Cancer is one of those natural trials that leaves us questioning the will of the Lord more than we ever have. It shakes us and brings us to our knees in desperate pleas.
“Thy will be done,” was the phrase Jesus uttered at the start of the Atonement. We’ve all heard it in church and in our scriptures. But I don’t think we truly comprehend its meaning until we have nothing left to question.
“So when we experience physical pain, how do we grow closer to Him and become like Him? Do we become kinder, more compassionate or do we hold our breath until it passes? Maybe some of both.”
These are the words that Debbie Noorlander, an endurer of breast cancer, says about her experience. She then writes,
“I am loving my Savior more intimately than I knew was possible. He is precious. He makes pain beautiful because He comes and grows in me. He brings peace. He brings spiritual comfort. His comfort is much greater than the physical pain. I cannot comprehend the wisdom and the love.
“The hardest experiences become our holiest experiences because He comes and truly succors us.”
That They May Have Joy
Before we came to this earth, we all agreed to the condition of suffering. We did this because we knew with suffering would eventually come JOY. I believe our spirits were prepared from the beginning. The Father wouldn’t tell us of His Plan of Happiness and then leave us hanging. He sent us here to be like Him, and supplied us with everything we’d need.
He taught us to put on the armor of God through His earlier servants. He sent Heavenly messengers to testify to and comfort prophets all through the ages, who then wrote it as Scripture. He provided us with powerful ordinances that would draw our paths back to Him. He told us in 2 Nephi 2:25 that His overall mission is for us to be HAPPY.
But despite that preparation, suffering is still inevitable. Why is that, exactly? We know from 2 Nephi 2 that there must be opposition in all things. We know that people have agency. We know there are natural causes to illness such as cancer. But WHY do all these things have to be in the first place?
I don’t have authorization to answer that question fully. But I can give you Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s opinion from his address Missionary Work and the Atonement:
“Salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are the Church of Jesus Christ; this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him?”
It’s one thing to know that, though, and another to feel it while we are in the middle of suffering. Debbie Noorlander’s experience with cancer teaches us how Christ can help us transform any tough experience into a sweet one.
1. You are Never Alone
About 2,000 years ago the only perfect man in human history endured every difficult thing possible because He wanted to succor us. Some of his best friends betrayed Him. He spent a night feeling every pain, heartache and sin any of us would have. Then, He was whipped, abused, and humiliated by a screaming mob. They nailed Him to a cross between two thieves.
He never committed any crime, nor told a lie. Motivated by pure, perfect love, though, He endured it. And He did it completely alone. His selfless, marvelous act made it so that we wouldn’t have to do the same.
So, knowing this, and knowing that we can always have His spirit to be with us, why would we ever feel alone?
Because we are imperfect humans. We have five senses but the Spirit and comfort of Christ’s perfect empathy touch our hearts. It’s not tangible to us. Or so, some would argue. But so many have testified that they’ve felt Him nonetheless. Debbie’s words on pain teach us just that. His atonement is infinite.
The next time you feel alone and overwhelmed, I want you to pray and tell God everything. Then I want you to imagine yourself placing your trials and pains at His feet. Let Him carry you. For His yoke is easy and His burden, light.
Often, it is through other people that He meets our needs. In Doctrine and Covenants 84:88 He told Joseph Smith and the missionaries that His angels shall be around them to bear them up. That same promise applies to everyone.
Debbie’s son passed away about a year ago. The loss and pain of losing him was excruciating. But she testifies of times she’s felt his encouraging presence bearing her up on some of her most difficult days. It’s given her the strength to keep moving on.
Each of us is entitled to that spiritual luxury.
Sometimes angels come in a temporal form. We belong to a church with Christ’s mission—bear up the the broken-hearted. Let your neighbors, friends, and family help you. Allow them to take care of you, support and be there for you in the best way they know how. Then be grateful when they do.
2. Keep Gratitude in Your Heart
President Henry B. Eyring testified of the power of writing down our daily blessings in his October 2007 talk O Remember, Remember. He told us that it opens our eyes to the hand of the Lord. It can be so easy to get despondent when nothing goes as planned, or when your day is full of the side effects of chemotherapy. Sometimes you may feel completely alone. You wonder how you can be grateful when you spend all day in bed, counting your breaths, while the outside world begs for the attention you cannot give.
Debbie has found a way to counteract helplessness by writing her daily blessings on Facebook. Her words have become an inspiration to everyone. She writes about people she meets who touch her life, acts of service done for her, the refreshing experience of watching her grandchildren play and, as we read above, her growing relationship with the Savior.
There is always something to be grateful for. If you can’t find what that is, I invite you to pray until you do. I don’t say that to undermine any sort of suffering, but just the opposite. Cancer and suffering can open our hearts more to JOY if we allow it.
3. Maintain Your Relationship with God
Cancer does not sever the great gift of daily communication with God. We all know daily Scripture study and prayer are essential. We hear that emphasized each Sunday in church. For some of us, it’s been drilled into our heads since we could barely talk. In fact, we hear it so much that it can soon feel like a chore. I know I have nights where I only read my scriptures because I know it’ll bless me. But then I don’t pay as much attention as I should and eventually, I realize I’ve learned nothing.
Prayer is how we talk to God and Scripture is how He answers. If we don’t maintain that, then how do we expect to maintain a strong relationship with Him? It’s just as essential to our spiritual survival as it is a physical need.
One thing Debbie does is make sure she studies her Scriptures for an hour every morning, omitting all distraction. This shows in everything she does. Anyone who meets and talks with her can see she has that strong bond with God. Her heart is at peace and she teaches those around her that no matter what, God has a plan for all of us.
Perhaps some of us can’t study an hour every day. That’s okay. The more you make it a spiritual priority, though, the less it becomes a chore. Listen to the Spirit. The scriptures can provide a different message every day if you look for one. Pray and ask God your questions, then search for the answers in your reading. No matter where you read, you’ll find an answer.
Along with those daily habits, we should never underestimate the power of fasting. About a week and a half ago, Debbie’s doctor told her something alarming about her cancer treatments. He’s always been a prayerful man, but he needed a little extra help. So Debbie asked her family and loved ones to do a special fast. After the fast, she received some wonderful help and guidance in her treatments. This could only have been done by the power of God.
Despite all our efforts, this should teach us there is nothing more important than the will of God.
4. Laugh and Have Joy
To reiterate, God didn’t send us here to suffer but to be happy. One of the best sounds of happiness is laughter.
In October 2008, in his very last General Conference address, Come What May and Love It, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin testified of a few ways we can have that happiness no matter what. One of these ways was to laugh.
“Have you ever seen an angry driver who, when someone else makes a mistake, reacts as though that person has insulted his honor, his family, his dog, and his ancestors all the way back to Adam? . . . The next time you’re tempted to groan, you might try to laugh instead. It will extend your life and make the lives of those around you more enjoyable.
—Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin
5. Recognize Your Spiritual Growth
Our trials won’t last forever. The Lord promised Joseph Smith while he was in Liberty Jail that his trials should only be for a small moment. At the end of them, nothing else will matter except our own spiritual growth.
God gives us trials that He trusts us with. They are a compliment to how much potential He sees in us. Sometimes that’s hard to recognize while we’re in the middle of them. So take a moment, right now, and stop to see your spiritual growth.
Perhaps some types of cancer are unbeatable. But one thing that isn’t is the gentle, perfect and ever-watchful hand of God. Lean on Him. Look to Him. And your spirit will echo His strength. Think about how God has helped you today. Then write about it.