A Review of
Joy in the Journey: Finding Abundance in the Shadow of Death
Steve and Sharol Hayner
Hardback: IVP Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Kevin Wildman
I have become convinced over the past few year that one of the biggest idols in the American culture is life. Often it seems that people are willing to go to extremes to get one more day with a loved one, often sacrificing quality of life for quantity of days. In their magnificent work, Joy in the Journey, Steve and Sharol Hayner help the reader to realize that life is not an idol. In fact Steve writes, “But life is about a lot more than physical health. It is measured by a lot more than medical tests and vital signs.” (62). As simple as it seems, this is a lesson that I think is desperately needed for today.
Joy in the Journey, is compiled from the online journal entries Steve and Sharol, along with a few others made, during their journey through Steve’s battle with pancreatic cancer. Since I think that our culture doesn’t often handle death well, I found this work incredibly refreshing. The reader learns before the journal even begins that Steve passed away before this journal was completed, which means that Sharol and others are acknowledging that there is joy even in death. Since joy was a major theme of Steve’s life, it is the overarching theme of this journal turned book, as the title suggests. However, due to the nature of the journal, there are many sub themes that come based on what Steve, Sharol, or others are dealing with at the time; themes like prayer, the ability to minister, helping children deal with death, love, the Church, and the various ways in which God answers prayer, to name a few.
One of the many characteristics I greatly appreciated about this work was the theme of trusting God unconditionally. Sometimes this trust was stated very specifically, “We’ll choose the way of trust and joy instead.” (28) and “God will be faithful to hold us and carry us no matter what happens.” (31, emphasis added). Other times the trust is implied, as in the May 7 reference to the fiery furnace of Daniel 3. It was very clear throughout that Steve and Sharol had placed their trust and hope in God, even if this sickness did not have the ending of an earthly healing. In a culture that idolizes life, we can benefit greatly from a healthy reminder that we can trust God even in the midst of death.
There are several times in which the Hayners deal with prayer and the ways in which it is or is not answered. Every week at church we hear people list prayer requests for healing, as a pastor I am regularly receiving prayer requests as well. Much of the time I struggle with knowing how to handle and respond to requests for healing prayers. My struggle is not so much with praying, but with the response people have when prayer is not answered the way they want it to be. Steve handles this topic writing, “Many are praying for one of God’s ‘big’ miracles. We are as well. But it is not how God answers prayer that determines our response to God.” (64). This may be one of the most important teachings on prayer that I have ever read. Like many others, I have listened to people explain their faithlessness as the result of an unanswered prayer, again this theology of unanswered prayer is desperately needed today.
However, Steve’s theology of prayer, healing, and death doesn’t end with their unconditional trust in God, no matter how He does or doesn’t answer their prayer. “God is committed to my ultimate healing. But being cured of my cancer may or may not be a part of that healing work.” (65). It is very easy for us to become focused on our physical life, we can see it, we can measure it with vital signs, we can evaluate it with tests. It is not as easy for us to live with eternity in mind, even as people of faith this can be a struggle. As I read Steve’s words I couldn’t help but think of 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. Our hope is really in eternal healing, so we need always to remember that sometimes healing comes through death rather than life.
Steve and Sharol Hayner have given the Church a fantastic gift in their work on death and dying, specifically dying well. Even more than a contribution on dying well, Joy in the Journey will help one to live well. In his words during Steve’s son Chip quoted Steve saying, “Don’t worry about leaving a legacy. Just worry about being faithful…and God will do the rest.” (141). Not only do Steve’s words apply to leaving a legacy, they are applicable to living and dying also. When we strive for continued faithfulness, we live well. When we faithfully live well to the end, we die well.
I think it is safe to say most would agree that for one to live a life well, they must do more than just live. Where we struggle to agree is how we measure that “more.” How do we quantify doing enough to live well? For some it is in net worth, for others it is in their possessions, still others their productivity. Steve provides us with one of the best self-examination questions I’ve seen, “So the real question about my day is not, ‘How productive was it?’ but rather, ‘How much joy did my activity bring, and how much love and gratitude did it express?’” (108). If the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second like it to love people, and we are repeatedly commanded to give thanks and be joyful, what better question is there to ask ourselves at the end of the day than this?
While not written as a theology textbook, Joy in the Journey, is one of the best theology books I’ve ever read. This is a book that anyone who has, is, or will journey through a terminal illness needs to read. Furthermore, as a pastor walking with people as they anticipate death, and grieve the loss of loved ones, this book is an incredible resource. Joy in the Journey has helped me better understand prayer, death, and prayer. I think this will be contributing to the Christian conversation for many years to come.