While President Obama discussed a number of topics in his final State of the Union address, one of the more poignant moments occurred when he described the need to use the same spirit of discovery that helped us get to the moon in order to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” His call for additional resources and a more concerted effort in battling the disease was made all the more powerful by Joe Biden’s presence, sitting squarely over the president’s right shoulder, as he spoke. The Vice President’s public struggle with grief following the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer last May has made the issue a personal one for both himself and the president and no doubt influenced both men’s resolve to find a cure.
As a cancer survivor and the grandson of two family members that lost their battle with the illness, I can understand where they are coming from. Cancer is one of the most prevalent and insidious diseases that we face today. However, wishing to see the disease come to an end and actually being able to stop it are two different things. As Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, told CNN‘s Jen Christensen “Is it [curing cancer] realistic? In a word ‘no,’ . . . but we are going to cure some people.”
You see, Brawley’s point was that with at least 200 different kinds of cancer, finding a cure to fix them all is not likely to happen. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t make progress. After all, according to the American Cancer Society, the death rates from cancer are down 23% over the past twenty-one years and new treatments are being tested and developed all the time. And, as Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize-winning former director of the National Cancer Institute, described, “We are making progress with a much more rapid rate than ever, especially compared to my early days in the field. . . . We have a totally different understanding of basic science, and we are working closely together with clinicians in ways that were never possible twenty to thirty years ago.”
Many scientists expect us to eventually reach the point that cancer becomes a manageable disease, akin to high blood pressure or diabetes. Given that just under 600,000 people are expected to die from cancer this year, making the disease livable while continuing to work towards a cure seems like a good goal.
And having the right goals in mind is essential to continuing the progress that has been made over the last twenty-five years. After all, it is easy to look at the president’s grand proclamations with cynicism, or to see how long we’ve been trying to find a cure without success and grow hopeless. That’s the danger of limiting our definition of success to the achievement of the final goal. Would finding a cure for every kind of cancer be great? Absolutely. But for the person who is able to survive their struggle with the disease because of new developments in detection and treatment, those smaller victories are just as important.
The same is true in our walk with God. As a Christian, it can be easy to read verses like 2 Corinthians 5:17 and come away discouraged that our lives don’t always resemble the “new creation” Paul describes. In part, that realization serves an important purpose by reminding us that, though we are saved, we still have room to grow. However, if we let the fact that we are still liable to sin in this life discourage us, then we have taken that reminder too far.
In theological terms, it’s the difference between justification and sanctification. When you accepted Christ’s offer of salvation, you were justified in God’s eyes and the barriers that kept you from having a personal, saving relationship with him were torn down. But even though the eternal penalty of our sin has been removed, we still struggle to live out the new life to which we are called. That’s where sanctification comes in.
Every Christian that earnestly seeks to become more like Christ is in the process of being sanctified. That word “process” is important for us to remember. You see, God doesn’t expect us to be perfect but he does expect us to try with the help of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 5:48).
Just as we are not going to wake up tomorrow with a cure for cancer, we are not going to achieve that perfection this side of heaven. However, that doesn’t mean the progress we make is any less important. God delights in every temptation that we defeat in his strength and views every sin averted as an important victory in our spiritual development. So the next time you’re tempted to get discouraged by your latest failure, remember how far you’ve come and let that progress spur you on towards an even stronger walk with the Lord. God sees that progress as a success. Do you?