On Sunday, August 21, 2022, I preached a sermon about suffering based on Isaiah 43:1-28. At 5:30 p.m. the next day my life plunged into a season of suffering.
On my drive home from work one tranquil, sunlit 80-degree Chicago afternoon, my phone rang from a number I didn’t recognize. I answered it anyway.
“Is this Matt Woodley?”
“This is Dr. Z.”
“It sounds like you’re driving. Can you pull over so we can talk?”
I pulled over. I recall only a string of Dr. Z’s phrases: “Your routine endoscopy … a growth in the esophagus … biopsy … cancerous.”
“Wait, Dr. Z, are you saying I have cancer of the esophagus?”
“Matt, be prepared to clear your calendar. You’ll have a lot of appointments.”
First, I told my four adult children. That was brutal. My daughter, the oldest, a worship pastor and mom with four kids of her own, held my hands, searched my eyes, and wept. A friend who had survived stage four colon cancer told me, “Whatever you do, don’t google it.” I didn’t need to. I could hear the fear in people’s voices, especially in that of my oldest son, an emergency medicine doctor who later told me he knew far too much about esophageal cancer’s five-year survival rates. When I seemed too nonchalant about my treatment plan, Matt chided me (as I had often chided my kids), “Dad, you have to take this seriously!”
God’s people knew suffering, but I never imagined that my life was also teetering on the abyss of anguish.
In my sermon, I said, “Suffering happens—to the rich and poor, the young and old. No one is exempt. Everyone is vulnerable.” I described God’s people of Isaiah’s day—conquered by a foreign army, they were forced on a dangerous journey across rivers and into exile while their cities burned. They knew suffering, but I never imagined that my life was also teetering on the abyss of anguish.
At 9 a.m. on Tuesday (the day after Dr. Z’s call), I met Dr. D., my medical oncologist—a trim, soft-spoken fortyish man wearing bright blue Chicago Cubs socks. He methodically outlined the next steps: a CT scan, a PET scan, then an endoscopic mucosal resection—the insertion of a flexible tube into the base of my esophagus, attempting to remove the tumor.
As I told friends and then the entire church, dozens of people said something like, “Don’t you find it providential that you just preached that sermon on finding God’s hope in suffering?” True, but this time I was preaching the gospel to my own heart.
Once again, I read verses 1-5: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … when you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched … Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you …” (Isa. 43).
This time I was preaching the gospel to my own heart.
I had first read those words when I was a junior in high school, a new follower of Jesus who struggled with depression, shame, and suicidal thoughts. I still have that old tattered Bible with verses 3 and 4 underscored with neat straight lines of blue ink. Back then, I clung to those words, and the Holy One of Israel became my Savior. Now, 45 years later, the words returned to me, like long-lost friends from an almost-forgotten epic journey.
The language in Isaiah 43 is deeply tender and personal. “Do not fear … you are Mine … you are precious … and I love you.” Who talks that way? Parents whisper it to their children: “You are my child.” Husbands and wives, especially newlyweds, whisper it in each other’s ears: “You are mine.”
That Monday night, after the diagnosis, Satan whispered other words into my heart—fear, pain, God’s silence, death. I had a nightmare: A doctor opened my chest and solemnly pronounced, “Cancer everywhere. Sew him up.” I hardly slept.
But on Tuesday morning, God started whispering His promises from Isaiah 43 into my ears. Through the flurry of tests and appointments and procedures, I memorized those words. I savored those words. People I knew and didn’t know from around the globe prayed those promises over my fears.
God started whispering His promises from Isaiah 43 into my ears.
Then, 15 days after the initial diagnosis, Dr. D. left a message saying that he’d call me back at 2:30 p.m. He seemed more upbeat than usual. When he called back, I breathlessly scribbled his words on scrap paper: “Early stage 1A, margins negative, no chemo or radiation, cancer free.”
The good news stunned me as much as the initial diagnosis. But this short season of suffering also left me feeling more fragile. Suffering can pierce anyone at any time. Suddenly, I felt more breakable, vulnerable, and transitory.
If suffering returns, what then, Lord? I knew what He would say: “I brought you through the waters of depression when you were 17 years old. I led you through the fire of cancer when you were 63. One day I will carry you through the flood of death itself. Fear not, for I am with you. You are precious in My sight, and I love you.” That’s all I ever need to hear.