Cancer doesn't run in my family. And I've always obeyed the rules for healthy disease prevention. So when my doctor told me I didn't need mammograms—self-examination was enough—I foolishly believed him.
One thing that does run in my family is a compulsive duty-drivenness—along with huge doses of guilt because we can never keep all the rules or do all the things we're sure God intends us to do!
So on the day when a severe pain in my right breast took me to mammography, guilt began to whisper into my spirit. After all, wasn't it true that whenever anything went wrong with my body, it was my fault? Surely I must have broken the "rules" too many times.
A week later, a kind and gentle doctor read a follow-up mammogram and gave me an ultrasound. Then she told me how sorry she was to have found three masses. Cancer had caught up with me.
Guilt took over. "If only I …"
Instantly the doctor laid a soft restraining hand on my arm. "In this place, we never look back," she said. "Just thank God for the pain that brought you here. We go forward."
In the days that followed, I asked often for God's enablement to obey the doctor's words. But one day at lunch, I looked back just long enough to say to my husband, Walt, "If only I'd …"
He interrupted me with, "I see Jean isn't dead yet!"
Jean was a woman of great influence in my teen years who taught me to feel guilty whenever anything went wrong. She seemed to take delight in assuring me that everything was my fault. I never did anything "thoroughly" or "properly."
In recent years, with the help of a friend, I worked through a lot of my memories of her, and had come to believe I'd finally buried her. But Walt was right. Here she was again, pointing her long bony finger at me, half scowling, half-grinning, making me squirm!
"O God, help!" I cried.
Then just as clearly as if his voice was audible, I heard God say: "You have a spiritual stronghold called self-condemnation!"
In a flash of revelation, the thing I'd been blinded to for years made perfect sense. I was indeed living in a vast, cold stronghold called self-condemnation. I goofed; I didn't get my mammograms, I didn't eat a perfectly healthy diet, and therefore I deserved all that was coming my way. How could I presume to pray for God's deliverance?
I'd jumped to conclusions about how this happened and why—from God's point of view, no less. These thoughts had tumbled through me ever since I'd heard the news. I'd fought them but they kept coming back.
I confessed to God that I was listening to Jean's lies—and a host of other lies her influence had spawned for more than half a century. I prayed for gracious deliverance, then rebuked the power of Satan to hold me any longer. I opened my Bible and read these powerful words: "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:1, NKJV). A calm, healing balm swept over me. How could I condemn what he had pardoned and set free?
Just maybe the mad control of my duty-drivenness was on its way out. How often I'd pleaded with God to free me from this thing, but it never seemed to work. Could it be that he'd been preparing me for this moment when I could see that the root problem went far deeper? Self-condemnation and a refusal to accept myself the way God made me was the root of my duty-drivenness.
I'd known all along that God had a reason for allowing this traumatic cancer, which I had no genetic predisposition for, which I'd worked so tirelessly to prevent. Was it possible that this was the only way he could finally deliver me from the duty-driven spirit I'd struggled so long to rid myself of?
Time would tell, but later that night as I crawled into bed, his perfect peace flooded every corner of my being. The roller coaster had shut down and God and I were sitting together beside a quiet stream.
I reached for my journal and wrote:
Oh, Lord of Hosts—
mightiest of all Soldiers—
You've come with your holy breath
and smashed my duty-driven walls into
a zillion pulverized grains of smooth sand.
Now dampen this newly birthed beach,
with waves of your eternal Spirit,
then place the firm imprint of your feet
across these sands
for all to see and wonder.
Unfettered in the twilight,
You and I shall dance together,
on this sacred shore,
a victory celebration
so intense it will touch off
all of heaven's brightest fireworks—
resplendence of your glory!
A Surprising Form of Joy
Two years have passed since that memorable experience with God. He reminds me again and again, "I have loved you … with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3).
The struggle isn't over. Decades of living in that deceptive stronghold instilled in me a default response of guilt to everything. Again and again the awful voices of accusation assault me. I don't always recognize them instantly for what they are.
But their power is gone!
Often the words of Psalm 116:7 ring in my ears: "Let my soul be at rest again, for the LORD has been good to me." When I feel the pain in my spirit, a quick prayer usually makes clear what I'm dealing with. I need only rebuke the enemy of my soul with a reminder that he has no more authority here. And whenever I tell him, in the name of Jesus, "Be gone!" he slinks off into the shadows and God fills me with the joys of acceptance.
These joys take some truly surprising forms as I walk with him on this unexpected journey. When I joined a support group at the hospital cancer center, I was invited to take a painting class for survivors.
Me paint? As a child I used to cry because my attempts to draw never passed the stick figure stage, and I felt so substandard.
But here was my opportunity to stop looking at my weaknesses and free up some latent God-given abilities. I'll never forget the wonder that filled me as the teacher assisted me in painting a picture of trees ablaze with fall colors.
Yes, I can learn to paint! And God's glory is shining through me in paintings! My faith in him has grown to a place I never dreamt of, and life has become one ongoing, glorious adventure.
I press forward as the mammography doctor urged me to do. I've no idea what lies ahead, but not only has he freed me from feelings of guilt over my imperfections, he reminds me daily that I'm fearfully and wonderfully made—a creature designed by him to be unique and to fill a place in his overall plan for humankind that no other could ever fill.
And cancer brought me to this place? Then hallelujah, even for cancer!