There were several scriptures that I held close to my heart during my experience with breast cancer, especially during the time I was first diagnosed when there was so much uncertainty and fear. I had a piece of linen I had received in the past, which had been referred to as a prayer cloth. It was small enough to fit inside my Bible, so that is where I had kept it for the last several years. I decided one day after learning about my diagnosis, I would write these verses on that prayer cloth so they would be close by. I could just pull the cloth out of my Bible and read the verses during the day, when I was feeling worried or anxious. I selected verses that specifically focused on the provision of God’s comfort and peace. Little did I know at the time, I would cling to these verses again in a few months during my husband’s diagnosis with cancer.
One of the verses that I wrote on my prayer cloth and one I would often read during this time of uncertainty was Philippians 4:6, which says,
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”.
I was drawn to this verse initially because I thought it spoke to the anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis or really any situation that carries with it uncertainty. I interpreted this verse simply as“do not worry about anything… bring all your concerns and your fears to God in prayer”. Yet after I had read this verse over and over again, I realized, I simply had not paid attention to a small but yet very important phrase in that verse. That phrase was, “with thanksgiving”. The word “thanksgiving” in this verse seemed rather odd and sort of out of place to me. First of all we are talking about being anxious, which brings to mind other words such as worry, distress, concern, and then we’re adding in the word “thanksgiving” in the same sentence? It just didn’t seem like those two words would belong in the same sentence.
As I began to study that phrase in context of the verse, I began to think about my own prayer life. How often did I really give thanksgiving to God? How often did I express to Him my gratitude for my family, for shelter, for my health, my life and above all for the life He gave us in His Son. Lately my prayers seemed to consist solely of my requests, my needs, my complaints … all about ME, ME, ME.
As I mentioned earlier, right before my diagnosis, I was very unsettled. The best word to describe myself was “weary”… emotionally, physically, and spiritually. At work I loved my patients, but I was emotionally drained after many years of witnessing the havoc cancer plays on lives of so many people I would eventually become very close to. I would spend many days grieving the loss of those I had come to care for deeply. This emotional drain in turn led me to feel physically drained. It got to the point I would drive in to work every day with a heavy sense of dread. I would then spend the night complaining to my family about the many stresses of the day. I would go to bed to get up the next day and repeat the same pattern day after day. In the midst of this, I eventually began to rationalize that I didn’t have time to read my Bible or participate in a Bible study because of the physical and emotional exhaustion. Looking back, I say my prayers during that time were very “needy”, self-centered, and full of complaining, very much like God’s people in the desert when they “murmured” day after day about their circumstances, and in doing so doubted God’s provision. Even though they were free from the slavery of Egypt, their complaining still kept them in bondage. In a study I’ve done in the past by James McDonald, he says, “Those who choose complaining as their lifestyle will spend a lifetime in the wilderness. And when you complain about trials, you are forfeiting the grace that could help you through it instead of embracing it as tool used by God to keep you humble and keep you close to Him.” Simply saying, complaining is an attitude you chose, and it is sin.
How sad it must make God when all He hears as a response to the abundance He has given me is complaining. And not just every now and then, but day after day after day. But then how does thankfulness in prayer tie into times of trials? How do you practice thankfulness with a diagnosis of breast cancer? How could I “embrace” this situation in order to get close to God?
I simply began by thinking, “What can I be thankful for in this very moment and in this very circumstance of cancer. I thanked God my cancer was detected early. I thanked Him that my prognosis, from what I knew at the time, was very good. I thanked him for the “less aggressive” nature of my type of cancer. These facts alone were miracles. They were good things that God was doing in my life, and I had failed to acknowledge them, because I was so focused on “the bad” things. I thanked him for my family, my friends, my church family, my co-workers, … all who had consoled, encouraged, and lifted me up in their prayers. Although I was in the middle of a pretty devastating experience, I still had much to be thankful for. I realized thankfulness was a choice. I could either keep complaining to God, or I could offer Him thankfulness for all He had done in my life. I’m not saying that God does not want to hear our concerns, our fears, our worries, because He loves us deeply but at the same time, He is worthy and deserving of our praise. When we offer Him praise and graciousness in our prayers, it affirms our trust in Him, not only in the good times, but during times of struggle as well. When we can be thankful to God in the good times and in the times of uncertainty, we will reap the gift of His faithfulness. We will learn that He is a God who can be fully trusted to love us, to care for us and who will protect us during the many storms we will encounter in life.