Guarding and proclaiming the unchanging truth in a changing world

Cancer, Covid and Christ

26th May 2020

Jeremy Marshall's introduction to his devotions: Jeremy Marshall will be writing the ‘Lift Up Your Hearts’ devotions from Monday 1st June with a focus on those who have suffered throughout the Bible, honing in on people such as Joseph, Job, the widow of Nain and of course our Lord Jesus. Jeremy lives in Sevenoaks, UK.

Perhaps the hardest part of the Christian life is dealing with that unholy and unwanted trio of visitors; fear, suffering and death. Death, the Bible tells us, is the last enemy and one we must all face. Suffering usually comes before death and is a visitor we all dread, for who wants to suffer? Fear is normally the first of the trio to make our acquaintance, affecting not our bodies but our minds. 

Normally, of course we don’t like to even think about such things. Suddenly though in the time of Coronavirus these unwelcome visitors cannot be avoided.  

The French mathematician and writer Blaise Pascal said,

“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”

But suddenly, we cannot help but think about "such things". They are inescapable. 

They are inescapable for me as I have had cancer for 7 years: 5 years ago I was told the cancer was incurable and that my death was probably imminent. I have been living for the last five years with a “sword of Damocles“ over my head. Now that sword is seemingly over everyone’s head. It used to be just me in chemotherapy nervous about coughs and sneezes now it’s everyone! "Welcome to my world" I like to say.

The truth is that we Christians in the West have been relatively shielded from fear,  suffering and death. This may explain why our faith is so often so weak and feeble. When I was a boy my father used to take all of his family (my mother,  three sisters and me) bible smuggling behind the iron curtain. When we visited these churches  I noticed they had such a vibrant faith despite being terribly persecuted and often being threatened  with their lives.  Perhaps God is using the current crisis to teach us spoiled western Christians to live like Christians in the majority world who trust him daily? I remember the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom written about her time in a concentration camp,

“I only realised that Christ was all I needed when Christ was all I had." 

I want to stress that I am not an expert on fear, suffering and death. Although I have been through chemotherapy, radiotherapy and various operations for cancer and also blindness, I am not an expert on suffering or on anything. I am not even like my father a clergyman - I worked of all things in banking. I’m just a “normal” Christian. I’m married to Jeanette and have three adult children. We live in Sevenoaks Kent (about 30 miles south east of London) where I attend our wonderful local Anglican church, St Nicholas Sevenoaks. Our Rector Angus MacLeay has been one of the leading people contending faithfully within the Church of England  for the truth once delivered to the saints. 

So this series it’s not about me but about three things I have found with which we can defeat fear, suffering and death. 

In this series I want to draw on all three. 

The first is that if we have a problem where must we go? We must, brothers and sisters, go to the Bible. This is God's medicine chest where we can find treatment for our diseases. We may also find solace in the wonderful Book of Common Prayer (BCP)  which “is deeply rooted in the Bible: not only does it make very full provision for the reading of Scripture, but its services are in substance and language scriptural throughout.“ Therefore each one of the devotions will end with a prayer from the BCP which has helped many Christians since it was first published in 1549. Each day I will look at a Bible passage and consider how it may teach us. I have chosen each passage also because it has helped me so powerfully over the last 7 years. In the same way that God spoke to me personally through his word I pray he will speak to you.

Next I have found that as I read the Bible God's promises come to life. Here are three mighty and everlasting promises which, like a rock, may enable us to stand secure in the stormiest seas: 

“I will never leave you or forsake you”

“Look I am with you always even to the end of the age”

“Yes though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me”

God emphatically does not promise us health and wealth. That’s the Devil's lie. The Prosperity Gospel is utterly at odds with the Bible's teaching. It’s obvious it’s a lie because “it’s given to man once to die and after that the judgement”. (Hebrews 9:27)

God does not promise us a bypass round the valley of the shadow of death. We all have to go thorough it. We all must suffer and die. We are in fact explicitly called to “take up our cross daily and follow him.” This can be unbearably hard at times. But there is something amazingly powerful in God's Word that enables us to endure to the end. 

This is His promise to be with us in the valley of the shadow of death. We may find partial theological answers to fear, suffering and death and there is a place for that. But God's ultimate answer for fear suffering and death is Himself. A person who walked the dusty streets of Palestine and who was like us: who was afraid, suffered and died. Who can sympathise with all our weakness and toil because amazingly enough he has experienced far worse. Christ never asks us to go through anything he hasn’t experienced himself.

But also not like us. Someone who is God Almighty. Someone who went to the cross for the love that he has for us. Someone who holds the keys of death and hell. Someone who amazingly dear friends can save us from fear suffering and death. I have experienced his presence as I look at His Word and I pray that you will too as we take a look together. 

Finally I have found that fear, suffering and death can be redemptive because in Christ we have hope. My cancer has been a powerful driver in motivating me to share my faith. I have written a book for non-Christians about this hope in the face of death. What do we have to offer in Coronavirus? Hope in Christ. 

People, I have found, are intrigued by the hope that I have - which is nothing to do with me, but is the same hope as any Christian. Jesus stands in front of us in our fear, suffering and grief and says,  

"I am the Resurrection and I am the Life".  

- Jeremy Marshall

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