My Sister is Doing Chemo while God is Busy Numbering her Hairs

I know this sounds outrageous, but these were the words that popped-up in my head when I heard that my sister has breast cancer: my sister is doing chemo while God is busy numbering her hairs. That’s what Jesus promises in the Gospels, isn’t it (See Lk 12:7). I wondered what God would do next when my sister would grow bald as a result of the devastating effect of a medicine that is almost worse than the disease itself. Is God just going to stand by as the mayhem evolves?

Adding Insult to Injury

The words of Jesus, meant as a comforting reassurance not to be anxious about the insecurities life brings, returned as a taunt. A taunt against the one who has cancer, since counting hairs is like adding insult to injury. But also a taunt against Jesus himself as one who promises pointless things. Things like a heavenly Father who has numbered our hairs. Sure, even in the absence of illness, the thinning out of hair signals the impending assault of old age. “Your hairs are numbered” sounds eerily like “your days are numbered.” Thank you for reminding us!

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Instead of bringing comfort to the weary, Jesus’ words highlight a glaring problem in the behavior—or rather lack of it—of a heavenly Father who watches over us. After all, there is too much evidence that God doesn’t. Alternatively, if God actually does watch, this watching is either rather apathetic or random. Some may want to accuse me of blasphemy, but trust me, blasphemy is the last thing on my agenda. Besides, I haven’t even started.

Especially in the case of my sister. She is dyslexic so she doesn’t read. And because she doesn’t read, she never read up on the symptoms of breast cancer. And because she didn’t, the cancer had free reign for at least six months, until she saw her G.P. about another trivial issue. And all the while, God above, watched her; watched her in her ignorance, her oblivion, watched her slowly spreading breast cancer as it grew into two tumors and then spread to the lymph nodes. And while watching, God also numbered her hair instead of informing us by means of prophets, angels, words from the Lord, or dreams, that something was wrong.

Too Many Questions

But what is the point of Jesus telling us not to worry because our hairs are numbered when in spite of the hair numbering people still die before their time from cancer and other horrible diseases and causes. God’s caring for us doesn’t affect the outcome whatsoever. What is the use of saying, “the Lord healed me,” when you get healed and saying “the Lord has a better plan,” when you don’t? Why drag God into it, when the outcome follows its own logic of cause and effect, irrespective of hair numbering or divine love?

Isn’t it true, I feel compelled ask, that our talking about God, merely follows the course of events rather than God’s caring? Don’t these event determine how we talk about God, rather than God actually steering the events? When it goes well, the Lord has blessed us and when it doesn’t go well we conclude that the Lord has either cursed us, or is teaching us a lesson. And if this is how our God discourse moves, following events rather than faithfully describing God as faithful—even though we loudly proclaim to do the latter—what does this say about Jesus’ claims concerning the Father?

Was Jesus engaging in wishful thinking himself on this point? For sure, what is the point in declaring God faithful, when what happens simply happens? What meaning does God’s faithfulness have, when you can’t actually rely on it to get you through life? What point is there in numbering hairs when the bodies that produce them are given over to decay randomly?

I struggle with this. I pray for my sister but know that the chemo, mastectomy, and radiation are more reliable than God. If in the end they don’t work to prevent death, it will not be for lack of trying on their part. In fact chemo is so effective and reliable that my sister has lost all her hair within two weeks. Her body is under assault. But so is the cancer. That’s why she is doing chemo. But God? God counts hairs.

Anthropomorphic Gods

I am writing all of this, in the first place to vent my sadness over my sister’s illness. I did not come back to the Netherlands, after 8 years of studying in the the USA, only to find her fighting for her life. Also, she has three little kids who are already heavily impacted at this stage. They need their mom. I can’t think of the damage that is done to them through all of this.

But secondly, and more importantly, I want to question the god-concepts that we erect for ourselves. I think that limit situations like that of my sister’s breast cancer show us that the standard answers don’t hold up and that the god we use to comfort ourselves with doesn’t line up with reality. These gods soothe the pain only to cause harm later. They’re like an opiate!

In the Old Testament the prophets repeatedly warn against false gods. The idols of the surrounding nations were apparently a great temptation for Israel. Monotheism was a hard won advance over more primitive conceptions of the divine. Much later, we came to understand that all anthropomorphic conceptions of God are not effective. We stubbornly tend to make gods in our own image, because we are the stuff of our own imagination. However, the moment we make a god in our image, it fails. This is because such a god is both not real and realistic. As it turns out these gods can be pretty sophisticated.

Rejecting False Gods

Luther’s rejection of the philosopher’s god of the scholastic theologians needs to be seen in this light. Luther had no love for the medieval speculation about the nature of God, since it resulted in a god based on human possibilities. God’s omnipotence for instance was seen in terms of what human beings consider to be powerful. The more God can do, the more God is God. Meanwhile, for the average believer in medieval times, God had become an over-powering threat who was out there just to put people in hell.

That is one big reason why Luther unwittingly initiated the Reformation. We needed to think differently about God. It is precisely in the humility of the cross that divine omnipotence becomes visible. God is nowhere more powerful than in setting human beings free from themselves through selflessly giving God’s self away in Jesus.

Getting Realistic About Suffering

Likewise, when we comfort ourselves with the God who is in control in the midst of the assault of cancer, I think we are deluding ourselves. The theistic conception of God as a personal and powerful entity located in heaven and in control of all that happens on earth, does not suffice. Luther realized this for his time under his particular circumstances. But I think we too have an anthropomorphic god lurking in our backyard that needs to be chased away.

While I keep the option open that Jesus erred in his conception of our heavenly Father, he can probably not be accused of creating a god out of the need of self-comfort. He was too radical and courageous for that. I therefore think that his talk about a hair numbering God indicates his attempt to bring two aspects of God together: God’s power and God’s love. Yet, for Jesus this does not result in the typical discourse you hear that deals with the problem of evil. (Theodicy is the technical term theologians and philosophers use for the problem of evil.)

Theodicies typically try to reconcile the idea of an omnipotent God with the idea of an all-good one. Of course, experience tells us you can’t have both, since the massive scale of suffering in this world indicates that God is either not good or not omnipotent. And thus theologians try to solve the riddle by finding way to put the two terms together in some ingenious construction.

Eschwing Answerism

I see such attempts as exercises in “answerism.” There is an answer for everything, because Jesus is the answer, right? Right! Jesus, however, did not engage in answerism, I think, and I don’t want to either. So when Jesus talks about the numbering of our hair, he talks about God knowing about our sufferings, while we suffer, while we have cancer or go through chemo and radiation therapy.

This God Jesus talks about is two things NOT. And this is where we need to kick classical Christian theism in the butt. (1) God is omnipotent, but not the way we normally think. (2) As far as our suffering is concerned, God is not in heaven but here. The way the two, reimagined omnipotence and divine presence, are brought together is in the incarnation and the cross.

God is omnipotent in the sense that God can be weak, in the sense that God can partake of and be identified with human flesh, and in the sense that through death life is given. God knows our sufferings, not simply by numbering hair looking down from God’s heavenly abode, but here in the messy awfulness of the chemical taste my sister has in her mouth due to the chemo. God is so powerful that God in weakness suffers the sufferings of the entire world.

No answerism here, since I have no clue why this would be the case. I believe, however, that through imagining God as an Other who is in the midst of the experience of our sufferings, we may know that we are not alone and that God is not aloof but rather our co-sufferer. But it also means that we have no cheap solutions.

It sort of makes sense because we see all these things come together in Jesus. The same Jesus that cried out: “My God, my have you forsaken me!”

Let’s be real about our sufferings and reject simple answers. Because there are none. My sister has breast cancer. And that’s that!


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Photo credit: Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

3 Responses

  1. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, look not on your OWN understanding. God is with me in this situation….. just look at all the people around me, who help me in whatever way…and carry me through this turmoil time. I see God through them. I’m sure after this period in my life is over, I will look back in feel disgusted about this period, but I will surely become a better person and will hope that I be more like Jesus than before, shit hit the fan.

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