I wasn't mad at God... at first. I was just distracted by the pain. I could have sworn a gang of bandana-wearing bullies had taken me to a back alley and drop-kicked me in the gut. A fresh incision down my abdomen brought searing pain. I could barely roll over in the uncomfortable hospital bed.
I looked around the sterile white room and tried to focus my gaze on the fuzzy blurs that kept moving. The blankets were not warm anymore, they felt like rough sandpaper on my dry skin. Slowly, my surroundings made sense and I remembered where I was, and why.
The surgery. The polyp. The attempt at preventing cancer from coming back.
The thought of cancer hit my consciousness, and it jolted me back to reality. Suddenly I could ignore the pain. I remembered with crystal clarity why I was in the hospital. I frantically looked for someone who could answer my top question.
“Did the surgeon find anything? Was it cancer?"
Facing colon cancer again
My hospital room was full of family members who'd been with me through my first battle with colon cancer eight years prior. And although they were trying to wait for the pathology report, or at least for the colorectal surgeon to come see me, I could tell by their solemn faces to prepare myself for bad news. It wasn't the first time I'd seen those nervous stares.
A routine colonoscopy months earlier had led my GI to discover something concerning: A colon polyp that didn't look so innocent. Although he'd taken a biopsy and it showed pre-cancer, he was concerned that it was a warning for colon cancer's attempted return. He'd recommended I undergo a procedure to remove most of my remaining large intestine. Since I have Lynch syndrome, the thought was less colon would mean less cancer risk. It wasn't an easy decision, but I decided to trust him. Soon, I was calling and scheduling with my colorectal surgeon.
It was a good thing I liked my surgeon because as she made her way to my bedside and told me what I'd hoped to never hear again, I had cancer, I initially had some peace. As she performed the subtotal colectomy, the suspicious-looking polyp that had led to the whole ordeal was indeed cancer, but she'd removed it all. Although I'd hoped that the surgery was going to prevent another cancer, not remove one, I was glad the colon cancer had been caught early, as stage 1 colon cancer. The best news: I didn't need any more chemotherapy or radiation.
Initial Response: Smile
By this point, I'd become a pro at getting through awkward and uncomfortable situations. I'd smile. Be pleasant. And, I'd trust God. For eight years prior to this very moment, I'd been a cancer survivor, and this coping method had always worked for me.
A forced smile often overrode my fearful feelings, and I found peace in the silver linings. I'd memorized verses and taped them to my mirror, promises that God had good plans for my life. Coming from Midwestern family roots, I was good at pulling myself up "by the bootstraps" and getting back to work. I'd even equated my story with Job of the Bible, a man whose life came suddenly crashing down, yet in the end, God rebuilt it. I was convinced that God could use my cancer story to "spice up my testimony." At least this is how I'd seen it for eight years.
So when I heard, "You have colon cancer" again, I pulled out what had worked in years past. But something happened that surprised me: I felt like a Band-Aid that gets ripped off and won't re-stick.
A crisis of faith
At first, I was very confused. Going into the surgery, I thought my faith was stronger than ever. I was working in full-time ministry at a church plant, and I assumed I was "good" with God. I prayed every day, I led Bible studies, I led small group at my house, and I was writing Christian devotionals. Heading into another medical procedure, I didn't think twice about God having my back. I knew He did. We were close, I knew He was with me. I was confident that with so many people praying for me, things would turn out the way we'd hoped.
After all, He had healed me once. He would do it again.
Yet as the days after surgery wore on, complications came, and my tender scar slowly healed, doubts began to creep in. I was in physical pain. I was annoyed to be dealing with cancer again. The stage I diagnosis had kickstarted appointments with my oncologist again. Yet even more than that, I was trying to suppress a deep, festering wound that was leading to a crisis of faith.
Years prior, I thought I'd heard God promise me that I'd never get cancer again. Yet here I was, facing it a second time.
Accepting my new reality led to a major wrestling match within my heart. I knew something wasn't right. I was mad at the world. I was mad at my body. And when it came down to it, I was mad at God. It just took me awhile to see it.
It was tough because I was working for a church, and I didn't want people to know I was struggling. Yet as waves of disappointment, panic and depression kept coming, I couldn't shake the feeling that I needed help. This second cancer diagnosis was messing with my identity and disrupting my sleep. The angst was spilling over into my job, my friendships and my family.
In a moment of weakness, I called a counselor. She happened to pick up her phone right away, and soon we started meeting. At first, I didn’t realize what was happening or what I was really asking for. I was 25 years old, discontent with work, uncomfortable with physical touch, I had a fear of planning ahead, my adoption plans had just gotten messed up thanks to a second case of colon cancer. I blamed my cancer survivorship for it all.
But one day, the counselor proposed an idea that I hadn't thought of: I was angry. And who was I most mat at? God.
Denial: I'm not mad at God!
It was a new thought, one I wrestled with. Can Christians get mad at God? Is that even possible? It didn't compute. It seemed irreverent. God is perfect. Holy. All-knowing. How could I possibly be mad at Him? Who am I to get mad at the Almighty? Sure, my circumstances were awful, but they weren't His fault... or were they? For a brief moment, I let myself pause and wrestle with those kinds of thoughts.
But then, I stopped.
I might as well have started kissing babies and waving flags on a campaign trail because I became quite the politician and gave a strong case for why I wasn't mad at anyone, and especially God. I understood anger to be a sin after all. I’d forgiven people who’d wronged me. I’d memorized verses about God working all things for my good. Cancer was my blessing and my testimony, nothing more. I wasn't mad at God!
It didn't take me very long to realize my counselor was right. But unfortunately, it took me years to fully admit it.
I can't remember the exact moment, but one day, I finally broke and honesty poured out. I couldn't hold it any longer. I was angry. Very angry. Many things were stirring my anger. I was deeply mourning the loss of fertility and facing survivor's guilt, wondering why I survived cancer yet my friends were dying.I was mad I couldn't eat like I used to, and my future would always have a cancer cloud hanging over it. Those things made me angry.
I was angry at my body for turning on me and growing cancer again. I was angry that my follow-up schedule for colonoscopies hadn't caught the new cancer in time. I was angry that as a young adult, I was having to pay high medical bills, and that my 20s were now infused with cancer, which was so unlike all of my other friends.
As heavy as these things were, they still didn't get to the root of my pain. When I finally dug down as deep as I could go, I realized what bothered me the most: I believed me having colon cancer was God's fault and that He'd abandoned me.
I was mad that He'd allowed me to be diagnosed a second time. I questioned His goodness and doubted His love for me. The verses I'd once loved didn't seem to apply to my life anymore. I was bitter, and consumed by the question, "Why me?" I didn't trust that I could hear God anymore, and I was doubtful He had promises for me. The day I finally admitted all of these feelings, the dam that had kept them all back began to break.
Facing My Anger
A lot of things happened once I finally admitted I was angry about cancer and mad at God: surprisingly, the big emotions began to slowly subside. It took some hard counseling sessions. It took pages of journaling through some uncomfortable and challenging things. It took hard conversations with people I thought I'd forgiven, but needed to forgive again. It took looking in the mirror and saying positive things about my body. I even said a bunch of cuss words in my car to let out the steam. I'll be honest: that felt really good.
But the most significant way I addressed my feelings and being mad at God actually happened on a nature walk. All by myself, surrounded by nothing but fallen autumn leaves and barren trees, I took a hike through the woods and found a thick stick along the path. I gripped it as hard as I could and then began beating the side of a tree, releasing an accusation with each blow. I thought that attacking God's creation would get His attention.
Strike after strike, I began to let it all out.
After I left the woods, my honesty flowed freely. I took up boxing. I kept journaling. And then one day, I was done. My arms were physically and metaphorically tired. I didn’t want to fight anymore. I felt a little numb, but at the same, I also felt peace. And little by little, I began to feel whole again.
Healing after getting mad at God
I wish I could say a shining star fell from the sky, or a glowing angel showed up and set me straight. Some pretty awesome moments with the Holy Spirit did take place, but overall, nothing like that happened. How did I heal and find my faith again? It was a slow change.
I did read through the story of Job in the Bible again, and its last verses helped me face my bitterness and remind me of who God is. I also had to confess to how I was viewing God's prosperity: No matter how much I prayed, or how many people prayed for me, God didn't "owe" me anything, and He will answer prayers when and how He chooses. I had to accept that.
There was no magic wand, secret prayer or prescribed checklist that got me back to the point where I trusted God and stopped calling Him mean names. I just stuck with the process, slowed down, kept going to counseling, and worked on being really honest—especially with myself.
I'm not proud that I got mad at God, but then again, I'm glad I can be honest about it. I've learned I'm not the only one. In fact, I wrote about it in my memoir, Blush: How I Barely Survived 17. Out of all the feedback the book has received, me getting mad at God is what has stuck with readers the most.
As I've walked through this process of healing my faith, it's become fuller and stronger. I'm not in crisis anymore, and I'm not mad at God, even though hard things have continued to happen. But now, I can handle life's disappointments without anger toward God because my faith's foundation is repaired. No matter what happens in this life, God is good and people are not my enemy.
I can now discern what promises from God look and sound like, and I have confidence in them. My faith has been restored.