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The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
— Job 1:21

The left side of Richard’s face is starting to droop. Oddly enough, it is the left eye he sees best out of. He told me so today in the store when I was standing to his right and he couldn’t follow our conversation well because I was outside his peripheral vision. Richard has brain cancer. Stage 4. He was diagnosed before he and his wife and two young children showed up at our church, had already had a couple of surgeries. I baptized him and his wife last year. They have found, as most who engage in the Middletown community do, that our church is full of sweet, gracious people who love to love on each other. Richard and his family drive an hour to worship with us on Sundays, and the distance has made it a bit difficult to do life-on-life community with them week-to-week, but we do our best, and so do they. Both Richard and his wife see his suffering as a blessing, and in a way, so does our church. They are being used by God to teach us how to suffer and how to love.

Middletown, in my fleshly-spirited and finite-minded estimation anyway, did not need this lesson. I’m sure I may be missing somebody in this calculation, but in my counting, we have had eight instances of cancer in our church over the last four years. That may not seem like a lot to you, but ours is a church of about 120. When you add in multiple people with multiple sclerosis, multiple ICU events involving toddlers and babies, and multiple bouts of serious depression, it’s beginning to feel like Middletown is a dangerous church to be in.

I confess that all last week, I felt God was being unfair and mean. You see, the Sunday before last the elders laid hands on Richard in our church service and anointed him with oil (per James 5:14). After a few months of encouraging reports in his battle, Richard suffered a seizure a couple of months ago that increased doctors’ concerns. A few more experimental treatments were suggested. Richard declined the only chemotherapy they said might work, as it ravaged his body once before in a way he determined worse than cancer. His most recent scan a couple of weeks ago shows the tumor in his brain is growing rapidly. He is out of medical options. They have given him a few months. But we’re not even to the part where I got mad at God for being mean yet.

So we laid hands on Richard and anointed him with oil, explaining to the congregation that this wasn’t magic or any kind of miraculous guarantee. We are trusting God — pleading with God — for Richard’s healing, but we totally understand that God doesn’t normally do that in the way we’re asking. So, like Daniel’s friends declared in Daniel 3:17-18, we know God is able to deliver Richard; “but if not,” we are committed to worshiping this God anyway. We know that in the end, Richard’s own prayer of faith will heal him and God will raise him up (per James 5:15).

Two days later, very early Tuesday morning, my phone rang. I know when my phone rings this early, it is not usually good news. I was not prepared for this news, however. On the other end was Elder Dale. He said he was up north in the hospital with two of our members, Jeff and Anne. Anne has been struggling with bizarre symptoms of nausea over the last month or two and local doctors have not been able to figure out what is wrong. After the last late-night ER visit, Jeff requested a CT scan. The words Dale said to me on the phone still sit in my ears like lodged rocks: “brain tumor.”

Anne had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball sitting behind her left eye. None of us could believe it. (Her husband Jeff had his battle with prostate cancer two years ago.) They removed 80% of the tumor in surgery last Thursday. The pathology report still remains to be seen, but the tumor has been classified “aggressive” and “fast-growing,” and the expectation is that Anne will need 60 days of chemotherapy to begin with.

Our little church is feeling a little beat up right now. What is God doing?

We have enjoyed many blessings, of course. In the last four years, we have seen increases in baptisms and discipleship. Our attendance has more than doubled and continues to grow. We have seen no “summer slump” this year and now that the fall is upon us, we are again wondering where we might put everybody when we stop having multiple vacationers out on a Sunday. We are running out of parking spaces and class rooms. We prayed for more young families and young singles, and God started sending them. In terms of souls and energy, our cup runneth over.

But I feel (fear?) that God is seasoning us. I mean, I know he is. I know what suffering is for. I’ve had my own. God crushing me was honestly the best thing he ever did for me. But I feel protective right now. And overwhelmed. The caregivers in our community — which is most of our community — are running on fumes. We feel unprepared, incapable, dumb.

But I know that when we are weak is actually when we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). I know that the Spirit-powered ability to suffer well is a filling up of what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24), a witness as it were for the gospel by the gospel, an opportunity to reveal what our boast is (2 Corinthians 12:9), where our hope is (2 Corinthians 1:7), who our glory is (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Speaking of jars of clay: Today we visited Richard and his wife Erin. Richard, who once feasted on the Puritans and the Reformers, all the “old dead guys” of theological genius, is having more and more trouble reading. He’s having more and more trouble comprehending the words on a page. So I read to him today for a little while. The request was for Romans, so I began in Romans 5. We only made it halfway through Romans 6, because Richard needs little breaks to rest and because after every few verses, he would ask me to sum up what I had just read. Here is a little bit of the ground we covered, on suffering and hope:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-11)

The text goes on to talk a lot about life and death. Christ’s. And ours. And Christ’s becoming ours. When I reminded Richard several times in different ways that when he died, he would be secured from wrath because Christ had already died for him, he would close his eyes.

What were we doing? We were breaking open the Scripture like a jar of clay and enjoying the glory inside. Or, rather, we were breaking open the Scripture like an alabaster flask and standing under the sweet-smelling oil.

In the car on the way to the store to get some lunch, Richard said, “Do you know what you’re going to say at the . . . after?” He’s not stupid. He understands what you say and he understands what he wants to say but the tumor has made it difficult for him to access certain words and concepts. He has trouble with his memory, and in this instance, after I recalled him asking earlier about plans for a prayer service for him that his wife and I were discussing — “Will that be before I… or after I?” he said — I knew what he was asking.

“At your funeral?” I said.


“Well, please tell me if there’s a particular Bible passage or specific points you want me to make, but basically I’m going to preach the gospel.”

“Yeah,” he said, “that’s what I want.”

The oil is sweet.

Anne is making her own drive. Her daughter Ally is getting married in Lake Tahoe next week. Anne has been forbidden from flying for obvious reasons. But not from riding in a car. So her son Mark is driving her across the country, from Vermont to Tahoe, so she can be at her daughter’s wedding. There’s another set of words sitting in my ears like lodged stones. They are from Anne’s husband Jeff. As he was giving Becky and me a tour of the Hope Lodge in Burlington, a free residence for families of cancer patients, he said, “I have no doubts about who’s on the throne.”

Here is my fear: My church — well, or, more honestly, I — will grow weary in doing good. We will have some doubts about who is on the throne. Or we will doubt his goodness. We may doubt his love. Or his sovereign omnipotence. Or both.

Vermonters are a stubborn people. They are hard-changers. I think this is part of the reason Becky and I feel so at home here. My prayer is that we can devote this stubbornness, this resilience, this dogged grip on “the way things are” to the glory of the Lord of hosts. By God’s grace, we will not lose heart or hope. By the Spirit’s power, Job’s confession will be ours: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him . . .” (Job 13:15).

And I confess the other part is true too: “…yet I will argue my ways to his face.” I say to the Lord it feels like enough. I tell him I think a little suffering will do. As I played Hungry-Hungry Hippos with Richard’s three year-old son today, I thought it should be Richard down here enjoying this game with his son. And during lunch, his son said to me, “My dad talks weird,” and I thought, “This isn’t fair, God! It’s not right.” God doesn’t need Richard or Anne. But their families do. Yes? No?

I know the Lord’s wisdom is unsearchable. And we know now just how heavy it is.

I am learning so much from Middletown Church. They have taught me a heckuva lot about how to love. And they are teaching me how to suffer. I suppose they are teaching me how to die. I think we might all be learning together that despite the happiness of our ongoing increase, because of what Christ has done to death (Romans 6:5,9), joy comes in the mourning, that somehow that way is actually better (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

“Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:26)

We believe, Lord. Help our unbelief.

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

— Psalm 42:7-8

(Top photo: Me and Richard. Bottom photo: Anne and Jeff)

My Friend Nellie

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26 thoughts on “All His Breakers and His Waves: Our Church, Suffering, and Stubborn Faith”

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I have learned the most in my life when I’ve gone through suffering. It is indeed a blessing from God, but it’s so hard to see it that way. And in spite of knowing how “good” it was for me, I never ask for it or want it really.

  2. Karen says:

    My heart breaks for the suffering and hurting your church is going through. But I also see people of amazing faith and trust which must certainly be a beacon of hope to your community. I love you and your flock. Praying for you all.

  3. Matthew Bell says:

    Dearest Jared,
    I weep with you and for you. I also do the same on almost every occassion that I bring Lamentations 3 into my purview. We followers and drifters are not impervious to these bitter scaldings. But we cry out like Jeremiah in saying:
    vs 5 “He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation: he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago…he had made my chains heavy…he is a bear lying in wait for me; a lion in hiding; he has turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate: he bent his bow and made me as a target for his arrow…he had made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace and I have forgotten what happiness is. So I say, “my hope has perished” so has my hope from the LORD….BUT THIS, I call to mind, therefore I have hope; The STEADFAST love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning;(With weeping eyes and trembling hands I wimper) Great is your faithfulness. The LORD is my portion says my soul therefore I will hope in him. The LORD is good to those who wait for him…For the LORD will not cast off forever; but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion.

    Praying with you and confident for you in the LORD, even if you cannot be at this moment. Christ prays for you now.
    Matthew Bell

  4. Chris Booth says:

    Thanks for sharing so transparently Jared. I think this post could be a great blessing to many hurting people. I hope it’s ok to share a link? Rachel Barkey had an aggressive cancer and died of it back in 2009, but was able to give this talk about God and cancer and dying. It’s called, “Death is Not Dying” and it has been a great help to me…both during my own wife’s illness as well as after she went to be with the Lord. I hope it may add to the blessings of this post.

  5. Trudy L says:

    wow. This leaves me speechless. So thankful for the grace that you and all the precious brothers and sisters there will be standing in during these incredibly hard times. I’m so sorry. Praying for you all there.

  6. Dane says:

    Thank you for this.

  7. Flyaway says:

    My heart goes out to you. Our church is suffering with illness also. We only have 30 regular attenders and on one Sunday 2 had to go to the emergency room. There was a good outcome for both though. My sister passed away from cancer when her daughter was 8. My niece is 22 now. She is walking with the Lord, and started a community group for 20 somethings at her church. Looking back at what the Lord has done and His attributes helps me to keep going no matter what. But I think sleep, good food, and exercise are important as well as many prayers.

  8. Louise says:

    “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16) why? So that God’s power could be displayed through him is one answer (2 Cor 12:9). For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships…. (12:10)

    God’s power. Christ’s sake.

    Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:8-11)

    The devil can also be the cause of suffering. Sometimes it helps to remember that the brotherhood around the world knows the same kind of suffering as is happening in your church. Perhaps MIddletown is a little church that has too big of a task on it’s hands, which seems to be the church of the sick and crippled, but if you looked at your church from a universal perspective I think you might find some beauty and solace in the knowledge that your little church is suffering like the brotherhood in Africa, in India, in China. There are pockets of Christ’s followers all over the world who are suffering well for the sake of Christ. So take heart that you’re not alone. Think on the things that the brotherhood are experiencing in Asia.

    Speaking of Asia, ok that was intentional, remember Paul felt the sentence of death in Asia: For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Cor 1:8-11)

    Rely on God who raises the dead. The God who has delivered you, will deliver you, and will deliver you again.

  9. Bird says:

    Praying for you, brother. During the darkest days of my life I held on to 2 Cor. 1:8-11, confirming the feeling of the “sentence of death” in my heart, yet acknowledging that God has delivered us, is delivering us, and will deliver us. He is faithful.

  10. Nancy Leigh DeMoss says:

    Very moving post, Jared. Thank you for making the gospel believable, through trials and tears. Lifting you and your flock up to His throne of grace as I write. May He be to you and them the God of endurance and encouragement, the God of hope, the God of peace, the God of all grace–daily, tailor-made, sufficient, sweet, robust, soul-bracing grace.

    “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf…. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward….” (Heb 6:19-20; 10:35f)

  11. Melissa A says:

    Thank you so much for sharing so candidly, and yet calling our minds back to Scripture in faithfulness. I really appreciate this post and I know many others who will be greatly encouraged by it. Praying for your church today and those who are suffering such hard providences. Many blessings to you!

  12. Tina Thompson says:

    Thank you for your honesty. Praying for you and the people you mentioned and your church.

  13. Nick Horton says:

    Thank you. Tears threaten now at the trails my own church family is going through. Death is thick, but the gospel cuts it with effortless ease. And so we cling..

  14. Little Sheep says:

    Thank you brother Wilson for sharing. Having endured some deep valleys myself, I still find them scary because one never knows the outcome. Watching someone close to you suffer is often worse than suffering yourself. If only we could learn to trust more. We tend to believe that if we trusted more perhaps our need to suffer would become less. I used to believe it took great faith to be healed, I now understand it takes much greater faith to not be healed.

  15. Thank you for your honest words. My prayers are with you and your church family. I pray that the Lord in his infinite loving kindness will give you and your congregation great comfort through these trials, and use them to strengthen your faith in Christ and as a powerful witness to others. May I share this story? Blessings in Christ, Sherryn

  16. Nancy Green says:

    we are always concerned whether or not Jesus is enough – you guys are living proof that HE IS. Thank you for your transparency and your glorious demonstration of the sufficiency of God for all things forever.

  17. Andy says:

    “We feel unprepared, incapable, dumb.”

    But. it. doesn’t. stop. us.

    Sorry to key in on those five words from your post Jared but it pretty much sums things up. We will always feel unprepared, incapable, and dumb but we have faith in God who gives us strength, not of our own, to wake up and carry on through another minute, hour, day. No matter the success, the alphabet soup after names, the books, sermons, or stuff acquired, from the least of us to the greatest of us, we all face pretty much the same stuff and it’s faith to wake up and face another day, come what may, that allows us to carry on. So, that’s what we do.

  18. Brandi says:

    Jared, this is a very moving post. Among other things, it helped me to see my problems in perspective. Thank you for being His hands and feet.

  19. Debbie S says:

    Thank you so much for this.

  20. Tim Minzer says:

    Wow… I’ve never gone through anything like this. Honestly, I never want to either. However, that is not in my control. My prayer is that if I ever do, I can at least respond in a way that is half of what I’ve read here.

  21. Fay Robinson says:

    Dearest Jared,

    When I read this poasting I wept and prayed with and for you and your flock. I pray His continued blessings, support, strength, discernment, hope, and uplifting love for you and for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Time will pass but now that God has introduced us, you and yours will be in my prayers.

    The 1st of many scriptures that God gave me when I also was faceing the possibility of close, imminent death = Psalm 34:4. This was at the age of 13 yrs. I am now 67 yrs. and have faced that same possibility three more times (that I know of). My work for God on this earth is evidently not complete yet! As has been said, the suffering and humility brings more and more understanding and love that we can share with our brothers and sisters until Abba calls us home.

    May our Lord continue to bless you and keep His protective, supportive hedge round about you.
    And I pray His blessings on you as you continue to seek and do His will.
    Fay Robinson

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Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, director of The Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

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