In February my father was diagnosed with primary liver cancer. The diagnosis was bad enough to begin with, but since then an inoperable tumour in the bile duct has also been discovered. The prognosis is bleak at best. But what is worst of all is that my dad is not a Christian. As a pastor I have comforted many families through the illness and death of their loved ones, but in almost every case I have been able to point them to the glorious hope of eternal life to come, the victory that the Christian has in Christ over death. In this case, when I am most in need of those comforts myself, I have felt hamstrung by the fact that as yet those truths don’t apply to my dad.
Of course we are praying earnestly that God will change his heart. Over the years my prayer for him has always been that the Lord would do whatever it takes to bring him to faith. If this illness is the answer to that prayer then it will be yet another illustration of God working all things for good for us to marvel at and praise him for. Those of us who are Christians in the family are continuing to take every opportunity to witness to him and urge him to trust Jesus Christ as Saviour.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share just a few of the things the Lord has been teaching me through this process. The words of Isaiah 26.3 have come back to me again and again: You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. In all times of life, good and bad, we need to stay our minds on God. This means we need minds that are well-stocked with truth about Him so that we can draw on that truth to sustain us. Just as food in the stomach nourishes the body, so truth in the mind nourishes the soul.
Now, as a Pastor, my mind has been pretty well stocked with truth about God through three years of full-time theological study followed by almost 20 years of constant study and preaching of the Scriptures. But what I need to do is stay my mind on those truths I know, and trust the One of whom they speak. I need to cling to these realities, believing every day that they are true, regardless of what news may come. As I do this, I experience God's peace. 'Perfect peace' translates the Hebrew phrase 'peace peace'. In Hebrew words are repeated for emphasis. It's not that I don't feel sad or walk around with an absurd smile all the time, as if dad's condition has no effect on me; rather it means that in the midst of the pain and anguish there is a calm confidence that my times are in God's hand - even this time.
Here are four truths in particular on which I’ve been trying to stay my mind—four ‘peace-producing perspectives’…
1. Psalm 139.16: All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. One of the frustrations of this path from diagnosis to treatment has been the slowness of the whole process. The initial diagnosis came in February, but the CT scan and then an MRI scan didn’t give a clear enough picture of the problem. A PET scan finally revealed the full dimensions of the disease, but the results of that only just came back a couple of weeks ago. Next week a biopsy will be taken to determine what (if any) palliative chemotherapy might be a possibility, but it could be a few more weeks before that begins. No doubt there is a whole other discussion here that we could have with our American friends about the downside of a national health service, but isn’t it good to know that no amount of incompetence (or brilliance) on the part of the medical team can either shorten (or lengthen) the life span of any one of us. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to get the best medical care we can, or that bad doctors don’t bear responsibility for their actions—but ultimately the moment of our death is determined by the Lord who is the Giver of life.
2. The sovereignty of God is such a comfort in the face of calamity, whether personal or global. Nothing happens to thwart his purposes. Rogue cells are still subject to his rule. Daniel 4.34-35: …his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?" There are all kinds of questions that serious illness in a loved one raises, but I can’t imagine trying to face them without believing that God is in control of absolutely everything that happens, right down to the cellular level and below.
3. The sovereignty of God by itself might be cold comfort if it weren’t also for the truth that he is good and does all things well. Psalm 18.30: This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. We can’t possibly understand how this is true in every circumstance—if we knew how God’s way in this or that matter is perfect we would ourselves be God. We would need to possess perfect knowledge of everything to be able to see how His great Plan for all things fits together, and with our pitifully finite little brains we can’t hope to see it all. One day we will see a lot more of the picture and our ability to understand will be dramatically increased, but we see enough for now to help us believe that God’s way really is perfect and he really does know how to rule the universe in the way that’s best. That is still true, however hard it may be in this life to keep believing it, even when an unbeliever dies.
4. 2 Corinthians 12.9: But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. My dad’s condition has left all of us in the family feeling emotionally weak—unsettled, distracted, anxious, fearful and sad. It’s a challenge to continue to fulfil normal responsibilities at home and in work. And yet in that weakness God’s mighty, supernatural grace has been sufficient. To live by faith means to believe that it will continue to be sufficient on a daily basis, come what may.
May God grant us all increasingly to fit the description of the righteous man or woman in Psalm 112.6-8: He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid…