Recently, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, diagnosed with brain cancer, announced that she had scheduled her death for 1 November. Maynard, a volunteer advocate for Compassion and Choices, had been given six months to live, and came to the conclusion that any treatment would ultimately prove unsuccessful and result in a radical deterioration in her quality of life. She considered palliative care, but after some research “quickly decided that death with dignity was the best option for me and my family.” She is not suicidal, she says, but “I want to die on my own terms.”
Maynard’s story, posted on CNN on 14 October 2014, went quickly viral. A few days later, a friend posted a link on Facebook to an open letter written to Maynard by fellow cancer sufferer, Kara Tippets. I had not heard of Tippets, but her letter, appealing to Maynard to choose life, was moving.
Tippets, mother of four, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36. The cancer quickly spread and soon metastasised into her entire body. A Christian, Tippets’s faith in God has given her the grace to choose life. In her letter, she mentioned that she has written a book, The Hardest Peace, detailing her journey with cancer. The letter was sufficient to pique my interest and so I purchased the book.
Tippets writes with a rare transparency. You do not have to read long before you begin to feel that you actually know her. She is open in sharing her struggles and joys. I admittedly found her writing style somewhat jolting in places. The way in which she uses language—for example, employing the word “hard” as a noun—took some getting used to, and I had to occasionally reread sentences to ensure that I understood what she is saying. Still, once I got into the flow of her style, things moved along quite quickly.
Tippets has clearly come to rest in the sovereignty of God in her life. She writes of her cancer with a peace that I suspect would be shared by comparatively few cancer sufferers. Even Christians who have suffered with cancer—particularly as virulent a form as Tippets has contracted—might balk at the idea of cancer being described as “beautiful.” If she wasn’t so transparent in sharing her heart and her faith, the way she speaks of her disease might be considered almost trite, as if she ignores the gravity of what she faces. But she doesn’t; she has simply experienced God’s amazing grace in her unique situation. As she writes, “The well-meaning emails that admonish the way I speak about my story cause me to wonder at the depth of grace that can be understood without the presence of God in the midst of our suffering. If our hard is the absence of a good God, then how can anyone walk in faith?”
Tippets does not relish death. She openly shares her wish that God would give her more time: time to see her children grow, time to realise dreams with her husband, time to accomplish the many things she would love to accomplish. But she realises that time is not hers to dictate. In fact, she believes that “in the midst of my cancer, I made an idol of time. It was my greatest prayer, my begging pleadings to Jesus: Let me remain. It many ways, it is still my prayer, but God has rooted in me a gratitude for my now, my hard, my story, and even my cancer.”
Though she does not relish death, she does not fear it. She recalls reading through the first chapter of Proverbs with her eldest daughter and being struck by the last verse of the chapter: “Whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster” (v. 33). She recalls how she clung to that promise: “It does not say He removes the disaster. But the dread of disaster…. This was unbelievably beautiful. If I really sit and listen to God, He will lift the dread.”
Tippets’ perspective in her time of trial has clearly been shaped by her understanding of the character of God. At one point in the narrative she shares a quote by Nancy Guthrie, which sums up neatly her view of her trial:
But because I believe God’s plans for me are better than what I could plan for myself, rather than run away from the path he has set before me, I want to run toward it. I don’t want to try to change God’s mind—his thoughts are perfect. I want to think his thoughts. I don’t want to change God’s timing—his timing is perfect. I want the grace to accept his timing. I don’t want to change God’s plan—his plan is perfect. I want to embrace his plan and see how he is glorified through it.
It is clear from her story that she derives strength not only from her personal communion with God, but also from a strong Christian husband, who is willing to lead her, and a solid Christian church, which is willing to love her.
This book is not unique in its source material. Many books have been written, by believer and unbeliever alike, by authors who have suffered with dread disease. But Tippets shares some perspectives that are not soon found elsewhere.
For example, she shares how she has spoken to her husband about the woman he will marry after she dies. She shares some of her prayers for this as-yet unknown wife and mother. Her husband is not always comfortable having these discussions, she says, but it is important for her that he hears her talk about this so that, when the time comes, he does not feel guilty, as if he is somehow betraying her memory, by entering into a new relationship. In moments like this, her practical theology shines through.
This is by no means a theological treatise on suffering. The author’s primary purpose is not to offer theological reflections on trials. She simply shares her story, but it is a story of someone who has learned to trust God in the midst of suffering, and as such it is an intensely practical and highly valuable read. In the “what people are saying” section at the end of the book, Jerry Bridges says it well:
Kara Tippets’s book The Hardest Peace is at the same time deeply convicting and encouraging. Kara is brutally honest in sharing her struggles all the way from a young girl to now as a mother of four battling recurrent cancer. Through it all, she has found the deep reality of God’s grace and love. This is a book everyone ought to read.