Better than a thousand substitutes

Each year as the calendar rolls toward the end of March, I begin to think back to the news we received on that momentous day five years ago. In some ways it seems like yesterday as my mind runs back, back through the details of the weeks leading up to that moment, back to that third Saturday in February — back to that afternoon when we obeyed the sunshine’s call of “Come out and play!”

A family bike ride

On that lovely day, we rounded up bikes and scooters and the dog and the kids, and headed out for a neighborhood walk. We left the house under a dazzling blue sky, a warmer than usual winter breeze, the dog straining impatiently at his leash. Our girls, aged 10 and 12, took off down the street on their bikes. Our son lagged behind, stopping at the top of the driveway to tie his shoe. I turned back to help him, never guessing that my life plans were about to take a sudden direction change. Kneeling down to hurry the tying along, my eyes were drawn to a golf-ball sized knot. The lump, protruding from behind his ankle, looked huge and scary and alarming. My heart stopped in my chest, but not wanting to frighten him, I asked casually if he’d noticed the knot before. His reply was as scary and alarming as the lump.

“Mom, I showed you the bump months ago.  You looked at it and said it was nothing, remember?”

“No, honey, I don’t remember that.”

“Yeah, in the kitchen that day.  It was smaller. It’s been growing since then.”

Deep breath. How could I not remember that? With his eight-year-old memory, he must be mistaken. How could I ever have ignored so large a lump? He’d been in a basketball game pile-up that morning, and this must surely be the result of an elbow to the ankle. It would subside, my husband and I thought. He felt no pain, so we decided to wait: we’d go to the pediatrician Monday morning. That first appointment began what stretched into weeks of doctor visits, interspersed with the arrival of other confusing symptoms that led to a delay in diagnosis. Unknown specialists, unnerving examinations, fear-filled, tear-filled procedures and tests for this little boy; disconcerting internet-searches for his increasingly frightened parents; and finally, specialized surgeons to biopsy the never-subsiding knot.

The biopsy revealed that his knot was not the result of a basketball-game bump. Patrick had childhood cancer.

Words that constrict the throat

Pathology called his malignancy extremely aggressive and odd. The invasive growth had spread and was multiplying in the lymph nodes and abdominal area. Patrick’s oncologist called the stage-4 lymphoma “vanishingly rare.” Only fourteen other children in the whole world had ever been diagnosed with his type of cancer. His oncologist, a kind and careful and brilliant man, showed us a  chart he’d created as he’d researched Patrick’s diagnosis — there, the short list showed a child in South America, a child in Europe, a handful of children here in the U.S. — indeed, this cancer growing in our son’s body was rare and un-researched.

The chart also showed that no successful protocol had been found to cure these other children. The probable future was graphically displayed by the numbers on that page. In the span of a moment, world-changing words knocked the breath from us. New and distressing phrases rang in our ears. “Extremely rare, aggressive, no treatment protocol” hung, immovable, in the air around us. Patrick’s chance of survival was deemed dismal at best.

Incomprehensible thresholds

One day, a lighthearted, family bike ride. Within weeks, a dreaded diagnosis. The tumors spreading throughout his small body moved us into an unknown and terrifying world. We’d arrived at a heretofore incomprehensible threshold.

Within days, Patrick’s silky golden hair again lay on an operating table. His chocolate brown eyes closed in anesthesia-induced sleep and a device was implanted into his superior vena cava. He awoke to four years of intensive chemotherapy and exhausting treatment. All the unknowns were catalysts for fear in a dark valley. For his mom, they prompted many mornings spent in lonely weeping. Mornings filled with deep pain in my heart for this my beloved, vibrant child.

Held through unexpected years

What was the purpose of our  little boy’s suffering, who wanted only to be a normal second grader? Adding, subtracting, and regular boy stuff were, on most days, put on hold —  instead, he experienced  hundreds of needles, frightening procedures, and excruciating pain. Muscular, active strength morphed into a little-boy body limping from intense back pain; a mere skin and bones, topped with a pale bald head brought on by high doses of chemo infusion. Internal lesions and bleeding led to body systems shutting down as the years wore on. Recurring physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ache became the norm. Painful, honest questions were cried into my shoulder in the dark of night: “Does God not love me? Why would He do this to me?”

And for me, his adoring mama, a conscious effort, day after day, to breathe in and breathe out. A constant whispered prayer for guidance, for strength, that we might be able to answer Patrick’s unguarded questions, that we might bring glory to God through it all — that Patrick and our daughters, and all those who were so faithfully ministering to our family, would, in the end, flourish and grow in faith because of the months of upheaval.

Those early months blurred into year upon year. Heavy moments of heartache and pain and fear and fatigue waxed and waned. But through it all, I was held. We were held.

Held in the all-powerful and all-loving arms of the Father. Held by His Spirit through truth from His Word. Held by the love poured forth from His body, the believers He placed around us. Held by Jesus, the true lover of my soul.

He never left me. He never left us. He never forsakes His own.

It’s not theory anymore

When days of deep darkness and adversity come, theory is no more. All that I have heard and believed about God can not have been merely theoretical. He must be my Shepherd, leading me through the dark valley, protecting and comforting me with His rod and staff, whispering words of life in my cast-down ear, or there is no true comfort. On a calamity-sort-of-day, my need is so great and my life so personally unsustainable that survival for me requires a mighty Rescuer.

He must not be merely knowledge-based theory on that day.

A gift of mercy

And this is what is true: it is God’s merciful gift to bring me to this sort of day. In a season of deep suffering, Jesus becomes more real and precious to me than ever before. He alone can give me peace on this sort of day. I am suddenly profoundly aware of all substitute’s inability to do for me what only God can do. The false, lying idols of my heart (that which I turn to instead of God to do for me what only God can do) charm and arouse my affections on a sunnier day. But my idols, which offer instant gratification, and the promise of peace, come crashing to the ground on that day — and there they lie, smashed into shards, shown for their paltry inability to truly sustain. Only His love and care, on that sort of day, satisfy.

In the pain —  and because of it — we know our Lord’s faithfulness in ways we never could have imagined. We see Jesus as even more beautiful, for His love is better than a thousand substitutes.

Oh, know Him! Know Him! Set your heart and mind, as you live each regular sort of day, on the truth that God is completely sovereign and completely loving. Nothing comes your way that is not for your good. Believe and act on that truth on your regular days. Do not succumb to the false promises of counterfeit lovers: for the promises of the world, the flesh and the devil are lies — lies which temporarily satisfy and titillate, but ultimately kill and destroy.

If you turn to false idols to shore up your regular days, you will be taken unawares, un-ready, angry and confused, floundering about in your faith when your day of calamity comes. Jesus alone knows your desperate need, and Jesus alone loves you in ways you desperately need.

For on the day when the family bike ride takes a sudden turn in an unimagined direction, only the unimagined love of Jesus, better than a thousand substitutes, sustains.


For more of Patrick’s story in these intervening years, please read: When cancer is called cured; Fear the wasted life, not the wounded one; forever changed by deep wounds.



About Jill

I'm a wife, mom to three beautiful children, and work as children's ministry director at Redeemer PCA in Athens, GA, a place our family treasures as our church home. It's been thirty years since the Lord saved me, and to this day I'm astounded at His steadfast love shed upon unfaithful me. My hope would be that I might speak and write in ways God would use to soften hearts toward Him, that we would together be enamored by the glorious beauty of Jesus and awakened to His love unimagined. Thanks so much for reading!
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23 Responses to Better than a thousand substitutes

  1. ashlie johson says:

    love you–reading through tears. thank you for writing this.

    • Jill says:

      Love you, Ash. I pray for you that you would know Jesus’ love in ways you’ve never imagined. I thank our Father for you!

  2. jen bole says:

    Beautifully written. Raw and real and urgent truth. Only our God.

    • Jill says:

      Thank you, Jen, for your faithful friendship through the raw and real and urgent. You were there daily. He used you to strengthen and encourage me in ways you’ll never know in this life, dear friend.

  3. Susanna says:

    “In a season of deep suffering Jesus becomes more real and more precious to me than ever before”

    Yes my friend. Thankful for your sweet words that remind me that all is working together for good. Even fear and even grief.

    • Jill says:

      Thank you, dear Susanna! Thank you, as you’ve faced fear and grief most haven’t, for reminding me (and so many others) of His care and provision and sustaining power. I love you.

  4. Jill, this is Rachel Norris. We used to go to Redeemer years ago! Heather Morse shared this blog post on FB and I just had to comment. You are a gifted writer. Thank you for this post . It is so beautiful and such a good reminder for believers. I shared with a friend who just received devastating news about her 5 year old having a rare genetic, untreatable disease. I think it ministered to her. So thank you for writing! I’ve sat here this morning reading many of your past posts and they have encouraged me so much! We miss Redeemer and Athens and are thankful to keep up in small ways over FB (and blogs) with what all the Lord is doing!

    • Jill says:

      Rachel, thank you so much for writing! We miss you, too — and would love to see you if ya’ll visit Redeemer in the future! I pray God will use the truth He’s taught me to help your friend as she reads — He is truly better than a thousand substitutes, and I pray she’ll know His comfort and care and sustaining love as she enters into the pain-filled days to come.

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