Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cancer, Healing, and the Meaning (Or Lack Thereof) of This Life

"Cancer" is one of the five worst words in the English language.  It sounds ugly.  It has ugly, death-ish connotations.  It evokes images of some alien life taking over one's body.  It has two c's that make different sounds, which is lame and annoying.  And when you learn that a young, healthy loved one has cancer it is so devastating.  You find yourself doing verbal somersaults to avoid saying the word out loud, as if by saying it you will make it worse.

So I recently had the occasion to give a loved one a priesthood blessing related to a cancer diagnosis, and as I've contemplated mortality and healing I've started having a lot of questions which I've never thought about before.  After that blessing I went and read Elder Oaks' talk from the most recent conference called "Healing the Sick".  The takeaway point, I think, is the following:
From all of this we learn that even the servants of the Lord, exercising His divine power in a circumstance where there is sufficient faith to be healed, cannot give a priesthood blessing that will cause a person to be healed if that healing is not the will of the Lord.
This has left me somewhat puzzled.  Elder Oaks is saying that the will of the Lord always trumps everything else, including priesthood blessings and faith of the person that is sick.  I don't think anyone would argue with this.  So what, then, is the role of faith and priesthood blessings?  If they can never change the will of the Lord, why bother?  This leads, I think, to a sort of Calvinistic determinism that is incompatible with our faith.  If nothing we do will ever change the already-determined future that the Lord has created for us, it renders moot our most important heavenly endowment, free agency.

The only way for me to reconcile all of this is, and maybe this is common knowledge and I'm a little slow, is if there are situations, and presumably fairly common situations since we are encouraged to have constant faith and exercise our priesthood often, where the Lord has no particular will one way or the other concerning whether a person will live or die, be healed or not be healed -- if there are situations where the Lord essentially challenges us to persuade him.

If this is the case it opens up a whole mess of possibilities.  If we have the power, even the duty, to persuade the Lord one way or the other, we can do some pretty serious miracles and good works.  I've always known all of this, I think, but I've never given it much thought and I've never really internalized it.  It is also a very liberating idea.  To know that our future is really and truly not already mapped out for us, that the Lord knows our capabilities and potential but that our choices are still ours, that we have absolute power over our choices, frees us to act more boldly and with less fear.

But I've also encountered another puzzle in all of this, one I don't think I understand.  When you encounter the mortality of a young and otherwise healthy person, it is natural to wonder what the point of this whole life is, anyway.  It is such an infinitesimally small slice of our eternal existence, and good and bad opportunities are so unevenly allotted, it is getting harder and harder for me to ascribe too much meaning to it.  I've started really considering and accepting the idea of progression between kingdoms and strong universalism.

That's not to say that my loved one with cancer is in danger of not making the celestial kingdom if that person should die today (very unlikely, we have a pretty fortunate cancer diagnosis), so I'm not just trying to justify a bad or lukewarm life about to be extinguished.  My loved one would assuredly be a shoe-in for a pretty sweet afterlife and anyway has a long time to live yet.  But as I've considered how short life can be, and how seemingly random and unfair it can be, I just can't bring myself to believe that any person can make or break the entire rest of eternity in this short mortal existence.

I guess what I'm saying is, I've got a lot to think about.


Architect said...

We can and do ask for things that we ought not. If we have the faith and the personal righteousness, we get our way for a while. However we cannot change the will of God.

On a personal note, my mother told my father directly to stop pleading with God to keep my grandfather alive. To me it seems that my father's prayers kept my grandfather from passing to the unseen world.

Josh said...

I am sure you have heard every "my family member had cancer" story out there, but I'll tell another. My father was diagnosed with Leukemia when I was about 16. He was given blessing after blessing, especially at first. The gist of each was that the Lord would bless him to live until his sons had returned from their missions for the Lord. My first true testimony of the gospel came from those experiences. Though my family was praying for a more definite blessing than that, it was a testimony to me that the priesthood is truly the power of God, and the tool that we can use to enact His desires. I never doubted for a minute that my dad would be allowed to live to take care of his family, at least until one or both of his sons was grown enough to do so. In fact, thinking back on it, that may have been a driving force in my decision to serve a mission in the first place, to help ensure the blessings given to my dad would come to pass. Dad is still alive and well, but I don't know if that just means that he learned what he needed to from the experience or if I am not yet grown up enough to fulfill the Lord's wishes.

The point of that rambling was to say this. Faith in the Lord, and in his priesthood, is an unspeakably powerful tool. For me, the true meaning of this life is to discover faith. We are taught as early as Primary that faith is the first principle of the gospel, but the Prophet Joseph emphasized it's importance further:
"If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action in them; that without it both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental."
LOF 1:10

Jake, my family will keep yours in our hearts and in our prayers.

Henline said...

I have considered this so many times myself and have always come to the same broad, "eternal outlook" answer. I think that whenever we have challenges/experiences in the realms of faith, humility, sacrifice, obedience, etc. it really all boils down to the same thing. It's just an exercise. We are asked to put aside the natural man and our carnal desires to become like God. I believe we have to learn (oh, so repeatedly) to give up our own human reasoning, our selfish will, and our physical lusts to allow growth of greater virtues. I think whenever we pray, fast, or use the priesthood we are offering up our trust in the Lord and in God's will and His power. We basically admit that we are incapable of doing what He can do. In so doing, we learn more about the way pure truth, or "the laws that govern the universe" actually work, and we can become more enlightened, or generally, closer to God. It seems to me that the more we admit we are weak and need God, the more "powerful" and capable (by utilizing God's truth)we become. I always tell myself I have to get rid of my junk and issues so I can grow the virtues that make me like my Father in heaven. Maybe it's a really broad analysis, but it gives me comfort and motivates me to keep praying, fasting and trusting in the power of the priesthood. You guys inspire me. Thanks for your thoughts. -Ashley