In the January 2, 2015 issue of Science magazine, I read a troubling article. Two researchers—one a cancer geneticist and the other a biostatistician—found that approximately two-thirds of all cancers are the result of “biological bad luck.”(1) The ‘bad luck’ they describe is simply the random genetic mutations that happen as a result of healthy cells dividing. Utilizing a statistical model to analyze historical literature on cancer, they examined the rates of cell division in 31 types of bodily tissue. Focusing specifically on stem cells—the specialized population of cells within each organ tissue that provide replacements when cells wear out—they found that the higher the rate of stem-cell division the more increased the risk of cancer. The reason why? Dividing cells must make copies of their DNA. The more they divide (over time), the higher the risk that errors in the copying process could set off the uncontrolled growth that leads to cancer.(2)
These findings are troubling because they create doubt as to whether preventative controls matter at all in the fight against cancer. They are troubling especially as I thought of all those who have come face to face with the “randomness” of cancer. They are more than just statistics; they are family members, friends, and colleagues who struggle with this often-deadly disease. Confidence erodes in any sense of control over one’s safety and health in light of findings like these.
As I read studies like this, or simply look out on the world around me, it is sometimes difficult not to collapse under the weight of what appears to be random catastrophic events. Mistaken identity, for example, was the “reason” a classmate and dear friend of my brother was murdered, not two-weeks into his new marriage. Working as an urban missionary, he was murdered at the front door of a home in which he was coming to share the Christian faith. Those inside mistook him for someone who had done harm to them in the past. In another seemingly random event, two wilderness experts/enthusiasts river-rafting in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge awoke to find a grizzly bear in their campsite. Though they were armed with a rifle and other necessary protection, they were mauled and killed by the bear. They startled the bear as they emerged in the morning to prepare some breakfast. Apparently, being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get one killed. But the ‘wrong’ place often seems to be as arbitrary as a roll of the dice. Now as I write this, a microorganism has spread around the globe and erased all notions of being in the ‘right’ place.
Part of the human strategy in the face of apparent randomness involves assigning meaning. Humans seek to find a purpose, to name a cause, or to assign blame. It makes sense that we would grasp after control, however feebly, in the face of all that feels chaotic and overwhelming. Perhaps this strategy motivated those who inquired of Jesus about the collapse of the Tower of Siloam, recorded in the gospel of Luke. The collapse of this tower killed eighteen people and stirred up all the same attempts to find meaning or a cause, or to assign blame. However, Jesus’s response likely left more questions than answers. “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you no, but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2).
In Jesus’s day, people were quick to assign a moral failure or sin as the cause of the tragedy, suffering or physical ailment. But Jesus does not affirm this assessment. Furthermore, Jesus does not conjecture as to the meaning of the event—in the sense they were asking—and he leaves its apparent randomness unexplained.
Of course, Jesus believes in a God who is not far off even from apparently random events. “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, and they have no storeroom nor barn; and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!” (Luke 12:24) Indeed, in Jesus’s own suffering and death the love of God is on full display. As author and theologian J. Todd Billings notes, the love on display in the cross of Jesus Christ “is big enough to incorporate and envelop our dying and deaths, even when death seems senseless.”(3)
At the same time, the existential realities Jesus acknowledged as he lived his life should give pause to hurrying towards quick and easy comfort. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled in prayer over God’s will for his life. He did not face his suffering with a stoic, nerveless compliance in the face of God’s control. He begged God to take this cup from him. Jesus—the human Son of God wrestling with the Father in prayer and later crying out from the cross—shows that sometimes the only response to the seeming random suffering of life is to wonder if we have been forsaken, crying out in lament at a world that is not as it should be. Jesus also shows a God willing to be subjected to these chaotic forces of this world. This God is not aloof, but a God who was “willingly stripped…of all defenses to show us how humanity is ‘done.’”(4)
Jesus neither answers the “why” questions regarding the seemingly random fate of the eighteen Galileans nor assigns any meaning. Instead, he asks for a different response. He calls for change of heart. He calls for a reorientation of the will towards repentance—perhaps even a repentance of longing to control life and meaning so tightly. Indeed, as Jesus himself wrestled with God over his own fate, he demonstrates a “willed acceptance…. ‘Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet, not what I will, but what you will.’”(5)
In an age marked by fear, terror, chaos, and the seeming randomness of events, Jesus extends the invitation of willed acceptance. It is an acceptance not found in stoic submission to a determined destiny, but a rest forged from listening for the whisperer in the whirlwind. Not a static surety, but a dynamic trust in the God who declares, “I AM WHAT I AM” and “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Jennifer Couzin-Frankle, “The Bad Luck of Cancer,” Science, January 2, 2015, 12.
(2) Denise Grady, “Cancer’s Random Assault,” New York Times, January 5, 2015.
(3) J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing In Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Books, 2015), 109.
(4) William J. O’Malley, Help My Unbelief (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,2008), 141.
(5) Ibid., 143. See Mark 14:36.