this, it is certainly acceptable to God for us to do likewise!
A: What, if any, lessons have you learned from your experience with cancer?
J: As I write this (in March 2018, approximately 7 months after I was diagnosed with cancer and when I wrote the Epilogue), I have undergone 5 months of chemotherapy, 3 weeks of radiation, consulted with specialists in my rare cancer at several major cancer centers, and had what seems like dozens of CT scans as well as hundreds of needle pricks or IVs and blood tests.
The lessons I have learned are too numerous to count, but I’ll highlight two. First, that trust in God – REAL TRUST, not a counterfeit smile that God will heal me – makes all the difference in the world. In fact, there is nothing, literally NO THING, in this world I can ultimately count on. Humans, medicine (which is, after all, practiced by humans), and all the positive thoughts in the world have their limitations. But God does not. No matter what happens, even unto my own death, I trust God. This is not because of any special merit or mystical ability I have; rather, it is because of who God is: trustworthy. Trust, like love, is not a feeling. It is an action. I am learning to trust God even when I don’t feel like it!
The second lesson has to do with what I call in the book the support of the “cloud of witnesses” or the “communion of saints.” As a person who has worked with Christians, churches, theological schools and their leaders every day of my adult life, I have been overwhelmed at the outpouring of care I have received. I joke that I am being prayed for daily by 5 orders of Catholic nuns, 6 cardinals and archbishops, several small denominations (and smaller parts of several large denominations, and – my favorite – a Cowboy Church in southern Indiana whose pastor wrote me that “me and the buckaroos in our church are right beside you on this tough stretch of trail you’re ridin.’” I am humbly proud of the diversity of people who remember me in prayer each day. But above all, I can feel the difference! I know they are with me! I cannot tell you how I know, but it is knowledge as sure as the air I breathe and the love of my wife and son.
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