In the Middle of Mess

… the extent to which you enter into your painful mess with God is the extent to which genuine life is released in you. by Nancy Hicks

My first born, David, spent much of the pandemic living what he never could have imagined for himself. At the end of his first year in graduate school at Harvard, double majoring in Public Policy and Law, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The first surgery removed the tumor and revealed that far too many of the removed lymph nodes carried the cancerous cells. “This is aggressive,” we were told.

Our 26-year-old go-getter spent that summer and his first year in law school hustling from chemotherapy to class. Within a month of the last round of chemotherapy, they discovered another tumor, this time on his liver. Back into surgery he went. Then the next spring, David sat across from his oncologist, both wearing masks due to COVID-19, and his doctor’s eyes conveyed dismay. “We found another tumor on your liver.” 

One night, when David was halfway through more aggressive chemotherapy, my husband, Cam, and I had just come home from social-distance dining on a patio with some friends. David lounged upstairs in his room.

“How’s your apocalypse going?” he asked as we walked through the door. David’s clever mockery is all too familiar to me.

“Ha. That’s good. So true.” And, I knew, rhetorical. “How was your night, sweetheart?” I asked him back. I lay down beside David on his full-size bed. The one he slept in when he was in high school and during holidays through college.

“I’m not good.” His tired eyes and still face were, sadly, also becoming all too familiar. He stared at his laptop, light still glowing. “I just don’t know what to make of all that’s going on in the world. It’s crazy. I’m tired. And did you hear that Tim Keller has cancer now, too?”

“Oh, no. No.” I sat up carefully, ensuring I didn’t pull on the hose connecting David’s chemotherapy bag to the port that’s been embedded in his chest for over a year. 

What do we make of this? 

I agreed with David. Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, we’re tired. It’s all been a bit too much.

Cancer may not be your reality, but coming out of COVID-19 we’ve all had our share of mess. A great big jumbled, apocalyptic-like mess. After living in quarantine, we’re depleted by the daily drone of loss—employment, economy, people. We’re climbing out of the rubble of the blatant realities of a world gone mad with hatred and division over systemic racial injustices. 

I’m no longer surprised by the mess. Why should we be? It’s not like we weren’t warned. Jesus’ warning in John 16:33 (NIV), “In this world you will have trouble…” is just one among a host of other times He gave us a heads up!

Don’t be surprised. But more importantly, don’t be dismayed. 

Know this: the extent to which you enter into your painful mess with God is the extent to which genuine life is released in you. It’s like a swinging pendulum. Confront your pain and mess with God this much. Swing—He releases life in you to the same measure. They are balanced and equal. 

And through our world of COVID-19, racism, and cancer—deep, devastating mess—here are four steps we can take to start living fully alive as we enter the mess.

1. Move Toward Life. When we think of life, we instantly think of the obvious—energy, passion and joy. And, yes, these are signs of God’s vitality released to every living thing. I, like you, want that vitality! And I certainly want it for my kids. But not so obvious to us is the weird and uncomfortable. Mess is poised and primed for life. Pay attention to the broken, the injustice and the disruption. God moves in those circles. Moving toward what makes you uncomfortable, through prayer, scripture and honest discussion, moves you toward God, who is life. 

2. Engage with God. Mourn loss. Mourn mess. Confess every bit of pent-up pain you can find in there. Face it and engage with God around it. “God, I miss my friends; God my job is gone; God, I realize I would actually prefer things go well for me. I’d actually prefer that to You. I want You, but not more than I want this mess to go away.” Tell Him. Be honest. I’ve recently engaged with God this way, saying, “I’m just so sad, Lord. No, actually, if I’m honest, I’m angry. What a waste it would seem to me if, after I put my needs and my career on hold to build into these boys, just as we begin to see the fruit of our labor, You’d allow this. ‘David, look at you fly!’ and You’d allow the plane to go crashing to the ground mid soar. I’m hurt, sad, and, yes, I’m angry, Lord.” Tell Him.

3. Plead for Power. Dead places are ripe for life. “God, breathe out Your resurrection power. God, come into those broken, messy, even dead places and breathe in me, now.” Plead for power over using your kid as your report card and trophy. Plead for resurrection power to raise your hopelessness to life!

4. Get up. Today you get up in power—never mind tomorrow—today, this day, get up in power. Today, petition God, “Show me, O God, what to pick up and put down.” And in power, pick up the phone and put down the ego. In love, pick up the strained conversation and put down the fists. In resurrection power, pick up the project and put down the distractions. Get up. Then do no more. But do no less. 

There are days I wish I could pull up the covers and hide. These four steps are what help get me up and release a greater measure of life in me each day. I’m becoming more aware there is no other way. Pain is the portal to life. Mess is the entry to living. They are equal in measure when engaged with the God who is life. So will you enter into the mess today?  

Nancy Hicks is the author of “Meant to Live: Living in Light of the Good News”.