God's Providence When Your Daughter Has Cancer
May 3, 2016
This past year we got news that our eight-year-old daughter had a spinal tumor. She was having back pain and the specialist ordered an MRI just to make sure that everything was OK. It wasn’t. I walked with the doctor into the hallway. “Based on your experience,” I asked, “Do you think this is malignant?” He replied, “We have to wait for the biopsy results, but it is likely cancerous.” We were reeling as we contemplated the surgery, the treatments, and the agony that awaited all of us.
In the Lord’s gracious providence, at that very time, I had a student doing some work on Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) and specifically his Divine Cordial (1663), written after his ejection for nonconformity under the Restoration settlement when many Puritans faced great persecution. The tract was an exposition of Romans 8:28: "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."
Before the news of our daughter’s tumor, I had decided to read this tract so that I could properly assess my student’s work. My wife and I were listening to it on the way to the hospital that day as Watson delivered to us a medicinal “cordial,” namely, that “nothing hurts the godly” when their inward and outward comforts are troubled. He opens up Romans 8:28 with this claim: “All the various dealings of God with his children, do by a special providence turn to their good." Indeed, argues Watson, “all God’s providences,” being divinely tempered and sanctified, do work together for the best of his saints. This is a Christian’s cordial, “like an invigorating medicinal drink concocted even with ingredients that may be poisonous by themselves.”
Regarding the privilege of all life experiences, Watson considers the “best things” such as God’s power, wisdom, goodness, promises, and mercies; the preached word; the prayers of others; the Lord’s Supper; the communion of saints; and the intercession of Christ. But Watson also includes the “worst things” we face as working for our good. Such “medicinal” afflictions teach us, make us more holy, conform us to Christ, draw us nearer to God, increase our happiness, silence the accusations of the wicked, and prepare us for glory. Even when we fall into sin and backslide, our failures work for good as they motivate us to fear God and fight against sin more as we rely on ourselves less and Christ more.
The main reason that everything works for our good is that we have a loving Father who brings sweetness in even the bitterest trial. However, for the wicked, even “good things work for hurt.” In this way, Christians have no reason to complain during afflictions but to be thankful and pursue his glory (1 Cor. 10:31). ”Every bird can sing in spring,” observes Watson, “but some birds will sing in the dead of winter.” In a similar way, “Everyone, almost, can be thankful in prosperity, but a true saint can be thankful in adversity.”
Watson then considers the privileged “lovers of God” who must recognize the tendency to wax and wane as they depart from their first love. Therefore, they must stir up their love to God, for the fire “will quickly go out” if it “is not blown up.” Christians then have a special calling: “Let us then ascribe the whole work of grace to the pleasure of God’s will.” Such a calling does not depend on man’s free will, merit, or foreseen faith, but God’s purpose alone.
Indeed, we had to confess that our “first love” needed to be stirred up. In the midst of our worries, we had to see that this affliction came from our loving Father. In the end, our daughter’s tumor turned out to be benign and was successfully removed. I cannot predict how well we would have handled cancer, but even the threat of such was for our good as we awaited the biopsy results. The Lord kindly prepared us for the worst news but instead gave us the best. In the process, we became all the more sensitive to families who must endure the most horrible news even to the point of watching their child die. May the Lord give us all grace to “sing in the dead of winter.”