'I was diagnosed with incurable cancer at 48. One sleepless night, the Lord reminded me of the blessings He had bestowed on me... my thankfulness has encouraged me through 23 years of surviving my illness'
In conversation with Royce Johnson
Royce Johnson is a retired American eye surgeon and the Belfast director of the CS Lewis Institute, which is having its first banquet tonight at Queen's University Belfast.
Q. Can you tell us something about yourself?
A. My wife, Susan, and I are retired eye surgeons. We served as short-term missionaries in the Congo, Zaire and Kenya. For the past four years I have been serving as the Belfast director of the CS Lewis Institute. The institute was founded in Washington 40 years ago with the goal of helping local churches. The past four years here have been wonderful and we have been graciously welcomed by the biblically-based community in Northern Ireland.
Q. When did you come to faith?
A. I grew up in a Christian home and always had a desire to read missionary stories. These (missionaries) were my heroes. I read the entire Bible between the ages of 10 and 13 and came to faith as a boy of 12. My small community in Pennsylvania was hosting evangelistic services. I went alone and felt the Lord prompting me to 'walk the aisle' and accept Jesus as my Saviour. I believe that God had a call on my life from that moment onward.
At age 30, I was baptised in Lake Michigan and, with that obedient step, I sensed that Jesus became not only my Saviour, but also the Lord and master of my life. The Holy Spirit was convicting me to make Jesus pre-eminent.
Q. Does faith play a real part in your daily life?
A. Following Jesus is how I attempt to live my life. This personal relationship is the guiding light of all my thoughts, plans and decisions. I am not perfect in this, but I seek to develop the heart and mind of Christ and have this apprentice relationship guide my daily living.
We cannot 'earn' our salvation by doing good works, but I am convinced that the Holy Spirit prompts us to be active in His endeavours where we live.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
A. At university and medical school I realised that my faith was having only minimal influence on my life.
While studying in Newcastle upon Tyne, I began reading CS Lewis's Mere Christianity. The Lord used Lewis's insightful and challenging writing to prompt me to unashamedly live a godly life. His very logical writings offered me confidence in expressing my faith among my peers. I found out later that my future wife, Susan, and her girlfriends were earnestly praying for me.
I was diagnosed with incurable multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer) at 48 and given three years to live. I began taking my four boys on trips, so they would remember their father. Although I was not angry with God, I was extremely distraught.
During one sleepless night, the Lord reminded me of the innumerable blessings of friends and opportunities that He had bestowed on me.
The first couple that came to mind were Assembly of God missionaries, who befriended and helped us in innumerable practical ways as we worked as eye surgeons at the Lighthouse for Christ eye centre in Mombasa, Kenya.
That night, as I began to thank Him in prayer, my demeanour dramatically changed. Over the course of an hour, I developed an attitude of pure thankfulness and this has encouraged me throughout these 23 years of surviving cancer. God has been so good to me.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God?
A. I don't think that I have been angry with God. However, during this past year I have witnessed the rapid death of a beautiful sister in the Lord. This was very distressing.
Sharon was a dear friend of Susan's and mine and was a wonderful mentor and encourager in the Fellows Programme. I found myself asking God, why?
Her consistent and beautiful faith during her illness was an enormous encouragement and life lesson to everyone who knew her.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. I try to express my faith in the context of respectful dialogue and friendship. My friends know that I would actually welcome their criticism.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your Church?
A. The Fellows Programme dedicates an entire month studying and emphasising the Christian trait of humility. When I find myself, or other followers of Jesus, exhibiting a proud or arrogant attitude, I do feel ashamed. Living a life of humility is a daily challenge for us all.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?
A. Scripture is very clear that all believers who have experienced the new birth will experience a bodily resurrection. Jesus is described as the "first fruit" of this bodily resurrection and, therefore, like Jesus, believers will be raised from the dead with new resurrection bodies into the eternal presence of God.
Q. Are you worried about Hell?
A. Scripture teaches that Hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who have refused the gracious offer of Jesus.
With Jesus' death and resurrection, He took the punishment that my sins deserve. I have accepted his provision of eternal life and need not fear hell.
The theologian John Piper states that: "I know of no one who has overstated the terror of Hell. We are meant to tremble and feel dread.
"We are meant to recoil from the reality. Not by denying it, but by fleeing from it into the arms of Jesus, who died to save us from it."
Q. What about death? Are you afraid to die?
A. Although I live with an incurable illness, I do not ultimately fear death. However, I do enjoy this earthly life of beauty, friends and family. I have a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
I believe that, upon death, I will enter into the presence of God. Psalm 16:11 reads: "You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand."
Q. What do you think about people of other faiths?
A. I place a high value on my personal friendships. This would include friends of other faith traditions, or of no expressed belief in God. I regularly learn from these friends as they exhibit kindness, compassion and patience.
Q. Why are many people turning their backs on organised religion?
A. This is a complex issue. The Church is far from perfect and is made up of flawed people.
Many turn their backs on the Church because they have experienced hypocrisy, or something far worse. If people only followed the command to love God and their neighbours as themselves, this would attract people to the Church.
Many people want to lead their lives as only they choose. The Bible does address various moral, social and ethical issues, but this can be viewed by many as an unacceptable restriction.
Also, we must realise that God does not reveal himself to casual seekers. He gives himself to those who earnestly seek him. Still others leave the Church because contemporary life is far too busy and stressful. As Jesus described in the Parable of the Sower, people hear the Gospel but find it crowded out with the riches, worries and pleasures of life.
Q. Your favourite book, movie and music, and why?
A. CS Lewis has been my literary mentor and his fiction and non-fiction have served as valued guideposts in my spiritual journey. Jane Austen is also a favourite author. I sense that she is an extremely insightful person who deeply understands human nature and behaviour. I learn much about myself and others from her novels.
I enjoy watching old films, such as Casablanca. I also like lots of music, ranging from country and western and rock 'n' roll to Beethoven's symphonies and Chris Rice's Come To Jesus.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. I feel closest to God during Communion.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. A faithful follower of Jesus and servant of God.
Q. Have you any major regrets?
A. Susan and I have loved our four-and-a-half years living in Northern Ireland and possibly regret that we didn't visit, or live, here sooner. We are returning to Arkansas next month.