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Lessons from our son’s cancer

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Ryan and Candice Denison at their wedding shower (Credit: The Denison Family)

Today is our oldest son’s birthday.  Ryan James Denison changed our lives forever when he was born on this day in 1986.  He and his brother are the greatest gifts Janet and I have ever received from the Lord.  Both are married to amazing, beautiful, godly women, and both are serving the Lord in vocational ministry.  We would love to take credit for the men of God they have become, but we know that the Holy Spirit has formed their character far more than their parents.

I used to say that my father’s death when I was in college was the most painful experience of my life.  Then Ryan was diagnosed with cancer in January 2012.  Many of you prayed for him as he underwent surgery last February and radiation in March and April.  He is now cancer-free, for which we thank God every day.  However, since his type of malignancy sometimes returns many years later, he will continue to be scanned.  His next MRI is in April, and we are praying for another good result.

Shortly after his diagnosis, Ryan told me that he was angry with the Lord for allowing this to happen to him, a sentiment I certainly shared.  Then he said: “As I prayed about this, I sensed that God wants this to be a ‘thorn in the flesh’ that he will use to help me trust him more than I would have otherwise.”  I’ll never forget that conversation.

As you may know, the Apostle Paul suffered from a “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7).  Scholars debate its nature—some think it was malaria, others suggest migraine headaches or failing eyesight (cf. Galatians 6:11, where Paul states, “See what large letters I use as I write to you in my own hand!”).

While we don’t know the identity of his “thorn,” we do know its result: after Paul prayed three times for God to remove it, he heard the Lord say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  The apostle concluded: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vs. 10-11).

Likewise, Ryan is grateful for the ways God has redeemed his cancer.  He has learned to rely on the Lord for his future and his health.  He and his wife depend on the Father far more than they would have if he had never developed this terrible disease.  They are examples to me whenever I become discouraged—if God can redeem cancer, he can redeem anything.

What is your “thorn in the flesh” today?

NOTE: I’d like you to know about the “Freedom Cancer Foundation.”  This is a young non-profit organization seeking to meet the needs of people with cancer through financial grants and local church networking.  Greg Anderson, FCF’s founder, served as his mother’s caregiver during her cancer illness.  In honor of her struggle, FCF will be holding the “Really Big Car Wash,” 50 car washes at 50 different locations on one day in Dallas/Ft. Worth.  To learn more or to sign up to help, go to