What I Learned About Faith While Thinking I Had Cancer This Week

What I Learned About Faith While Thinking I Had Cancer This WeekA few days ago I felt a rather large, firm lump on my body.

My first reaction was, “What on Earth is that?”…followed closely by, “Oh my gosh. This could be it.”

Honestly, I started to panic. I know I’m at a higher risk for certain types of cancer and I imagined the worst.

My doctor wasn’t able to get me in for five days. I spent that five days consumed by Google research—diagnosing myself, guessing what stage cancer it would be if I had it, and looking at 5-year survival rates for the various stages. Every time the kids were occupied, I would quickly grab my phone to Google something new about the size, shape, and texture of my unwelcome lump.

I eventually concluded that there was a pretty good chance it actually wasn’t cancer given the characteristics of the lump. I was still scared, but the more logical side of me believed it was more likely than not to be benign. When the morning of my appointment rolled around, I went in with the hope of reassurance.

That didn’t happen.

The doctor said he was “pretty” confident it wasn’t cancerous. I asked him if “pretty” confident meant something more like 51 percent or 90 percent, thinking he would say 90 percent. He replied, “More like 51 percent.”

The words hung in the air for what seemed an eternity. This is just as likely to go either way. 

The doctor gave me an urgent referral for the various tests needed to determine what was going on later that day. I went home and had some very dark moments.

Fear consumed me. I prayed with desperate, tear-covered pleas for health.

I felt absolutely nothing back from God.

Just a menacing silence.

And at that moment, the voices of so many skeptics filled my head…

Why would God be so hidden at a time like this? Is He really there?

As an apologist—someone who knows well the evidence for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity—I knew what I would say to someone else asking that question. I could talk all about evidence and the philosophical reasons for divine hiddenness.

But in that moment, I didn’t want any more evidence. I didn’t want to make a case to myself for the truth of Christianity. I didn’t want to weigh facts to see what was most reasonable.

I wanted an experience.

I wanted a feeling.

I wanted to be overcome with the presence of God, with a feeling of peace, or with a supernaturally-given reassurance that I was going to be OK.

None of those things happened. And in that darkest of moments, I understood more than ever why experience so often trumps evidence…for both skeptics and Christians.

 

When Experience Trumps Evidence for Skeptics

Christian apologist Sean McDowell and the “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta were recently on the Unbelievable podcast by Justin Brierley. It was a fascinating discussion on what both Christians and atheists get wrong about the other side. You can watch it here on YouTube or listen through the podcast. I thought Sean was brilliant, and his gracious but pointed comments and questions revealed many of the inconsistencies in Mehta’s worldview.

But one thing stood out to me more than any other. Someone asked what it would take to change each of their minds about what they believe. Mehta (and I’m paraphrasing) said that he’s heard all the kinds of evidence that Christians offer and there’s really no evidence that could be convincing…outside of a personal experience.

This was absolutely intriguing to me. He had spent much of the discussion explaining how he doesn’t believe because there’s no evidence for God’s existence, but when pressed on what would change his convictions, he acknowledged that there’s no objective evidence—evidence outside himself—that would change his mind. It would have to be a personal experience (and he said he would question even that).

His comment made me reflect on years of hearing from skeptics through my blog. Though the reason for unbelief is almost always framed as “lack of evidence,” the comments typically come sandwiched with a list of experiential issues:

I’ve never experienced God doing anything in my life even when I desperately needed it.

God never answered my prayers when I was a Christian.

If God exists, he wouldn’t have let my daughter be born with this disability.

I used to be a Christian, but when I was losing faith I cried out to God for a sign and nothing happened.

Truthfully, I’ve always mentally responded to such statements with, “but these things, logically speaking, don’t mean God doesn’t exist…we have to look at the objective evidence for the whole picture of reality.” And that’s true.

But I can now better understand that experience can be so powerfully negative that we can become closed to considering any evidence outside of ourselves. We naturally trust our interpretation of our experiences over our interpretation of things like the complexity of DNA.

 

When Experience Trumps Evidence for Christians

People who are passionate about apologetics often lament the fact that so many Christians don’t understand the need for it in today’s world. What we hear all the time from church-goers is that they already believe, so they don’t need all this “evidence stuff.”

As someone who writes and speaks frequently about all the important reasons why we desperately need this “evidence stuff” to be known in the church today, that’s very frustrating. And it can be even more frustrating when Christians say they don’t need it because they have experiences instead:

They’ve felt God’s presence, so they know He’s there.

They see God in their spouse and kids.

They know God is there from that still, small voice inside.

They see God in the beauty of the mountains.

Why do I say frustrating? Let me put on my apologist hat: because experiences are subjective. In a world that is increasingly hostile to the idea that Christianity is true, Christians need to be able to point to something outside of themselves as evidence for their beliefs. If your child says they don’t feel God, and you say you do, how helpful can your personal experience be to them? But when you can point to the objective evidence for God’s existence in the world around them, the historical evidence for the resurrection, and the evidence for the reliability of the Bible, you’re able to ground their faith in something you can mutually access.

However, just as powerfully negative experiences can trump evidence for atheists, powerfully positive experiences can trump evidence for Christians. What they’ve experienced has felt so certain that the value of outside evidence seems to pale in comparison.

 

What, Then, Is the Value of Objective Evidence for Anyone?

Through this brief ordeal, I’ve understood more than ever that nearly everyone trusts, by default, their experiences more than objective evidence. And frankly, it’s experience that we desperately want. Fine-tuning arguments schmarguments. We would all rather take a powerful feeling of God’s presence any day.

What, then, is the value of apologetics?

A lot. But I’ll stick with three points.

1. For those who have had powerfully negative experiences, apologetics remains a way to compare our subjective experiences to the objective evidence for the truth about reality…when we’re not grieving. Apologetics may be of very little use for most people in desperate times, but that doesn’t negate the longer term need. When we teach our kids to build a faith based on evidence, it doesn’t mean that when difficult times come they will necessarily resort to a simple response of, “No matter how I feel while pondering if I have cancer, I know Christianity is true!” I certainly didn’t. But it does mean that over the longer term they will have the tools needed to assess their personal experiences in light of objective evidence. Ultimately, confidence in the truth of Christianity—grounded in good evidence—gives people well-justified eternal hope that brings perspective to our (often tragic) negative experiences.

2. Similarly, for those who have had powerfully positive experiences, apologetics provides a needed check against reality. Having hope without good reason is delusion. We shouldn’t be content to assume God is there only because we had a powerful feeling while the praise band played. It’s also safe to assume that no one will live an entire life of powerful positive experiences—every Christian goes through times when God seems far. When powerful positive experiences become more distant, it’s easy to doubt their validity. Learning apologetics helps keep us grounded when the experiential highs wear off.

3. For those who haven’t had particularly powerful positive experiences, apologetics provides conviction instead of a feeling that the lack of an experience means a lack of God’s existence. When I was a teenager, I went to a youth conference where the speaker stirred up a lot of emotions and many kids in the room were crying. I wasn’t. My youth leader pulled me aside and said, “Natasha, I noticed you aren’t as emotional as the others here. Are you sure you’re close to God?” I’ll never forget that assumption that closeness to God equals a highly emotional experience. If that’s the expectation, and you don’t experience God as you would like, you can quickly assume He just might not be there. When we teach our kids the objective evidence for the truth of Christianity, however, they gain conviction of their beliefs and realize faith isn’t about waiting for a certain experience to happen.

 

I eventually got in for all the testing to determine what the lump was all about. It was the longest few hours of my life but ended with the best possible news: it was nothing but a common benign cyst that required no further testing or procedures. I was free to walk out.

I got to my car and cried tears of relief.

And now here I am, back to life as normal…but I want to acknowledge that there are many who don’t get this good news. I have several friends with cancer right now. They are living with the day-to-day uncertainties that consume your every waking second. I almost didn’t write this post because it seems too easy to write when you are no longer in the circumstance. I hope it will be taken in the spirit in which it was intended, however: a simple reflection on something I learned during a (relatively) few moments of desperation.

23 Comments

  1. Lisa Quintana on September 20, 2018 at 11:53 AM

    Hey Natasha… thank you for your honest post. I’ve been there, too. It is a scary time in life when you think you might have cancer.

    I am also one of those “experiential” Christians who later found Apologetics. I realize knowing why my faith it true is critical in this day and age of skepticism, but I must confess, the experiences I have had with God have kept me more grounded than anything. Yes, they are subjective, but they are also amazing! Anyways, I think a good balance of both is always the best way to journey through the Christian life. Having others to encourage and pray for us helps a ton, too, during times of uncertainty. So glad you’re OK! Blessings, LisaQ

  2. Leah Adams on September 20, 2018 at 12:56 PM

    Natasha, Thank you so much for writing this! It was a very enlightening post to me. I have been going through many health issues and I have wondered “Why, God?” I do quickly remember … sometimes not as quick as others… that God is there. I have those “experiences” to draw from. I am so thankful that my brother introduced me to Apologetics 4-5 years ago. I have learned so much since. I would love to sit and visit with you and just talk about stuff. We didn’t get to do that at the conference.
    May God continue to bless each and every day for you and yours. I look forward to our paths crossing somewhere down the road we call life. If not this side of Glory, then I will see you there.
    Leah Adams, Texas

  3. Dick DiTullio on September 20, 2018 at 1:18 PM

    Best article ever. And I’ve thought about this a lot.

    Well, we are all going to die. Every one of us. God told us this. It’s all through the Bible. We are basically here to suffer. The Bible tells us that too.

    But we, in America, have had it soft for a long time. We build our mansions as if we are staying here. Our lives are pretty vanilla compared to the rest of the world. And so we are not well equipped when reality strikes. And only then do we ask God for closeness.

    But He’s been there all along. He has nothing new to say to us. “I’ve told you this world is not your home. I’ve told you that you will suffer. Satan is alive and active and bringing chaos to the world.”

    We are going to heaven. This is not our home. If we get cancer so will countless millions of others. If we die from it so will countless others. We are all going to die of something some time.

    So what do we do? Live as Jesus did. “My God why have you forsaken me?” God didn’t speak to him. He turned his back on him. But Jesus knew all about that. It was prophecised long ago. Jesus knew God, even in His silence, hadn’t really forsaken him. He was quoting a Psalm to let the people know that they were fulfulling prophecy. They didn’t get it at the time.

    But now, what are we to do with “God doesn’t answer or respond”? How do we work this into our apologetics? This requires some deep thought. But it definitely needs to be addressed.

    • Sharon on September 21, 2018 at 5:59 AM

      Very honest, thought provoking response. Thank you.

  4. Phil on September 20, 2018 at 1:34 PM

    Excellent post.

  5. Jeanne on September 20, 2018 at 3:10 PM

    Thought provoking response. Thank u for sharing. Romans 4 and James 2. Abraham can also be an example to us.

  6. BILL GIKAS on September 20, 2018 at 3:46 PM

    I learned that a Christian is affirmed through his suffering. Whoever can profess faith in painful experiences and dark times overcomes the trial which temps us to abandon God and question our relationship with Him.
    But if I am walking through an arid waterless land thrusting and I have no drink do I sent the existence of oceans,rivers and seas?
    In ICXC
    Rev. BILL GIKAS

  7. Isi on September 20, 2018 at 3:55 PM

    This is simply awesome! So well balanced.

  8. Ang on September 20, 2018 at 7:09 PM

    Thank you for this post ! Very thought provoking! I must say I have never had an “experience” with God although I am a Christian. An when trial after trial hits, it is very difficult to not turn away from Christianity … if this is all life is about ..

  9. M on September 20, 2018 at 8:05 PM

    Praise God for the good news you received, and for the reflections you experienced in the process! As someone who received a cancer diagnosis, I can now say that I am thankful for the experience and that it allowed me to re-evaluate what’s truly important. I grew more in my faith after that diagnosis than any other time in my life. And I am also very thankful to be healthy now! 🙂

  10. Jacqueline on September 21, 2018 at 2:10 AM

    Hello
    This tied in with something read last night, from an old book; that faith is reading the Word and knowing that what it says is true, because the Holy Spirit quickens our spirit to belief. It is a knowing that goes far deeper than experience, or facts, or apologetics. It is a knowing that we call faith, or trust, or belief and it is spiritual. But as strong as an anchor that will be tested in the stormiest seas – in all of us, sometimes many, many times – and it is the Word that holds us fast (Jesus). Whenever I have been truly spiritually desperate (and the Lord only knows that), by reading His Word, a scripture has been given by Him that brings peace. That cuts through everything and grabs my spirit, and I know I won’t drown as I cling to Him in and through it. More than that, that He has already conquered everything and that He already sees the victory and lives from it, as must we.
    Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

  11. Kevin Wells on September 21, 2018 at 5:04 AM

    I heard of a businessman (real or imagined) who had his opponents in negotiations sit across from him in chairs which had front legs slightly shorter than the back ones. After a short time their discomfort put them at a disadvantage. They were tempted to agree to terms just to get out of that infernal chair.

    While suffering and doubt are real and immediate, if we lose sight of the resurrection we can’t live victoriously at all. We are not meant to be very comfortable here. Much of our comfort is imposed ignorance — mostly self-imposed in the West. Many, many people in the world right now are suffering horrifically, physically and existentially. Many of of will do so, and/or see our loved ones so suffer.

    Put bluntly, the Christian story cannot be lived consistently and virtuously without a near constant awareness that we are made for another creation. Not a subsequent or secondary creation, but the one God has in mind when He pictures the happy life He intends for all who humble their egos before His suffering. The one that will last forever, in which people will, in the first age, speak of suffering and death with a shudder (like one speaks of a bad childhood illness from which one recovered decades ago), and then with exultant gratitude: “If it took that world to get us to THIS one… THANK YOU, GOD!”

    Of course, now we come full circle. The evidence of “Heaven” (not wings and clouds and harps, but a fully — more– physical world) is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And there is abundant, actual, no-kiddin’ evidence for that event in history.

    • jacqueline day on September 21, 2018 at 1:43 PM

      Hallelujah!

  12. Dennis Hess on September 21, 2018 at 5:02 PM

    Natasha, this was a very blog and I can say that I enjoyed it. Over 10 years ago, I lost my wife to cancer and one of the most pointed questions that I got from her during her most difficult stages was “how do I know that we are saved”. We had both Christians for many years but the question hit home and hit hard. How do you encourage a person who is dying when the very thing that you are praying for is their healing? I used some apologetics at that time (not knowing what apologetics was) but I went back to creation and the miracle of life that God had given us both and now it appeared that He was going to fail us. That was so difficult as I had to really believe what I was saying. However, the experience of that still lingers in my mind and now I have gotten more involved in the study of apologetics. Needless to say, when you experience the fears and trauma of cancer diagnoses, I feel that your faith is tested to an exceptional degree but I have learned that God is still faithful even in the most difficult situation that you are placed in through that experience. Since that time, I direct my church’s widow and widower ministry and I have grown so much because of that and my interest in apologetics.

  13. Dennis Hess on September 21, 2018 at 5:04 PM

    Natasha, this was a very good blog and I can say that I enjoyed it. Over 10 years ago, I lost my wife to cancer and one of the most pointed questions that I got from her during her most difficult stages was “how do I know that we are saved”. We had both Christians for many years but the question hit home and hit hard. How do you encourage a person who is dying when the very thing that you are praying for is their healing? I used some apologetics at that time (not knowing what apologetics was) but I went back to creation and the miracle of life that God had given us both and now it appeared that He was going to fail us. That was so difficult as I had to really believe what I was saying. However, the experience of that still lingers in my mind and now I have gotten more involved in the study of apologetics. Needless to say, when you experience the fears and trauma of cancer diagnoses, I feel that your faith is tested to an exceptional degree but I have learned that God is still faithful even in the most difficult situation that you are placed in through that experience. Since that time, I direct my church’s widow and widower ministry and I have grown so much because of that and my interest in apologetics.

  14. Beverly on September 21, 2018 at 8:26 PM

    Natasha, your testimony was both grounded and inspiring! God confirmed some things through your experience and it will just add more validity and balance to sharing the truth of Christianity! God’s evidence can be both explained and experienced! We praise God that His presence is everything and means everything in our lives! I’m so glad you are ok!!!
    Continued blessings, grace and peace
    Beverly (PA)

  15. Piper Green on September 22, 2018 at 10:06 AM

    Thanks for this Natasha. The reasons you lay out for why apologetics is important is so vital for Christians and skeptics. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Bob Hazen on September 24, 2018 at 11:36 AM

    Hi Natasha,
    • Thanks for a very honest article, first of all – no pretending, no taping a Bible verse or platitude on top of anything.
    • A year and a half ago, I was a long-term sub for three classes of 6th graders at a local Christian elementary school in a city-wide K-12 Christian school system. This school district had had something like half a dozen deaths in 12 months, including a beloved high school teacher, several students, and a parent. The kids were asking why does God allow this. We got into some very good discussion of the why, and the kids were pleased with how deep we got, and how the Bible gives real answers to real questions that real people ask.
    • What was fascinating was also how the discussion spilled over into why God lets good things happen – why do certain people have talent and blessings and personality that almost everyone wishes they had? I told them about Joe Mauer (MN Twins baseball player and a St. Paul hometown hero) – a three-sport athlete in high school (named national – national! – high school player of the year as QB; selected to the all-state team in basketball; named national – national! – high school player of the year in baseball; his high school math teacher said, “Joe Mauer isn’t the nicest athlete I’ve ever had – he’s the nicest student I’ve ever had.” Mauer was the #1 overall pick in the baseball draft and has won 3 major league batting titles, rare for a catcher). ANYWAY – the kids started to realize that the question “Why did God give Joe Mauer so many blessings?” is just as valid and puzzling of a question as “Why did God let our friend and classmate Cassie die?” It was a very real, very intense, very solemn discussion we had, and it fit along the lines of your column. Thank you for what you do.

  17. Larry Cloyes on September 25, 2018 at 6:38 AM

    I can absolutely relate to this post. I am an atheist and have commented in the past on your blog. There are two fronts in our inner debate on god. One is emotional and the other is intellectual.

    For me, the intellectual bebate was resolved first. I have always been naturally curious adoring discoveries in cosmology. I like knowing stuff thus Christian apologetics simply didn’t have plowed soil for root. In fact I was strongly annoyed by many apolgitctic practices. I deeply disliked half-truths since they have to crafted with care. The crafting showed a dark intent to mislead.

    The emotional pull religion was tougher to overcome. I struggled mightily. As a Christian I bonded warm romanticism to religion and I felt pity for atheists. As I dethreaded my faith I was deeply afraid. I didn’t want to lose my uplifting happy-go-lucky view. I didn’t want to change on a fundamental level, my core…my soul. I liked my perspective!

    Richard Dawkins book, The God Delusion, changed everything. The science in the book isn’t what swayed me. It was Richard’s story of himself as a boy. Richard weaved a story of the magic of a boy in awe of his surroundings. At that moment I understood romanticism without god. I could relate ti the boy. Heck, I was that type of boy.

    The Friendly Atheist provided a push as well. My emotional turning point was combat as a Marine. I gained an understanding of life and in my life I wanted emotional and intellectual authenticity. I wanted to love real…to think real….to view life as a gift, all life. The Friendly Athiesr helped on this endeavor. I am thankful.

    What is the best part? I didn’t change! Not really. I simply redirected course.

    • Marcia Otwell on September 27, 2018 at 8:25 AM

      A gift from Who?!

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  19. Patrick Edison on October 19, 2018 at 8:32 AM

    With regard to “I used to be a Christian, but when I was losing faith I cried out to God for a sign and nothing happened.” … I think sometimes people aren’t necessarily using that experience to prove that God doesn’t exist, but they interpret it as He doesn’t care and therefore there is no need to follow Him.

    Excellent thoughts, as always. Keep up the good work!

  20. Ryan on April 4, 2019 at 10:56 PM

    God bless to those cancer survivors and especially to those still surviving. It’s really the time where you can reflect yourself like what have you done to God and to others, how important life is and strengthen your faith in God.

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