My friend Mindy died of breast cancer yesterday. She was 36 years old.
I found out on Friday evening that she wasn’t expected to make it much longer. In October, the doctors discovered that her cancer had spread to her brain and lungs and liver and bones. She was told she had 6-12 months to live. But only eight weeks later, she was on hospice and she was dying.
When I got the text from her husband on Friday evening that Mindy was inching toward heaven now, I pulled my car over to the side of the road, sat there in the dark and cried.
God, I don’t understand. Why Mindy? Why metastatic cancer? Why are you taking her so suddenly? Why would you take a mom with a 4 year-old child and a husband?
I also cried because I had an aggressive form of breast cancer seven years ago, and I still take medication every day to keep it from coming back.
Does this mean I’m going to die at a young age, too? I asked God. Is the monster that’s killing Mindy lurking in my body, too?
I cried because the past year has been really hard, and I’ve spent a lot of time and energy learning how to press into God. I’ve been learning to find solace in his silence, learning to lean in instead of pulling away. And then I found out about Mindy and suddenly God didn’t seem like a safe refuge, but like an ominous, unpredictable threat.
Where is the love in terminal cancer? I asked him. Where is the compassion in suffering? Where is the hope in a little girl losing her mom? Where is the goodness in it all?
In the past, I’ve sometimes compared my singleness to solitary confinement. And now, with Mindy’s news, it was like I’d discovered that the Jailer I’ve been talking to through the bars all this time is not the sympathetic, gentle man I thought he was, but someone capable of involuntary manslaughter. I wanted to to cower and hide. Or, better yet, to escape.
But if I fled God, where would I go?
I cried for a long time on the side of the road, and then I felt like God was whispering to my spirit, “Go find Jack. He’ll help you remember the truth.”
I drove over to my friend Jack’s house. He made me a cup of spiced plum tea. We sat side by side on his couch with a cushion of distance between us. We talked about the situation, and then I started to cry. I cried for Mindy and her family, and I cried for how difficult times make us doubt in our hearts what we know in our heads is true about God.
Our doubts make us want to flee from him. But if we abandon God in these times, where else is there to go? If we left his love, we’d be in a bleak, cold, lonely void. We would be outside of his presence, which is to say, we’d be in a living hell.
The tears kept coming.
“Can I hug you?” Jack asked.
I nodded. He pulled me in closer. I put my head on his chest. He wrapped his arms around me and whispered prayers over me. While Jack was holding me, I remembered a line from Psalm 46 I’d learned when I was little.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
And I prayed to God, I don’t believe you right now. I can’t see your love, and you don’t feel like a safe refuge. How do I find shelter in someone who terrifies me?
When I’ve heard the phrase God is Good in the past, I’ve thought of his goodness as ice cream. A comforting, fun, refreshing, delicious extravagance that goes down easy and smooth. Goodness like that seems like it should come to us easily and whenever we want it -- just like a child can leave her sand castle on the beach and run up to the ice cream stand on the boardwalk and ask for more when her cone’s empty.
But in dark times, God’s goodness seems fierce, and it’s a fight to move toward it. It’s as if a tsunami has wiped out the sunny beach and now there is a raging storm.
And the scene is no longer a child playing on the beach, but a sailor thrown overboard who nearly drowns several times before he’s able to swim to the Rock of Gibraltar. Once he finds the rock, he desperately scales it on hands and knees, ending up just outside of the storm’s reach with seaweed in his hair, sand in his ears, water in his lungs, and blood dripping from his shredded palms and knees.
I realized as Jack was holding me and God was speaking to my heart, that God’s goodness is absolutely solid and secure, just as he said it was. But sometimes we have to fight through a storm to get there. And even when we’ve discovered that his goodness is real, we still struggle to scale it, enduring wounds and pain and fear as we find our refuge from the storm in him.
I think this must be why, in life’s hardest moments, we cease to believe in God’s goodness. Because we’ve been looking for an ice cream stand on the boardwalk, when all the while God’s goodness was the rock in the middle of the stormy sea.
In dark times he calls us to come to him, not as a child asking for another scoop, but as a drowning sailor swimming for his life. We come to God not in surety but in doubt. Not in calmness but in crisis. Not in ease but in agony.
I think Mindy got this better than any of us. She endured pain and chemo and radiation and surgery and loss, all the while pressing into God, trusting him for whatever the outcome would be, hoping in his goodness and the promise of heaven.
And the God who sustained Mindy until the end is the God who sustains her daughter and husband and the rest of us now. He is as merciful as he is good, and he gives us the grace to keep fighting our way through the torrent until, battered and bloodied and worn, we find ourselves just outside of the storm’s reach, our weary feet firmly resting on the Rock of Ages.