How to preach when your wife has cancer (or some other “distraction”): Part Two

See Part One here.

1. Review your history

As a minister of the gospel you will inevitably encounter “distractions.” The word distraction for our purposes is a fluid term. Right now, I am easily distracted by the fact that my wife has cancer. I can be knee-deep in a riveting exercise of exegetical study only to have this fact surface in my thoughts and derail the project for a spell. This reality drops in for a visit at the most unexpected times and rarely does it knock.

I realize that not everyone is dealt the same measure of distractions but they are sure to come in one shape or another.  These things, as they say, go with the territory. Our territory as ministers of the gospel is the local church. I think we can rightly infer from Matthew 16:18 that the church will persevere by the grace of God but it will also endure Hell in the process. Brother, you will endure difficulty in the ministry. Those who fail to see this are like those who believe the Army recruiter really wants them to see the world and meet interesting people. However, in fine print at the bottom of the pamphlet is something about bullets being fired at your head.

A great encouragement in persevering through pain is that you stand near the end of a long line of faithful saints. How you endure ministerial suffering today can be a reflection on your understanding of the past. It is incumbent upon us to keep our fingers on the pulse of those who endured before us. The writer of Hebrews says that we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken from its foundation (Heb 12:28) and because of this the Lord is our helper and there’s no reason to be afraid (Heb 13:6; Psa 118:6). Exhibit A of this truth is that you can “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7).

In the study of our history there is a lot to learn, much to righteously repeat, and plenty to caution our present steps. C. S. Lewis, who lost his wife to cancer, likened ignorance of history to joining a conversation after the fact. He said, “If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said.”[1] Lewis furthered this idea by calling us to read old books stating, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”[2]

So on the one hand I can struggle with Lewis in the anguish of his deceased wife (in A Grief Observed) and then keep reading backwards and find many others paddling the same boat. Lloyd-Jones and Nazi bombs, Spurgeon and his invalid wife Susannah, Brainerd and the pain of tuberculosis, Baxter grieving over the death of his bride Margaret, Luther watching his daughter Magdalene die in his arms, Calvin losing both children and his wife Idelette, and many other testimonies along the way. Real ministers have experienced real suffering (i.e., “distractions”) throughout our tangled history and there’s no forecast that promises otherwise. Read and drink deeply from these ministers who walked before you. Chances are you will find great help, counsel, and encouragement along the way.

One thing stands out to me in all this. The old saying says, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” A great illustration of this comes in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. There, the Apostle rehearses the sordid web that is Israel’s faith and failure.  Paul says, in effect, don’t think for a minute that you’re any smarter than they were (1 Cor 10:12). However, there’s a positive here as well. In verse 13 he reminds us that we’re not alone in the struggle and our temptations are the same ones that litter the roads of history. Something else should be noticed in verse 13, the faithful covenant-keeping God continues to make His name great through your endurance. Brother, as you endure disruptive elders, wayward children, sinful congregants, or physical suffering, God is making His name great through perfecting you in weakness. Keep your fingers on the pulse of history and this will always be fresh in your mind.


[1] From the introduction to St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 4.

[2] Ibid.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on October 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    I love this quote, “Brother, as you endure disruptive elders, wayward children, sinful congregants, or physical suffering, God is making His name great through perfecting you in weakness. Keep your fingers on the pulse of history and this will always be fresh in your mind.”

    Thanks for the helpful post!

  2. I like your interpretation of Matthew 16:18, I never thought of that before, but would affirm it!

    • It’s what our presbyterian brothers might call “good and necessary inference.” If nothing else it’s an implication of the text.

      Do the Gators make the SEC champ game?

      • I have been enjoying Sinclair Ferguson’s preaching and it has brought some of this type of thinking to my preaching in hopeful benefit to the congregation.

        I do think that the Gators make the SEC, if, and this is a big if, the offense plays like they did in the first half of the Florida/Georgia game. They have a warm-up for South Carolina this week with Vandy. The Swamp will be fired up for SC coming to town if they beat Vandy this week.

        The bigger question is, will the Tigers be in the SEC champ game? They have some stout competition coming up. I like Newton, and how he was humbled (by painting bleachers at a Junior College) and is now probably the front runner for Heisman. Just wish he was lining up in Gator Orange and Blue with Burton and Brantley. What a potent offense that would be.

        This is a down year for the Gators, but and SEC champ appearance would be nice.

  3. Posted by michael elliott on November 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Paul
    I wanted to let you know that I prayed for you and your wife this Morning. I’ve had Cancer twice, 2008 and 2009. I can’t say that I know what you are going through, but i know what your wife is going through. I’ve had Chemo, Radiation and two major Surgerys. God was gracious and I only missed a month each bout from Preaching on the Lord’s Day. I have and will continue to Pray for her that if it’s the Lords will she will be spared and the Grace to deal with it if not. Once you have Cancer it’s a huge part of every day. I’m so greatful for His Sustaining Grace.
    Michael Elliott

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