I was deep in the editing and proofing stage of my book when an early copy of A Walking Disaster crossed my desk. I took a moment to read it and before I knew it had completed the manuscript. In fact, I was so moved by Jamie Aten’s memoir that I provided him with a blurb for its cover.
Dr. Aten is a disaster psychologist, a disaster ministry expert, and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College. In his mid-thirties, he faced his own personal disaster when he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Suddenly, Jamie was forced to apply his professional research to his personal life. His struggle compelled him to seek the meaning of his suffering, examine his Christian faith in a profound way, and learn to experience the redeeming presence of God in his life.
In this guest blog post, Jamie shares how he came to understand the true meaning of spiritual surrender.
(Also, Jamie’s publisher is offering a special discount on his memoir to readers of this blog. If you go to https://www.templetonpress.org/books/walking-disaster and order A Walking Disaster, just enter the code “Margaret2019” at checkout to receive 40% off and free shipping!)
At the age of 35 I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Cancer wasn’t the first disaster I faced. My family and I had moved to South Mississippi six days before Hurricane Katrina. Within weeks I was helping with the disaster response and have since spent my career studying mass disasters around the globe. But cancer was different. There was no opportunity to evacuate—this time the disaster was striking within. I was a walking disaster.
One winter morning, as I sat in the warmth of our home watching the sharp wind whisk the snow around our yard, I remembered it was trash pickup day. I was in the midst of another round of chemotherapy which had made my body painfully sensitive to cold. But I decided to bundle up and brave the freezing temperatures to take the garbage and recycling buckets to the curb.
As I stepped outside the icy flakes and gusts of wind hit my cheeks, feeling like thousands of tiny razors cutting my skin.
“God heal me,” I begged as I pulled the containers down the driveway. “Please heal me, take this from me . . .”
The doctors had been doing all they could do. My family and friends had been doing all they could do. I had been doing all I could do. I just wanted the pain to stop. I wanted the fear to go away. I wanted the episodes of unexpected crying to go away. I wanted the cancer gone. Desperate words and prayers filled my heart and mind as I walked back to the house with my last bit of energy.
Does God Even Hear Me?
After “hearing” the deep cry of my heart for relief from physical and emotional suffering, I became aware of a monologue unfolding inside of me.
Does God even hear me?
Does God answer prayers?
Is it right for me to ask for healing?
If God does hear me, will God do anything?
Is there even a God?
Eager to silence the doubting voice, I shifted from “sufferer” mode to “researcher” mode, remembering that prayer has been associated with improved mortality odds and a greater sense of well-being. So, I decided to keep praying, even though I was plagued by the deeper question of my heart: Was there a loving God who was attentive to my cry and able to help?
After negotiating the icy path back to the house, I nearly collapsed from exhaustion. But I knew that if I could make it upstairs—twelve wooden steps that now seemed as tall as Mount Everest—I would be better off and could get some real rest.
After scaling the staircase, I finally reached the bed. Putting one arm on the footboard and one on the mattress to support my weight, I suddenly and unexpectedly dropped to my knees and continued to pray, offering up my prayers in all their nakedness to God.
The Hardest Prayer I’ve Ever Prayed
I spit out the prayer that had first burst forth from the excruciating, knifelike pain I’d felt outside: “God, take this from me.”
And yet as I continued to open my heart honestly before God, I noticed that the prayer gave way to another: “If I’m not okay, please take care of my wife and my daughters.”
I knew Christians who’d never utter a prayer like the one I’d mouthed. Their fierce insistence on faith in God left no room for doubt, almost bullying God to prove himself as a healer.
But to me, it felt more faithful to allow that I didn’t know God’s will and couldn’t manipulate God to do my bidding. In that moment I knew that I could trust God regardless of the outcome. I knew that, in my absence, God could and would care for the four people I loved more than anything in the world.
On that frigid morning, my bargaining and pleading gave way to a deeper, more robust reliance on God. I felt my heart rate return to normal, my breathing becomes more regular. A profound sense of peace washed over me. I became aware that if in this finite life, I was not okay, God could still be trusted. I could choose to be confident in God even when I could not predict the outcome of my struggle.
The Radical Act of Surrender
As I hoisted myself into bed, two words that described what I’d just experienced landed forcefully in my heart: spiritual surrender.
Comforted by the gentle weight of a soft blanket, my thoughts gave way to slumber. Resting in new confidence, I let my heavy eyelids close and drifted off to sleep, I still didn’t know if things were going to be okay but for the first time since hearing, “It’s cancer,” I trusted that my family and I were in good hands.
Before cancer, I use to think spiritual surrender was a passive act. But now I understand it in a whole new way. Far from being passive—a spiritual surrender is a willful act of obedience in which we recognize what is in our control and what is in God’s.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but spiritual surrender allows us to experience the fullness of God as we face our situation head-on, releasing our tightly held lives to him. When we let go of what is out of our control at the foot of the cross, we position ourselves to gain not necessarily what we want but what we really need—eternal hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
It has now been 4 ½ years since I finished my cancer treatments. And I’m grateful there has been no further evidence of disease. Now the challenge is to keep surrendering.
Dr. Jamie Aten is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). This article was adapted from his newest book A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press). In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow him on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.