Two battles with cancer and the side effects of its treatment resulted in me spending over a year of my life as severely immunocompromised. Those experiences of quarantine, fear, and struggle have given me a lot to think about during our coronavirus pandemic.
The next lesson I have to share is this: Things will never be normal again.
I work as a minister in a large church, which means I walk alongside people as they experience moments of disruption and change in their lives. Whether it’s job loss, health issues, or family struggles, people almost always share that their greatest desire is for things to get “back to normal.” They want the clock to be rolled backwards to before this ever happened. They want the pain to not only stop but to be undone. They hope for the experience to be overcome so thoroughly that it is effectively erased. They want to get back to normal, and I am usually the person that has to tell them that can never happen.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was 25. I was healthy and strong, a marathon runner in the prime of life. I tried to process the sudden realization that I was sick like I had every other previous illness; I’ll be sick for a while, I’ll get better, things will be back to normal. That’s how this works, right?
“God is in control, but not in the way that most of us want.”
That didn’t work because I wasn’t just sick. I was quite literally dying. My life was threatened, my future was uncertain. The grief, loss, and pain I experienced weren’t something that could fold nicely into the expectations of normal life. They were massively disrupting, and over time I slowly became aware of the truth that I would never be going “back to normal” again. There was no future version of life where I didn’t bear the scars of this struggle. There was no “going back.”
Christians of all types are fond of the saying, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” That message is meant to be encouraging. People say it to raise other’s spirits, to call them towards trusting in a God who is supporting and caring for them. It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s totally bogus.
It’s bogus for a number of reasons. First, it suggests that God is the source of your pain. It projects a view of reality that says every car accident, every business failure, every virus mutation is a direct work of God. It supposes that everything, everywhere, is being controlled by a God that micromanages every detail of reality. This theology says much more about the people who hold it than it says about God. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” is comforting if you, personally, yearn for control, because it says that God controls everything … because that’s how you would do it if you were God.
But you’re not God. Neither am I. I yearn for stability, predictability, security, and I set up my life around those values. God, however, values love, and lets creation be free so that it can love God and be loved in return. God is in control, but not in the way that most of us want.
God is in control in the sense that God has conquered sin and death, our greatest enemy and the source of our deepest fears. Having conquered the power of death, God has set us free to actually, truly live.
God is in control in that God has restored and reconciled us, destroyed the things that separate us from God, and become present in our every living moment. Being present, with us, God doesn’t shield us from all pain but proves to be faithful in the midst of it.
God is in control, not because God is controlling every moment, but because nothing happens in God’s creation that can undo what God has done to save us. God wants us to be free to know God and love God, and God gets what God wants.
There is no going back. There is no going back to before you had cancer, to before your relationship began to crumble, to before the Covid-19 virus became a threat to our bodily and economic health. Our desire to go back is a desire for control, and we’re not in control. There is no going back, there is only going through. We go forward with the trust that what waits for us on the other side is good because God says it is good. We trust in the God whose idea of control is setting creation free and saving it from sin, promising to always be with us even when we feel forsaken. There is no going back, only going through, and God promises that what we find will be good.