February 16, 2011

Cancer for Two, Love for One

 Richard Dawkins is no friend of Christianity—or religion in general, for that matter. Probably the most well-known atheistic evolutionist in the world, words of hatred roll out of his mouth and off his pen when he addresses God and religion. Perhaps, though, we could learn a few things from Dawkins.
In his widely acclaimed book The God Delusion, Dawkins shares a story that David Mills, one of his fellow atheist authors, experienced in a predominately Christian region of the United States. Apparently, a faith healer would hold a “miracle crusade” in Mills’s town every year, encouraging “diabetics to throw away their insulin, and cancer patients to give up their chemotherapy and pray for a miracle instead.” In turn, Mills decided he would protest the event, and asked the local police for protection if he were threatened by attendees. None of the police officers was sympathetic, however, and many of them even threatened Mills if he tried to “interfere with God’s work.” Some said they would spit in his face, while others threatened him with other forms of violence. The sergeant himself told Mills, “I hope somebody bloodies you up good.”
In response, Dawkins is left wondering what happened to “the milk of human kindness and a sense of duty” that seem to be absent from people who pride themselves on being followers of Christ.1 Sadly, in our attempts for theological purity and behavioral perfection, the milk of human kindness and, indeed, the Christian mandate to love are often glaringly absent. We, who boast of being God’s chosen in these last days, too many times forget that above all, Christ says that His disciples will be identified by their love for one another.
2011 1505 page24So Says Paul
Long before Richard Dawkins ever came around, the apostle Paul tried his hand at addressing a similar subject. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes to the “elect of God” (Col. 3:12).2 This is a very exclusive title, used only a handful of times in the New Testament. The Greek word for “elect,” eklektos, is used 23 times in the New Testament, and it literally means “chosen” or “called-out ones.” Thus, Paul’s message is as relevant to us—as a group of believers who especially champion the idea of being God’s chosen people in these last days—as it was to the Colossians.
When Paul encourages his readers to “put on” different Christian virtues, it would be well for us to pay attention. In no uncertain terms he tells the elect of God to put on “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another.” He then goes on to say that “if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (verses 12, 13).
The apex of Paul’s exhortation in this section, however, comes in verse 14. While the previous virtues that Paul lists are of the utmost importance, Paul has left one card in his hand that trumps all others. He writes, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”

Interestingly, David M. May has noted that “ancient Pythagoreans described love between friends (Greek: philia) as ‘the bond of all virtues.’ Plato stated that the idea of the good can serve as the bond of unity among different and opposing parts of virtue in a political community.”3 But Paul takes it a step further. Philia and goodness are not that which bonds; pure agape love is the bond that unites all our strivings.
Thus, all our ideas on perfection are completely turned on their heads in light of Paul’s admonition. While we may strive to attain perfection, as Paul and Jesus clearly encourage,4 we must not forget the glue that holds it all together. Quite simply, we may be Sabbathkeeping, tithe-paying vegans who have all the right theological answers, but if agape love is absent, it all falls apart. This is not to say, of course, that these things are to be avoided or even disparaged; it is to say, however, that these things are only vehicles by which we become more loving.
If ever there were a group of believers who practiced this love the most, one would think it would be those who have clear minds because of their diets, who spend 24 hours each week in exclusive communion with God and one another, and who understand the character of a loving God who refuses to allow His creatures to be tormented eternally by fire. Sadly, those very virtues that should foster this agape love usually have the opposite effect.

Not surprisingly, that very same group of believers had a prophet who, not long ago, echoed Paul’s sentiments in Colossians when she wrote:
“It is our God-given duty to love one another as Christ has loved us. The performance of this duty brings with it the blessedness of peace and quietude in the Lord and the ennobling and uplifting of the whole being. Those who neglect this duty can never reach perfection. Those who love as Christ loved are born of God, and are ‘kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’ ”5
Of course, one cannot put on that agape love unless he or she first understands Christ’s agape love. As David M. May again notes: “The concept of love here seems definitely Christological: The same love of God manifest in Christ (Col. 1:13; 3:12), which is a kind of cosmic force for cohesion, is now echoed in the chief obligation of Christians. The church will be held together by the extension of Christ’s love.”6 Unless we, as God’s last-day chosen, humbly bow before the cross and allow Christ’s agape love to overtake us, there is no way that we could even begin to clothe ourselves in this primary virtue. After all, as John ably reminds us: “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NASB).7
Two Stories
This concept is poignantly illustrated by two stories that came to my attention recently. The first one happened to one of my colleagues in the seminary a few years back. He was a new convert to the faith. His 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with diffuse pontine glioma—a rare form of cancer that allows 20 percent of its young victims to live two years if they’re “lucky.” Of course, the news was devastating to him and his wife, and after a few months their little girl had slipped into a coma.
One day, as he was passing by the kitchen, he noticed his wife crying uncontrollably. After a few vain attempts to get her to share why she was upset, she finally revealed to him that she had received a phone call from someone at the church who simply identified herself as “Mrs. M.” And then his wife added, “She wanted us to know that the reason our daughter got cancer was because of her diet.”
Both mother and father were now upset, of course, and my friend used all the self-control he could muster up when he called “Mrs. M” back. When he asked her if she had prayed for his family, there was a noticeable silence on the other end before “Mrs. M” gingerly admitted that she hadn’t. With that, my friend told her never to call back unless she had first made his family a matter of prayer. And then he hung up.
Then there’s Jim. For the past 15 years or so, he has been the head of maintenance at the nursing home where my mother works in the Boston area. About a year ago, however, he was diagnosed with cancer. Though he tried to work for a while after his diagnosis, he ultimately had to be let go from his duties because he was, for all practical purposes, useless. With debilitated abilities, he was no longer of use to the nursing home.
Despite this, though, as Jim sat at home and went to the hospital to receive treatment, the nursing home paid him his full salary for a whole year. This, even though he was not providing them with anything in return.
A few Octobers ago Jim got a phone call from one of the owners of the nursing home system. Owning dozens of nursing homes and assisted living facilities across Massachusetts and employing almost 2,000 workers, the owner gave Jim a personal phone call and said, “There is going to be a limousine that picks you up at your house tonight at 5:00. Be ready. I have two tickets to go to Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway Park. You are going to be my honored guest.”
So there was Jim: useless, cancer-filled Jim, a lifelong Red Sox fan, sitting at Game 1 of the Major League Baseball World Series, enjoying a full-time salary that he did not deserve, sitting next to a man who is far more “perfect” than most of us Christians.
If that is not a picture of the gospel, I don’t know what is. We are, for all practical purposes, useless to God. Yet He does not withhold His agape love toward us because of this. On the contrary, He showers us with it all the more. And perhaps, just as significantly, He invites us to pay that love forward. He invites us to allow that agape love to be woven into our characters and shared with all those we interact with.
Then, and only then, will we be able to reach the type of perfection that Christ longs for us to display.

What’s Your Story?

If you belong to a church (or know of one) that operates an outreach to terminally ill people, we want to hear from you! Write to us at Church Outreach, Adventist Review, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904-6600; fax 1-301-680-6637; or e-mail: [email protected] (write “church outreach” in subject line).


1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 144.
2 All Bible texts, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 David M. May, Colossians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 133.
4 Cf. Matthew 5:48 and Philippians 3:12-16.
5 Ellen G. White, in General Conference Bulletin, July 1, 1900 (Italics supplied.)
6 May, pp. 132, 133.
7 Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Shawn Brace is pastor of four congregations in New Hampshire and Vermont. This article was published February 17, 2011.