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What living with a death sentence can teach all of us about life

Photo by Isaac Viglione/Unsplash

(RNS) — Kate Bowler is a wife, mother and historian who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Her new book, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved,” is a heartbreaking and hilarious memoir about enduring and responding to tragedy. It’s a literary masterpiece bursting with wisdom.

In this interview (and video), Bowler shares a glimpse of her wisdom with us.

RNS: You’re an expert in the history of the prosperity gospel, which promises health and wealth to the faithful. In a recent Christianity Today article, you said that you reject the prosperity gospel, but you still crave its promises. Explain this tension.

KB: I don’t believe that God guarantees every happiness to believers here on earth, but it’s such a delicious thought. There are so many beautiful things to love and enjoy, and I began to feel like perhaps I was entitled to them. I wrote this book as a kind of theological excavation in the wake of my stage 4 cancer diagnosis to confront my own presuppositions: Hadn’t I secretly been expecting health and happiness all along?

My trust in God has had to grow sideways. Instead of ballooning more securely in the idea that everything was definitely going to work out for me, I’ve had to seek God in the darkness and the brokenness. This is a Lenten book written for a Lenten people. Jesus’ witness requires that we learn to stare down the abyss and walk towards our own deaths. Take up your cross. He wasn’t really joking, though I like to think he had an evil sense of humor.

RNS: As someone who has experienced great tragedy, how do you answer the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” What does your answer say about God?

KB: My answer is pretty simple: The Kingdom of God is not yet here. That’s why bad things happen. But when you are steeped in a culture that holds to boomerang theologies — that every good thing comes back to you — it can feel a lot like spiritual abandonment when everything comes apart.

Author Kate Bowler. Photo courtesy of Kate Bowler

I think of a Bible verse from the Book of James that says, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds … ” How do you make sense of that verse in light of your current situation?

I used to think that meant that we should actually force ourselves to seem happy about our misfortunes, but that’s not right at all. The bizarre beauty of tragedy is that Christ promises to meet us there. It’s one of the only things I know to be absolutely true. When everything fell apart, God was still there. I didn’t need an explanation for why it was happening. … I simply needed to feel God’s love. So that would also be my suggestion for all those who want to rush in with an explanation for human suffering while someone is suffering. Simmer down, will you? Let God’s love shine. It was certainly enough for me.

RNS: How has your theology changed as a result of this experience? Do you, for example, think differently about notions of sovereignty or omnipotence or divine mercy?

KB: This illness has taught me a theology of gratitude, though I would never, ever command that a sick person be forced to be cheerful. But I am so grateful to be alive. I see my son asleep in his bed and I think, “I did it. Another day. Thank God.” The other day, I made peanut butter cookies with him while he was dressed in a dragon costume while singing a song about bellybuttons. Those moments are bright and crisp in my mind. Living with stage 4 cancer means I make a lot of strategic decisions about what to care about, and thankfully the answers are right in front of me.

Image courtesy of Random House

RNS: Your subtitle is “And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” Share a couple of other lies that you — and many of us — have accepted as truth. How have these harmed us?

KB: Oh, I am full of lies I love.

I love the idea that I am special, that I am the exception to the rule that tragedy can visit us all.

I love the idea that I have control over almost everything that happens to me. I am enamored with the idea that a shiny life is the one I should be living.

Oh, and that essential oils will fix everything.

RNS: Prominent pastor John Piper wrote a reflection on the eve of surgery for his prostate cancer titled, “Don’t waste your cancer.” He stated that “You will waste your cancer if you don’t believe God designed it for you.” What would you say to Piper? Did God design your cancer for you?

KB: This is a whole category of question and answer that I don’t understand. I’ve started to think of it as “Sufferer Meets Critic.” I never want to be the person that takes away from someone else’s experience of their illness. If someone found cancer to be a gift, wonderful. But there is a certain cruelty to asking suffering people to bear the weight of other people’s theological conundrums. Some people experience spiritual abandonment during trials. I had moments of spiritual joy and deep despair. But I would ask that in all cases, people lead with love when dealing with someone else’s loss.

RNS: Fair enough.  Let’s get practical then. You recently wrote an article for The New York Times Sunday Review, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” that went viral. It describes unhealthy responses people have to tragedy. Give us the types of people you listed and why they are hurtful.

KB: Sometimes people accidentally aim their love in the wrong direction, and it leads to minimizing, teaching and solving.

Minimizers want me to put my situation in perspective, so they usually start with: “At least … ” At least I have the new drug. At least I already had a child. At least I have a good marriage. They want me to see the bright side, but it often comes at the expense of … well … the fact that everything is also terrible.

Teachers have some information they think I will benefit from. Often they have recently watched a documentary about cancer, and would I like to hear about it now? Great! They brought a PowerPoint!

Solvers are hoping that I will put my shoulder to the problem and try harder. Usually they want me to try a better diet, prayer or product from Whole Foods.

To be clear, I have done all these things a zillion times to other people’s problems. I am the chief of sinners when it comes to minimizing, teaching and solving. I am forever trying to bring perspective, information and agency to those I love. When tragedy strikes, we want to fill all the gaps as best we can. Helplessness is an awful feeling.

RNS: So those are all the kinds of people we should not be. What about the flip side? What does a healthy and loving response to tragedy look like? 

KB: I know there is no single solution to the problems brought by pain, but I have appreciated people’s presence most of all. People show up in cards, meals, frequent flyer miles, hugs and car rides. They can be silent or have the perfect thing to say. But I know they love me because they keep appearing to say, “You are not forgotten.”

RNS:  If a Christian reading this has a friend or family member who is experiencing tragedy, what advice would you give them about loving that person well?

KB: Learning to be close to those who are broken in any way without minimizing, explaining or solving is hard work. I would encourage everyone to put a great deal of value in their presence. A hug, an errand, a fun present or a bit of encouragement goes a long way. I rarely remember what people say, but I always remember how they show up.

This is not a revolutionary thought, but the power of God’s community has never been made clearer. I’ve written about how my Mennonite family does everything together, including grieve. There is a real sense of communal shouldering and celebrating, from the traditional bread served at family gatherings, to the carrying of coffins. I’ve put less stock in trying to get God “right” all on my own and started focusing more on who God is in the space woven together by love. So gather around the sufferer and make sure they know they are a person to be loved, not a problem to be solved.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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