Words we never want to hear: “Cancer. Stage four. Terminal.” Yet when Colleen Chao received this unexpected diagnosis, God gave her the most wondrous gift in a dark and unexpected place. In her new book, In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God, Colleen reminds us to look at the beauty of suffering in light of God’s goodness, and graciously points us back to the Only One who can turn our bitter griefs into breathtaking gifts. It is a grace to welcome Colleen to the farm’s table today…
The summer of 2017 was the first time in a decade that I felt well. I was tucking in more than three hours of sleep each night, I had energy, and the aches and pains of chronic illness were minimal. On top of that, my six-year-old’s health had improved enough for us to experience the edges of normalcy. My husband and I looked at each other and whispered with relief, “We’re not in crisis mode anymore!”
But as I showered before church on a midsummer Sunday morning, I felt a little lump in my right breast. My eyes filled with tears as I wondered, what if this is cancer? After all we’ve been through, what if we’re about to face our biggest health crisis yet? God wouldn’t do that to us, would He?
“Even in the scariest moments, holding my breath for that decisive phone call, mind racing, body trembling—I knew He was with me.”
We began a long and complicated testing process. Some days I had miraculous calm and confidence in God’s goodness. Other days I couldn’t loosen fear’s vise-grip on my heart.
Don’t make me walk this, Lord, I begged Him. And then just as quickly I would add, but if this is where You are going, I want to go with You. I don’t want to miss out on what You’re doing.
Even in the scariest moments, holding my breath for that decisive phone call, mind racing, body trembling—I knew He was with me. And as I hid myself in Him during those waiting weeks, His Spirit clearly impressed upon my spirit: “this lump is a gift.”
What kind of gift, I could not fathom. As we continued to test and wait (and test and wait some more), I hoped for the best, but readied my heart for the worst. Because what if the worst was the gift?
“What if the worst was the gift?”
Early in those 14 weeks of testing, I made a trip to an imaging specialist in San Diego. When I saw the images of my scans that day—I knew. There was no doubt. It was cancer.
I got into my car, trembling from head to toe, and began my ninety-minute drive home. As I drove, I poured out my heart to God—and while I have forgotten most of what I said to Him that day, I will never forget crying out to Him again and again, “Give me more joy and peace than I’ve ever experienced before.”
It wasn’t a timid question: “Would You give me joy and peace, God?” It was a bold request: “If this is where we’re going together, I’m going to need You to give me what I can’t conjure up on my own.”
In those moments, God’s presence seemed to fill every inch of my car. He was surrounding me. He was holding me together. And even as my body trembled and my heart quaked, I knew He was prompting me to cry out for the impossible as we set out for places I did not want to go.
He wanted to give me mind-blowing gifts—but first He wanted me to boldly ask Him for them.
“And here’s the thing about gifts from God: they’re not meant for us alone—they’re meant to be shared.“
And here’s the thing about gifts from God: they’re not meant for us alone—they’re meant to be shared.
I intuitively knew that if God was giving me the gift of cancer, and if He was going to give me supernatural joy and peace to go with it, it would not just be for me—it would be for others as well.
Like the depression and singleness and chronic illness that preceded it, cancer was to usher me into the sacred places of others’ sufferings, allowing me to be a conduit of Christ’s compassion and comfort and love.
F. B. Meyer said, “The grave may be dark and deep, the winter long, the frost keen and penetrating; but spring will come, and the stone be rolled away, and the golden stalk shall wave in the sunshine, bearing its crown of fruit, and men shall thrive on the bread of our experience, the product of our tears and suffering and prayers.”
For the past five years, cancer has been just that: dark and long, keen and penetrating—but all these tears and pains and prayers have been turned not only for my own good, but also for the good of other sufferers. It is the beauty of 2 Corinthians 1:3–7 at work:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer.
And our hope for you is firm because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will also share in the comfort.
Even as I live in the cruelty of this terminal diagnosis, I am forever grateful for the gift God has given me in this suffering and struggle. It has not just been a gift but countless gifts.
Immeasurably good gifts. As for the joy and peace I begged God for five years ago, they have come in stunning proportions. He has out given everything I asked Him for.
Anxiety still pays me the occasional visit, depression peeks his head in every now and then, but joy and peace reign. If you knew me and my history with anxiety and depression, you would understand that is nothing short of miraculous.
“Our deepest sorrows, our sharpest pains, are right where God wants to outgive us with His breathtakingly good gifts.”
God loves working miracles on behalf of His suffering children. We see proof of this throughout Scripture and throughout history. Our deepest sorrows, our sharpest pains, are right where God wants to outgive us with His breathtakingly good gifts. It was Lilias Trotter who wrote, “Take the very hardest thing in your life—the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there, He can bring your soul into blossom!”
Whatever your suffering may be, God can do miracles in you and for you and for those your life touches—miracles of the heart and soul that will echo into eternity.
Even as our hearts quake in our suffering, we can ask for more peace and more joy and more faith and more hope and more wisdom—and we can trust that a fiercely tender God is holding us together and working these wonders in our souls to “brings us into blossom.”
Colleen Chao has written extensively about finding God’s goodness in the unexpected chapters of her life, including singleness, chronic illness, and terminal cancer. She’s worked as an editor and writer for global organizations, and an English teacher to some of her favorite people on earth—teenagers. When she’s not wrangling words, she enjoys beautiful hikes, side-splitting laughter, and half-read books piled bedside. She makes her home just outside Boise, Idaho with her husband Eddie, their son Jeremy, and Willow the dog.
Learn about how you can find hope and joy in life’s darkest days, in Colleen’s new book, In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God. How do we suffer long and well? What do we do when we feel cheated? How do we face pressing darkness?
One thing Colleen has learned is that we cannot bear the suffering alone. We need lots of help. To that end, Colleen shares a precious devotional gift with the suffering soul: thirty-one days of wisdom, hope, and encouragement. Drawing upon stories from past saints, rich truths from Scripture, and habits that build joyful endurance, Colleen helps fellow sufferers to embrace one day at a time, to trust and love Jesus more, and put themselves In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God.
[ Our humble thanks to Moody Publishers for their partnership in today’s devotion ]