He Will Hold Me Fast: A Cancer Journey

"Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Eph. 3:20–21).

These verses had been my prayer theme for the past few years. They encouraged me to break down the borders of the mundane. To ask God to do big things, in seemingly hopeless situations. Most of my prayers had been requests for God to act in unimaginably big ways in the lives of others—but not so much in mine. Then came December 18, 2013.

"You have thyroid cancer,” the doctor told me. "We must remove your thyroid and assess how far the cancer has spread"

"No, God!” I gasped. My thoughts immediately jumped to the possible implications of this diagnosis. What kind of intense suffering might I be about to face? How could I cope with the treatment? What if my cancer was terminal? How could I leave my loved ones and my half-finished dreams? How would I deal with my own death? These fear-filled questions swept over me. "No, God, I can't do this,” I cried. This was more than I could handle.

I Did Not Like Depending on God

Ah, and therein lay the crux of the problem: it was more than I could handle, and I did not like—or feel safe—depending upon God. I liked (and felt safest) depending upon myself.

Perhaps my heightened self-reliance was partly in response to my father's death in a plane crash when I was just five. Nonetheless, two other things since that event have affected me even more:

  1. I came to trust in Jesus as my Savior.
  2. I have chosen to dodge many difficult situations that would force me to deeply rely upon God.

I suppose this is an embarrassingly, spiritually juvenile confession coming from someone who has known the Lord for forty-five years and been a pastor's wife for over half that time. After all, I know God. I believe God's Word. I've seen His goodness and kindness in remarkable ways throughout my years. Yet nonetheless, I've harbored a distrust, an unrest, a withholding of myself from Him. And the bigger the gap between the task at hand and my own ability to meet it, the greater the grip of fear inside my heart and my desire to avoid it. And avoid, I often did.

Then Came Cancer . . .

With the cancer diagnosis came a Grand Canyon-sized discrepancy between what I needed and my own ability to provide it . . . and I knew it. I wanted to escape, but couldn't. I had no choice but to walk straight towards what felt like a thousand-foot, mile-wide, sheer drop-off. Undoubtedly, this was exactly what my loving Heavenly Father had in mind for my good; but true-to-form, I was terrified.

In one sense, I was right to be terrified. Life was about to get very difficult. The surgery and radiation treatment themselves were not too bad, but my body's reaction to them was turbulent. I came to learn first-hand the great influence the thyroid and its four little buddies, the parathyroids, have on our bodies. Among other things, these tiny organs help regulate our heart rate, metabolism, mental health, sleep, and muscles. When my thyroid and half my parathyroids were removed, I began to experience severe muscle spasms in my back, arms, and legs. I had heart palpitations and insomnia. For a while my temperature took dips into the 96's, giving me chills that only a tightly-tied hoody and multiple layers of blankets could stop. Worst of all were the roller coaster highs of anxiety and lows of depression as my body over-reacted then under-reacted to the thyroid medicine. Each day brought its own issues. One symptom would resolve only to be replaced by another.

I felt like I was bobbing on a stormy sea, gasping for air when another wave would slap me. I was used to troubleshooting my symptoms and finding solutions, but not this time. This time it was about waiting, enduring, and entrusting myself to doctors and to the God who answers prayer.

My Turbulent Soul

My soul echoed my body's turbulence. Everything felt so desperately out of control, especially during the long nights. Alone, in the dark, I struggled with feelings that God had abandoned me. My pain and sleeplessness stood in stark contrast to quietness of those sleeping soundly in the rest of the house. Fears seized me and sometimes evil felt palpably close. Lies taunted me, tempting me to believe that God had dropped the bounds on my suffering and was cruel to let me suffer like this, night after night.

At times I couldn't even open my Bible—only hold it. I wept in shame at my inability to fight and believe. I knew God's Word! I believed His promises. Why wouldn't they stick to my mind and heart? Why couldn't I stand up to the lies? Why wouldn't I change? I was at the end of myself. "God, hold on to me! My body, my faith, my sanity!” I prayed. "You are going to do to this. I can't. I can't do anything"

And hold onto me, He did. For all my "I-can't-do-this” prayers, God came back with a sweet rebuttal: "Yes, but I can." Have you seen God interrupt your life in order to accomplish something great in you? Check the blog tomorrow to read part two of God's work in my life through cancer.

God particularly brought two Scriptures to mind during this time. The first was, " I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 5:5).

You Can Do Nothing

He undergirded everything. He supplied the power for everything.

"You can do nothing." Ordinarily, this was the ultimate downer for a self-reliant person like me. Yet now, at the end of myself, it was wonderfully encouraging. It meant that my "to-do-by-myself list" was absolutely blank, but God's "to-do-with-Him" list was jam-packed. He wasn't there to just fill in the cracks where my own ability wore thin. Instead, He undergirded everything. He supplied the power for everything. Everything depended upon Him—not me. He knew it and planned it that way. He could bring me through this trial, and every other one I would ever face, for my good and His glory.

My "Everything" List

And how exactly should I define this "everything" that God could do? He answered that with my prayer-theme passage: "He is able to do far more abundantly than all we could ask or think, according to the power within us" (Eph. 3:20).

"Everything" was mind-bogglingly big. I could ask and think all day, and it still would not be expansive enough. I began to make a list, asking and thinking as big as I could. I was as excited as a child writing a Christmas letter to Santa—actually more so. This list was not addressed to some mythical person with mythical powers who gave presents to good children once a year. No! This list was for the living, sovereign, omnipotent God who delights to answer the daily needs of His sinful, needy children. He could do anything. (Cue big, greedy grin.)

As you might expect, my list included asking God to heal my body and sustain my life. But this trial had shown me how fleeting this life is and how unable the things of this world are to bring fulfillment or security. I would only find lasting joy and peace in God and desiring His will, so most of my requests were of a more spiritual nature.

  • I didn't want to waste a speck of this trial. I wanted to live gratefully for His goodnesses shown to me in it.
  • I wanted to joyfully surrender my plans, my resources, myself into God's hands, convinced that His ways are better and wiser than mine.
  • I wanted God's Word to be woven into the very beat of my heart. I wanted the lies that fed my fears to fall in the wake of God's truth.
  • I wanted to know God so intimately that I could laugh at the days ahead, looking to God's bountiful resources instead of my puny ones to meet them. I wanted to be a bold, risk-taker who saw difficulties as opportunities for God to show His goodness and greatness.
  • I wanted other weak and struggling Christians to see God helping me and for them to be encouraged that He would help them, too. I wanted non-Christians to look at what God was doing in me and see His unmistakable power—power enough to even raise the dead!
  • I wanted to know that God would always hold onto me. I wanted to rest deeply in His steadfast love for me every day of my life.

My wish list became my prayer list. Others have been praying for me, too. How faithful God has been to already answer! It's not that the war is over. My enemies of fear and self-reliance assault me almost daily. I'm not a completely transformed, living-on-a-new-plane-of-existence woman of God. I think that will have to wait until heaven.

But I do have little victories each day—more than before. Even when I don't have victories, I have hope.

  • Hope, because I've seen the power of the prayers of the saints as God has answered them in my life.
  • Hope, because God's Word is being woven into my heart, growing in power to strike down the enemy's lies.
  • Hope, because now I am quicker to surrender my life to God because of a growing certainty that His plans are better, even if they are harder.
  • Hope, because I have more confidence that God will give me the power of His Holy Spirit to meet towering difficulties. There is a glimmer of thrill where there used to be only the chill of fear.
  • Hope, that God will indeed bring glory to Himself, in the church and through Jesus Christ, even through weak, fearful, needy little me.
  • And hope, because He's holding me and holding me fast . . . and that's far, far better than me holding onto me.

I may have long way to go in this battle with cancer. (Though, praise God, I've received optimistic doctors' reports.) And I certainly have an even longer way to go in this battle with self-reliance. But that's okay. God has done it all before in many saints who have gone before me and in many saints who are walking alongside me right now. Maybe He's fighting this battle in you even now. If you are a child of God, take heart. If you are not a child of God, you can become one! Whoever comes to Him, in repentance and faith, He will never cast out (John 6:37). Our confidence is in the God who can do more than we can ask or think. He does not disappoint. Our hope in Him will not put us to shame (Rom. 5:1–5).

How has the Lord encouraged you to ask big things and put all your hope in Him in the midst of trials?

P.S. God has used this song in my life, and I wanted to share it with you. May you be encouraged to cling to the One who holds you fast. (Insert video)

He Will Hold Me Fast

When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast;
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast.
I could never keep my hold
Through life's fearful path;
For my love is often cold;
He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast,
He will hold me fast;
For my Savior loves me so,
He will hold me fast.

Those He saves are His delight,
Christ will hold me fast;
Precious in His holy sight,
He will hold me fast.
He'll not let my soul be lost;
His promises shall last;
Bought by Him at such a cost,
He will hold me fast.

For my life He bled and died,
Christ will hold me fast;
Justice has been satisfied;
He will hold me fast.
Raised with Him to endless life,
He will hold me fast
‘Til our faith is turned to sight,
When He comes at last!

Lyrics vs. 1-2 Ada Habershon (1861-1918), Public Domain; Alt words vv.1-2, lyrics v.3, and music: Matt Merker, © 2013 http://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/we-provide/music/

About the Author

Connie Dever

Connie Dever

Connie and her husband, Mark, live in Washington, D.C. where he has been pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church for the past twenty years. They have two married children. Connie devotes much of her time to writing children's curriculum and music. She loves playing music, teaching children, and encouraging women—particularly pastors' wives.

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