J. Todd Billings / 01 DEC 2014 – Incurable cancer.
I could hardly believe it when I heard the diagnosis. My wife and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary, and our lives were spinning in joyful commotion with one- and three- year-olds at home. Initial testing brought back some worrying results. I had researched the possibilities, and I didn’t sound like a likely prospect for this cancer. The average diagnosis age is about 70; I had just turned 39. But here it was: an active cancer that had already been eroding the bones in my skull, arm, and hip.
With the Psalmist I cried out, “Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps. 6:2b–4).
What was this “healing” for my bones and soul? The cancer has no cure, but it can be fought with special treatment. This treatment to extend my lifespan was not going to come through a gentle pill. Ready or not, I was in the midst of a battle. I needed strong medicine for healing to come. Within a week I was on a chemotherapy and steroid treatment as part of a five-month preparation for this strong medicine: a stem cell transplant.
I soon discovered this was not a regular transplant—replacing a sick organ with a healthy organ, or infusing health-filled medicines into my body. Quite the opposite. Receiving this “medicine” involved taking a lethal poison. First I had stem cells gathered from my blood. Next I received an intense form of chemotherapy derived from mustard gas, a World War I chemical weapon. These toxins attacked both healthy and cancerous cells in my bone marrow; they would definitely have killed me if there were not a way to revive me. My white blood count dropped close to zero, leaving me with virtually no resistance to infection. You can’t live like that. And yet, the only way to heal was to infuse this poison into my blood.
In the third step, the healthy stem cells taken earlier were infused back into my body. At first, they just float around, but the doctors hope that after a number of days, “engrafting” will take place: the healthy stem cells start helping the body produce an immune system again. Because this procedure so compromises the immune system, I would remain hospitalized for a month at a cancer lodge designed for avoiding infection, followed by several more months of quarantine.
The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.”During my transplant process, I was kept under close watch by doctors and nurses as my white blood cell count plummeted. The heavy toxins were infused into my body from dark bags labeled “hazardous drug” and “high risk med.” As my white counts fell, I experienced bouts of sharp pain, nausea, heavy fatigue, and discouragement. The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.” During this time, I was walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, ESV). The doctors brought me down the path of death, for the path of death was the only way to healing.
Thankfully, engraftment eventually started to occur; slowly the healthy blood cells joined my body in recreating my immune system.
No Engraftment = No LifeEngraftment is a horticultural practice: uniting a branch to a plant in such a way that the branch is incorporated into the plant, becoming a part of the plant itself. In my case, before the stem cell transplant, I had to sign a consent form indicating my understanding that if engraftment did not occur, I could die. Because of the death-dealing powers of the chemo, the consent form probably could have used a simpler formula: no engraftment means no life.
Engraftment evokes biblical imagery, of course. In Romans 11:13–24, Paul uses rich horticultural imagery from the Old Testament to speak about how Gentile believers have been graciously grafted into the people of God. In the Gospel of John, Christ himself speaks about how he is the vine and his disciples are the branches, who can bear fruit only by abiding in him (15:1–8). For “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5, ESV). No engraftment means no life.
As I lived through my ordeal, my eyes were opened anew to what it means for sinners like us to receive deep healing from God. We don’t just need a vitamin; we don’t just need a bandage to cover a flesh wound. We need strong medicine—we need death and new life united to Christ in order to be healed. Far too often, I have acted as if the gospel were a self-improvement plan to strengthen a muscle, to heal a small wound, to enhance my success. But the gospel is about losing our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, tasting death to the old self in order to experience true life and healing. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Our hope is not in ourselves, but in our engraftment—our union with Christ. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).
There is no way to healing apart from death. This is a reality for all of us. God’s gospel medicine is not a light massage or an energizing pill. We cannot have only resurrection, skipping over our union with Christ in his death, our death to the old self. We desperately need healing. And the Great Physician provides this in mysterious ways.
As Martin Luther notes, even our “spiritual trials, sorrow, grief, and anguish of heart” are “the medicines with which God purges away sin.” This purging actually restores true human health. This medicine may feel like poison, and it does involve a kind of death, but it is actually coming to life in Christ. For when we cry out for “healing” we are crying out to a crucified and risen Lord who brings us life by uniting us to both his death and his life. That is strong medicine, indeed.
J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article has been adapted from his forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, February 2015), with permission.