A few months ago, my husband and I hovered together over the phone as we listened to the haematologist on the other end of the line. He gave us a bunch of statistics. If my husband’s chemotherapy went well, we could expect a 96% cure rate. If the chemotherapy didn’t get all the cancer, and my husband had to have radiotherapy, that figure dropped down to 81%. There was a small chance of secondary cancers down the track.
As the weeks flew past, there were more statistics to comprehend. My husband developed neutropenia (essentially, his immune system was a flat zero) but only 5% of people with neutropenia go on to develop neutropenic sepsis—a very serious medical emergency. The Pfizer jab he’d received prior to starting chemo would give him about 80% protection from serious COVID-19 (this later dropped to 50-70%).
The Pseudo-Comforts of Statistics
It was and has been a rather dizzying time. My husband’s prognosis is good—it is very likely he will make a complete recovery. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is an aggressive and fast-moving cancer, but it’s also one of the most curable (and, if you’ve known someone with cancer or had it yourself, it’s a mercy to even have the word “curable” on the table).
But amidst the promising statistics, we have encountered a unique challenge: not to put our hope in these (rather good) statistics, but to place our full trust in God. Because even statistics cannot give us the control and certainty we crave over our lives and my husband’s cancer.
The Comfort of God’s Sovereignty
I’m continuously reminded of a passage I recently read in Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. One night during a WWII bombing raid, Corrie, unable to sleep, hears her sister Betsie stirring downstairs in the kitchen and goes down to have tea with her. Upon returning to her bed, Corrie is horrified to find a ten-inch-long piece of shrapnel on her pillow. She writes:
I raced down the stairs with the shrapnel shard in my hand. We went back to the dining room and
stared at it in the light while Betsie bandaged my hand. “On your pillow,” she kept saying.
“Betsie, if I hadn’t heard you in the kitchen—”
But Betsie put a finger on my mouth. “Don’t say it, Corrie! There are no ‘if’s’ in God’s world. And no places that are safer than other places. The center of His will is our only safety—O Corrie, let us pray that we may always know it!”
I’m originally a clinically-trained psychologist, and you may be surprised to know that there is no anxiety-reduction strategy in the world that even comes close to the comfort of God’s sovereignty. I can tell you all about cognitive defusion strategies, mindfulness techniques, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation. I can help you to recognise unhelpful thoughts and battle catastrophising or perfectionistic tendencies… and these are all wonderful, God-given tools.
But there is no greater or more helpful knowledge than the truth that God is seated on His heavenly throne (Psalm 47:8; Revelation 4:9). He’s never off the job. There are no unfortunate accidents when God ducks out for a quick break or has a nap. He doesn’t sleep (Psalm 121:4). Nothing happens to us without God okaying it first. Even Satan could not afflict the righteous Job without getting God’s permission (Job 1:6-12).
There are, as Betsie so wisely reminded Corrie, no ‘if’s’ in God’s world. “What if” is a phrase rooted in a very human understanding of cause and effect; it is a phrase premised on the fiction that we are masters of our own destinies. But the Bible reminds us that every single moment of our lives is watched over by God (Psalm 34:15) and every ounce of hardship we experience is ultimately for our good (Romans 8:28).
As Elisabeth Elliot writes in Suffering is Never For Nothing:
“Paul accepted the thorn even though it wasn’t to his taste and preferences. Jesus accepted the cup and said not My will but Thine be done. And that same vision and that same principle ought to characterize each of us Christians as we receive, from the hand of God, the cup of salvation with whatever it contains for our ultimate redemption and perfection. There will be nothing in that cup of salvation except what is necessary.” (my emphasis)
The Provision of God
I wonder if you have allowed this truth to sink into and saturate your life. I wonder how many times a day you reflect on and permit yourself to be comforted by the sovereignty of God… or how often you, like me, find yourself clinging to statistics instead. Sometimes we can find ourselves thinking about God as something like the “blind watchmaker” described by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1986 book:
“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”
Compare Dawkins’ description to how Jesus describes God’s role and provision in Matthew 6:25-34:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns—and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
And why do you worry about clothes? Consider how the lilies of the field grow: They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles strive after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own."
Even while on the cross, in agony, Jesus—God in the flesh—was thinking about others’ needs ahead of His own (John 19:25-27).
Dawkins writes in The Blind Watchmaker: “A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind's eye.”
Now compare this to Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
What does this tell us? Every detail of our lives is lovingly orchestrated by God for our ultimate benefit. God is the true watchmaker. And to surrender to His good design and His workings is the most liberating joy because it frees us from a burden we were never designed to bear.
The Potential Trap of “Precautions”
Here in New South Wales, the lockdowns are coming to an end as we approach 80% double vaccination rates. You’ve probably been hearing a whole host of statistics lately: being doubled vaxxed reduces your chance of catching and transmitting COVID-19 by more than 50%. The vaccines provide around 90% protection against hospitalisation . And those are promising, encouraging statistics.
But statistics are a poor comfort compared to the reassurance that comes from knowing God is in ultimate control. There are no ‘if’s’ in His world. Does that mean Corrie chose to run through the streets of Haarlem during the next bombing raid? Does this mean you should visit every shop you can think of or ditch your mask and social distancing?
No, of course not. When the devil tempts Jesus to throw Himself off the temple because God's angels will be able to save Him, Jesus replies: "It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’" (Matthew 4:5-7)
I love this passage from C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, where the fictional senior demon Screwtape is writing to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter “in charge” of a young man during WWII:
“The main point is that precautions have a tendency to increase fear... What you must do is to keep running in his mind (side by side with the conscious intention of doing his duty) the vague idea of all sorts of things he can do or not do, inside the framework of the duty, which seem to make him a little safer. Get his mind off the simple rule (‘I’ve got to stay here and do so-and-so’) into a series of imaginary life lines (‘If A happened—though I very much hope it won’t—I could do B—and if the worst came to the worst, I could always do C’).
Superstitions, if not recognised as such, can be awakened. The point is to keep him feeling that he has something, other than the Enemy and courage the Enemy supplies, to fall back on, so that what was intended to be a total commitment to duty becomes honeycombed all through with little unconscious reservations. By building up a series of imaginary expedients to prevent ‘the worst coming to the worst’ you may produce, at that level of his will which he is not aware of, a determination that the worst shall not come to the worst.” (p.162-163)
Remember that here, the “Enemy” is God and everything Screwtape describes is what we should not do. Lewis reminds us that God is not a fall back in the worst-case scenario. God is Plan A. He is our best resource and our greatest comfort. He is the source of our courage, even when vaccines wane in their effectiveness or new variants of COVID-19 emerge. We look to Him not because He promises that the future is good or prosperous, but because He is already standing there, in control of it all.
When anxiety or even disaster strikes in your life, as it did for my husband and I in July this year, be comforted by the fact that God is in control. He will provide manna in the wilderness and shoes that don’t wear out (Nehemiah 9:20-21; Deuteronomy 29:5). His mercies will be new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). For your sake, God didn’t even spare Jesus, His own Son… therefore you can know that no matter what happens next, He will give you everything you need (Romans 8:32; Psalm 23:1).
All you need to do is trust Him.