“I see a spot we need to keep an eye on.” Cancer. It wasn’t a diagnosis that I ever expected to hear as a young man about to start a family. Immediately, my mind filled with questions: How will I tell my wife? How will she manage if I die? What will the treatment cost? Am I ready to die?
There were no words in the immediate aftermath. It helped that the cancer with which I’d been diagnosed has a 95% cure rate, but I’d be lying if I said that eliminated my worries. A 95% cure rate isn’t a 100% cure rate. Would I be part of the “unlucky” few? How would it be possible to maintain a straight face and tell my wife that “everything’s going to be all right” when I had no control over that? Sometimes things don’t turn out all right — at least in the short term.
As scary as that moment was, it pales in comparison to what I felt when I heard the news my wife and I received just after our fourth child was born a little over two years ago. “Your son has Pfeiffer syndrome, a rare genetic disease that affects one in one hundred thousand people. We don’t know what this means for him yet. He will certainly have developmental delays, but his prognosis could be anything from a normal life to severe mental and physical limitations to death.” I’m paraphrasing a bit here, for the doctors did not say things so matter-of-factly. But it was the most frightening moment of my life. How were we ever going to handle this?
People die every day. Babies, teenagers, young mothers, middle-age fathers, the elderly — death is no respecter of persons. It’s not exactly true that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. You can avoid taxes. If you’re willing to put up with jail time, you need not pay the tax man. Death, on the other hand, is certain. Apart from those who are living when the Savior returns to consummate His Kingdom, no one gets out of this world alive. And long before we breathe our last, all of us are going to face disease and watch friends and family suffer, or even suffer ourselves. Right now, as I am updating this article, the whole world is dealing with COVID-19. Death and disease are very much on everyone’s mind.
Why do we fear death so much? For non-Christians, the answer is easy. No matter how they suppress the truth in unrighteousness, whether by atheism, agnosticism, or false religion, they can’t escape their God-given awareness that they’ve broken His law and deserve Hell.
Christians also fear death and disease. Of course, we know that we’re not supposed to, and we’d never tell anyone that we harbor such fears. Certainly, we know all the right things to say about death: God is sovereign. He has a good purpose in my pain. The Lord can teach and sanctify my family, friends, and me through the process of suffering and dying. Often, however, we say these things because we “have to” and not because we’re fully convinced. I’ve been guilty of that.
Believers don’t fear death and disease for the same reasons as non-Christians because we know Christ has a home for us in Heaven (John 14:1–3). Instead, we fear losing control. We insure ourselves against property loss. We order our days so that we are most productive. By and large, we enjoy happy and fulfilling relationships by listening to others and giving of ourselves. But despite our best efforts, we can’t keep death and disease away.
We also fear suffering. Nobody wants a terminal illness. Nobody wants chronic pain. Nobody wants to lose his mental faculties. Nobody wants to see a friend, parent, child, or grandparent endure surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or any other drastic measure to keep that person alive.
In many ways, it’s right to fear death and suffering. Since God made the universe “very good” (Gen. 1:1–2:4), death and disease are intruders. They’re here because of sin, and they’ll be gone in the new heavens and earth. Until then, however, we must live with our fear of death and disease. How can we glorify God in so doing?
I can’t give all the answers, but I hope to offer some help.
1. We should know why we fear death and disease
If you fear death because you are not reconciled to God, then you must be reconciled today by trusting in Christ alone. In so trusting, you will stand clothed in Jesus’ perfect righteousness before the Judge of all, and He will welcome you into His Kingdom. He has promised to give eternal life to all who believe in Jesus.
2. Admit your fears to God and others
I don’t know all the reasons why the Lord allows us to suffer. I do know that He uses our pain to conform us to Christ. Confessing our fears gives people the opportunity to pray for us and encourage us to keep our eyes on Jesus, not our suffering. It allows us to bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).
3. Help make your church a place where people can admit their fears honestly
Talk to your leaders about what you can do to create a church culture where people can find help if they or someone they love is facing the specter of death and disease. Help with bereavement support groups, take meals to suffering families — there’s no end to what can be done. During our trial with our youngest son, our church, Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., has been exceptional at this. Pastors and elders have prayed with us and have visited us in the hospital. Deacons have offered practical and financial assistance. In particular, I want to highlight the women in the congregation who have brought us meals when our son has had surgery and hospital stays and have even provided childcare when our extended family (who have also been incredible) was unavailable. A group of them, on their own initiative and without our asking, even organized themselves and cleaned our house during the worst of it. The support and care that the body of Christ offers its hurting members is a gift to help us endure gloomy days.
4. Trust God’s sovereignty
Death and disease don’t surprise Him. He’s numbered our days (Ps. 139:16), so He’s always accomplishing His good purposes for us.
5. Meditate on God’s promises until they become part of your very soul
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). These words of life comfort us in dark days.
Ten years and four children later, I’m cancer-free. After many surgeries and with more on the way, our youngest son is developing well. Though there remain many unknowns, he appears to have one of the least severe cases of his syndrome. But death still lies ahead for me and for us all. Let us face our fear of it with courage, because Jesus has already faced death for us and won.
Rev. Robert Rothwell is associate editor of Tabletalk magazine, senior writer for Ligonier Ministries, and resident adjunct professor at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Fla. He wrote the 2021 Tabletalk daily studies in 1 and 2 Corinthians.