I didn’t deserve the side effects ⇔
by Gabe Orea, October 2014. ⇔ (2018 update at the end)
(Adapted from two messages delivered to the Xiamen International Christian Fellowship—XICF)
Editor’s note: Gabe received minor editorial help from me to convert his sermons into a written form; he was our pastor at XICF at the time, before we moved to Hong Kong in 2015 – Michael Krigline
Synopsis: In 2010, a Mexican with a wife and two young children, working in China, was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 lymphoma, complicated later with leukemia. This terrible condition became an unexpected blessing as he and his family experienced unexpected, positive “side effects” such as greater compassion for those who hurt, a closer walk with God, more power in prayer, and an outpouring of love from both friends and strangers. As of 2014, Gabe had been healed of the leukemia, and although cancer still lurks in his body, he has been “chemo-free” for over 18 months. The following encouraging report is presented in hope that it will give you or a suffering loved one hope, and a new vision for what Almighty God can do through, not in spite of, your intense suffering.
I have suffered with cancer for several years, but I’m here today to tell you that I believe what the Psalmist said: In faithfulness God has afflicted me. Furthermore, I am living proof that while a supernatural cure is available and wonderful, there is also so much blessing to be found in the midst of our suffering that I’m actually glad I was not healed instantly. If you or a loved one is suffering, get a cup of tea or coffee, and sit with me as I share a testimony of my health journey, and of what the Lord has been doing for the past four years. When you are ill and you get drugs, there is something called “side effects”; you or a loved one have probably experienced some of those. And sometimes the side effects are even worse than the illness itself; such side effects include nausea, vomiting, losing your hair, unbearable pain, and other terrible things. So I decided to title this testimony, “I didn’t deserve the side effects.” Now, this title has a catch; this is a word game because, yes, I did experience horrible side effects; I experienced pain as you cannot imagine, and nausea and all these things. However, I am not talking about those negative side effects; the positive side effects that I also experienced—the ones I am saying I do not deserve—include blessings like all the love that I received from many people around the world, literally. Those were the unexpected things that in this case were extremely positive and rewarding. All those positive side effects that came along with my illness, those I do not deserve.
Now, to start with an ironic twist to my story, I know that many cancer patients lose their hair, and it can be humiliating. But I’m grateful I did not lose all my hair. In fact, even in the middle, the worst part of my illness, my wife said, “You know, you still have much more hair than many men your age.” When I first shared this message with the international congregation I pastor in SE China, many people found it very humorous! Actually, I have so much hair, very thick hair, that “chemo” just made my hair thinner, and I love it! Maybe this is just one of God’s playful examples of Gen 50:20; I can just see the Lord saying to the devil, “What you meant for evil against My servant, I meant for good, to be a blessing to many people.” May you find the same result, looking back, at many of your own side effects. And if you will look for them, surrounding yourself with the people of God, and seeking God in spite of your terrible illness, I’m here to say that you will also find what I found: so many blessings that the Lord gave me in a totally unexpected way, just because God is good. Those are the “side effects” that I humbly say I do not deserve.
My cancer diagnosis—the struggle begins
I should start my story on August 3rd, 2010, when I went for my annual physical. Actually, I should back up four or five years further. At that time, before moving to Xiamen in Fujian, China, my family and I had spent four years in the US. I had some symptoms and I actually went to three different doctors there and they could not find anything wrong. They said, “You are very tired because you work too hard. You just need to take a break.” The blood work looked good, everything looked ok. However, when I came to Xiamen, the first thing they did in a routine test (August 2010) was an ultrasound, and the ultrasound immediately found these abnormal masses in my abdominal area—the largest was about 9 by 4 cm between the pancreas and the liver. It was so simple to find that. Just an inexpensive, non-invasive ultrasound, but my doctors in the US just did not do that. So that was bad news.
The Chinese doctor said, “This does not look good. Let’s do a CT scan, to get a more detailed view into your insides.” And then the doctor really got serious and said, “This is really bad. There is not one, but many, many tumors in your belly.” Initially they said, “Definitely, it is cancer, but it could be either lymphoma, germ cells or carcinoma. We still do not know.” This was August 16th, 2010. I went to what was recognized to be the best hospital in in the region and they told me they needed to do major abdominal surgery, probably within a week. They said it would take me a long time to recover, so they suggested I better go back to my home country because it was going to be complicated.
I still remember my thoughts and feelings, having just received this diagnosis and this prognosis, riding a taxi back to Xiamen. If you have cancer, you know that the diagnosis can suck life out of you. At that time my daughter was 8 years old and my son was 5 years old, so my thoughts were consumed with anguish about their future, and about how all of this would affect my beloved wife. Any illusion I had about my own power to provide for and care for my family had been shattered. I was feeling so cold with all this news. I remember crossing the bridge that connects Haicang and Xiamen; Xiamen’s hot summer sunlight was pouring through the window but it could not heat me, I could not get warm or feel the heat of the sunlight. And I was praying, of course, and I was seeking the Lord. That’s the right thing to do in a moment like this—seek the Lord. Do not turn from the only One who can bring a solution! And I’m so grateful that in the afternoon of that very same day, the Lord had already started giving me some peace.
I’m also grateful for the emails I wrote and received at that time, as well as the photos I took and hospital documents I kept. I’ll talk more about this later, but it is important to keep a record of your journey, for God’s faithfulness is often clearer looking back than it is at the moment. In the next section, I’ll be quoting from these precious emails, which help me remember exactly what happened when.
We indeed have peace
After receiving this shocking diagnosis, I wrote the following email to the members of my congregation: “My heart and mind have peace. I am just basically sad to give my precious family this trouble. In my fatherly opinion, my kids need me a lot, but my life is completely surrendered to our Lord; He is better than me.” And I also said, “I feel sorry that I might disappoint you in my work as a pastor. I have no idea how long this interruption will take, but as for this week you can still count on me. I still feel energetic and in good mood.”
I had just recently been appointed as the pastor. To quickly give you the background, I was the first official pastor of the Xiamen International Christian Fellowship (XICF). Foreign believers had been meeting informally in this city for many years, and had recently received permission to become a registered international fellowship. After praying for a pastor for some time, a good candidate had been selected, but just before he was scheduled to get started he got seriously ill, and so he could not make it. Then my family and I came here for different reasons, and in time I was appointed as pastor. Soon after that, I received this diagnosis. So, understandably, with the illness of the first pastoral candidate still fresh in their minds, some members of the fellowship were quite concerned about my cancer diagnosis.
Then someone wrote me an email and I responded, “Dear friend, thank you so much for your words of encouragement. We indeed have peace.” This was August 18th, two days after the diagnosis. “I believe this is a purification process that already has started in my person, and I feel thankful and privileged for that. The XICF family has shown wonderful care and love. We are indeed blessed. My dear wife, and my precious children are all in peace.” And I said, “Thanks, brother, for your recent guest sermon on peace. We are believers in the God of heaven and earth, and we mean it. I am not talking arrogantly, but humbly, and with appropriate fear and trembling before the Almighty. At the same time, though, we approach His throne of grace with confidence, because He loves us so much and He has provided the perfect means. We have peace.”
And then I wrote something in that email that became like a motto at XICF—you know at that moment the diagnosis and the prognosis were really horrible, and within that medical prognosis I said, “There is no such thing as a ‘big tumor’ for our amazing God”. That is what I said; “He has no problem with that.” Right now, I still believe that. Then, “this is at least a purification process for me and my family; this process has already started; let the Spirit work mightily in and around us.”
There is no such thing as a ‘”big tumor” for our amazing God.
Now, I was not being naïve; I also wrote, “it is possible for the Lord to choose the path of suffering. Chemo and radiation are not nice. Long term effects of cancer are uncertain. If that is the case, when you see me decay, please don’t forget that while the external appearance might suffer, the inner being is being purified, closer and closer to dependence on Christ. Christ will be with me every single minute. It is an honor to be chosen for this path. I just humbly pray that I will not lose this perspective during the gray days. If I do, please be kind enough to remind me of this letter.”
When God speaks in a special way
That same day, August 18, God spoke comfort to me in a special way. Now, I come from a tradition where we have very few manifestations of “prophetic speech” and I am aware that there is a lot of fraud in such practices as well. Through experience, I have come to believe that there are true, good, divine, prophetic utterances; and there is a lot of fraud. And in the tradition I come from we probably go to the extreme of not practicing that a lot because of fear of getting into a false practice. But by this time even I could recognize that two sisters at XICF were ministering with a truly divine gift, this gift of prophesy; what they have told me from the Lord has happened exactly as they have told me.
I need to make it clear that the sister who ministered to me did NOT know about my specific fears and worries. We had not spoken about them, but God nonetheless used her to explicitly touch my heart in the place of my greatest need! In an email I wrote: “My only sadness was that in my fatherly perspective my kids still need a ‘strong’ father, and my wife, a husband. Today, the Lord sent me a promise through an XICF prophet saying, ‘Your children will be fine. Don’t worry about them,’ also quoting Psalm 112:1-2.’ That issue is done then.” Oh what peace! Supernatural truth pushed out my fear, when God spoke to me in this special way!
“I and my family have received amazing manifestations of love from our XICF family. It is very evident you are disciples of the Lord, I feel honored to serve you.” All this is from letters that I wrote to the fellowship. “My prayer is that I will reach the minimum standard as a pastor to continue serving you, you are a beautiful flock of the Lord. I have received tons of encouraging letters, portions of scripture, text messages, calls, etc.” And here comes the beauty of this, I said and I still say, “I am supposed to pastor you, but a beautiful irony is at work now: you are shepherding me.” Isn’t that beautiful? And it is a reality even today, 2014. I have said many times that within my role as a pastor I am also supposed to teach, but the truth of the matter is that especially with this type of fellowship where we have Godly people from every Christian tradition, I suspect I am the one who has learnt the most during these four years. Thank you for that.
A beautiful, spontaneous illustration
The next photo shows some of our church ladies, gathered to pray for me. You also see a candle and some items on the table, which they turned into a beautiful symbol. First, they placed the candle in the center, representing me, and then surrounded it with three other items, representing my wife and two children. Someone said, “As your family gathers around you, Gabe, there are gaps.” Then the ladies added their cups to represent themselves, standing in the gaps for me and my family.
These sisters said: “Please let us know what we can do. Faith without works is dead, and we don’t want dead faith.” It was not just ‘I wish you well,’ but ‘I am here ready to be with you and for you.’ Thank God for all the ladies too. This kind of care has been a marvelously unexpected and undeserved “side effect.”
Fasting and prayer
Then, August 19th to 20th, I withdrew for a personal retreat. I decided to fast and pray, and read Scripture. My basic question was, “Lord, will I make it? Will I survive?” That was my basic question, and it was a completely understandable focus in this time of crisis, but the Lord soon showed me that I was missing the mark by taking this approach. I was fasting, which in itself is not a bad thing. However, the way you fast, the purpose you want to accomplish with your fasting—these things are also important.
Fasting is not like a currency you can use to gain something from God. It is a different thing. And as I was fasting and praying, I was worried, concerned for my person and for my health. I’ll say more about insurance later, but I was also worried about the resources to face this crisis, since I had no health insurance. And probably in the background, I was thinking that because I was fasting then God would respond to me. Maybe I was in that mood, because twice during those two days, the Lord gave me this response, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you, as well.” (Matt 6:33) And then God spoke to me, pointing me to this scripture: “This is the kind of fast I am after, to break the chains of injustice, to get rid of exploitation in the workplace, to free the oppressed, to cancel debts.” (Isa 58:6, The Message version.) You see? I was worried about my health and the Lord responded to me, “What about the people who are not only ill, but who do not know Me yet? What about those who have no father or mother? What about those who have no church like you do? What about those who do not live in a loving environment as you do, but live in the midst of hate?” In other words, God was saying, “What about looking around for people who are in need? You already got Me. I am sufficient for you.”
Scripture continued, “What I am interested in seeing you do is sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on and your lives will turn around. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You will call out for help and I will say, ‘here I am.’” And then I understood, it was not about me, and I had a wonderful opportunity, through this serious health challenge, to grow more in the Lord, to get closer to Him, to learn better how to serve others, instead of just focusing on myself.
Stage IV cancer—treatable but not curable
August 24th, a few days later, in Hong Kong, two lymph nodes were removed from my groin and sent to the pathologist. And then a PET scan was performed; that is much more precise than a CT scan. Results showed I was basically invaded by cancer. (In this photo from neck to groin, the gray is not relevant, but the solid black indicates cancer.) Now I got a more precise diagnosis: a lymphoma, non-Hodgkin’s, follicular, B-cell, CD20, extended to all the lymphatic system (shown in green in the drawing), including the spleen and already present in the bones and in the bone marrow, “stage IV.” With this information, they basically said it was treatable but not curable. What they meant was, “We can keep you alive for a while, but we don’t really have a solution for this.” They did not call it “stage V” just because that does not exist. So far, this was the prognosis.
Now, let me say a few things about the insurance. I am a Mexican, and for many Mexicans going to the US just to get a job is like a dream. Although it was never my personal dream, it is understandably a good option if you live in a land where—especially in the past 15 years—violence is pervasive and job opportunities are scarce. Well, for different reasons, not that we planned it but basically because of serious health concerns about my son’s heart condition, we needed to move from China to the US in 2005. So we were there, and I was not expecting that, but the Lord gave me the opportunity to go to school again, so I went to graduate school in a US seminary. I guess the Lord knew I needed to learn better English. Actually I was reluctant to do that, because at that time I said, “Father, but You called me to China.” So I was concentrating on learning Chinese and at that time I was relatively fluent, so I said, “I don’t want another language!” I knew how to read some English, but my spoken skills were terrible and I could understand almost nothing verbally. But, anyways, the Lord put me there, and I said ‘ok’. So I learned some more English; I went to school and then we came back to China. Later, when I started to pastor an international congregation in China, I realized why I needed to learn English, why He sent me to the particular training that I needed and all these things. So, yes, He was right, and I apologized for complaining about that. This is not my main point, but I hope you will remember this “distraction” the next time the Lord seems to be asking you to do something that seems unnecessary. Many of you can testify to the same truth: the Lord is looking far down a road we cannot see, and working now to prepare us for future ministry. The road of faith is paved with obedience, not understanding. As Rev Martin Luther King Jr put it: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
But my point is that while we were in the US, one of the positive, unexpected side affects was wonderful medical insurance. It was not cheap; I remember it was about 800 USD a month. However, that took care of our young son’s second open-heart surgery, which cost a whole lot of money. We had that blessing, as well as all of our other medical issues covered, because we had that insurance.
Then, while I was in my last year of school, I got two very good job offers. One was to start a Spanish program in a seminary. If you know me, you know that I love studying, I love books, I love reading, I love teaching. So the academic environment was like perfect for me. The other offer was from a big church who wanted to start a Spanish speaking ministry. But I said ‘no’ to both because I sensed that the Lord wanted me back in China, and I chose the path of obedience.
Now, here was the big deal. When we decided to come back to China in 2009, we needed to quit our insurance because that company did not offer international coverage. Remember, at that time, the main issue was not cancer but my son’s serious heart condition. Now, we understood that canceling our insurance was no light decision because it would be nearly impossible to get a new policy that would cover “pre-existing conditions.” We knew what we were doing, but we felt it was the Lord’s will that we cancel our medical insurance and we did it. So we came to Xiamen.
Almost a year after we came to Xiamen I was diagnosed with this stage IV cancer, and I was without insurance. Now you may be asking: “Have you ever lacked resources to get treatment?” No! Actually, by the grace of God, several times I have said to concerned friends: “Please, just pray for me. Don’t give me money. Because the Lord is faithful, and He has provided for everything that I have needed.” There has not been one single occasion when I have needed to refuse treatment or not go for the best possible treatment because of lack of resources. The Lord said, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you, as well,” and I am a witness to that truth.
In the face of all the temptations that hit you when diagnosed with a serious illness (which I’ll come back to in a moment), the Lord made one thing very clear to me, immediately after this diagnosis. He gave me this Psalm (119:75 ESV), “I know, O Lord, that Your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me”.
“In faithfulness You have afflicted me.”
I know this phrase is difficult to understand. If it is not difficult to understand, probably you are not paying attention! When you are facing the lion, and he has actually bitten you a couple of times so you are in pain, you are tempted to believe that God is not being just. However, in faithfulness, He afflicted me. And the Lord also told me, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” He actually knew that today, 2014, I would be here with tons of energy preaching! But I did not know at that moment, and naturally I was afflicted, and I was anxious, and the Lord did not give me a suggestion, but He gave me a command, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” So, I can say again, there is no such thing as a big tumor for our amazing God! He has no problem with that. And I want you to think on your own challenges. A tumor, cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, or a non-medical problem, like a visa situation. Any of those, when striking a Christian, are not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is whether or not we are walking uprightly before the Lord. Are we letting God reshape our minds, reshape our lives through these issues, or are we choosing to just complain, and be defeated, and gain nothing but just problems?
A few temptations
Now I am going to talk about the biggest temptations that we may experience when we face a very serious illness, like I’ve been dealing with these four years. But then I will respond to each with Truth that comes from Scripture.
1. Self-centeredness. The first big temptation is to become self-centered. Why? Because everybody starts to place their attention on you and you feel like you deserve it. So it’s a big temptation to become self-centered. But as I said before, when I began to feel that way, the Lord responded, “What about sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill, being available to your own families….” (Isa 58) And then I understood, it was not mainly about my own benefit; this challenge was giving me the chance to grow in the Lord and learn better how to serve others.
2. Victim mentality. The second temptation is to adopt a victim mentality. “Oh! Why me?” The Lord says, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God, in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:18) There’s no room for a victim mentality. The antidote for a victim mentality is to spend time in repentance. If you are like me, your friends may be too polite to encourage this. No one came with this verse, but maybe they should have: “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:15-16) No one said, “Pastor, we are praying for your health but can we also pray for the forgiveness of your sins?” They were very nice, but we need to cover all the bases. That’s important.
Now, the passage quoted above from James talks about faith, which is also important to my next point, so let’s discuss faith for a moment. Some people talk about faith like it is a blind trust in fairy tales. This is not a biblical idea. Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is based on evidence; and Romans 10:17 explains that the evidence comes from hearing the word of Christ. That is, understanding the truth of God’s faithfulness, most clearly shown in the life and teaching of His Son Jesus, builds our faith and “makes us sure of what we hope for, and gives us proof of what we cannot see.” (Heb. 11:1 CEV). Oswald Sanders wrote: “Faith never knows where it is being led, but it loves and knows the One who is leading.” This kind of faith, according to Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom, “sees the invisible, believes the unbelievable, and receives the impossible.”
3. Not praying in faith. A third temptation is to pray, but not pray in faith.
As the above photo shows, many people were praying for me. And I appreciate that, deeply. But now I am going to say something and I hope it does not sound bad. Not everybody was praying with faith. That’s normal! Not all of us—and I need to include myself—not all of us pray in faith. Now, I hope we all grow into that place that when we pray for someone we really mean it and we really believe it. Maybe you are different from me, but I can recognize my own journey of faith, and I have not always had as much faith as I have now. And hopefully, five years from now I can pray with even more faith, because that will mean there’s been growth. But let me say this with a heart of love for your friends and loved ones who struggle with life-threatening issues: when you pray for them, be sure you mean what you pray. If you cannot pray in faith, just quote scriptures or leave the prayers to others. There is life and death in the power of your tongue (Prov 18:21), and they need you to be a minister of life.
As you cultivate a growing faith, be sure you mean what you pray; there is life and death in the power of your tongue.
How do I know that, sometimes, people were not praying in faith when praying for me? For one example, after praying for my healing someone later advised me, “You better go back home, it is your time.” Totally faithless! During those days, when I had been recently diagnosed, someone else, who called himself a pastor, invited me to his place and looked at me with a sophisticated look and in a grave voice said, “Now that you know that you are going to pass away, what are your plans for the fellowship?” And, yes, I was feeling weak, but I told him, “I don’t care what you think! You have no idea what you are talking about!”
There was also a Christian medical doctor, a senior oncologist, who came to do some ministry in our area for a while. He was kind enough to review my case and after he went through all my lab work and everything, he held the papers in his hand, looked at me and said, “You will never get rid of this.” He didn’t say, “This is gravely serious, and few people survive” (this might be the scientific facts), but he said: “YOU will NEVER get rid of this.”
Let me tell you something. I am not a scientist, I am a layman from that perspective, but let me tell you that no one on earth has the right to give you a death sentence! No one! I don’t care who! No one! Much less someone who calls himself a Christian. In my heart, I feel very sorry for that brother who is a medical doctor, for he seems to have missed two important truths. First, he is ignoring the reality that science makes progress every day, and a medical cure could be just around the corner. But the most serious thing is that he is denying the possibility of God’s intervention in the body of the person. And a Christian should never limit the power of God. Never!
No one on earth has the right to give you a death sentence!
Now, we all have our time to go Home. That is fine! Paul knew the joy of serving others, but still admitted a “desire to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23), whenever the Lord so willed it. Death is not the enemy. But neither our mortality nor the weight of physical evidence should keep us from believing in the power of God. Because sometimes it is our time… but not to go Home, it is our time to be healed. And we want to hear that! We must not allow ourselves to be the victim of the devil’s schemes or the careless words of others. We need to listen to the Lord and pray in faith, for “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” (James 5:15)
4. Anger. Another temptation is to become angry with God. And I know this might happen especially when it is one of your loved ones who suffer. Please understand this, I am not criticizing or mocking anyone for having experienced this. I have my own struggles, and the Lord—according to Scripture—understands us very well when we go through these issues. So I am not being condescending or anything like that. What I am trying to do is to provide truth that will help us move away from these temptations. James tells us: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (Jam 4:8). A time of crisis is a time to draw near to the Healer and Comforter, not turn away in anger. The antidote to anger is humble praise, and the choice to rejoice. Scripture says, “Rejoice always!” (Phil 4:4) And ‘always’ means ‘always’. It’s as simple as that.
5. Worry & Anxiety. Another temptation is to be worried and to be anxious. And this is my greatest weakness. In this area in particular, I need your prayers, and probably, so do your loved ones who suffer. I find it difficult to fight worry and anxiety. If you ever think of me as pastor, think of a broken pastor in this aspect. I am still struggling not only about illness-related issues, but for many other things. Especially when I am trying to get to sleep, I get so vulnerable, and I start thinking over and over and become concerned and worried and I just can’t sleep. I am still in need of help in this area.
The Lord says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6) Two weeks ago I had one of these anxiety events. It was a Saturday night; it was so deep that by Sunday I could barely speak. The following Tuesday I had a physical event where in the middle of the night I came really close to waking up my wife to take me to the hospital. I thought it was leukemia coming back because it felt exactly as when I got a very aggressive type of leukemia two years ago. And I was scared. Every time I think of my children, I’m just weak. So Wednesday I spent the whole morning in the hospital running tests. Thursday evening the results came back and they didn’t look so bad. There was no evidence of the lymphoma, the original cancer, nor the leukemia, the second cancer, being active. So I connected the dots. It was all the result of my anxiety. Just like a car was not designed to work under the water, our Designer did not design us to work under anxiety. That’s why He says, “Do not be anxious! Period. Trust Me.”
The antidote for anxiety is a Word from God. And the purpose of this testimony is not to go into an explanation of the different ways God speaks to us, but let me just say that God is still speaking.
When I delivered this message to the international church I serve, before I even said a word, one of the worship leaders gave a powerful testimony, saying, “You may be suffering one way or another right now, but the Lord wants you to know I have been with you all the time.” She had no idea that I would play a clip from Dr Ravi Zacharias saying exactly the same thing, but God knew. And God had spoken to this young lady’s heart to share those words. I was touched at this confirmation, but it happens so often I’m not surprised anymore.
God is still speaking. When He confirms His written Word in a personal way, it reshapes and changes your life. It’s beautiful!
The Lord is so merciful that He speaks to us more often that we deserve, really. And I want to say this very humbly, and if you are not used to this language, please do not be scared. It is normal to have questions about it, but the Lord just spoke to me a couple of days ago, in such an impressive, clear, tender, timely, saving, and powerful way. And this week is one of those landmarks in my life. It was such a bright moment, that starting that very minute I was healed from the anxiety. Boom! Just like that, and the darkness was gone. So I have been glowing again for several days. And I am so grateful for that. It is not something that happens to me often, I need to admit that; it’s ok. But occasionally it happens, and it is just a wonderful experience. And I really encourage you to look for that, because when God speaks to you it really reshapes your life and changes your life and it is something you need to experience to understand its beauty.
6. A narrow perspective. Temptation number six is to adopt a narrow perspective. When we face great trouble, it is natural to limit our thinking and narrow our view. To manage the pain and anxiety, we choose not to think past this day or this hour. We focus on certainties to minimize the uncertainties. But God wants us to open the curtains and believe that “The future is as bright as the promises of God” (Adoniran Judson, 19th century missionary to India). When tempted to adopt a narrow perspective, just confront that with this truth: “But as it is written, what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, that is exactly what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor. 2:9) Isn’t that beautiful?
Failing health and a wider perspective
So, to get back to the story, in Aug 2010 I was diagnosed with “treatable but not curable” lymphoma. Fast forward to 2012, and this picture shows some of my vital statistics as things got even worse. I got a very aggressive leukemia. My white blood count, which normally should not be above 11, was around 300.
Now, the Lord had already been working on me, widening my perspective. When I had enough energy I was happy to share some encouragement and my faith with some other patients, as I saw physicians at the best hospitals available.
For example, I met a Muslim family from Bangladesh who for the first time in their lives accepted prayer in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. We became very good friends, and it was a wonderful experience. But, of course, at some points I was too weak and even needed to be put in a wheelchair.
Cancer is not pretty. But seeking to be sensitive to those who do not want to see the most graphic photos, they have been moved to a separate webpage. Please click here, and remember that these painful stages and negative side effects were temporary, for which I’m grateful to God.
On most of those occasions I was alone, just by myself. Once, I was in the HK airport waiting for the plane so I could fly back to Xiamen, and I could not even sit up, I just had to lay down there.
And I remember that one of the big lessons the Lord gave me regarded my judgmental attitude toward others. I don’t know if it was because of my Mexican mentality or because of my own personality, but it really bothered me to see people in the airports just sitting on the floor or taking up several seats to sleep. I used to think, “Come on! What’s that! Have some more education and dignity!” And now, I have changed so much, because I have no idea what those people might be going through. We just don’t know! We should be slow to judge others. And even if they don’t have a good reason for doing that, who am I to pass judgment on them? So I don’t know what people might have thought about me that day if they saw me laying down, but I really had no choice, I was so weak.
On another occasion I had this projectile vomiting; it just suddenly comes out and it’s so painful! I remember that day I was in a hotel in HK.
Lessons from Hebrews 10
Now, why did I take pictures and keep them? Just walk with me through this Scripture, starting with Hebrews 10:32: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with suffering.” Recall the former days. We should have memories of those places from where the Lord has rescued us. We should remember, because that will help us to be grateful. That will help us to give Him the glory. Considering that I was in such a horrible, weak condition, we should all be filled with praise to God that I can stand here right now, able to share with you! I should never forget those days! And if technology can help us remember, then praise God for that! My words could never adequately describe some of these things, but if I can show you an image it is quite different.
Hebrews continues: “For you had compassion for those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves have a better possession and an abiding one.” Now, this literally happened to me. Some of you know the longer version of this story, but in summary, I owned a house back in Mexico that for eighteen years had been in a legal dispute, and several people owed me money. One day, the Lord told me: “Forgive these people who owe you that much money.” And at first I said, “Really? It’s a lot of money!” But God said “Forgive them!” so that very day I wrote an email, “You are forgiven.” And I added a note, “…not because I am very good, but because I believe the Lord asked me to do that.” I renounced my claims to the property. So, with all my heart, gone! Period. No conditions. No strings attached.
Guess what? Within one week, the legal dispute was solved and I got our house back. And I was not even thinking or asking for that! I did not bargain with God. We don’t treat God like that, because He is God! He is not my business partner. He is the owner. He is the boss. This is not a democracy either. This is a theocracy. He is the King. Period. So when we do things like that in faith and obedience, crazy things happen due to His mercy. Hebrews 10:35-38 says, “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, your faith, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. Yet a little while and the coming one will come and will not delay, but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in Him.” Now, please read verse 39 out loud with me, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Beautiful!
We don’t bargain with God. He is not our partner, He’s our owner and boss. He is King! But when we obey, crazy things happen due to His mercy.
Wonderful side effects
So, what are those side effects I was saying I do not deserve? They include multitudes of people praying for me. There are tons of people who I don’t even know, but who have prayed for me. I don’t deserve that, but it’s one of the side effects. Abundant resources to get treatment right. A more intimate walk with the Lord. Ministry vision widening. I never imagined myself having regular meetings with local cancer patients. I’d never imagined myself ministering to them. Most of them are not believers yet, but they gladly listen and allow me to pray for them and share with them my experiences, and it is so beautiful and encouraging to see them now with a smile on their face, with hope! I never expected my ministry to expand in that way, but it has happened. So, another conclusion is: why should I complain?
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is not fun to be ill. One of the things that I have learned is that there is a segment of Christianity who believes that everything is fun. I do not understand the Scripture in that way. It is not fun to be ill. However, yes, we can be joyful, even if it is not fun. Why should I complain?
Another blessed side effect is that the Lord has been gradually transforming me into a more merciful person, especially toward the ill. As I learned to take the focus off of me, I found more opportunities to bless others. I never imagined at the beginning how this would turn into a big blessing, but now I can see it for He has given me many opportunities to share with those who are ill. Now, I know.
Another example: a man from Belgium was very ill and his doctor, who knows me, suggested that he talk to me; but for the fifty years after his childhood (by his own admission) this man had never wanted anything to do with God, nor with the church for that matter. The doctor insisted that he talk to me but he said he had no interest whatsoever in talking to religious people. Then the doctor told him I was a cancer patient just like him; hearing this, he changed his mind, and he agreed to talk to me. Long story short, when he saw my medical history, his own cancer history paled by comparison, and then he started opening his mind until at some point he not only agreed to start talking about God, but he even asked me to pray for him. And I prayed for him several times in the following months, until his fight with cancer ended. I was one of the very few people he allowed to visit him. And I not only prayed for him but I prayed with him, because as a cancer patient I could understand some of his pain, I could understand some of his fears, his doubts and some of the things he was going through. If you struggle with fear and doubt in your own illness, take heart. This is normal, and in some sense it is even good. As Miguel de Unamuno wrote: “Those who believe in God, but without passion in their hearts, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, but not in God Himself.”
Enemy or messenger? Journey or destination?
Why I’m glad I wasn’t healed instantly
Another conclusion is that originally I thought that this cancer was like an enemy to be defeated, something I had to fight hard against. But now I see it as a sort of messenger—a messenger that was used—not necessarily sent—by God, but used to give me a lot of unexpected blessings, such as this wider ministry and these positive side effects. So, I humbly welcome it. I trust the Lord will keep it with me as long as necessary in order to fulfill His purposes. Why is that? Because instant healing four years ago would have made me miss all these blessings that have come along this journey. Imagine that, instead of this story, I was saying to you: “In 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer and then I was prayed for and the next week there was no cancer.” That is a good testimony, but I wonder how many people would be touched, blessed and deeply affected by such a miracle. Had that happened, I wonder if my cancer would have had such a big, positive impact on so many others.
Now, let me make a clear statement. I do believe in the power of God to do instant healing anytime over any sort of illness. I do believe that. Second, if you are ill, I would love to pray for you; when I preach, I sometimes invite people forward for prayer, for instant healing, at the close of the service, and God sometimes answers in that way because it may happen anytime. The time frame of God for each person may be different, and we just need to navigate through what He wants us to accomplish. And for you, today might be the day to be healed. We have got the faith to pray for that and we want to honor God with our faith, and He may touch you today.
Now, in my case, the journey is as important as the destination. This process is as important as my eventual total healing. To understand the process, I would like to share a testimony from pastor Ravi Zacharias. He is an Indian pastor who currently lives in Atlanta. He delivered his first sermon the year I was born, so he is a mature and experienced pastor. I believe he is truly anointed. I do not use that word lightly; I have heard so many Christians referring to a pastor as ‘anointed,’ when the only thing they mean is that he is a nice guy, who knows how to speak. But that has nothing to do with biblical anointing. I believe pastor Zacharias is an anointed pastor in the biblical sense. About a week ago, as I was watching one of his sermons, I was just crying, convicted by the Lord through his sermon. I remember telling my wife, “In all honesty, I am ashamed to call myself a preacher after watching pastor Zacharias’ sermon. I feel so small.” So the testimony I want to share is about a healing that he experienced, and please pay attention to the process, because the journey is as important as the destination.
Notes from Ravi Zacharias’ sermon: “Jesus A Unique Savior, part 2” (summarized here to honor Dr. Zacharias’ copyrights).
Some of you may be hurting today for a variety of reasons: health, finances, relatives… In 1985, I seriously injured my back, living with unbelievable pain until last year (2012), and that by Divine Intervention. When you live with the constant reality of pain, it takes away “the twinkle in your eye.” I don’t know how you are hurting, but I want you to know that as you trust in Him, as you see His Power working in you in His style and His way, He will bring you to the place of relief as only He can.
The Scottish writer James Steward put it well: “It is a glorious phrase that He ‘led captivity captive.’ The very triumphs of His foes it means He used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to sub-serve His ends, not theirs. They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to His feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment, they were lifting up all of the gates of the universe to let the King of Glory come in. They thought to root out His doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men, the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had God with His back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated; they did not know it was God Himself who had tracked them down to that point. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil, He conquered through it.”
It was last year, May 29; I was leaving on a five-week trip. The day before, a friend (a corporate leader in Singapore)—a soft, mild-mannered, godly man—said he needed 30 minutes of my time, and came to see me. He said that before he gets out of bed daily, he asks Jesus to speak to him; yesterday the Lord gave him two things to tell me. He said, first, God’s anointing on the remaining years of my ministry would be even greater than on the years that have gone by. Secondly, you will always have a “thorn in the flesh” (like Paul), but don’t be alarmed for I will take care of you “3 – 4 – 5”. My friend said, “I don’t know what those numbers mean, but God said you would know.” I stared at him, and said that the pain in my back for 27 years has been in L34 and L45, my two discs, treated with titanium rods. He cried, then prayed for me—as many have done over the years. But something happened. Later, at the airport, I could bend down to tie my shoes after security, for the first time in MANY years. From May 29 to now, I haven’t needed anything for pain. Do I understand it all? Can I explain it? No. “But I’ll tell you what I do understand: God conquers through your pain, in a way that only He can. And He works on His timetable. Trust Him. I’ve found after 50 years of serving Him, that He can take you through a long valley, but when He brings you onto the mountain on the other side, you know He is the grand weaver, and He alone can pull the threads together in a design that you and I have no clue about, that is being worked out in your life and mine. Trust Him today for whatever you are going through. He will bring you to the other side, and let you know He was watching over you the whole time.”
See the complete sermon at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06D72WjAD4Y . This clip is from minutes 47:21 to 55:00.
I wanted to share pastor Zacharias’ sermon directly because I believe it captures very well this part of our journey. So the point is, whatever the situation, the struggle, the illness, the lacking or anything that we are going through, are we willing to trust Him? Because I believe He is willing to rescue us, not in spite of that trial, but even through that, to the glory of His name.
So, we have reached 2014 in this testimony about my experience with cancer. As of today, I’ve been 18 months chemo free and counting! Praise God! As far as we can tell, the cancer doesn’t seem to be active. So I would say that technically I am in remission. But let me explain something first. In April 2013, chemo stopped working. I tried chemo for two years or so, but by April last year the tumors were not dissolving anymore. That was kind of expected. That is why my type of cancer is still considered by science as non-curable, because treatments work only at the beginning, but later they can’t. Well, that happened. April 2013 was the last time I got chemo. And the expected thing would be for the patient to start decaying gradually, with the tumors gradually growing and everything going bad. Then, what happened? I just try to live a life by faith, as healthy as I can. I listen to the Lord and seek a close walk with Him; I carefully watch what I eat; I’ve found much help from on-line resources. Friends and family pray for me. My children lay hands on my tumors and pray for them. And I remember once, about nine months after I received the last chemo treatment, as I was examining myself, the tumors seemed harder to find; so I said nothing and just called my children to pray for me like before, and as they were trying to find them, my daughter asked, “Where are they, Daddy?” And I thought, “Yes! It is not only my imagination! They are actually shrinking!” And about four weeks ago I had an ultrasound, and I did not tell them that I had tumors and they found nothing in my abdomen. The Lord has blessed me so much!
The ordinary life of a Christian cannot be ordinary
Let me conclude by saying we are to have trust, but not arrogance. We are to have faith, but not taking our health for granted. At least, I hope, I am now more merciful towards other people in illness and I can see myself–and this is a gift from God, this is not from me–I see myself praying for others with enormous faith right now and I love to do it! And always, always, always giving the honor and the glory to God. As one who is a fellow pilgrim experiencing a serious illness, I’m asking you to deal with your pain and despair, asking God to pull you by faith to a higher level. Even tiny efforts to extend compassion to others in need will bring unexpected rewards. Viewing your situation from a wider lens can show you “positive side effects” that your pain has blinded you to. And daring to stand by faith on the evidence of God’s faithfulness, can release God to pour His love and power through you to others in ways that you probably can’t even imagine at this moment. But this is what God has designed you for; why settle for less? As former Columbia Biblical Seminary President G Allen Fleece said: “If everything in our lives can be explained on a natural basis, then we are not laying hold of the plan and purpose of the Lord Jesus for our lives.” So, in closing, I want to say this once more: the ordinary life of a Christian cannot be ordinary. Period. Praise His name!
You can hear many of Gabe’s sermons at http://www.xicf.org/
A few of Michael’s sermons are also available at www.xicf.org, and many of his writing are posted at wp.krigline.com or http://www.krigline.com/articles.htm
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. It is so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Martin Luther
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1 NASB
~~ ΙΧΘϒΣ ~~
By the time Gabe gave this speech (Fall 2014), he was 18 month’s chemo free. The above photo shows Pastor Gabe conducting a baptism in the sea at around the same time. The next photo is Michael with Gabe in Nov 2017.
(from Michael, with permission)
In early 2018, Gabe’s cancer flared back with a vengeance. By April, he was being treated (mostly alternative treatments) by specialists in Hong Kong, and I must admit that when I saw him and learned of his condition (flooded lungs and more) things looked very grim. But I was also deeply touched by his continued faith and trust in the Lord. That which is inside us shines most brightly when that which is outside us is giving us the most trouble! Here’s Gabe’s WeChat update for April 3, 2018. Though no one knew it at the time, this was close to the bottom of this relapse:
“Yesterday was a wonderful day. On the one hand: 1) my lungs are quickly being flooded again, not able to fully inflate them even in vertical position, producing anxiety; 2) the pulmonologist is telling me “now that you have air that needs to be removed, you are not stable anymore to be discharged; it’s going to be tough”; 3) the oncologist, “have you heard the bad news yet? Your blood tests show … bla bla bla.” BUT on the other hand, Jesus was SO REAL, tender, merciful, sweet, forgiving, reassuring, smiling, caring, sustaining, that Jesus, my wife and I had incredible conversations yesterday. He showed up magnificent, radiant, immense. With so much joy I have been telling Him, thanks for continuing to convert us to You, this is AWESOME. There’s nothing better in this world than belonging by His grace to His family. And you all, sisters and brothers, are part of it. And Hong Kong believers are part of it. And Mexican believers are part of it. And we feel honored to be part of it. Sorry, I’m still too excited on how the Lord showed up in our hearts in the middle of the storm yesterday. It was indeed a wonderful day. As long as I have breath I will praise You! Bless the Lord, oh my soul!“
Soon, things started to change. On May 9, Gabe reported: “My chief doctor is very happy with my progress. He told my wife and me that at some point I was very close to death, so he is excited to see me improving so much.”
By mid-May, the Lord had restored Gabe’s health enough to allow him to return to ministry in Xiamen. He wrote that “significant progress has been made, although full remission has not been achieved yet.” After giving thanks for the many around the world who had been praying and supporting him, he gave thanks for Life Clinic in Hong Kong and Hope 4 Cancer in Mexico, who favor an alternative, non-toxic, integrative approach to standard chemo treatment. In spite of the lack of a suitable clinic in Xiamen where these treatments can continue (he’ll keep looking!), Gabe wrote: “We pray for a full remission to be achieved, and a long-term health with no cancer relapse. We pray for discipline and all life adjustments my family and I are responsible for, to contribute to such desired outcome.”
As my friend Pastor Gabe leaves HK to return to Xiamen, Phil 2:25-27 comes to mind:
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.”
Over the years, Gabe has done a lot of research, learning from other survivors and from new research, but he is quick to give God credit for the extent of his miraculous condition. On July 6, after a very encouraging report from his HK doctor, Gabe wrote: “The Lord knows I wish with all my heart to help other people in suffering caused by illness. Please pray that the Lord may allow me that privilege as part of my ministry in Xiamen. My first and last front of action is and will be, undoubtedly, prayer; but in the middle I want to keep learning and share all sorts of “clean” technologies to help restore our bodies, His temple, to a clean and non-toxic state. Let’s clean and honor His temple!” (1 Cor 6:19)
While we pray for the complete miracle of Divine healing for Gabe, we give thanks for all that God has already done. We also pray for investors to see the value of opening these modern, alternative clinics in Xiamen and many other parts of the world.
• Photos are from Gabe
• Bible version used: Unless otherwise noted, scriptures were probably quoted from the ESV: The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
You can download a free PDF version of this file below (it does include the “graphic photos“, but not the 2018 update). Please pass this testimony on (by PDF or by sending a link to this page) to someone who suffers, or cares for those who suffer.