Here is a compelling interview of a Harvard Law Professor, whose faith in God, has helped him cope with the effects of cancer. You can see the full interview here. I’ve included some excerpts below.
Have your experiences led you to think differently about the relationship between the body and the spirit? Christians sometimes behave as though all that matters is the spiritual life. Is that too simple? What does it mean to live our faith as embodied individuals?
That’s a great question, and the best way I know to answer it is this. Chronic pain and cancer both make life more concrete. In times of good health, when our bodies are doing everything we want and expect them to do, there is a tendency to think of spiritual life as something that is anything but concrete. That’s not possible, I find, in my present circumstances. My medical conditions, independently and together, are inescapable. Perhaps that’s the key feature. They are there all the time. There is no time when I am not aware of them. I hurt all the time. I’m exhausted all the time. There is no escaping either of those states of affairs. I simply never feel like I used to feel virtually all the time.
What I find when I think back to the way I used to feel, I see that my life then was so much less concrete. It was not that I felt physical pleasure back then — in fact, I think I feel more physical pleasure now than I did when I was healthy. It was just that I did not feel very much of anything. My body was nothing more than a vessel carrying me around. I think that sensibility extends to other areas of life. It leads to a life that is more abstract, less personal, a life that is up in the clouds and not down where the rubber meets the road. The abstract life, I find, is impossible to live when your body is broken down.
Many people wonder what it will be like when they learn that their death is drawing near. Is there anything that surprises you?
Yes, absolutely, but I think that this is just another one of many, many pieces of divine mercy. One thing that has certainly surprised me is just how easy it has been to absorb that message that I’m going to die soon.
I will probably not survive 2010. Yet that message is much easier to take than I would have expected. I don’t fully understand why. I would have thought that the knowledge that I am very likely in my last year of life would lead me to dwell on the dying. A certain amount of that is unavoidable. Death hangs in the air. It’s as though I am living with an hourglass right in front of my face. You cannot look away from it. You cannot close your eyes to it. It’s always there. But actually I think it has led me to dwell more on the living. It sounds really trite to say that things that seemed like very small matters seem really precious to me now. It’s no novel thought — but, in my case, it really is true.
Here is a completely trivial example. I have always enjoyed my wife’s cooking, and always enjoyed eating good food at a restaurant. But not the way I enjoy it now. I just love eating something good at a time when it really appeals to me. Very often, a large fraction of the time, food doesn’t appeal to me. I eat on a schedule because I know I have to, not because I want to. But at those times when eating is really satisfying a desire, it is just intensely pleasurable. It never used to be. That has something to do with the medical conditions, but it’s also because I am dying and I know that I am dying.
It’s a real mercy to know that I will die soon. Many people die suddenly, wholly unexpectedly, without any opportunity to prepare. I have been given the opportunity to finish some work I’ve been working on, and to do things for my children that I might not have done if I had assumed that I were going to live a long time yet. Those are incredible gifts.
Your life is ending sooner than you must have expected. Are you pleased with the life you lived?
I’m not displeased in the sense that I never got to see that or do this or enjoy something else. I have almost none of those feelings. I am utterly satisfied with my life in those terms. I have gotten many more good things than I could deserve in any conceivable way. I have been incredibly more blessed, along multiple dimensions, than I would have imagined when I was young. In that sense, I am perfectly pleased with my life.
What I am displeased with is my own living of life. I feel an acute sense that I ought to have done better with the circumstances I was given. This is one of the reasons why it cut me so deeply when people suggested that suffering is God’s discipline — because I find it so very, very easy to believe in a God who is profoundly disappointed in me.
It seems utterly natural to believe in the Disappointed God, because I myself am disappointed. He must be even more disappointed, I think, because his standards are so much higher than mine. How could he not be disappointed? That makes complete sense to me.
It’s the other God, the God who does not experience that kind of disappointment, the God who sees me the way that Prodigal Son’s father saw him — that is the harder God for me to believe in. It takes work for me to believe in that God.
Do you have any favorite quotations or favorite scriptures, when it comes to death?
Yes, a passage in the fourteenth chapter of Job. The passage as a whole is not hopeful. Job is uncertain what will happen to him when he dies. In the end, he says that he will return to dust and there will be nothing after death.
In the midst of the passage, however, before he turns to despair, he has a moment of hope. It’s a brief moment, just a couple of verses in the midst of an extended passage. Yet he says, “You will call and I will answer. You will long for the creature your hands have made” (Job 14:15).
I find those lines very powerful. The concept that God longs for the likes of me is so unspeakably sweet. I almost cannot bear to say them aloud. They are achingly sweet for me to hear.
There are many passages I love, but that one in particular has grabbed hold of me. Job’s hope, it turns out, is more realistic than his despair.
Professor Stuntz continues to work and live with his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He attends Park Street Church in Boston, where he recently gave his testimony. His family and friends are grateful to know him for as long as he is left with us, and when he is called home we trust he will find a God who is not disappointed, a God who longs for him, a God who calls him by name.