A Hope & A Future — Michael Dietzel

In the fall of 2023, I was overwhelmed with satisfaction in the kind gifts God had given me. I loved working at my church where I could enable and accomplish large amounts of ministry. I had good relationships with the people in my church and with my own immediate family. And after a decade of pursuing relationships, God had finally graced me with a girlfriend whom I loved and intended to marry. For someone who often looks at the world like Charlie Brown, I was overflowing with hope and joy. God doesn’t have to bring satisfaction through physical means, but at that time I was flush with them and praised God for his kind choice to do so.

Within 6 months nearly everything had changed and I became overwhelmed not with God’s good gifts, but with the pain he had brought into my life.

As I entered my 20’s I began acting in earnest on my God-given desire to marry and start a family. I long to find a spouse to love and have struggled with the many “no’s” I’ve received in that pursuit. My attempts to pursue relationships have led to much rejection, pain, and discouragement instead of mutual love and affection in marriage. In the midst of this trial, I have found great joy serving in my church, something I believe God has especially equipped me to do as a single person (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:32-34). I love being able to serve more and differently than the married people around me, but even as I do, God continues to give me a longing for marriage.

In the fall of 2023 I believed that God had finally answered my prayers for a wife with a yes. But as I began the process of buying a ring for the girl I loved, she unexpectedly broke up with me. I was absolutely devastated and broken in spirit as a result. But as much as this felt like the greatest of pains in the moment, as I look back it was actually just the beginning of what God had in store for me.

A few weeks after my breakup I went to the doctor for what I had been told should be a normal checkup. Instead my urologist told me that I had testicular cancer. I was blown away with this news, especially when he told me that he could remove my testicle that day! As I tried to digest the incredible news, I learned that this cancer was quick moving, and thus highly dangerous, but also easily treatable. Because the spread was quick and drastic, however, the treatment had to be quick and drastic as well, which explained my doctor’s offer.

I chose to wait a few days to process the shock of it all, but I did have surgery soon after. My doctors were great and the surgery was successful, leaving me free of cancer. I would not need any other treatment, just scans and check-ins to monitor if there was any return. I was given around a 5% chance that the cancer would ever return, for which I was grateful.

I was not free of shame, however. While my recovery went well, I grew weary of discussing the intimate details required to explain my type of cancer. I battled lies about my diminished masculinity as well. I began to struggle with how this physical struggle hit so close to my masculinity. I also reckoned with connected feelings of impotence and inability related to nerve damage in my back from a childhood fall. This nerve damage has led to great pain in my left leg and has given me great difficulty with something as normal as walking or standing up. My nerve damage has affected my abdomen and left me without feeling in or control of many muscles from my waist down, leading to many other embarrassing and frustrating issues.

As I continued to recover from my surgery and grapple with these feelings, I began to slip deeper and deeper into spiritual frustration. The aftermath of my breakup left things icy between my ex-girlfriend and I, and when we crossed paths in social settings it was a constant reminder of the pain and friction I felt. Several well-meaning members of my church made some comments that hurt me and left me feeling unable to trust those closest to me. I felt increasingly alone, desperate, and hopeless. By God’s grace he helped me reach out to those closest to me, my pastors, my family, and my dearest friends. They began to help me work through my circumstances and buoyed me up when I was unable to keep my head above water.

I would need them more than I thought. 2 months after successful surgery, I felt several unnatural bumps on my remaining testicle. All my tests had come back clean of cancer, but I asked my doctor to have another scan to be safe. The results came back that my cancer indeed had returned. This devastated me. While my first diagnosis was unexpected and significant, I was grateful that surgery was the biggest hardship. My fertility or quality of life would not be affected moving forward. But with the return of cancer, that all went out the window. I immediately began the process of attempting to bank sperm before my impending second surgery to remove my remaining testicle. This process brought added shame and pain as I walked alone through fertility centers and processes usually meant for couples. I did not know if I would even have the opportunity to walk through the door I was trying to keep open, I only knew this was my last chance if I ever wanted to try to have biological children, something I desperately desired.

After the uncomfortable process of sperm banking, I eagerly awaited news from the lab. When I was notified that I had not produced anything viable to preserve, I was devastated again. Though I tried several times, each result showed that my cancer had moved so far as to render my testicle infertile already. I found this out at the beginning of March, which made things exponentially more painful. I was born in March. My father was born in March. His father was as well, as was his, and going back 5 generations, there have been Dietzel men who were born in March. I am the only son of my Father, so I have long desired to have a son to carry on the family name, and have often thought that the cherry on top would be to have a son born in March. But rather than March bringing the joy of an heir, it brought the crushing weight of certain infertility.

Though the pain of not having children had been a part of my trial of singleness, it had always been on the same level of pain for me as marriage. I lacked both, but trusted that God could provide them in his time if he desired. When I had to face the biological certainty of my infertility, I was crushed. My tears flowed steadily and extensively in the weeks leading up to and following my surgery. This also pressed on my pain as a single person, because even though I know that if someone truly loved me, they would overlook my infertility, objectively it added another hurdle with which a potential partner would have to come to grips.

The path on which God is leading me is far from over – recent scans revealed that the tumor I had removed in 2023 had spread without our realization, leading to a major abdominal surgery. I also await surgery on my back to hopefully address my nerve damage. But even as my circumstances offer no relief, God does. He has granted me, for the moment, a cancer free bill of health. He granted me reconciliation both with members of my church and with my ex-girlfriend, using difficult conversations to put an end to months of bitterness and pain in my heart. And he has cared for me through dozens of believers who have shared my burden and grieved while I grieve. God used them to reinforce my belief in the sustaining grace God gives through his body.

Scripture in general has given me great hope in the midst of everything God has brought my way. In Romans 8:18 Paul says “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He adds in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 “16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” These things have to be true. If they are not, I am hopeless.

But beyond the larger perspective God gives on suffering, he gave me specific encouragement as well. Though children are a blessing from the Lord, as is a godly wife, and though he delights to bless many believers with both, he is good even when he doesn’t. He is good enough. He is more than enough. It is incredibly hard to deal with infertility, especially as a single man. But I’ve found incredible comfort through God’s promises in Isaiah 54-56. Just after describing the self-sacrificial love of Jesus to take the sin of all who trust in him in chapter 53, the first person who receives a promise of hope is a barren woman, followed shortly after by a eunuch. 

Isaiah 54:1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.

In verses 1-8, this woman is described as barren, unmarried, ashamed, disgraced, widowed, and cast off from her husband. In many ways she stands for Israel, but in many more God speaks to people in these categories to show them how the gospel specifically addresses their pain and shame. God tenderly cares for the barren and rejected. He goes to them with his great love and gives them spiritual children, more even than the physical children of those around them.

These have long been encouraging verses to me as a single person and have prompted me to foster relationships and bear “spiritual children” from my advantageous place as a single person in my church. But when I read these verses as someone facing not just current, but permanent barrenness was life-giving. Scores of people whom I had poured into and viewed as my spiritual children surrounded me in the days and weeks following my cancer diagnosis and encouraged me with the ways I had loved them. They helped me believe that my efforts had not been in vain. 

Shortly after speaking words of salvation to the barren woman, God addresses a eunuch in Isaiah 56:3-5: Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” 4 For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5 I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

Throughout Scripture God worked in many miraculous ways to open the wombs of barren women, and I and many others prayed for miraculous preservation in my case as well. However, that didn’t come, and I am not aware of any miraculous births from the loins of a eunuch (though I trust God’s miraculous power to do whatever he chooses). So for the eunuch, who in the old covenant was kept from the temple due to his deformity, to be promised access to God and a name and monument better than children is overwhelming!

While I hold my interpretation with an open hand, when God says that infertile believers will have something better than children, I don’t think it just means that Jesus is better than children, though that is true. While having Jesus is a joy sufficient to deal with the pain of infertility, God promises something comparatively better than children, and those with children have access to Jesus too. If believing mothers and fathers have Jesus and children, and believing eunuchs are promised something even better than that, I think God is saying that those without the blessing of children experience an even greater blessing that is impossible for those with a family. It’s a blessing I never would have chosen, but it’s something that I’m leaning into even more every day – the blessing of knowing Jesus more, knowing him uniquely, being united to him in his suffering in ways that a father can’t.

Like me, Jesus was a single, childless man in his 30’s when he died. He experienced shame, even shame related to his own nakedness at the cross (similar to the shame I feel talking so much about my intimate body parts). Yet he was no less man than the husbands and fathers around him. In fact, he is the ultimate example of biblical masculinity! Think of that – the definition of a biblical man was single and childless. Jesus demonstrated his masculinity by his gentleness, by his love for those around him, by sacrificing all of himself to care for the least of these. As I considered the unique blessing of infertility God had given me, I realized that I need not be ashamed of cancer’s effects on my physical masculinity. God is using my trial to draw me into unexpectedly deep unity and intimacy with Christ by making me one with him in his own experience of singleness, childlessness, and physical shame. And in uniting me to him in these ways, I have found deeper love, grace, joy, and life than I ever dreamed I would. 

What Scripture did you cling to on the hardest days and nights?

Isaiah 54:1-8
Isaiah 56:3-5
Psalm 56:8
Psalm 4:7
Psalm 42

What hymns or songs comforted you?

Anywhere – the Gray Havens (Long my favorite band, the Gray Havens released this song the same week I found with certainty that I was infertile and it has been a boon throughout my entire process of grief)

Lord From Sorrows Deep I Call (Psalm 42) – Matt Boswell, Matt Papa
Out of the Depths – Sovereign Grace Music
Still My Soul, Be Still – Keith and Kristyn Getty
He Will Hold Me Fast – Keith and Kristyn Getty, Matthew Merker

What did people do that ministered to you?

Sat with me and let me talk.
Brought meals.
Cried with me.
Sent me handwritten notes.
Gave unasked for gifts.
Not only prayed for me but let me know what they were praying. 

What should people NOT say or do in a similar circumstance?

“I don’t trust the medical treatment you’ve chosen. You should try this alternative I’ve heard about”. I had to practice a lot of the 1 Corinthians 13:7 aspect of love that “believes all things” as I tried to believe the best of many well-intentioned people who gave hurtful advice when I shared about my cancer. Some even laughed at me when I turned down their offers. I’m sure that much of what people like this said was true, but I learned a deeper meaning of why we must not just speak the truth, but speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). While “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11), I found that a word, even a true word, unfitly spoken could crush my soul like little else. I was helped much more by those who simply acknowledged how bad my circumstances were rather than seeking to fix them for me.

“You would be such a good father” While this came from a place of trying to agree with my grief, it ended up increasing my pain. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12), and this comment poured salt on my wound by reminding me that I seemed well suited to a calling God hadn’t given me.

“You can still adopt.” This one is tricky because I have long desired to adopt and my circumstances do not change that. But this is another true statement that wasn’t helpful to me while I was grieving the loss of my physical ability to have children. Much like Elkanah’s attempts to console barren Hannah in 1 Samuel 1, offering something in place of what is lost is not helpful. It’s better just to grieve what is lost, at least at first.

“Got any medical updates?” This is a completely normal question to ask, but one I became increasingly frustrated by. I sent out regular updates to many people in my life and tried to set out the details of my treatment plan as far as was necessary for people to know. To then have people ask for more information on top of that often felt like prying. What’s more, I was struggling a lot in my own spirit with worrying about the possibilities of my medical future and had resolved in my heart not to meditate on the what ifs, so to be consistently asked about them became harder and harder. I was able to share with my friends and family about this reality and encouraged them instead to ask how I was doing rather than asking for medical specifics.

What hope has Jesus given you in your trial?

God changed my perspective on eternity and loosed my grip on now. He has long been prying my fingers off of this world by withholding marriage, but my recent circumstances helped show me how inferior the things of this world are. I long to be with Christ. God is so gracious to bless us with things in the here and now, but to be with him is far better. And if God is priming me as a single person to enjoy greater depth of intimacy with him than even married people can, even as I lack the human intimacy they enjoy, then I long for the day when I experience that greater quality and depth of union and relationship with him forever.

God also strengthened my understanding of how much he loves me. Not only does he care for me in the ways he loves every believer, my specific trials and infirmities and insufficiencies specifically draw me into his loving arms in ways I never would have expected. Seeing God’s heart towards the barren in Isaiah has carried me through the malaise of decades long unmet desires and is now sustaining me through the particular pain of certain infertility.

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