February 3, 2020

Why? Or What? That Is the Question.

Most of us try to avoid pain. Yet that can be when we feel God is nearest.

Jude Boyer-Patrick

Where was God? Most of the time the question we want to ask is “Why?” I had to learn how to ask the question “What?” What do you want me to learn? What do you want me to get out of this?

Unbelievable Pain

Numbness, disbelief, shock. This can’t be happening. You walk around in a daze, putting one foot in front of the other. Then when the ice that fogs your brain starts to melt, you feel it. The anger. The unmitigating anger. How did I get here? Why did this happen? I prayed and prayed and asked God for healing, yet here I was, sitting in the funeral home looking at my 33-year-old husband, Mark, lying in the casket.

You know intuitively that bad things most certainly happen to good people, but you really can’t internalize that they will happen to you, because you’ve done everything you were supposed to do. Was I not raised by a good, loving Adventist family? Didn’t I study my Sabbath School lessons, get baptized, participate in church, attend Adventist schools, and faithfully return my tithe? And for what? Where was my “loving God” in all this? Why was this happening to me?

It took me a long time to get through this challenge. I had to believe that God’s shoulders were big enough to let me feel whatever emotions I was feeling. I had to question and reexamine my own expectations and beliefs. I decided to read the Bible again from Genesis—this time not as a 9-year-old girl, getting baptized by her father, but as a mature member of the church who had always believed that if you prayed, God would answer—because He loved you. I had to understand for myself what possible reason God would have to allow my husband to die under tragic circumstances; and what His point was in leaving me a widow. Answers did not come easily or quickly. The answers I sought didn’t come in the way I thought they would, or should.

I did heal—gradually. I was able to move on—slowly. I took small steps toward rebuilding my fragile faith. I continued to attend church, but it took a long time for me to trust again and allow myself to get into another relationship. Three years after the death of my husband, I met a handsome man at church, and three years later we were married.

Finally, there was a return to what I would call the “normal Adventist life.” My new husband, Geddes, and I shared a loving relationship; we worked, raised a daughter, attended church, and served there as well. God was in our home. Again I did the things I was raised to do. We had daily worship. We read the Bible. We had a great community of friends and family, and then . . .

No Lord, Not Again

Numbness, disbelief, shock. Surely God couldn’t be challenging me again! I was faced with that question again: Why? I walked around in a daze. Why would something like this happen to me? Yet there I stood trying to comprehend the news. This time, it wasn’t my husband I saw in the coffin, it was me: diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, stage IIIA, a very aggressive form of breast cancer. I looked at myself and my record: I neither drank nor smoked; I grew up as a vegetarian; I exercised five times a week. I was healthy, wasn’t I? What else was I supposed to do? I’d done everything I was supposed to! So, how, and—more important—why was this happening to me?

Because God had previously shown me His love and mercy after my first husband’s death, I intentionally put my life and my treatment in His hands. Only then did I begin to understand the question “What?” I truly understood what His love was, what He had in store for me when He chose my husband for me. I say “He chose” because I asked God to send me someone who would not only be my husband but my friend; someone who would stand by me through thick and thin—in sickness and in health.

I saw the manifestation of God’s love through my husband: through the year-long series of chemo and radiation treatments, he never left my side. I could take it to the bank: Geddes “loved me.” My husband is a quiet man, not one for public displays of affection. He shows his love tangibly in small, ordinary things. And it was in life’s small, ordinary things that, as I suffered, I saw and truly understood God’s love.

From the moment I was diagnosed, my husband would simply not leave my side. He went to each medical appointment with me; he recorded the visits so he could play them back if he didn’t understand something; he sat in the room each and every time I had chemo poured into my veins; he encouraged me; he prayed with me; he supported me. I became so discouraged that I just wanted to quit. He wouldn’t let me.

I had to believe that God’s shoulders were big enough.

I survived my year of treatment and tried to go on with life as usual. But nothing about this journey was usual. My trauma was multiplied—I had lost too many friends to this dreaded disease. I struggled to make sense of all this even with the support of my husband, my family, my friends, and my church. I still struggled to understand the “what.” What was God’s will for me with all this? As a psychiatrist, I tried to adhere to the adage of being healed in order to heal others, but I realized that I needed therapy to deal with all that was going on in my life. I trusted God, but I needed help, and I wasn’t afraid to get it.

Then, just eight months after I completed my initial treatment, my world came crashing down again. I began to experience chest pain—crushing chest pain. I couldn’t understand, and my doctor wasn’t sure why either. I had to go through another surgery before the pain went away. Six months later the pain was back, and worse than ever. What now? It took three more months of doctor’s visits to discover that the cancer had returned—again.

But this time it was Geddes’ turn to be challenged. Against the backdrop of the resurgence of my cancer, his elderly mother was involved in a tragic accident. He did his best to be there for me even though I couldn’t fully be there for him or his mother. It was everything I could do to manage my new treatments. I was completely devastated, angry, fearful, and numb. I could hardly pray without yelling to God, “Why?” What could possibly be His will through all this pain and agony? This time I didn’t want anyone knowing that the cancer had returned. I didn’t want my church praying for me, or my friends, or my family. This time I needed to work this out with God alone–just as I had done 30 years before.

While my husband helped me as best he could, I continued to work full-time while going to multiple medical appointments. Geddes struggled with making final decisions about his mother’s life. We were both buried under the depth of grief, loss, and pain. While we struggled to lean on each other, God reminded me of the promise: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (Ps. 139:8, KJV).

Geddes’  mother died. My new treatment began while we mourned, cried, and fought to hold on to each other and to God in our despair. We prayed that God would heal his grief for the loss of both parents in the span of 18 months. We prayed for the healing of my body. God chose something peculiar to teach me about His love for me: though the cancer had returned, it had metastasized to a peanut-sized lymph node deep in my chest—that’s all there was to it. It could have spread to my entire body. It didn’t. I had to praise God for that pain months ago. If not for that pain in my chest, I would have never known about the recurrence of the cancer.

Pain: The Takeaway

Some who question, Where was God? crumble and walk away from Him. I asked too, many times. Many times I begged God to show me His will. I had to learn how to turn to Him even when the way
seemed dark. I had to trust that no matter what, He loved us despite our circumstances. Love was not the superficial bestowing of gifts on a commercial celebration day. Love is more than chocolates or flowers: it has been the daily renewing of our affection for each other, the strength to lean on each other, the ability to cry out to God in our despair, grief, and weakness.

It is the knowledge that our way back—or forward—means relying on a God who has a plan for us, accepting that He watches over us no matter what happens—even when we don’t understand it.

My journey hasn’t been easy. But I’m convinced that God never left me alone. For me, my husband is God’s present, tangible love gift to me, as he says I am to him. We don’t waste one single day on regret, but cling to the present and live each day as it comes. Now our lives are about understanding the “what” rather than the “why.

Jude Boyer-Patrick, a board-certified psychiatrist, is medical director of BTST Services and Thrive Behavioral Health in Baltimore, Maryland.