Side Note: The picture below was drawn by a sweet family friend while Natalie was in the hospital recovering after her first 8 hour brain surgery. For context and to understand what a gift this drawing was/is, it helps to know that we were told after Natalie's surgery that she may never function normally on her own again...including eating, drinking, talking, walking, sitting up, communicating...It was during this uncertain time, before Natalie had begun to show signs of improvement in some of these areas, that our friend had a dream of Jesus in the hospital with Natalie...in the room with her...on the bed with her...helping her heal and regain functioning that was lost because of surgery. This is a picture of what our friend saw in her dream. It was a gift of hope.
*I have highlighted halfway through following text to show where I left off last time, if you want to pick up the story there.
Our precious daughter, Natalie, was twenty-two months old when she was first diagnosed with a large, rare, aggressive, and imminently life-threatening brain tumor.
As if it were yesterday, I remember that day, Diagnosis Day, with great clarity and in agonizing detail. I remember that my heart was beating so fast and so hard, and that it was difficult to breathe. The room seemed to be spinning and rapidly closing in on us when I almost lost consciousness. There were hot tears - so many tears - silently, yet uncontrollably, falling down my cheeks. I remember the shock and pain in my husband’s eyes, upon his face and in the trembling of his hand holding onto mine when we received the news. And I remember our beautiful little girl in an orange summer dress; still in diapers...just a baby. Her face was flushed and skin warm as Natalie’s tiny body lay in a big hospital bed, waking up from the anesthesia that was used for the MRI that discovered the mass. She was totally unaware that her life was in grave danger, but I know she felt the great burden in the room. I know she was aware of the weight of the world that was suddenly falling heavily upon us all.
It’s the heaviness of it all that I remember the most. And the panic and chaos that ensued around us, and within us, immediately following the words,
“I am never the doctor you want to see. Your daughter has brain cancer.”
And he was right. His very presence – a world-renowned pediatric neuro-oncologist - meant our worst fears were being realized. His words meant that life as we knew it was over.
I can honestly say that Diagnosis Day was the darkest and most difficult day we have faced in life to date. Although many more excruciatingly painful days and seasons of life have come before it and followed it, nothing could have prepared us for the type of devastation that Natalie’s first diagnosis brought. It shattered our lives and broke our hearts and rocked our faith…and nothing would ever be the same again.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
In the wake following initial diagnosis, it felt like our baby girl was a casualty of war -- between good and evil; light and darkness; life and death. And the devastation of our lives felt like collateral damage. From our perspective, it seemed like the one who comes to steal and kill and destroy was effectively winning the battle. It was all so much bigger than us and we felt small and insignificant in the shadow-of-death that was now towering over Natalie and our family.
As Natalie was whisked away and admitted to the hospital for observation and to begin treatment, a flurry of activity whirled around us -- we could hardly keep up. Internally, as if to mirror our outward circumstances, the chaos within was also whirling. The pain, confusion, fear and doubt were colliding and colluding together in a frightening way; and there was a great sense of helplessness and hopelessness growing inside.
I began to feel lost, alone, forgotten and abandoned by God…except for one saving life-line…
Early that morning, hours before we headed to the hospital for that first MRI and diagnosis…hours before we had any idea about what that day would actually bring…God gave me a promise. And it struck me deep. It was from 1 Peter 5:12 which says,
My purpose in writing you is to encourage you and assure you that what you are experiencing is truly part of God’s grace for you. Stand firm in this grace.
“Grace” here is translated from the Greek word charis meaning truth, favor, loving-favor, undeserved-favor, forgiveness, deliverance, free gift of God. These are all descriptions of God’s nature toward His creation and His children, specifically being “saved by grace through faith” in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8). He is the God of Grace – grace is who He is. And it means that His actions toward us are always far and above better than we deserve, more than we could ask for, and flowing from His goodness, love, perfection, sovereignty, wisdom, truth and faithfulness.
But, “grace” also has a practical meaning to it, which I believe is critical to understanding this particular Scripture. It is the divine influence upon the (human) heart, and reflected in the life (Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, pg. 270). And in the words of John Piper, “grace is not only a disposition or a quality or an inclination in the nature of God, but (it) is an influence or a force or a power or an acting of God that works in us to change our capacities for work and suffering and obedience.” In other words, His grace helps us – He increases our capacity and ability to do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).
So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive His mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. Hebrews 4:16
His grace works in us and empowers us through faith and His Spirit and His Word to have what I call, strength upon strength and miracle upon miracle. It is a grace that provides in the moment. Just when I think it is too much and too hard and I can’t take another step…He is there with His all-sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) to strengthen me or with divine intervention (a miracle – big and small) to encourage me to keep going.
And it is this understanding and experience of grace that I received on that morning when reading 1 Peter 5:12.
The journey leading up to Diagnosis Day had been harrowing in and of itself. And this promise from His Word was immediately a gift to me, reminding me that all of what we had already been through with and for Natalie - searching for answers to her mysterious presentation and knowing something was terribly wrong, but being unable to break through medical red tape to get the tests and urgent care Natalie needed – all of it…“was part of God’s grace for you.” It gave me a great sense of comfort in that moment, to be reminded that we were never forgotten by God, even when the road had become hard and scary.
But the greatest comfort came from the reminder that His grace was leading the way and covering the path and providing for us – past, present and future…before I even knew how much harder things would get. Because if 1 Peter 5:12 was true (which I believe it was/is, and God was so merciful and faithful to point it out to me when I needed it most), it meant that God was indeed in control; if it was true, it meant that God was indeed good (because His grace is an extension of His goodness); and if it was true, it meant that God was indeed that close…intimately involved in the details of life…my life, our life, Natalie’s life.
As I read and re-read 1 Peter 5:12 that morning, His specific promise to me through it became clear: No matter what today brings, I am with you. No matter what happens - good news or bad news - you are not out of My hands, My grace, My love or My will. As if to prepare me in advance for the difficulty of the day, I felt God anchor my soul, my faith and my hope in Him. He was speaking peace and courage and confidence to me before I even knew how much I would need them.
Brian and I stumbled through the hospital that day in a haze of panic and grief as we followed our daughter and the doctors and nurses trying to save her life, from one place to another; from one test to another. My thoughts and feelings bounced around just as much. Everything I thought I knew about God and about faith was being shaken and tested by the pain, confusion and fear, but I clung to 1 Peter 5:12…this is truly part of God’s grace for you. Stand firm…I could not understand how or what or why. I could not grasp how horrific news like life-threatening brain cancer could be “part of God’s grace” for me, for us, for Natalie. But somehow, by His grace, His Word and promise to me through it, kept me going…reassuring me of His presence, His goodness and His sovereignty.
Looking back on it now, I have come to realize that that verse - that life-line – 1 Peter 5:12, was what Life looked like for us that day. If the enemy’s purpose (the “enemy” can be both or either: the general nature of sin, darkness, brokenness and death in the world and in our lives; and/or the actual enemy of God (The devil/Satan) and of the souls of people) was to steal, kill and destroy us and Natalie on Diagnosis Day, and through the pain and grief and suffering of cancer, Jesus’ purpose through it all was Life…that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
He gives Life to life and Life Everlasting
There are three different forms of the word “life” used in the Bible, all from the Greek origin: The first is Bios which refers to biology and the physical body. The second is Psuche and refers to the inner life of a person – our mind and spirit, thoughts and emotions, personality and unique design. The third is zoe and refers to the life of God, as He has it and as He is. He is life…which is why I sometimes capitalize and personify the word “life”; to indicate my wholehearted belief that the ultimate and absolute source of any kind of life, but especially the zoe kind of life, is God Himself.
Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. (zoe)” John 14:6
‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ Acts 17:28
In Him was life (zoe), and that life was the light of all mankind. John 1:4
Zoe is also the word for life used in John 10:10. And it is described as uncreated, indestructible, eternal, everlasting, full, supreme, absolute, ultimate, sustaining, changing, nourishing, satisfying, overflowing…abundant…and comes to us through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. He invites us into the zoe kind of life through faith:
God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him (His life, death, resurrection, ascension) will not perish (separation from God – the ultimate and final death/spiritual death), but have eternal life (zoe). John 3:16
Faith in Jesus is saying yes to Life. It opens up wide the door of every part of our life (Bios, Psuche) to be filled and informed and transformed by His life-giving power (namely, by His Holy Spirit and His Word) . It is a type of life that is not possible apart from Him, because He is Life.
But to gain an even clearer understanding of the zoe kind of life, it is important to look at a qualifying word that is often attached to the word zoe and that is seen in John 3:16 above. It is the word eternal. We find this word combination (eternal life) in John 17:3 as well:
And this is the way to have eternal life (zoe) —to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one You sent to earth (belief/faith).
The Biblical translation for eternal life (combining the two definitions) is the present possession of total, absolute, abundant and forever life with God through faith in Jesus Christ. The key words being “present possession” as they make clear that the eternal life God is speaking of is meant for this life – right here and right now – as well as for the life to come after death and that lasts forever. Hence the phrase, He gives Life (zoe) to life and Life Everlasting. It’s Life for both now and forever.
This has been life-changing for me because it has moved the phrase “eternal life” from a strictly time-oriented description of what faith in Jesus means (waiting to receive it only after physical death) to a present-tense, personal relationship with Him that is meant to permeate and effect every part of our lives with His zoe. Eternal/abundant life begins the moment we place our faith/confidence in Jesus Christ and extends into eternity, without interruption even by death. Quite literally, the day we believe in “the one true God; and Jesus Christ the one You sent to earth”, is the first day of the rest of our lives…forever, with God.
So what does Jesus’ purpose and promise of Life from John 10:10 look like in the face of life-threatening disease and seemingly indiscriminate, devastating life-circumstances? When it looks and feels like the enemy, darkness and brokenness are winning, where is Life? For us, on Diagnosis Day, Life was that golden, heavenly thread extended to us in the form of “this is truly part of God’s grace for you. Stand firm in this grace.” And we clung to His grace that fateful, terrible day like our life depended on it, because in many ways, it did.
Natalie’s story and our testimony is about what life with God looks like. And about what Life looks like in the face of trouble, suffering, and death. And while Christ’s abundant life does not eliminate hardships, it does provide for them. He is the all-sufficient resource for every need:
In trouble, He is our helper. Psalm 46:1
In grief, He is the God of all comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
In chaos and uncertainty, He is our peace. Philippians 4:6-7
In sin, He is our Savior. John 3:16
In weakness, He is our strength. 2 Corinthians 12:9
In desperation, discouragement, doubt, darkness, He is our hope. Romans 15:13
In death, He is life and Life. John 11:25
And on and on and on…there is no end to the treasures that are found in Him. Romans 11:33, Ephesians 3:8
And even though God does not always answer every “how, what, why, when” question I have surrounding Natalie’s cancer or about life, all of my questions find their place and their rest in Him, even when they go unanswered. Because the truth of our journey through childhood cancer is that there has not been a moment when we have walked alone. There has not been a moment when our journey has not also been a walk with God, every step of the way. He prepared the path before us, He was with us in the real-time moments, and He leads us into the future with great and mighty promises of plans and purposes.
The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Deuteronomy 31:8
The Lord will work out His plans for my life – for Your faithful love, O Lord, endures forever. Psalm 138:8
Natalie’s diagnosis -- and the subsequent and dramatic alteration of our lives, hopes, dreams and expectations – challenged our faith in ways we could never have imagined. But as we have journeyed through it, we have discovered Life:
God with us, providing strength after strength and miracle after miracle.
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