I know that’s not very creative. If it sounds familiar it should. I’ve borrowed it from John Piper’s little booklet, Don’t Waste Your Cancer which he wrote during his battle with prostate cancer. It’s a great little booklet that looks at ways you will waste your battle with cancer if you don’t look at it through the lens of Scripture. Well, I don’t think I could improve upon that title so forgive me for borrowing it for my purposes here.
Last September we found out that I had an enlarged aortic root or an aortic root aneurysm. My cardiologist referred me to a cardiothoracic surgeon for what I thought was just to jump through some hoops for life insurance companies and I left the appointment having just heard that more than likely I would have to have open heart surgery sometime in the near or distant future. I was floored and I don’t get floored easily. I had not brought Holly along with me because I thought the appointment was just a formality. I was wrong. That day was a day of numbness to the news. That night was a night of panic. No literally, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I laid my head down that night to fall asleep and it literally felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I’m sure it was mostly psychosomatic, but still it wasn’t a fun night. The next morning was one of fear and tears. I finally “lost it” while taking a shower. I composed my tears by the time I made my way into the kitchen to fix my breakfast, but once I sat down, the fear and emotions began to well up once again. Holly noticed and asked me what was wrong. And I said something to her that I’ve maybe said once or twice to her before in our twelve years of marriage—or maybe never. I said, “I’m scared.” I wasn’t scared of the possibility of surgery. I’ve been through multiple major surgeries before. Though as I learned more about what all was involved in open heart surgery, I became a little fearful at that as well. No, that morning my fear was not for me. My fear was for my family. What would happen to them if I fell in the 5% category of people where something goes wrong during or after the surgery? I was terrified for them and thought of leaving my wife and three children without a husband and father. I hope I am no longer “fearful” of that because we are not supposed to be afraid. One of the most common refrains from God is, “Fear not.” However, while it may not be “fear” any longer, it will never be less than shear brokenness at the thought of my family—wife, children, mom, etc., having to deal with that kind of loss.
In a month we would do a repeat CT scan to see how much the aneurysm had grown over the past year. (Random thought: six months ago I would have mistyped “aneurysm” nine times out of ten, but now it’s as memorized as “Philip”) The scan showed that it had grown from 4.3/4.4cm to 4.6/4.7cm. Five centimeters is the cutoff mark for surgery—the point at which the risks of letting it stay there are greater than the risk associated with surgery. The plan of action was to wait six months and repeat the scan, see how much it had grown and go from there.
The next six months got easier—especially the first five. We went on with our lives though never a day would go by that I didn’t think about it. Still doesn’t. But it got easier to deal with and “put on the back burner.” Then March rolled around and the anxiety and curiosity and all sorts of other emotions crept back in. We waited for what seemed like forever for a “date”—the next CT Scan date. Finally, April 10th was the day. My mom and her husband, as well as my grandmother came into town to be with us for whatever news we received. Our church family now and those from every other church family we have ever been a part of waited anxiously, as well as our biological families. On April 10th we would have the CT scan and then immediately go over to the doctor’s office to get the results and go from there. The day before the surgeon’s office called and said that my surgeon would be in surgery that morning and so he would have to call us with the results. I know that’s a small thing, but it seemed like just one more thing that was making us wait.
Finally around 9:50am on April 10th I had the CT scan. CT scans are a breeze, minus the fact that you feel like you are peeing on yourself. Thankfully, you are not. We left and headed back home and waited. And waited. I called the surgeon’s office around 12:30 to see if he had read the results and thankfully, he had. Now, here’s how we had been praying. “Lord, our first choice is that you will just take this aneurysm away. Let the CT scan show that it’s gone, vanished. That would be really nice. Lord, our second choice is that you would stop it from growing, forever. And lastly, Lord if it’s your will that it has progressed to the point of needing surgery, may the surgery go well, during and after, and give us grace to sustain us whatever may happen.” We were trusting in His power to heal me, but resting in His wisdom should He choose not to do so.
Back to the results. The surgeon said that there had been no change in the size of the aneurysm. As a matter of fact the scan actually read that it might be a little smaller, though he didn’t believe it was getting smaller. It definitely wasn’t any larger and so we would wait a full year, repeat the scan and go from there. Now, I like to believe that the Lord made it smaller. Maybe He didn’t, but He could have. Another explanation for the potential “decrease” is that there is some human error involved in this in terms of reading the scans and one radiologist may look at it one way and another one a different way and get a slightly different measurement.
I had taken this phone call in the bedroom and so I went into the living room where my mom, step-dad, grandmother, and Holly were waiting. I told them the good news and we were all very relieved and thankful. However, there was another emotion I felt, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. The next morning I figured it out. And I hope you won’t think I’m crazy when you read what I’m going to share next. I came to realize that for some reason the other emotion that I felt was disappointment. WHAT? Now I wasn’t disappointed in the fact that my chest would not have to be cracked open, at least for another year. No, it wasn’t that. But what was it? I definitely wouldn’t want to think that the disappointment was due to the loss of attention and concern from others over my condition. That can happen. I made sure that wasn’t it and it wasn’t’.
So, what was the cause of this disappointment? Now we get back to the title of this already way too long post, “Don’t Waste Your Aneurysm.” What the Lord had done over the past six months was given me this aneurysm to make me utterly dependent on Him. At the time I was writing a sermon from Genesis on the passage of Jacob wrestling with God. It’s better to label that passage, “God Wrestles with Jacob” because it’s God who picks the fight with Jacob, not the other way around. And in picking that fight with Jacob, God was beating something out of Jacob—Jacob’s independence and self-sufficiency and lack of faith in God and too much faith in himself. With this aneurysm, God was/is doing a thousand different things in my life and the lives of others. I don’t think anything we go through in life that passes from the hand of God or through the hand of God is ever given to us just to accomplish one thing. But one of the things was definitely using the aneurysm to beat self-sufficiency and independence out of me. Unfortunately it’s not the first time God’s picked this fight with me. Evidently I’m a slow learner. I hope that is changing.
But that was definitely the product of these past six months. Utter helplessness, and complete dependency on God to help us either by healing me or sustaining us through the worst possible outcomes. And a part of that dependency on Him was expressed through dependency upon His people, the Church. We did not share everything right away with everyone. However, around February we decided it was time to let everyone else know—church family, other church families, extended families, Facebook friends, everyone. Why? It was getting closer to the next scan and people deserved to know. But personally, selfishly, I was tired of bearing the burden without the full support and prayers of God’s people. And so we shared it far and wide because we wanted people to pray with and for us. And they/you did. And it was a very tangible expression of the dependency upon God that God was gifting us with over the past six months.
And that kind of dependency is a sweet, sweet thing. I probably would have said early on that this aneurysm was a bitter providence of the Lord. And in many ways it still is. But I can also say now that it is a sweet providence of the Lord because of the dependency it was instilling in me and the self-sufficiency it was beating out of me. And that’s just what God brings afflictions in our lives to accomplish. I hate the phrase, “God never puts on us more than we can carry.” Why do I hate it? Because it’s a lie! It’s taken from a misunderstanding of a passage from 1 Corinthians about temptation to sin, not suffering. Here is what is a much more biblical thing to say: God delights in giving us more than we can bear. Why? Listen to how Paul in 2 Corinthians 1 answers that question:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.” (2 Corinthians 1:8-11 ESV)
Paul says they were burdened beyond their strength. They had more on them than they could carry. And what was the purpose of that: to make them rely not on themselves but on God who raises the dead. Satan doesn’t want us to rely less on ourselves and more on the God who raises the dead. That’s a desire that God has for us. And so the afflictions that Paul refers to here were afflictions given to him from the hand of God in order to beat self-reliance out of Paul and instill in Him a more sure God-dependency.
Charles Spurgeon who dealt with much physical and emotional affliction said this,
“I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. . . . Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister's library.”
Why? Because sickness ,or any other kind of affliction, teaches us to be less independent and more God-dependent. And that’s just what the Lord had been doing with me for the past six months. And as much as I didn’t want my chest to be opened up and go through the physical pain of the surgery along with the recovery, still I knew that as difficult as it might be it would mean more of God’s purpose in this aneurysm of teaching me to rely less on myself and more on the Lord.
That was the reason of the disappointment that I felt. I was happy that I was not going to go through surgery. But I was disappointed because it felt like this bitterly sweet providence of God was being removed. And if open heart surgery is what it takes to make me more dependent on God and less on myself, then open heart surgery is a blessing not a curse. I know that sounds crazy, but I hope it doesn’t. Because I don’t feel crazy.
And so now we wait another year and do this all over again, with all the accompanying emotions. And life will go on and we will think less about it but never a day will go by that I don’t think about it. I will know every day that I am never more than 3/10ths of a centimeter from having open heart surgery. So, in a sense it is still a bitterly sweet providence of God that I hope will continue to beat the self-sufficiency out of me and instill greater trust in my Savior, my Lord, and my God. And when April 2014 rolls around, we will still be praying the same thing: God we trust in your power to heal me but we rest in your wisdom should you choose otherwise. And if He chooses otherwise, I pray that I will welcome the painful journey of open heart surgery as a welcomed friend and blessing from the Lord. For in fact, as Paul says, “On Him we have set our hope that He will deliver us again.” Whether that’s in this life or the next is not up to us.
And so I want to close with two thoughts. First, from Paul in that same passage in 2 Corinthians 1: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many." (2 Corinthians 1:11 ESV)
Secondly, Don’t waste YOUR aneurysm.