When God Says No

by Alina Sato
This post is Part 1 in a series entitled Blessed are Those With and Without a Cancer Diagnosis. Parts 2 and 3 will be published in the weeks to come.

My friend Susan and I both had biopsies to investigate ‘suspicious findings’ on our mammograms and ultrasounds within a week of each other. As a result, we and our concerned circle of friends were awaiting news on the results at the same time. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but we’re praying for you. Let us know once you hear!” This was how all the texts read, because as realistic as we honestly try to be, we never really expect the unexpected. Susan and I were both eager to have good news to share, because of course it would all be nothing.
Then I received the fateful call from the doctor’s office that it wasn’t nothing; it was something, and it was serious. I reeled.

Even still, I made the stubborn decision to walk around the corner to my hairstylist’s home to get the haircut I already had on the calendar for that morning. I prepared her with a text before I arrived, that I was dealing with bad news and would likely be incapable of coherent conversation. Bless her for the bravery I forced upon her. She graciously allowed me to share what I felt comfortable sharing, and patiently let me drift off mid-sentence over and over again, as my overwhelmed mind struggled to process my new reality.
As I left her home, a text came in from Susan to our group. “Just got my biopsy results – a benign fibroadenoma! Alina, hope you get good news soon too!”
The other friends in the group promptly and rightfully replied, “Praise God!! He is so good!”
I took a deep breath, and then I sent my reply.
“So thankful for you, Susan!
Unfortunately I got my news too, but it’s not good.
Still, we praise Him in both the good and the bad.”
I could imagine the way my friends’ hearts sank a bit, not just at my news in and of itself, but at the painfully ironic context in which I ended up sharing it. We had all prayed for benign results for both Susan and me. Susan got good news, and I got the complete opposite, all in the same morning. Dare I say, God said yes to her, but no to me?

Well, yes and no. God did not deny my request for a benign diagnosis to single me out or slight me. At the end of the day, my suffering is not a problem unique to me. Everyone suffers at different times in all sorts of ways, and everyone eventually must confront bodily decline (Psalm 90:10). This moment in time is just part of my unique story.

Even still, we are faced with uncomfortable realities when we assess my situation. I am my community’s sobering reminder that we are all vulnerable and mortal at any stage of life. What’s more, this wild up and down text exchange brings to the surface the struggles we all have with why life can feel unfair and God can feel capricious.

The question, ‘Did God say yes to Susan, but no to me?’ arose in me at least partly from the initial feeling that my diagnosis was somehow unfair. I felt almost as ‘faithful’ a person as Susan on the surface, and certainly not too much less, so shouldn’t I also get a pass on the cancer card? This line of thinking buys into the prosperity gospel, which tells us God always wants material wealth and physical well-being for His most faithful people. It believes the lie that some kind of checklist is what determines who should be first in line to get cancer, and who should be last. But my career as a pediatric ICU nurse has taught me that being human in a fallen world is the primary, unavoidable risk factor for getting sick. We can die at any point on the age and morality continuum.

I am not exempt from being human, which means I am never exempt from suffering and death. This isn’t about God being unfair so much as it is about life in a terribly fallen world being hard all around. The prosperity gospel tells me to perform enough faith to convince God to say yes to a proffered invincibility to suffering. What an exhausting way to pursue an illusion. If we fall for the prosperity gospel, we miss the real Gospel, which speaks into the real world where markets crash, people disappoint, cancer strikes, and death befalls. The God of the real Gospel speaks an entirely different dimension of life, hope, and security into the hearts of those who feel the honest frailty of their body, their faith, and the world we live in.

Finding peace with the question, ‘Did You say yes to her, but no to me?’ is about finding peace as we’re really asking other underlying questions:

'Was a life of ease really my guarantee of an inner sense of wholeness?'
'Will suffering and death ultimately wipe out all my joy and life?'
'Do You provide a way to endure with solid hope in the midst of tremendous struggles?'
'Does affliction from cancer mark the end of God's goodness to me?'
'Are You for me or against me?'

In other words, “Can I trust that my life with cancer is still safe with You, in the exact same way that Susan’s life without cancer is safe with You?”

As I’ve wept and wrestled and reflected, I’ve found the answer to be yes. I am safe in His love because the way God answers my prayers is less about the particularities of my suffering from cancer (though He has met me in so many of the details), and more about how He has given His very self to me as an everlasting Refuge of Love. When I had plenty of worldly achievements and yet was sinking in inadequacy and exhaustion, He was my Refuge of Love. When my body was healthy but my heart was sick with shame from the sins no one knew of but Him, He was my Refuge of Love. When I passed through previous seasons of extreme heartache and uncertainty, He was my Refuge of Love. When I look at Jesus intercepting the spear of death on my behalf and rising again in glory, I see that He is my Refuge of Love both now in my life with cancer and beyond the grave.

I cannot explain why God allowed cancer to enter at this point in my story. I also cannot explain why He has loved me with His very life. Both are real, but only His love has the best and final word on me.

Oh friend, don’t miss the comfort of this truth.

Even as I continue to work through hard uncertainties about my health and their implications for me and my family, I can stand secure in knowing He will give us grace and hope for the otherwise impossible days. He will provide a depth to life that goes far beyond the hollow, fleeting pursuit of a ‘best life now’ (Ephesians 3:16-19). He will give me the joyful freedom to rightly celebrate the good gift of health in Susan’s life without resentment or insecurity. He gives me Himself, Lord of eternity, lover of my soul.

When you, my dearest ones, are faced with your own bewildering ‘no’s,’ He gives me this word of comfort to share, to help us remember His greatest Yes in Jesus: He is for you, not against you, in the mysteries and loneliness of your suffering. Your suffering may well hide His face, but it hides Him in the way an ominous dark cloud obscures an enduring mountain for only a season. Your suffering is not the end of your joy or your life, for He will carry you through the depths of it and He promises to carry us all the way Home.
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