Hope: Between Desire and Surrender
I have wanted to write this post for a while. It turned over and over deep in my gut, but the words hadn’t reached my lips yet. Until today. Something shifted in my heart and I knew there were thoughts I needed to share.
In the past few years since Bryan’s cancer diagnosis and Sage’s cerebral palsy diagnosis we have run across a familiar philosophy over and over again. There are some Christian circles that it is particularly dominant in, but it permeates even the secular. This philosophy has one thing to say to us in the midst of dark seasons and difficult circumstances: Just Believe. Just Stay Positive.
When those touting this philosophy hear of Bryan’s cancer or my daughter’s cerebral palsy they say things like “You just have to have faith, you just have to believe and not doubt and the prayer offered in faith will cure the sick man. You just have to believe and it will all be ok.” The more secular version would say something like, “You just have to stay positive. If you stay positive you can change your energy. Envision what you want to happen.”
I wrestled with these statements. On a lot of levels.
A few weeks ago a woman stopped me at my son’s school and asked a few questions about my daughter, Sage. Then she asked if she could pray for Sage and I of course said yes. She didn’t get more than a few words into the prayer before I started to feel uncomfortable. She prayed the kind of prayer that prays “in faith”. She asked for my daughter’s healing.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I would sing loud songs of praise if my daughter was suddenly able to do the things which have so far been so difficult for her. If she could walk or talk my heart would dance.
But here’s the thing, my daughter isn’t a problem to be fixed.
I would love for God to step in and changing my daughters condition, but I am also ok if he doesn’t. And she is too. She is enough as she is. She is not a problem to be solved or a broken puzzle to be fixed. She is a beautiful, full, lively, and bright, little girl who has value exactly as she is. And I sing loud songs of praise every day and my heart dances happy steps just because I get to be her mama.
So often, in the church especially, and western society particularly, we come at things from this industrial mindset of “fixing”. We aren’t comfortable with discomfort, we aren’t comfortable with grief, we aren’t comfortable with things that don’t fit our normal little boxes and so we try to fix them. We think that if we pray the right prayer, do the right thing, then things will be ok.
We would all say that we know being a Christian isn’t going to make our lives perfect, but when it really comes down to it isn’t that sort of what we believe? We believe we are owed something. Sometimes we put some prerequisites on it, like “if we have enough faith” or “if we’ve found enough favor” by doing the right things, but essentially we are saying if we have/do x than God will do y.
That is not the God I know.
The God I know doesn’t fit in my nice neat little boxes. He doesn’t make life perfect, or even comfortable, he likes to shake things up instead.
This whole philosophy of “having enough faith” never sat right with my heart, because it feels like putting God in a box. It feels like creating a formula for what we want.
I know there are verses that supported it, but I couldn't fully understand them. It didn’t sit right with me because it didn’t feel like obedience to what I knew deep in my bones I was being called to do when it came to Sage’s condition, or when it came to Bryan’s.
Throughout the first few years of Bryan’s cancer diagnosis, and especially at this time last year, I didn’t feel like I could hope, and honestly I didn’t feel like I was suppose to.
I constantly felt God calling me to put Bryan (and Sage) completely and utterly on the alter, as Abraham put Isaac on the alter, completely ready for the worst to happen. I had to wrestle through all of my feelings associated with the worst happening. I had to come to a place where I could say “Yes, Lord, I will follow you even into that.” I had to wrestle with God’s faithfulness, his trustworthiness.
I had to go into the dark places. Not avoid them with nice platitudes or positive thinking.
Holding on to positive thoughts, holding hope and faith, felt fake. I couldn’t for the life of me make it feel honest. I knew in my heart that when I tried to be positive, tried to believe that Bryan was going to be ok, all I was doing was running from God, trying to cover over my fear in my own strength. When I forced myself to think of positive outcomes, when I forced belief that I didn’t have, I made it all about me instead of about God.
And that is exactly what that sort of “just have enough faith” thinking does, isn’t it? It makes it all about us. It makes it all about what we can do for God. I don’t want a faith like that.
The truth was that I couldn’t hold positivity and hold obedient surrender at the same time. Believing in the best possible outcome went hand-in-hand with trying to control my own future and I knew deep down that wasn’t what God wanted from me.
He wanted something entirely different. I heard it in every whisper of the spirit. I sensed it in every dark corner of my heart. I felt it with all my fear and all my broken humanity. We were waging a battle and the battle wasn’t for belief it was for control. It was for my very soul.
I didn’t need to pray the prayer that could move mountains, I needed to pray the prayer of Gethsemane. I needed to voice my desire to go another way. “Lord, if there is another way”, and wrestle with the God who says no.
I needed to lay down all my plans for the future in the hands of a sovereign God. I needed to abandon all of my idols, the most significant being my own way. I needed to come to the place where I could enter into my worst fear, go into the darkness of the worst possible scenario, and find God still there. I needed to come to a place where I knew that the Spirit would still be trustworthy whatever cross might be laid upon my shoulders.
I had a moment last Christmas when all of that wrestling with God came to a head. And something in my soul broke. Of course there have been other battles for control since, but I have lost them more quickly and laid them down more gladly.
But, now there is something new.
There are so many parallels between this Christmas season and last Christmas season when it comes to Bryan’s cancer, but this season feels so different.
Last Christmas at this time everything was uncertain, Bryan had tumors all over his body and we weren’t sure if the treatment we were pursuing would do any good. This year the same is true, Bryan’s tumors are growing slowly but steadily. The treatments we have been using don’t seem to be working and we don’t know if they will start to work.
But, my heart is in a different fight now.
In this season there has been another whisper that comes to me when I am quiet. At random times over dishes, or laundry, or on my yoga mat I feel it. Hope is rising. Without effort on my part, without contriving. It comes.
And I am instantly faced with a temptation. Will I let it in? Or will I doubt hope’s whispers? Will I only believe what my eyes can see or will I hold hope in faith?
When Bryan’s tumors stopped responding to the last treatment, when they started to grow again last fall, and we knew we had to pursue another treatment, I felt so clearly and strongly that this next treatment would work. Maybe not forever (probably not forever) but for awhile. Now we are pretty far into this treatment and there is no sign that it’s working. Bryan has a tumor in his stomach the size of my fist which isn’t getting any smaller. I can see things growing. I can feel new tumors appearing. There is a temptation to panic.
Yet that voice keeps calling me, “Will you listen to me instead of to what you see?” Hebrews 11 keeps coming to mind, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” I come again to the story of Abraham and Isaac but with different eyes and a different struggle. I face now the faith of Abraham. And I hear the voice of Spirit with a loud and clear message, a message of hope.
I come again to the passages about faith which can move mountains and they don’t sit as awkwardly and uncomfortably in my heart.
Last year I couldn’t hope. Last year I couldn’t believe. And I don’t think God wanted me to, not then. Because last year, I couldn’t hold hope without holding on to the outcome I wanted. I couldn’t hold belief without holding onto control. I couldn’t hold faith without making it all about me and my own desires.
But, something is different now, and I feel it deep in my gut. Now that I know what it feels like to surrender to sovereignty, I can ask for faith without trying to force faith upon myself in my own strength. Now that I am not trying to escape from anything or fix anything, I can explore what it means to ask in hope.
I had to let go of everything before I could begin to learn what it is to hold on to something with hope.
Now, I can feel the freedom to hope. Not with a childlike hope, which requires getting what it wants in order to be fulfilled, but with an mature hope. A hope that can hold desire with open hands, a hope that can hold the white space between desire and surrender.
Rejoicing in the journey, Bethany