Facing Death Faithfully
From Gospel Translations
A Christian man who is dying of cancer writes in to ask: “Pastor John, 2 days ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I always felt that because I am a follower of Christ I would not struggle immensely with my mortality. But in all honesty, I feel an awful emptiness as the end is near. I so want to not waste this. I want to be joyful. But I’m afraid that I will fail in this final test. After reading your book, Don't Waste Your Cancer, I just can’t grasp how you could consider this a gift. Any counsel would be appreciated.” Pastor John what would you say to this man?
There are sudden changes in life like a phone call from a doctor that I remember and like the one he has now gotten. When you walk into a new land, a new territory, or a new neighborhood, it is not immediate that things come into focus. In other words, I am trying to cut this man a lot of slack that the shear newness of the land where he just landed is not yet in clear biblical focus for him.
It is strange. He is disoriented. He is trying to get his bearings. I regard his question as a tuning of his compass. If I could help him tune his compass, then I would be happy. But I don’t think he should despair quickly that his spiritual bearings have been jolted, or that he is off balance right now and needs to find his balance. That is what the word of God is for, and I will share a few things that are huge in orienting myself in this world, especially when the world becomes very, very fragile.
The first thought is that the world is not my home as it is now and, therefore, I want to cultivate a love for heaven. Paul said, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). And he said, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:2–4)
We wait for a Savior who is coming to transform our lowly body into a body like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). We should simply see that, even though God is going to redeem this world, it is not now our present home. We should cultivate a kind of freedom from homeness here and threats of death are a great help in that regard.
The second thing I think of is how this body of his that is now threatened and mine that is threatened in growing old is going to be made radically new. That was in that same verse from Philippians that Christ is going to transform our lowly body to make it like his (Philippians 3:21). In fact, he is going to set the whole creation free from its bondage to corruption so that the very things that we don’t want to lose here — all the ones that God thinks are good for us — we are going to get back (Romans 8:21).
We are going to get all the relationships back. We are going to get the pleasures of this world back. Only they will be beefed up a million times and stripped of all sin and imperfection so that the sense of loss is only temporary. God is going to restore us a thousand-fold what we have laid down to go to be with him.
Third, I think it helps a tremendous amount if we can realize that God works, because of Christ, everything together for our good (Romans 8:28). I know many people think Romans 8:28 is overworked, which is one of the reasons why I love to linger on Romans 8:32, where Paul says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).
If he gave his Son up, won’t he give us all things graciously with him? Which means that when Christ died for me, God did the hardest thing possible. Therefore, it will be easy for God to give me everything that I need.
“No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11). That gets right at the question he asked. He asked, “John, how can you see it as a gift? How can you use the loss of your physical life as a gift from God?” It doesn’t really matter how I see it until I see the word because I have to see everything with the eyes of God. God’s eyes say no good thing does he withhold from John Piper in Jesus Christ. I bought you. You are my own. You are my child. I do nothing for you that is not good for you.I can only believe this if I linger long over the word of God.
Lastly, I would be to say that loving Christ, loving the glory of Christ, and the grace of Christ has to be supreme. When Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that we would rather be away from the body, he said it because the next phrase is “and at home with the Lord.”
If we don’t love the Lord supremely that won’t be a comfort to us. When he said to live is Christ and to die is gain, the reason to die is gain is because it is to be with Christ, which means that we have come to treasure Christ above all things (Philippians 1:23). We can say with Paul, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
When you get this torn by threats of death and cancer and every other kind of thing that comes at us to take our lives, it is like the thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. If we love Christ supremely, we will be able to say with Paul, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with.” (2 Corinthians 12:11). Then he lists off weakness and insults and hardships and persecutions and calamities.
This is a calamity for this man. Nobody is going to minimize it. It is huge. It is painful. You cry about it. You ought to cry about it. Your wife is going to cry about it if you are married. Your kids will cry about it. All that crying is appropriate because it hurts. But if Christ is supremely valuable, then our affections are transformed. We love his glory, his grace, and his presence more than we love this life.
In a nutshell, we immerse ourselves in the word of God because our word and our perspective is always going to be worldly. But God’s word and God’s perspective is going to be eternal. If we can adapt to his perspective, then we can actually walk though these sufferings in a way that makes much of Christ.