I was listening to a radio show a few days back when I heard some heartbreaking news. One of the shows regular guests was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer — the third time cancer has been found in his body. This time however, the severity of the disease is deemed to be fatal in the next three to five months.
As I listened to the radio hosts talk about their friend, and heard callers give sentiments over the air, I was struck by something even more heart breaking than the cancer news: no one offered any hope for the man. Instead, phrases like, “Fight like h***” and “live strong” and “beat the odds” and “thoughts and prayers my friend” were repeated over and over. Of course, those words can be encouraging and helpful to someone facing a terminal struggle with cancer — evidence that a whole slew of people, known and unknown, are supporting them.
Yet after several segments and phone calls, one of the hosts made this comment: sometimes these words just don’t seem like enough — I wish there was more we could say or do.
I remember my friend Richard as he faced the reality of his own death. He had battled cancer, several times, and when his body began shutting down he knew the end was near. Richard was a man with a great deal of influence, though generally a pretty quiet guy. He was well-loved and as he faced the end, the words expressed to him were similar, with one striking difference.
More than once I was in his house or his hospital room when others shared words of hope with Richard. Sure, they talked about fighting the sickness and they prayed for healing, but they also reminded Richard of the glorious hope that awaited him on the other side of this life. They reassured him that his future was bright in Christ; they read encouraging words of Scripture.
One sweet moment I was with him and his wife Marietta as she sat by his bed holding his hand. She lovingly reminded him that they would be reunited in Heaven, and even in her sorrow, she found hope. How different those words sound!
A terminal diagnosis is a sickening piece of news to receive. However, as often as I’ve seen it delivered and received by people over my years of pastoral ministry, I have found only one way to prepare for that unexpected nightmare: be in a personal relationship with Jesus when it comes, or get to know him quickly afterward.
Occasionally a diagnosis will be wrong, or a medication can change the outcome for a patient. We also know that God can heal any illness. The Scriptures are full of stories of people who were touched by God and as a result experienced total healing. Sometimes God steps in and does the miraculous. Sometimes.
Often times, however, God chooses not to intervene, and instead lets the natural results of disease, sickness and pain run their course. The prospect of facing that, or in many cases, of watching a loved one experience it, is terrifying. No words can change the reality of the disease or the certainty of death, any more than words can change the reality that all of us are dying and must face the certainty of our own terminal existence.
That’s why having a relationship with Jesus is the most important choice any of us can make. The only person in which hope truly lives, is Christ. Hope from Him is the only sustaining truth for those whose lives are ending. Hope that there is a home waiting for those in Christ (John 14:1-4) and that it is a beautiful place where sin, disease and death have truly met their end (Revelation 21:1-5). Hope that this life isn’t the end of our existence (2 Corinthians 15:42-44), and hope that our legacy is eternal — even if no one remembers us on this side of glory (2 Timothy 4:8). And maybe most of all, hope that we will be reunited with everyone who has died before us — everyone who also put their faith in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
I watched my friend Richard deteriorate quickly, and pass into the presence of Christ. I was in the room when my friend Dennis breathed his last and went home to be with the Lord. I showed up moments after James died, I held baby Brian, a perfect stillborn child who passed to glory while in the womb, and I was with the family when Riley passed on. In all of these heart-breaking moments, one constant remained: those who knew Christ had a hope that lived in them, a hope that did not exist for those without Jesus.
Death stinks. Cancer is an enraged animal that knows no compassion or pity. Heart disease, kidney failure and diabetes can be silent killers that destroy people without prejudice. And even if we live life without these, we face the ever-ticking time clock that represents our lives: each of us is dying, some just happen to be passing faster than others.
But even in death we are not without hope when we know Jesus as Savior. He offers a cure for our greatest illness, the disease of sin, one that doesn’t just destroy the body, but worse — destroys our souls! When Jesus died and rose again (the essence of the Easter celebration!) he conquered death, cured sin and dished-out life-changing doses of hope and comfort. Do you, personally, possess the hope and comfort He gives?
I often pray for people to be cured of some fatal illness; though I’ve never met him, I prayed for that radio host to be miraculously relieved of his illness. I regularly pray for the health and well-being of my family and friends, and for God to protect them from a dreadful diagnosis. More than anything, though, I pray that each of us would embrace Jesus, embrace the reality of our terminal sin condition and the only possible cure: faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Have you embraced Him today?
Go ahead and take the plunge, life — even life with a terminal illness! — is better on the water.