（William Stuntz was the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. More introduction about him, please see here.）
The first thing I want to say is that I’m not standing here thanks to any wisdom or virtue on my part; I have little of those things. I’m here this morning to tell you about three gifts our God has given me in the midst of some hard times. Credit for those gifts goes to the One who does the giving, not to the one who does the receiving. My hope is that there are a few others in this room who need these gifts, as I do. To you, I want to say: the gifts are there for the taking; they are for every one of us who finds ourselves in the midst of hardship and struggle.
So, let me say just a bit about my own struggle. Ten years ago, when we were driving home from a family vacation, I stopped our car to change a flat tire. Something bad happened at the base of my back. Ever since, my back and right leg have hurt. Three surgeries later, they hurt constantly—it’s a little like having an alarm clock taped to your ear, and you can’t control the volume. That pain isn’t going away.
That was my first medical blow; the second came a year and a half ago, when I was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer. Surgeons removed three tumors, and in between the surgeries I did six months of chemotherapy. By the beginning of this year, it appeared that the cancer might leave me alone for a time. It didn’t work out that way. Last month, my doctors found five more tumors in my abdomen, one of them on my liver, and a sixth possible tumor in my chest. No surgery is in the offing; these tumors aren’t going away. My oncologist says I’m likely to die sometime between six and eighteen months from now. I’m 51 years old.
How does God provide for us in circumstances like these? I know the answer I wish were true: I wish God’s provision always took the form of physical healing. Like anyone else in my shoes, I’d love to be pain-free and cancer-free, and not just in the next life. I know God is capable of doing that, but I also know He doesn’t usually work that way. Thankfully, healing is not the only gift, and I believe not the best gift, God has to offer in circumstances like mine. Three other gifts are sweeter still. First, God redeems: He uses life’s curses to bring about great blessing, both for us and for others. Second, God restores: He returns a portion of the dignity that diseases take from us. And third, God remembers: He holds us close to His heart, especially in hard times. I want to say just a few words about each of those gifts, and then I’ll yield the microphone.
First, God redeems.
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; later, thanks to Potiphar’s wife, Joseph was thrown into a dungeon in Egypt for a crime he didn’t commit. Those were awful things: I grew up in a family of rotten boys (that sounds like a redundancy), and even for my brothers and me, selling each other into slavery would have been a little extreme. Joseph suffered terrible injustice. And yet, awful as that injustice was, God used it to raise Joseph up to a position of power in Pharaoh’s court and thereby to save whole nations from starving.
I believe that story contains a promise: that God will use the most awful pain and heartache and loss we experience to produce some larger good. If He can redeem Joseph’s imprisonment, He can redeem my cancer and chronic pain, and He can redeem the worst things in your life. I may never know precisely what form that redemption takes—and that’s fine with me. It’s enough to know that I do not, and we do not, suffer pointlessly. Our God delights in taking the worst of life and using it to produce the best of life. That isn’t just what He does; it’s a part of who He is. And it is an incomparably large gift.
Second, God restores.
This one requires a little explanation. One of the more unpleasant surprises of cancer is its sheer ugliness. Cancer has tastes and smells, and they aren’t good ones. More than that, the disease feels as though it covers me from head to toe in something foul. After I was first diagnosed and when I was first on chemo, there were days when I felt as if my clothes were soaked in sewage. Cancer does that: long before it kills, it steals the dignity and beauty from life; it’s as though tumors were attacking what little decency there is in me.
And yet, this thief does not have the last word. God knows how foul it is, and He knows all too well how it feels to have one’s body beaten and brutalized. Every piece of pain and discomfort I feel, Jesus felt too—plus infinitely worse. And that fact changes everything. I think this is part of our world’s Deep Magic: When the One Man who is so supremely beautiful took on Himself all the worst ugliness this world has to offer, He changed forever what it means to live with that ugliness, to live in the midst of pain and loss and hardship. My disease may be ugly, but I am not, and thanks be to God for that. I no longer need wear those foul clothes that cancer gives me. God the Son gave me cleaner clothes to wear, clothes I did not buy and do not deserve. He elevates all He touches: and He has touched ultimate suffering, and He has also touched me.
A better way to put it might go like this. For years before His public ministry, Jesus worked in a carpenter’s shop. That fact lends dignity and honor and even a little beauty to all honest work. Jesus also gave Himself up to be tortured and murdered and, even worse, separated from the Father He so loves. THAT fact lends dignity and honor and beauty to every pain-filled day every one of us lives. That too is an incomparably great gift.
Third, God remembers.
For us, remembering is a small thing. For me, it usually means putting a name and a face together, or summoning up the image of some past event that I had forgotten. For our God, remembering is a very different enterprise. When He says to the people of Israel, “Remember that I brought you out of Egypt,” He isn’t just saying “get your history right.” A better paraphrase might go like this: “Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold that memory close to your heart, and you act on it too.” Memory for Him is not mainly about recall. It’s about a love so passionate and powerful it overwhelms us. When God remembers, He doesn’t just connect a name to a face. He connects a soul to His heart. He remembers each one of us, in our worst moments, the way the prodigal’s father remembered his son, the way a lover remembers his long-lost love.
Job put it well when he was talking to God about what would happen after his death. Job said this: “You will call, and I will answer. You will long for the creature Your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps, but not keep track of my sins.” Notice the second sentence: “You will long for the creature Your hands have made.” Think about that for a moment. God not only forgives my many sins; He LONGS FOR me, and He longs for you, and He will not rest until He has us secure in his fold. Those arms are extended even here, even now.
There are curses in this life, ugly ones. It’s a fallen world; we should expect nothing different. But we should never forget that in the midst of those curses stands the God who longs to redeem and restore and remember and wrap you in His arms—not only in the next life, but in this one. If there is one thing I have learned in the midst of cancer and chronic pain, it is this: He is larger and lovelier and more powerful than the worst disease. God grant that we would remember that truth, and act on it. Thank you for listening.