There’s an excellent scene in the recent film, “First Man”. It’s a film about Neil Armstrong, of course, the “First Man” on the moon. The scene shows the NASA director and an aid talking through the “commiseration” speech they had prepared if the moon landing had been a failure, and for whatever reason – they had been unable to bring their boys home.
The American president himself had two speeches prepared – one in the event of success (which he read) and one in case of failure (which was, thankfully on this occasion, relegated to the bottom of some presidential speech-writer’s filing cabinet).
I found myself in a similar position when preparing this blog entry. I genuinely considered writing two posts – one to publish in the event of good news, and one to publish in the event of bad.
Allow me to explain my situation. As some of my readers will know, in the past I have been treated twice for cancer. Firstly in 2014 for cancer of the tongue, and then in 2016 when the initial cancer had spread to my neck. A few months ago, I found a worrying lump under my chin. With God’s help, this time I could approach it fairly contentedly and philosophically. I trusted my consultant’s judgement when he told me it was probably nothing to worry about, but because of my history we’d run a full raft of tests. This last Tuesday (11 Dec.) I went to get my results.
There were two possible outcomes: Good news or bad. Either no cancer, or cancer. Should I write two blog posts for both eventualities, and simply publish the one that applied?
Two things stopped me. For one, I’m inherently lazy, and writing two posts just for “a bit” seemed like unnecessary work. Secondly, I considered what such an approach might say about my faith.
I’ve spoken above about two possible outcomes, but that could be a bit misleading. It's not exactly the case, is it? Whatever my results had been (and, in case you’re wondering, the tests came back negative for cancer – my remaining lymph nodes are just reacting to my previous treatments), they would have been part of God’s perfect plan for my life. I didn’t have to write two statements, because I wasn’t relying on fallible humans and rocket science for the outcome, I was relying on my Almighty Father, who, according to Romans 8:28, “…in all things…works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV)
“Whate’er my God ordains is right” as the hymn goes (Samuel Rodigast, 1675, transl. Catherine Winkworth, 1829-1878). The words were bouncing round my head on the way to the hospital. Not “right” because it’s always easy. Not “right” because we’re gluttons for punishment or fools like Dr Pangloss* thinking this is the best of possible worlds and trying to put a positive spin on every wretched thing that happens. “Right”, because however difficult the situation, God is still in control, and working even the most miserable of things for our eternal good.
I’ve grown more in faith and maturity than I ever would if it weren’t for two bouts of cancer. My results came back negative, and that was good news, but if they’d been positive, however counter-intuitive, that would have been good news as well: It would have been another opportunity for me to lean on God; another chance to grow in grace; another opportunity for Him to be glorified in my life; another chance to proclaim his “Works worth Declaring”** through how I face surgery and even death trusting that there is life on the other side of it through Christ’s atoning blood.
We don’t always need to be planning two statements for every eventuality, as if our future were down to chaotic chance. By all means, prepare in advance for difficult situations: So often our faith is threatened because we haven’t prepared for the bad times in the good. But if you can call God, “MY God”, then whate’er He ordains: cancer or no cancer; plenty or poverty; life or death – He has planned it all for your good.
*Dr Pangloss is a character in Voltaire’s satirical book, “Candide.” No, I’ve not read it either.
**This is a reference to a blog written by Douglas Taylor as he was dying of liver cancer. A selection of these posts is collected in the book, “I shall not die, but live” (Banner of Truth, 2016). The book’s subtitle says it all: “Facing death with Gospel hope.” I thoroughly recommend it, whether you or a loved one are facing illness or not.