How do you sense God is with you during deep personal struggle? How do you hold onto faith when faith itself seems lost? Whether in struggle, illness, death, or failure, the presence of pain causes us to question the presence of God. We pray and watch the sky, crossing our spiritual fingers for proof of God’s nearness. And in the silence, we sense something more sinister: perceived abandonment.
Bible Gateway interviewed Michele Cushatt (@MicheleCushatt), author of Relentless: The Unshakable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves (Zondervan, 2019).
Describe the hardship you’ve experienced with cancer.
Michele Cushatt: In 2010, two days before Thanksgiving, I received an unexpected phone call from my doctor. Moments before, I’d sent my children off to school and my husband was about to leave for work. Then the phone rang. And in the span of a few moments, I found out I had Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Tongue. Cancer.
I was a 39-year-old mama and wife who ran half-marathons, ate healthy, and never smoked a day in her life. In addition, I made my living as a communicator. The doctor’s words devastated me in every way.
Although over the next weeks and months that initial cancer diagnosis would prove to be a “best case scenario”—cancer caught early—it wouldn’t be the end of my struggle. Three years later, it would come back. And then again, eight months later, for a third time, even more aggressive and serious than before. Thus, my doctors gave me two weeks to get my affairs in order. And then I went through a 9-hour surgery to remove two-thirds of my tongue, followed by months of intensive chemotherapy and radiation on the head and neck. In short, the doctors told me they took me to brink of death in hopes of maybe saving my life.
By the time all was said and done, I had scars over much of my body, burns on my face and neck, a feeding tube for five months, a tracheostomy for two, and I would never eat or speak the same again. It would take more than two years for me to physically recover enough to return to a semi-normal life. And although the physical suffering was overwhelming, the emotional and spiritual wounds proved to be even more difficult. Where was God in the middle of so much pain and loss? He seemed silent, indifferent, and I feared he’d abandoned me.
What are the ways you’ve found to trust God during intense suffering?
Michele Cushatt: Initially, I wanted God to prove himself, to demonstrate his reality and power in breathtaking miracles and mind-blowing encounters. I thought that if I could just see obvious proof of the supernatural, I’d be able to trust him more. But God called my bluff. And eventually I realized that the sensational might boost my faith for a time, but eventually the experience would dim in the light of new challenges. And, once again, I’d be right back where I started.
I didn’t need more proof of him; I needed more trust in him. Thus, I went back to Scripture and read it from beginning to end, searching for tangible evidence of God’s presence. He’s already demonstrated his faithfulness over generations. And I had to decide if I trusted him based on his character and history or doubt him based on my own.
What is the story of Joshua you include in the book? How do you help readers find their own “altar stones”?
Michele Cushatt: In Joshua 3 and 4, we find a story of Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan River. After 400 years of living in slavery in Egypt and then 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness, the Israelites were finally headed to the Promised Land, a place they’d long dreamed of. But the Jordan River stood in their way, far too deep and dangerous to cross. Even so, God told them to carry the Ark of the Covenant—the visible proof of his presence—into the middle of the river. When the priests’ toes touched the water, God caused the Jordan River to pile up in a heap at a distance. In an instant, the muddy river bed turned dry and all of the Israelites crossed over to the other side. A miracle!
However, God wasn’t done yet. While the priests still stood in the middle of the dry Jordan River, God sent 12 Israelites back into the middle of the Jordan and told them to pull out 12 stones; stones that they would set up as an altar on the bank of the river. The reason? So when they faced more hard times in the future, they’d remember a God whose presence delivered them in the past.
This is the mission of Relentless. In each of 12 chapters, I challenge the reader to search the pages of her story to find evidence of God’s presence; “stones” that she can set up as a reminder of God’s faithful presence even in the most difficult of circumstances. Then, no matter what comes tomorrow, she’ll have reminders of God’s relentless presence and affection.
Michele Cushatt: I debated whether or not to include those reflections throughout the entire writing process. Although my father gave me permission to share before his death, I didn’t want to do anything to dishonor him. Ultimately I decided to include them for this reason: I hear from so many men and women who struggle with their faith as a result of the wounds of other people of faith. I get it.
Although I loved my father and he loved me, wounds in our relationship made it hard to feel close to him. My fear of my father translated to a fear of God. Thus, my relationship with God took on the same legalism and spiritual distance. As a child, I blamed myself. Then, as an adult, I blamed him.
However, including his story with mine gave me a new perspective. How far back would I take the blame? To my father? His father? His father’s father? And what about my children? They could certainly make a case for my own failures. Would they blame me, too?
The truth is we’re all wounded people who, despite our best intentions, end up wounding others. And although our pain is valid, there’s a God who saw our bleeding hearts and determined to heal us all. That means each one of us—father and daughter, mother and son—are recipients of extravagant grace, children of a loving Father who will one day make each one of us whole.
What is your response to the statement “God will never give you more than you can handle”?
Michele Cushatt: Although this cliché sounds nice, it’s simply not true. The pages of the Bible are filled with stories of men and women and children who were given circumstances far more difficult than they could handle. Moses. David. Esther. Elijah. John the Baptist. If you read Hebrews 11, you’ll see a long list of the faithful who encountered circumstances that were not solved, healed, or removed. Even so, they still believed.
Jesus said clearly: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Pain and suffering are a part of the human experience. Thus, as followers of Jesus—the one whose very purpose was to suffer—we must remember a critical truth: What is at stake isn’t our comfort or even our lives. What is at stake is our faith.
Learn more about trusting God through suffering through the daily devotional, ‘Standing Strong Through the Storm.’
What do you mean, “God won’t always rescue me . . . But the Bible says he will always be with me”?
Michele Cushatt: I can’t pretend to make sense of why some people receive healing and miracles and others don’t. It’s a mystery beyond my capacity to unravel and understand. However, what I can do is decide whether or not I’ll trust God’s proven character and words. If the Gospel of John 3:16-17 is true—and it is—then no matter what happens on earth, it’ll only get better for me from here. God’s greatest desire is to save us so he can be with us, forever. That means everything he does or doesn’t do is filtered through his ocean of love for us
Please explain when you write, “What we need is not more proof of God, but more trust in him.”
Michele Cushatt: It’s easy to think that if we had more tangible, black and white proof of God’s reality, we could believe him more. However, the 12 disciples walked with Jesus day after day for three years and watched him perform countless, obvious miracles. The wine was multiplied, the lame walked, the blind were made to see, and the dead came back to life.
Even today, with all our technology and medical advancements, these things don’t happen. The disciples witnessed regular evidence of the supernatural. Even so, when Jesus was arrested, every one of them left him. Three years of miracles didn’t cement their faith. Instead, when the inexplicable happened, they doubted and ran. The same is true of us. Proof doesn’t always make faith. But trust in the goodness and affection does.
Why did you write this book?
Michele Cushatt: Originally, I wrote Relentless to help me process some of my difficult questions and disappointments surrounding a lifetime of faith. Although I’d known Jesus from infancy, there were some holes in my theology. I still believed I needed to be “good” for God to love me. Thus, when I experienced a series of consecutive and significant losses in my adulthood, I feared the God I’d always loved was either disappointed in me or had abandoned me.
Writing Relentless was my search for truth, my desire to put a flawed theology up to the light until what was false was revealed and only what was true remained.
And, ultimately, I wrote Relentless for you—other faith-hungry, question-riddled, truth-seeking men and women who desperately want to believe but don’t know how to find God in their pain.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Michele Cushatt: I have many favorite Bible passages, but the one I keep coming back to in this season is Romans 8:35-39. I’ll never outgrow my need to be reminded of God’s relentless, unfailing, never-ending love for me. It’s what I need most of all. And it’s what he’s given to me, without condition.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Michele Cushatt: Honestly, being asked to do this interview with Bible Gateway has been a sweet gift for me. I’ve used Bible Gateway almost daily for more than a decade. I’ve used it for my own research purposes, and for blog posts and other writing I’ve done. And, yes, I used it as I wrote Relentless. Bible Gateway has been such a key part of my spiritual growth and development. And to be asked to contribute here? An honor.
P.S. Have you read my new book Relentless? If not, you might enjoy this video. And if you have, thank you—I’d truly appreciate a review!
Relentless is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: As an experienced communicator, Michele Cushatt speaks internationally to a wide variety of audiences including Women of Faith, Life Today TV, Compassion International, Ziglar Family, Family Life Blended, and Focus on the Family. A three-time head and neck cancer survivor and parent of “children from hard places,” Michele is a (reluctant) expert of trauma, pain, and the deep human need for authentic connection. She’s the author of Relentless, Undone, and I Am. She and her husband, Troy, share a blended family of six children, including biological children, stepchildren, and foster-adopt children. They live in Denver, Colorado.