Part 1 of “How to Keep Trusting God, Even in the Face of Significant Loss”
Thanks so much for your thoughts and prayers and kindnesses since my sweet wife Lana passed away on November 15th. It’s been four months now and I wanted to share some thoughts with you on Lana, healing, and God’s will. I apologize in advance for the length of this message, but if you’ve been discouraged or having trouble trusting God, especially in the face of significant loss, I hope you’ll read this message. This message is really just two stories, with some follow-up comments to help you bring them together and apply them to your lives.
I haven’t shared these stories publicly until this week, as they are so personal and intimate that I’ve just been treasuring them in my own heart. But I feel they’re important to share as a way of testifying to what God is doing in my life, and hopefully encouraging you at the same time.
The first story started on the day of Lana’s funeral, on November 20th, 2012. Before she died, Lana had asked me to preach at her funeral if it ever came to that. She said I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t think I could, but if I could, she wanted me to be the one to do it. I did get up and preach, but not without seriously considering backing out several times, even a few times during the service just before I was about to speak. I just wasn’t sure if I could do it.
One of the reasons I felt so unsure, apart from the sadness I felt in my heart from already missing her, was that I felt like I had lost so much in the days leading up to her death. I had not only lost my best friend, my encourager, my partner in ministry, and apart from Jesus, the greatest source of joy and delight in my life, but we had also depleted all of the money in our bank account during those final months of her battle with cancer. On the morning of her funeral, we had $26.45 in the bank. I felt like I had lost everything. (I hadn’t, but I felt like it.)
The morning of the funeral, I prayed that God would give me the strength to do what I wanted to do and needed to do. I also prayed, more as a wish than anything else, that God would give the kids some kind of inheritance from Lana from the gifts that came in. I knew that no amount of money would make up to them for losing their mother, but I wished I had something I could give them as an inheritance from her. $26.45 wasn’t going to go very far among the six kids.
So I prayed that God would provide enough from the memorial gifts to pay for the funeral and still have some left over for the kids. From past funerals, I knew that the gifts that come in are sometimes just enough to pay for the funeral and that’s it, so I wasn’t expecting much. But then in my heart, I prayed, “God, if there’s any way to give the kids $1,000 each as an inheritance, that would be great.” But then from deeper still in my heart, I thought that what I would really like for them is if I could put $5,000 into each of their bank accounts. I quickly did the math and $5,000 times 6 kids would be $30,000. There’s no way, I thought. With $26.45 in the bank, I knew it was an outlandish request. But I laid it out before God anyway. Later that day, I got up to preach at Lana’s funeral. (If you haven’t watched it yet, I’d encourage you to watch it online on Lana’s blog. It was like no other service I’ve been to before, and I think you’ll find it inspiring and helpful more than anything else, so please watch it if you can!)
Starting that day and the days that followed, people did begin sending in memorial gifts for our family in honor of Lana. Some gave $5, some gave $15, and some gave $20 or $100. A few gave $1,000 and some even gave $5,000. By December 4th, just two weeks and a day after the funeral, we had received just over $30,000 from over 200 different people, none of whom knew about my private prayer to God!
Now keep that date and that astounding answer to prayer in mind as I tell you the second story. For it was on December 4th, just one year earlier, that we had first found the lump in Lana’s breast, our first indicator that anything was even wrong at all.
It was on that day that we had heard a missionary talk about their work in Kenya teaching women how to do self-exams for breast cancer. Later that night we checked and discovered the lump. We thought it was probably nothing serious, as is often the case. But over the next few weeks, after a mammogram and then an ultrasound and finally a biopsy, the doctors confirmed that the lump really was cancerous. At that time, the doctors had no reason to think that the cancer had already spread. They felt that with treatment, they could remove it and all would be fine. We were shocked but felt this was beatable.
A few days later, Lana was listening to a podcast on her phone of a sermon that gave her some encouragement, so when she was done listening, she handed me her phone so that I could listen to it, too. But as she handed it to me, I felt God speak to me as loud and clear as any time I’d ever heard Him speak in my life. Although He didn’t speak in audible words, the effect of what He was saying was, “This is a good message, Eric. But it’s not My message for you in this situation. This time I have something else in mind.”
As I listened to the message, I realized it was all about praying “bold prayers,” that we shouldn’t just pray for a “C” on a test, but for an “A.” That we shouldn’t just pray that we would survive a difficult marriage, but that it would thrive. That we shouldn’t just pray for a sickness to go away, but for a long and healthy and abundant life instead. It was the kind of message I would normally believe and receive and be encouraged to pray with all my heart for every difficult situation I faced.
But if God really had spoken to me, then what was He saying in regards to Lana’s healing? With a great sadness in my heart, I felt He was saying, “Eric, I know you have the faith to ask for the moon and get it. But not this time. This time I have something else in mind.” God brought to my mind Psalm 23, reminding me that He would be with me, even in the face of death:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” (Psalm 23:4).
I felt this was a little extreme. This cancer was beatable. It didn’t have to end in death. Then why was God telling me this? But the next week I found out why.
Just a few days later, Lana went in for a few more tests. She had started to have some other symptoms, some unexplainable bleeding and intense lower back pain. The tests showed that it was worse than the doctors initially thought. The cancer had already spread to her lungs and liver and spine. In addition, the cancer was in a special category called “triple negative,” which meant that it wouldn’t respond to normal treatments that worked for other breast cancers. There was no cure, the doctors said. The best they could do was to treat the symptoms and try to keep her as comfortable as possible for as long as possible, but that the cancer would eventually take her life. Statistically, the doctors said she had about one 1 to 3 years to live, depending on how she responded to treatment. The majority of women with Stage 4, triple negative breast cancer don’t make it past 5 years. And only one in a hundred ever make it to 10 years.
We were devastated. But having heard God speak to me the week before, even before the doctors told us what was going on, somehow gave me great faith. Not faith that Lana would be healed, although I believed God could still heal her in an instant, too, but faith that He would be with us through it all. This was no news to God. He had already revealed it to me before we, or even the doctors, had an inkling what was coming.
Knowing that God was with us gave me great peace in my heart. But as comforting as this was, I still didn’t know how to walk forward in a practical way, given what I felt God was saying to me. If God had told me that Lana was going to be healed, and to walk in faith and stand on the promise of the word He had spoken to my heart, I knew how to walk that out: read and reread the Scriptures, fast and pray, gather others to fast and pray, and look for answers from any doctor or person of faith who could help us beat this disease. But if I had really heard right, and God was really saying, “I know you have the faith to ask for the moon and get it, Eric, but not this time,” how could I walk that out? How could I stand on something that I didn’t want to believe and didn’t want to be true?
Was I supposed to just give up on the possibility of healing? Not bother praying at all for her? Not ask others to join us in fasting and prayer? Not go to doctors to try to get whatever help we could? I felt that taking any of those paths would be utterly wrong. Lana wanted to live and I wanted her to live! And who knows? Maybe I heard wrong. Maybe the doctors were wrong. And even if I had heard right, and the doctors were right, maybe God would still heal her miraculously! God’s default position on healing is that we should be healed, as evidenced by the many ways He has created our bodies to heal themselves, to automatically seal up cuts, fight off infections, and repair damaged tissue. God has demonstrated His desire for our healing throughout the Bible, performing miraculous healings from cover to cover. God loves healing and wants us to be healed! There’s no doubt that God is a healing God!
So I tried to remember what others did in the Bible when they received a word from God that they didn’t want to believe either.
I thought of Hezekiah, who was sick and dying when God spoke to him through the prophet Isaiah saying that Hezekiah’s sickness would end in death. Hezekiah wept bitterly and pleaded with God for a different outcome.
“Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in Your eyes” (2 Kings 20:3a).
God heard Hezekiah’s prayers, healed him, and gave him an extra 15 years of life.
I thought of King David, who got a word from God through Nathan the prophet saying that the child born to David and Bathsheba would die. But David didn’t give up and didn’t give in. He fasted and prayed and wept before God every night saying:
“Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live,” (2 Samuel 12:22).
In David’s case, however, his child died after seven days, but not without David pleading with God for a different outcome.
Then I thought of Jesus, who, when faced with his own imminent death, knelt down and prayed so earnestly that His sweat fell like drops of blood:
“Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Jesus knew what His Father was asking of Him, yet still He pleaded for another way, that the cup He was about to drink would somehow be taken from Him. Yet Jesus yielded to His Father’s will, even over His own.
From these three stories of Hezekiah and David and Jesus, I felt I was in good company that even if I had heard right from God, I could still plead with Him, in fasting and prayer and tears, pouring out my heart to Him for what Lana and I both wanted: that she would be healed completely and gloriously, and continue to live a long, healthy and abundant life.
So we fasted and prayed and called others to join us in fasting and prayer. We talked to doctors and nurses and researchers and nutritionists, both locally and globally, to see if God had an answer through them. We called the elders of our church, and several of our former churches, to anoint us with oil and pray for Lana’s healing. We held prayer meetings in our living room and drove and flew to get prayer from some of the most faith-filled men and women of God we knew.
But as time marched on, the tests continued to come back blacker and bleaker. Either what God had spoken to me at the beginning was true, or God was preparing the way for one of the most miraculous turnarounds of all time. Either way, we felt good about the steps we were taking, about doing everything we possibly could to bring about her healing, and about trusting in God completely whatever the outcome.
As much as Lana and I, and many of you, wished that the outcome had been different, I can say that when it came time to say our final goodbyes, we had no regrets. We had done everything we could think of doing to keep her alive, and God kept His promise to be with us through it all.
Let me tie these two stories together for you by sharing my journal entries from December 4th, 2012, the first written early in the morning as I was remembering the one-year anniversary of finding the lump that took Lana’s life, and the second written at midnight that night, after we received the checks in the mail that put us over $30,000 in memorial gifts in her honor.
“12/4/12 – Father, thank You for revealing to me and Lana the lump in her right breast one year ago today… Lord, any thoughts about this being the one-year anniversary of the day You revealed this lump? ‘I’ve given you a great gift, Eric. A chance to see into the future, and to make your plans accordingly. I have not hidden what is to happen from My prophets. I warned Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah before it happened, just as I told him and Sarah they would have a child in a year, and just as I told you, Eric, that your friends would have a child in a year. Although I didn’t tell you an exact date [regarding Lana], I did tell you what the outcome would be, both by showing you the lump, and by confirming that while you could pray for healing, this wasn’t My will in this case. I wanted you to know, Eric, because I wanted you to have time to plan, prepare, and say goodbye properly. And you have done marvelously. Your kids, your friends, your family, are all living testaments to that fact. I also gave you test after test, and doctor after doctor, to confirm this to you, for you wanted the truth, and you knew the truth would set you free. They were hard truths to hear, and hard to watch you hear, but they were necessary to help you absorb and understand what I was saying. I’ve given you a gift Eric, both in what I revealed, and in the fact that I do reveal My knowledge to My children. Lana wanted to live and not die, and she was right to do so, for that’s My will [He wants all of us to live forever!]. But I wanted you to know so you could plan, prepare, and say goodbye properly. I wanted you to care for her and love her and be with her to the fullest extent possible, so when she passed through the veil, you would have no regrets, nothing left undone, nothing more you could have done, but love her thoroughly. I did this for you, yes, but also for Me, for I wanted you to be able to care for her on earth as I cared for her from heaven. You were, and still are, My hands and feet and voice to many on earth. You will be sad, no doubt, for to lose the one you love, when you have loved so deeply, is sad. But you will rejoice as well, for you have been given a great and wonderful gift.'”
“12 midnight – Father, thank You for helping us reach the $30,000 mark that I had asked You for, to give $5,000 to each of the kids as an inheritance from Lana. Lord, we only had $26.45 in our bank account the day of the funeral. It was an outlandish prayer, and within a few weeks, You’ve brought the full amount I extravagantly asked for. ‘Open your mouth wide, Eric, and I will fill it.’ Thank You, Lord! I love You. By the way, the sunset looked delicious tonight, like rainbow sherbet, and I wanted to lick it. ‘Thank You.’ Thank You, Lord.”
Yes, life can be extremely hard. But it also offers sunsets that look like rainbow sherbet! The trick is to not let the hardest parts of life overshadow the best parts about it. God is at work in both. The Bible says:
“Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner… So if you find life difficult because you’re doing what God said, take it in stride. Trust Him. He knows what He’s doing, and He’ll keep on doing it” (1 Peter 4:12-13, 19, The Message).
Friends, God loves you and has a unique calling and purpose for your life, just as He had a unique calling and purpose for Lana’s life. Don’t be discouraged when life doesn’t work out the way you think it should. God is still on the job. Keep putting your trust in Him. He knows what He’s doing, and He’ll keep on doing it.
Thanks for reading these two stories, and thanks again for your prayers and kindnesses you’ve shown to me and my family, especially during this past year. It means so much, and is yet one more reminder of all that’s good in life. May God bless you and keep you as you keep putting your trust in Him!