I have always loved the observation by Brooks:
“How delightful is the company of generous people, who overlook trifles and keep their minds instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world about them. People of small caliber are always carping…. But magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere” (Brooks, 1948).
I have wanted to be one of those magnanimous people, one whose mind is “instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world.” I think that, over the course of decades, I have made some progress away from natural man shrewishness and toward godly graciousness. I figured that, if God granted me a few centuries of mortality and some personal tutoring in the spirit world, I might get really good at it.
But God has allowed me a new and different challenge. In April I was diagnosed with cancer. Quickly the physician started me on the treatment of choice — a treatment with a high success rate. I bore the medical indignities with a quiet confidence that it would soon be over.
But none of my priesthood blessings promised me a quick resolution. Despite many kind and beloved people praying for me, I began to suspect that my experience with this disease was going to be less of a quick, independent-study course and more of a Master’s Degree program.
At the end of the first round of treatment, the doctor announced that it had not worked. The cancer was worse. He sent me to a surgeon to remove the diseased organ. Then that surgeon sent me to an oncologist for chemo before removing the cancer and its host organ.
None of this is extraordinary. Thousands of people experience a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious medical condition every year. But a pernicious cancer didn’t fit with my optimistic turn-of-mind. Every report from doctors was confusing, negative, and progressively gloomier. Such stubbornly bad news was very difficult to incorporate into the narrative of a life filled with joy and purpose.
It just didn’t seem right; it didn’t seem to fit.
Those times of grief and confusion did not last long. I continued to have a generally positive nature. But I recognized my new challenge — how do I incorporate these unsolvable challenges into my optimistic view of life? How do I reconcile tragedy with faith?
On a recent evening, sleep eluded me. I was not burdened, just thoughtful. I stayed up late looking for a quote I remembered from Shadowlands, the play and movie about C. S. Lewis and his love for the woman he married, Joy Gresham. As he was losing his wife to cancer, he said: “When [death] gets close, you’ll find out whether you believe or not.”
Yes. When life gets sober and serious, we find out if we really believe.
Do I really believe that I once lived with God? Do I really believe that He showed me the challenges of earth life and I chose them gladly — knowing the purpose of this study-abroad experience called mortality? Do I really believe that this life is just a few moments of stretching to be followed by an eternity of joyous learning and serving? Do I really believe that God is perfectly powerful and relentlessly redemptive? Do I really believe that He will look after even His erring, flawed, and fallen sons such as me? Do I really believe that pain can minister to my growth, refinement, and purification? Do I really believe I can trust Him in all circumstances — including this set of circumstances?
Yes. I believe.
I believe Him, and that changes everything.
Now the invitation is to live according to my convictions.
I should emphasize that believing is a conscious choice. I feel the tug of darkness, bitterness, cynicism, and grudging, half-hearted belief. It calls to me periodically — especially in times of pain and medical surprise. There is temptation to wallow in that darkness. But I choose to break out into the light — to enjoy the abundant blessings of life. I choose to look for the good. There are times when I don’t have the answers. So I make sense of what I can and trust God for the rest.
I know in my soul that God is able to do His work. And His work is to bless His children. I choose to feel blessed by our challenges.
I am inspired by Tony Snow’s reflections when, while serving as President Bush’s press secretary, he was overtaken by cancer:
We want lives of simple, predictable ease — smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see — but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension and yet don’t. By his love and grace we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise…
Through such trials, God bids us to choose: Do we believe, or do we not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations? Can we surrender our concern in things that don’t matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?
I agree with that great thinker, Malcolm Muggeridge, that “every happening great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.”
I welcome the opportunity to sit in God’s classroom and yearn to be a good student. I hope that as the lessons become more challenging and demanding, I still learn the lessons and love the Teacher with all my heart. I hope — nay, I pray — that pain will never provoke complaint.
As I delve into this new course of study, once-neglected scriptural passages suddenly take on powerful and personal relevance.
If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; (Hebrews 12:7)
… becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)
The Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord. (Mosiah 24:15)
And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more. (D&C 78:19)
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
This is the path my wife Nancy and I are called to travel. We know less and less — especially about our futures. And yet we are more and more grateful for what we do know — especially about God’s abundant goodness. God tends us and teaches us every step of the way.
Rather than dwell on the gloom, we choose to laugh about whether my extended recuperation might change my attitude toward board games.
Rather than worry about our income when my sick leave runs out, we choose to be glad for lives filled with purpose. Rather than be discouraged by the lifelong consequences of the surgery I will be having, we collect recipes that will turn the tart lemons we were given into delectable treats. I love lemon curd and lemon pie and lemon tarts and lemon ice box pie.
We believe. We are grateful for a lifetime filled with God’s goodness — and His tutoring. We are warmed and humbled by many people’s graciousness and support. (Thank you, beloved friends and family! We are amazed by your kindness and thoughtfulness!) We thank Heaven for an ancestral tradition of trusting God. I enjoy my beloved companion and dear children and grandchildren more than ever before.
We pray to accept this new journey with complete faith, tranquility, and confidence. We pray to see and appreciate the blessings He will bestow upon us through this experience. I may well live 20 or 30 years more. I may not. But either way, it doesn’t matter. There is no bad news that can overpower His Good News. And His Good News is eternal.
Brooks, V. W. (1948). A Chilmark miscellany. New York: Dutton.
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