stories of our life together on the road home
The Heaviest Thing I Have Ever Carried
Lately, I have felt continually burdened. You might have even prayed for me or seen me in my misery and not known what to pray. I have been in cancerland for almost two years now, and it is a lonely, heavy place to be, as you might expect. But with God’s grace, this doesn’t feel like the heaviest thing I have ever carried, because it is so clearly beyond my strength, and we are only as strong as the extent to which we are relying on God for peace and courage in a storm. I have reached that exhaustion in many ways, and am often happy to rest in God’s strength for the shadow of the valley of death.
But in times prior, when my situation wasn’t so obviously as heavy as cancer, I have kept my pride, and so kept my problems. I can remember a time when I was very worried about many things, and one day my great, heavy load was that my car had been towed. I had forgotten to move it on a street sweeping day, and even though I could see the tow lot from my fourth floor kitchen window, the imprisoned car was practically unreachable. It was in such a tricky spot – not on a bus route, and too far for just walking. I also had a strong energetic baby, postpartum anxiety, scoliosis, and a terrible migraine.
In that situation, I did not pray about it at all. I YouTubed how to use an impossibly long piece of fabric to tie my baby to my body, scrounged a lot of cash from the apartment, squeezed past a drunk man camping in the stairway, and walked through the ironically unswept city streets feeling so small and scared, uphill to the terrifying dirt lot where my car was being held. I was weak and needy, very burdened, but safe in God’s hand. I wish I had known it then. That situation felt within my fragile limits, though clearly it was beyond what my body and courage could muster, and I know that my God would have been happy to give me peace, or freedom to ask for help, if I had asked.
It feels to me that the first step to a healthy conversation with God is to look at your life through heaven’s eyes, and to humble oneself. I like to set the scene at the beginning of my prayers like this: “You are God, my Father. Jesus is talking to you right now about how he paid for all my sins. You love me even in my sins, and in my dysfunctions from my sins, and you know that I’m worried about so many normal things, like the unbalanced washing machine, my kids using pens on the couch and the shame of that watermelon going bad before I cut into it.” It is sort of a DTR (define the relationship) to tell my heart how it really is. He is God, I am not, and I’m really so so weak, and he loves me, and he is strong. He loves to give us strength, and he also loves to help us into humility so that we can live our human situations in his strength.
At the beginning of a prayer, I am taking the strength of God to fuel my prayers. I cannot sustain my humility in right relationship with him. To rely on my own righteousness is to miss out on being loved, and to hold onto my painful unbeliefs.
Cancer has given me many losses, but the most painful losses are the periods of time in which I believed something about God that wasn’t true, and my misbelief took away the hope that was available to me. It seems a wrong amount of hope is the most devastating thing Satan can suggest to us, to lead our hearts into uncertainty about our safety as God’s children. We are always safe. We are always watched over, even while we sleep, while we are put to sleep in surgery, and also while we are so anxious we can’t act in wisdom, and while we are so scared we can’t “adult” and take the right step. God is always watching over us for the good of our hearts, and it is this situation that makes a nice frame for our talking with him, for our listening to him in reading the Bible. He knows our outsized worldly concerns growing from our unbeliefs, and he is working to increase our belief in him, for peace in our hearts and for his eternal glory. But the first step is to acknowledge the cosmic reality that we are hungry and thirsty and can never ransom the cost of our life.
Isaiah 55 starts with this:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
And I will give my answer to this, and it is that I would much rather earn my salvation. It feels better to have contributed a bit, to have said I had the wisdom to figure this out, and that God is my friend because I’m such a lovely person. I would like to keep the poison in my heart that clogs my ears and clouds my eyes and bends my back and keeps me from knowing I am loved.
When I am having a hard time humbling myself, or recognizing a good opportunity to ask him for a heart change, I think of a time when God really carried me, when my strength and intelligence weren’t enough to get me through, and it felt like he kindly stepped into my life to accomplish something I felt desperate for. (You must realize this is a false analogy. He never “steps” into my life. He is always there. He always carries me.) And I let my remembrance reset my worldview into a heavenview, and I can see that God sustains my every breath and ability. I am within the limits set by his providence, for the good of my heart, and true peace and safety can be had by admitting I can’t accomplish peace and safety for myself.
These days, I am often reminded how my youngest daughter, Lucy, was cared for by God when I clearly couldn’t. Her health felt like an onion of developmental delays, each month bringing news of more dire dysfunctions that we had no capacity to address. She was an infant, and I was bed-bound by chemo. We watched her problems compound, and if our family hadn’t been incredibly burdened by my cancer, her problems would have been our biggest felt need. We could not comply with any of the recommended interventions, and we felt incredible shame for our inaction toward her good. But this spring, she suddenly didn’t need the interventions. Her very serious structural issues were gone. One by one, her specialists released her from their care, because God untied all the knots in her development, reformed her hips, straightened her spine, strengthened her legs, and protected her spinal cord. Truly, when you see Lucy acting normal around town, God got her there. God loved her first, God cares for her better, and God sustains her. He formed her inside me, and he is the captain of her formation – mentally, spiritually, and physically. It is a very humbling story because I had a spectator role where I would have wanted a hero role. Remembering her healing right-sizes me.
Honesty and humility must be the posture of my body, where God is pleased to dwell, in the presence of the Holy Spirit and by the blood of Jesus, and this is the most comfortable posture in prayer. Every feeling of inadequacy and exhaustion can be a welcome quieting of my pride, by God’s preemptive grace. The gospel is good news for every day, and it says that we don’t have to have hearts bent to the world’s desires, running ourselves thirsty for things that don’t last. Because Jesus gave his life, our mortal lives can be lived with an immortal mindset, and prayer can be a place of love instead of performance.
Practically, one way I retrain my brain is to ask God for his provision before I Google an answer, because he sustains my intelligence and mental stability. Sometimes, before I ask the internet about my health, I remember that God knows those cells as well as he knows the stars. He knows the number of hairs on my head, the ones that were missing for so long. He knows my deathdate as surely as I know my birthdate. He doesn’t always give me the answers that would meet my questions, but he gives me peace in exchange for my trust, and He gives me his friendship in exchange for my humility, so for as often as I am humble and talking to him, I am strengthened for my continual burdens.
I am still in cancerland, and I am still safe. Every week, I encounter situations that stress me out, and every week, I have to remember the way back to safety, which is really a humble clearing of my eyes to see that I am safe. Every week, I feel beyond my strength, and I am ashamed that I am not strong enough. So every week, I have to choose: the life I live is not my own, but Jesus’s life in me. The cleanliness I claim is nothing that I accomplished, but what Jesus accomplished for me. We will get no rest from these problems, and nothing can keep them away, because they come from our very hearts. The only sufficiency is to know the well of everlasting water, and to fill our empty cup all the time. And if you maintain that you can fill your own cup with the poison of pride and it will taste just as sweet, taste your anxiety and see that it is not the eternal living water that Jesus made available to us.
May we take the way out of our pride, and take the humble road that Jesus walked; and may it be the way of healing for our burdens in the loving presence of God.
Bailey Wilpitz lives in Louisville KY with her husband and three young daughters. She feels like a sojourner, and spends her time considering hope, loving art forms, people forms, and tree forms. Most of her time is more literally spent caring for her family and enduring treatment for cancer.